Window on Nova Scotia

Jigsaws and mirrors, wild animals and fishy things

The best way to describe Nova Scotia is to think of it as a recipe - one with a Scottish heritage and many centuries old.

Here it is:

  • Mix the finest Scottish scenery with dense Scandinavian forests and endless rocky islands. Add enough side-roads and bridges and waterways to confuse the smartest map-readers, then garnish with dashes of brilliant sunshine.
  • Serve with bitingly cold winters (think, a norm of -14C) then garnish with a bunch of helpful, fun-loving locals.

(Oh, and don’t forget to invite some deer, black bears and a moose or two to share it!)


Here is our first view of Nova Scotia (Latin for 'new Scotland') as our ferry crossed the Northumberland Strait from the eastern end of Prince Edward Island.

If we had driven to the mainland via western PEI's major bridge, we would have travelled through much more of Nova Scotia, Canada's second-largest Maritime province, but here we were entering a day's drive east of the New Brunswick border.

Caribou, Nova Scotia, our port of entry, is just a few kilometres north of Pictou, renowned as the 'birthplace of New Scotland'It was here that the first wave of Scottish immigrants arrived in 1773.

Pictou has a vibrant waterfront and plenty to attract visitors, but it was already midday when we rolled off the car ferry and there was quite a long drive to our accommodation on Cape Breton Island, we instead turned right, away from the town. There was still so much more to see.

As we crossed the Canso Causeway linking the mainland to Cape Breton, we realised that we would only have time to see a small part of this remote island. With an area of over ten thousand square kilometres, it is the world's 76th largest island, and we decide that perhaps a more in-depth trip needs to be added to our own (rather lengthy) To Be Revisited list of many places around the world.

Cape Breton Island's name first appeared on a map in 1516, and while many say that 'breton' means a person from Brittany, others argue it means 'Britons'. 

Either way we were keen to see as much as possible in our short visit. The Cabot Trail loops around much of the top of the island and is one of those epic hikes that requires plenty of time and stamina. We would have to settle for a day's drive, stopping often and photographing as much as we could. What we did not know was how many surprises we would encounter along the way.



Iona, Cape Breton ~ island of surprises

When travelling in other countries, choosing accommodation for the night is often a matter of cross your fingers and press SEND. 

Even with a GPS, we took some time locating Iona Heights Inn perched high above the road, and arrived just at sundown. We've mentioned surprises, and #1 was waiting right there with fabulous chocolates handmade on-site by Jill, one of the owners. Better still, there was a couple of freebies in our room.

Surprise #2 was a 'strawberry moon' that owner, Dan, tipped us off about. From the veranda of our room we watched in awe as a huge round apricot pink moon rose slowly above the waters of the Bras d'Or (arm of gold) Lake, which is Canada's largest inland sea.

Obviously, yet another blind guess had paid off.

Surprise #3: Next morning we discover that, right next door to our hotel, is the outdoor Highland Village Museum or Bailenan Gaidheal to use its Gaelic name. Canada's Iona is named after a small and remote island in western Scotland, and was settled by Gaelic-speaking immigrants in 1805.

Less than an hour from Sydney, once Cape Breton's capital, this is an ideal spot to visit for Gaelic and family history enthusiasts.

The village celebrates the area's Gaelic heritage so if you hear people talking and you don't understand them, they will almost certainly be speaking in the tongue of their ancestors.

There are several houses from various eras sprinkled across the hillside. Overseeing them all is the whitewashed Malagawatch Church.

In addition to the houses there is a barn, a schoolhouse, a forge and a carding mill.

In the morning, as we were about to leave Iona, a school bus was parked outside our hotel - and here are some of the passengers - Highland Village visitors that day, learning to better appreciate their heritage.

Bridges and ferries

The Grand Narrows railway bridge is near Iona, and opened in 1890. In 2014 rail traffic ceased, its purpose ended.

From large to small. Around the corner at Plaster Cove this tiny church is an enigma, which we rated as Surprise #4.

This region just keeps on giving. Round a corner in the road and, more than likely, you will be rewarded with the sight of a lake with perfect reflections mirroring trees and fields.

But there are cautions too. Our trip was in June, summer-like on many days, but in winter, temperatures plummet and snow and ice create dangerous driving conditions.

The jigsaw of islands in these parts means that often we found ourselves going the opposite way to where we were actually heading. At Little Narrows there was plenty to read as we waited for the ferry so we could cross to the north side. At $7 for a two-minute ride, it wasn't cheap, either.



