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Top Things to Do in Nova Scotia: Highlights of a Family Vacation


Whitewater Rafting, Historical Sites and Seeking Whales in Nova Scotia, Canada

Nova Scotia offered our family a good mix of what we seek when we go away on vacation. There's beautiful scenery to hike through, historical and cultural sites to visit, and plenty of activities for the two children -- especially since we always get a place with a pool!

And during the six days we were in the Canadian province during the summer we certainly tried to do everything: Visiting historical sites including Fort Anne and Grand-Pre, hiking along the Bay of Fundy, rafting on the rapids and going whale watching.

We had a lot of fun, and learned more about Canadian history and the early settlers of North America than we ever imagined. We discovered the role Halifax played after the sinking of the Titanic, and the tragedy the city went through during World War I.

We decided to write this online diary to help others decide what they may want to do if they ever decide to vacation on Nova Scotia, which we highly recommend. Please note: All photos in this review were taken by me except where noted.

A Province as Big as New England

Choosing Where to Stay in Nova Scotia

Our first dilemma after we chose Nova Scotia as our vacation spot was deciding what part of the province we would focus on. Nova Scotia is Canada's second-smallest province, but that doesn't mean it's small! One of the men we met on vacation said the province is about equal in size to New England, and that's about right.

So, knowing we'd have to focus on only one part of Nova Scotia, we picked the Bay of Fundy because of its natural beauty and its whale-watching tours. Cape Breton, which looked magnificent in the tour books, and the historical Fort Louisbourg on the eastern end of the peninsula would just have to be skipped.

We decided on a cabin at the Vidito Family Campground, located in the small town of Wilmot Station. The two-bedroom cabin was all that we needed. Basic, very functional, and the campground's owners were very friendly and accommodating. Less than 10 minutes down the road was a supermarket, which was convenient. The cash registers actually have a currency conversion, so the cashier rings up your order, pushes a button and tells you how much in U.S. money you have to pay if you don't have Canadian dollars.

One thing that we didn't realize until partway through our visit: the Canadian and U.S. dollar was so close in value that most places just took our U.S. cash at par. There was no need to exchange the money at all.

Fort Anne Nova Scotia

Fort Anne Nova Scotia

Annapolis Royal and Fort Anne

The First Day is Almost a Washout!

Our first day starts with a severe rainstorm that pretty much limits what we could do. We decide to head west along the northern shore to look at the scenery while staying dry in the car.

As fortune would have it the rain stops just as we got to Annapolis Royal, a small, quaint little town that was once a strategic spot for both French and British expansion in the New World. The town's main area has a lot of road work being done, but there were a number of small shops and cafes that were inviting.

The main thing we wanted to see was Fort Anne, a bastion structure built by the British on the land where French forts once stood.

There were 13 battles between the British and French over this land, which changed hands a remarkable seven times over the centuries (not including taking it from the local Indians). The final battles for the land were in 1744-1746, when the British finally repulsed the French.

Not much of the fort is left -- just the officer's quarters (designed by Prince Edward), one bunker and some earthen fortifications. Still, the museum inside is very complete and there is a copy of the 1621 charter that established Nova Scotia. The photo here is of the officer's quarters. For more information on the fort, see here.

We want to go to the town's historic gardens but the rain started again, so we visit the tidal generating station instead. The concept of the station is pretty simple: capture the incoming tide after it passes through a sluice gate. Then allow the water to rush through a turbine eight stories tall to generate electricity!

A Video Introduction to Fort Anne

Fort Anne's Abandoned Wharf on the Annapolis River

Fort Anne's Abandoned Wharf on the Annapolis River

Fort Anne's Abandoned Wharf on the Annapolis River

Gilbert's Cove Lighthouse Nova Scotia

Gilbert's Cove Lighthouse Nova Scotia

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St. Mary's Church and Gilbert's Cove

Day One Continues With a Drive Along Fundy Bay

We continue west to Church Point to look at St. Mary's Church, called the largest wooden church in North America. Very sturdy and pretty, almost like a Lego model. Unfortunately, it was too late in the day to go into the church, which already closed.

On the way back we stop at the lighthouse at Gilbert's Cove to marvel at how much of the bay's bottom could be seen when the tide is receding. It was easily 20 yards of sand that would have been covered.

