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Sun Staff

The Scotia Prince slid gently across the water, cutting through the fog that enveloped it and easing into its berth in Yarmouth,  Nova Scotia, its port-of-call after an 11-hour overnight voyage across the choppy Bay of Fundy from Portland, Maine. Despite the bumpy ride - quite typical, we learned, for a fall crossing ­ we had enjoyed the mini-cruise, complete with a sit-down dinner, a Las Vegas-style floor show, a clean, although  crowded cabin, a breakfast buffet with friendly shipmates and a little gambling if we chose to try our luck at the tables or the slot machines. But now it was time to explore part of this storybook province that had intrigued us for years.

Back in our car, which had weathered the crossing well in the cavernous belly of the giant ferry boat, we made a quick pass through Canadian customs and heard a "Have a nice trip, folks," from the friendly official. Venturing into a nearby welcome center for brochures and advice on the best route north to Halifax, our destination for the next few days, we again encountered friendliness and knew we liked this place already, despite the overcast skies outside. The helpful hostess leaned over maps, discussing highways and by-ways and explaining points of interest along the way. (Another plus, making the trip seem like a bargain even before it started, was the exchange rate. For $100 U.S., we got back $145 Canadian. Suddenly we felt a little richer.)

Jutting into the North Atlantic, and connected to New Brunswick and mainland Canada by a narrow neck of land, Nova Scotia is famous for seafood, scenery, golf courses, natural attractions, and its seafaring history. We chose the Lighthouse Route, one of several scenic junkets traversing the large penninsula, that follows the Atlantic coastal  south shore for about 210 miles from Yarmouth to Halifax. Rustic and beautiful, the road is a twisting one-lane by-way,  dotted with quaint little villages, picturesque white painted cottages and simple country churches. It also takes in the craggy, rocky seashore, where the occasional lighthouse stands out in the distance. More than once we stopped to take photos of breathtaking views, a lot like our beloved Maine, but prettier, we agreed. Many towns offer respite and points of interest along the way. But, we were due at our Halifax hotel that afternoon and decided to follow our Frommer guidebook's "sane strategy" and stop at only a couple of the charming towns along the way, then visit a couple more on our return journey.

Shelburne, our first stop, has a history dating back to 1783 when it was settled by United Empire Loyalists fleeing New England after the Revolutionary War. It looks like a  Hollywood set, depicting the 17th or 18th century, and the movie Mary Silliman's War was filmed here in 1992. Two years later, director Roland Joffe arrived with Demi Moore, Gary Oldman and Robert Duvall to film The Scarlet Letter, burying power lines, building 15 "historic" structures and dumping rubble to create dirt lanes to make the place resemble 17th century Boston. We took in the scenic waterfront with its fishermanıs monument and stopped in a craft shop, where local artisansı wares featured interesting holiday ornaments and other well-made goods. But we had miles to cover and wanted to see Liverpool, too, a favorite haunt of privateers (pirates) of old. From 1750 until the end of the War of 1812, all of Nova Scotiaıs ships, and Liverpoolıs in particular, were commissioned to roam the high seas in search of prey.

The Queens County Museum, full of memorabilia from the privateers and a friendly house cat, and the adjacent Perkins House, oldest house in the entire collection of Nova Scotia museums, which number 24, were pleasant, although not nearly as interesting as other museums we saw. A 27-year-old Connecticut widower settled in the Perkins House in 1762, married twice had a number of kids and established himself in the judicial system as a judge and member of the legislative assembly. He kept a diary from 1766 until his death in 1812. The detailed journal provided historical data on the early life of Nova Scotiaıs settlers. Each day a museum staffer turns to that dayıs corresponding entry in the diary so visitors can take in the history of the areaıs early settlers. But Halifax, with its funky downtown, historic past, close ties to the Titanic disaster, scenic waterfront and bustling nightlife beckoned. Taking the inland  Route 103, we arrived in Halifax for a mid-afternoon check-in at the Citadel Halifax, our comfortable hotel on Brunswick Street, located a short walk from everything in the city. We had dinner on our minds.