Baddeck ~ Bell's town

Baddeck, known as a place to visit for sailing, hiking and cycling is also central to the 3600 square kilometre Bras d'Or Lake Biosphere that brings worldwide recognition to this region where people are in harmony with nature.

Baddeck is also the beginning and endpoint of this well-known 300-kilometre trail that encircles the Breton Highlands National Park.

Perhaps the most famous and fondly remembered former residents are Alexander Graham Bell (credited with inventing and patenting the first practical telephone) and his wife, who both spent many summers here. It is well worth visiting the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. Exhibits, films and hands-on activities allow visitors to learn more about his impressive life and inventions.

The couple would often relax here, enjoying the Bras d'Or Lake waterfront.

The village itself has plenty for visitors, including historic sites, boat tours, studios, boutiques, and water sports and golfing. Of course there are sidewalk cafes and restaurants too, as well as Celtic fiddle music in evening ceiidhs.

Nearby, seafood is on offer. Especially good are local scallops and freshly caught lobster.

In the town, Baddeck Lobster Suppers also feature local mussels, salmon, crab and steak, serving up a true taste of Cape Breton.



Heading north

Moving on, we noticed that many place names use both English and Gaelic names - a change for us, after recently having French and English as the options in other parts of our Eastern Canada trip. 

At St Ann's we briefly visited The Gaelic College where cultural demonstrations, ceilidhs (music and dancing) are held, with also a museum and craft shop.

By lunchtime we had reached North Shore, stopping at The Clucking Hen, halfway between Baddeck and Ingonish.

This waterfront cafe was ideal, and these fresh and generous sandwiches, made using freshly baked 'porridge bread' were delicious.

It was during this stop that we encountered Surprise #6 - a young black bear foraging for food in the cafe rubbish bins...

...and not at all afraid of people  - or cars!

Visitors to these areas are often a little nervous of meeting a bear or moose in the wild, and while these animals should be avoided and treated with caution, the local animal most responsible for deaths of humans is...deer, because they cause road accidents! 

And, yes, as you can see, the locals have a dry sense of humour.



North to Ingonish

As we travelled further up the island, we saw fewer people. Most were driving, but this trail is also much used by hikers and cyclists.

It's a long way, from. south to north, and not for the faint-hearted, but rewards come without warning as you crest a hill and see glimpses of water - lavender, rose pink, baby blue - and maybe a bald eagle surfing the air currents.

There are stunning views too, across the forest, and this fir in the foreground might even be a red spruce, chosen as Nova Scotia's tree.

The winding drive to this point had been exhilarating, with blind corners where you might suddenly see a moose, and stands of fir trees interspersed with deciduous trees, giving a lovely texture to the scenery.

Curve after curve took us ever higher until we crossed Smokey Mountain and descended to Ingonish Harbour where finally, we decided we should turn back.

It was time to cross the Seal Island bridge and head for the bright lights of Sydney.



Sydney - here we come!

Until 1820, Sydney had been the capital of Cape Breton. It then merged with Nova Scotia and Halifax became the province's capital.

Sydney still retains an air of importance, though, and perhaps nothing shows that better... 

... than this 17-metre fiddle in pride of place on the waterfront. 

As we were learning, Scottish heritage is hugely important in this province. In the early days, evening entertainment often included musical evenings (ceilidhs) with singing and dancing, and a fiddle was the ideal instrument to lead the tunes.

The next day, with regret, we realised that it was time now to leave Cape Breton Island and head for the rest of Nova Scotia.

Time, too, to wave goodbye to this beautiful and extensive inland sea as well.




At first glance, Halifax is a modern and energetic city. It is well placed for tourists, on the eastern side of Nova Scotia, and with a vibrant waterfront scene and plenty of options for cruises, tours, or dining.

Let's start with the waterfront and this little chappie who proudly wears his name on his side, and was yet another surprise. Theodore Too is a large-scale imitation tugboat built in 2000. It is based on the fictional television tugboat character Theodore Tugboat.


While today, the harbour is relaxed and relatively quiet as you can see, at the turn of last century it was bustling with large ships and other watercraft. Towards the end of the First World War a terrible disaster hit Halifax, almost obliterating the North Shore.

On December 6th, 1917, two ships, one carrying high explosives, collided in the upper Halifax Harbour. The explosion (the world's largest at that time) killed 2000 people, injuring another 9000.