Following advice in the guidebooks, including Taste of Nova Scotia, a province-wide guide to restaurants offering dishes using local produce, seafood and meat, we decided to splurge and head to Maple, a splashy new eatery not far from our hotel. Located in a beautifully refurbished building, Maple is presided over by chef-proprietor-TV cooking show host Michael Smith, the Emeril Lagasse of eastern Canada. From his open kitchen, he presents ³progressive Canadian cuisine² made with the freshest ingredients. After fabulous entrees of trout and duck, complete with  wine from an impressive list, we purchased Smithıs newest cookbook (we already have his Inn at Bay Fortune that details life at an inn on Prince Edward Island, where he began his rise to culinary excellence.) Our friendly waiter even escorted us to the kitchen where Smith, himself, paused between braising and sauteeing to sign it and chat for a moment. After dinner, we strolled back through the city's dark, safe streets, ready for a good nightıs sleep after our first day of adventure in Nova Scotia.

The sun shone brightly the next morning, urging us outside to  explore Halifax again by foot. First stop was the Citadel, a national historical landmark but a  few hundred feet from our hotel and the most heavily visited landmark in the country. It is a stalwart stone fort topped by grassy embankments and located on Halifaxıs highest peak. But even if the fort were not here, the panoramic views across the downtown and harbor and leading out to the Atlantic and beyond are worth the trek uphill. Four forts have occupied the summit since Col. Edward Cornwallis was posted to the colony in 1749. The Citadel has been restored to look as it did in 1856, when the fourth fort was built out of concern over belligerent Americans. The fort has never been attacked. Costumed interpreters in kilts and bearskin hats march in unison most days, especially during the tourist season. Every day, year-round, they fire the cannon precisely at noon. The former barracks and other chambers in the fort are home to various exhibits on life here, a tearoom and giftshop.

Donıt miss the well-made enlightening multi-media film on Nova Scotiaıs maritime history. More intriguing displays on the provincesıs maritime history are featured in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, the waterfronıs crown jewel. Here, we learned about the Titanic disaster in 1912, which occurred not far off the coast of Halifax, where rescue efforts were centered and were 150 victims are buried. A single deck chair stands as a solitary reminder of the tragedy. Other educational exhibits include a look at the catastrophic  Halifax explosion of 1917, when two warships collided in the harbor, not far from the museum, detonating tons of TNT and killing more than 1,700 people. The tragedies are tempered by exhibits on coastal steamers, shipbuilding and a friendly childrenıs exhibit, too, with colorful tugboats.

Still energized by our waterfront sojourn, we stopped in at Saltyıs for a drink and oysters. The popular watering hole is near the Historic Properties, stout wood and stone buildings that are the provinces oldest surviving warehouses and once the center of the cityıs booming shipping industry. Today, they house shops, art galleries, boutiques and food courts, reminiscent of Faneuil Hall on Boston, but on a smaller scale. Dinner at OıCarrollıs Restaurant, a nicely decorated fish house across the street from the Properties, capped the day. While the surroundings were nice, the food, a fairly bland fish medley and a dry halibut steak, couldnıt compare to Maples, the night before.

The road back to Yarmouth beckoned us the next day as we re-traced the Lighthouse Route along the coast. A visit to Peggyıs Cove, the picturesque fishing village with the famous octagonal-shared  lighthouse located  26 miles southwest of Halifax, is requisite for first-time visitors to Nova Scotia - although it is a tourist trap, with its souvenir-stocked restaurant and huge parking lots filled with tour buses.

Heading out of town, we stopped to pay our respects at a monument to those who lost their lives in the Swissair plane crash off the coast of Peggyıs Cove in 1997, then turned towards lovely little Mahone Bay, a charming village with three churches built one right next to the other, another perfect setting for photos. Back in the Yarmouth area for the night, we stayed in the Manor Inn, a quaint country inn near a lake and not far from the Cape Forchu Lighthouse, which we visited before supper. It was here that Demi Moore apparently slept during the filming of Scarlet Letter. The innıs owners are proud of that fact, dubbing her room the Demi Moore suite. We stayed here, sleeping in the king-sized bed and viewing the super-sized TV and jumble of furniture that the movie star apparently had enjoyed during her stay in the funky spot. The inn was comfortable and accommodating, and our supper of local mussels, scallops and farm-fresh vegetables, served by a fireplace in the comfortable Commodore Dining Room,  was delicious.

Due back at the Scotia Prince early the next morning, we hated to leave the pleasant, picturesque province after our short, three day stay. But, as the boat pulled out of the harbor for a clear, bright crossing on a calm Bay of Fundy, we vowed to return next year and explore another segment of scenic, friendly, intriguing Nova Scotia.