Many, whose homes overlooked the harbour, watched the collision, then the bursting explosives, in horror. Most buildings in the entire community of Richmond were flattened - and then the pressure wave smashed windows in the faces of those watching, blinding many.



Read the entire story....

There are several memorials in remembrance of the many who were killed and injured in the blast.

Also in the Fort Needham gardens, overlooking the scene of the devastation, you will find the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower a carillon with ten bronze bells to honour those lost, and you may also see it in the video earlier on this page.


Today's Halifax

Follow maps like these and you will soon get a feel for the many attractions on offer.

Ice cream lovers always gravitate to Canada's favourite and well-named maker. And yes, we did our 'research' on this (several times!) and agree that is ice cream at its creamy best.

As you would expect, the waterfront has many places to dine, ranging from fast food onwards.

An interesting aspect to Halifax is that it has quite a long and proud Lebanese heritage. This waterfront monument honours them and their descendants, many who still live in the city

Halifax has a population of over 400,000 and receives many Canadian and overseas visitors annually. There is no shortage of things to do, such as this Antique Bus taking visitors around the city.

This amphibious vehicle allows passengers to see the city... 

...and harbour from all angles.

For a touch a culture during your time in Halifax, drop in to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. It has much to offer, including a good cafe (yes, we 'researched' that too!).

Downtown, streetside dining is popular...

... and despite the predominantly Scottish accent of Nova Scotia... 

... it seems the Irish are welcome too!

Everyone who visits Canada should - at least once - try the national dish, poutine, reflecting the influence of France, another nation influencing much of Canada's heritage.

In its purest form this dish contains only three ingredients: french fries (potato chips) gravy, and curd cheese, and is hugely popular with most Canadians. Go on! Try it, you may find you love it too.

Much as we would have liked to, we did not 'research' these - although they looked so inviting. Time was moving on, and we'd had a tipoff that we should head for a lovely little cove, just 45 kilometres away.


Peggy's Cove

There is no real explanation of exactly who was the Peggy for whom this cove was named. Some say it might be an abbreviation of Margaret, as it is located at the opening of Margarets Bay, but its beginning seems to have been lost in the past.

What we do know is that this is the quintessential fishing village. Because of its surroundings and its small size, Peggys Cove draws many visitors annually who come to take photographs, go on boat trips or simply browse the gift shops, and have a meal.

Highly recommended are the lobster rolls, versions of which are found up and down the coastal stretches of Nova Scotia. Nearby a lady was selling maple-basted salmon (locally caught of course) and I have to say it was one of the best things I ate on my entire trip.

It was early in the season (June) when we visited on a rather bleak day, so for a while I sheltered from the wind in this fishing shed and chatted to the owner, discovering yet another drawcard to this tiny spot: the people are warm and friendly and genuinely enjoy connecting with visitors. 

Peggys Cove faces onto the chilly North Atlantic Ocean where the 15-metre, octagonal Peggy's Point Lighthouse has been keeping ships safe for 150 years.

Yet another disaster in Nova Scotia happened near Peggy's Cove in 1998 when a Swissair aircraft crashed, claiming the lives of all 229 passengers and crew onboard. This simple yet poignant memorial is designed to 'link sea and sky'.

Further inland, St Margaret's Bay is a peaceful place with homes and boat sheds, the view brightened by local pink or blue lupin flowers.



Truro on the Bay of Fundy

Truro is situated at the head of Canada's Natural Wonder, the Bay of Fundy with its famous 'tidal bore' and opportunities for rafting and viewing.

It is located on the opposite side of the peninsula from Halifax, and the town is a mix of old-style - a stately library, Saturday morning farmers' market - and social justice.

Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Centre is well-worth visiting for an insight into the local indigenous Mi'kmaw people. Truro, named for the Cornish town in Britain, has a mixed heritage. Acadians settled in the early 18th-century, but they were expelled 50 years later, being soon replaced by British settlers, mainly Scots. Today there are still a couple of places commemorating the Acadians on the South Shore. 


But, no matter how interesting a town is, if the coffee is not great, people move on. NovelTea cafe, however - with a bookshop as well! - is as good as it gets. 

Cosy on a cold day, surrounded by books and serving award-winning coffee, it is ticking every box. Busy and buzzy, it was the ideal final happy memory to make (and a lovely surprise!) in Nova Scotia.


And so we say farewell to Canada - let's hope it is only for only a short time!


Text & images: © Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond


Sally and Gordon Hammond travelled independently in Nova Scotia, self-driving and staying in accommodation at their own expense. All opinions are their own.


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