We head to a pub in Annapolis Royal for dinner, where my wife has the local scallops and I order the local clams. Both were delicious, but the homemade seafood chowder was the highlight of the meal. I have Alexander Keith's pale ale on draft. The beer has an even lighter taste than I expected in a pale ale (almost tasted like light beer) and goes very well with the fish.

St. Mary's Church in Nova Scotia

St. Mary's Church in Nova Scotia

St. Mary's Church in Nova Scotia

The Citadel Nova Scotia

The Citadel Nova Scotia

The Citadel Rising Above the City of Halifax

Touring the Fort That Protected the Port

The local weather report calls for rain on our second day, so we head about 90 minutes south to Halifax, Nova Scotia's largest city located on the south shore.

Our first stop is the Citadel, the British fort built to protect the city centuries ago. It stands at the top of an overlook that offers great views of the city and waterway -- or so we've been told by one of the guides. Today, even with a break in the rain, there's too many clouds and too much fog to see much beyond the city blocks down below.

We arrive just in time for the noon shooting of the fort's gun, a blast from a 12-shot gun that echoes across the city. The fort's guides all wear ear plugs, unlike the soldiers who manned the weapons in years past! Here is a photo of the tour guides prepping the gun for the blast.

The main thing that jumps out about the guides is their kilts. They are dressed as the 78th Highland Regiment, which served the fort in the late 1860s.

After a tour of the fort itself, we visit the Army Museum that is located upstairs in the Cavalier Building. The museum details the history of Atlantic Canada's military, from the 1600s to present day. It's very detailed, and much of it may not be of much interest to foreigners. That said, it was a bit odd for the American to read about how the Canadians helped burn the White House during the War of 1812. And they certainly helped free Europe during World War II.

There's also a separate exhibit about the fort, whose official name is Fort George, and the city of Halifax which we walk through, but we skip the two films the fort offers about the history of the Citadel and the city. For more about the Citadel see here.

Fort George is star-shaped, and is one of 15 such forts featured in this article here on the website World Geography. It's worth a look to see how varied star-shaped forts can be!

A Short Video About the Citadel - From Canadian Tourism

Re-Enactors at the Citadel

Re-Enactors at the Citadel

Re-Enactors at the Citadel

Nova Scotia Titanic Maritime Museum

Nova Scotia Titanic Maritime Museum

Nova Scotia's Connection to the Sinking of the Titanic!

The Maritime Museum in Halifax

After touring the Citadel, we head downtown to the water to visit the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. The museum covers the nautical history of this port, from its earliest days to when Halifax ruled the business of laying cables across the Atlantic to its service during World War II. But the main reason we want to visit was the museum's exhibition on the Titanic.

When the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, it was the cable-laying ships from Halifax that collected hundreds of the dead bodies floating in the ocean and brought them to shore. More than 200 victims reached Halifax, with dozens more buried at sea when the ships ran out of embalming fluid. The museum contains a history of that sad mission, along with an original Titanic deck chair pulled from the ocean after the sinking and other artifacts. Shown here is a photo exhibit of the 150 gravestones marking the Titanic victims buried in Halifax.

We also learn about a second tragedy that Halifax endured. Just five years after the Titanic sunk, a World War I munitions ship blew up along the edge of Halifax's Northtown, killing more than 2,000 people and destroying blocks of the city. It was considered one of the biggest man-made explosions ever before the atomic bomb was developed. For more information on the tragedy see here.

A Video Tour of the Maritime Museum

A Deck Chair from the Titanic at the Maritime Museum

A Deck Chair from the Titanic at the Maritime Museum

A Deck Chair from the Titanic at the Maritime Museum

Peggys Cove Lighthouse Nova Scotia

Peggys Cove Lighthouse Nova Scotia

Peggys Cove: Canada's Iconic Lighthouse

Climbing the Granite Rocks of the Town

It's late afternoon as we drive west out of Halifax along the southern shore to the picturesque town of Peggys Cove, which is also known as Peggy's Cove. We had been told that the little fishing village was one of the quaintest in Canada, and I had visions of tourist shops and cafes lining the streets.

But nothing could be farther from the truth. The simple fact is that Peggys Cove seems to have resisted the lure of the tourism business. Yes, there's a shop or two, and two restaurants catering to hungry tourists. But for the most part this is a real, working fishing town, and it shows.

The town is home to a lighthouse that Canada proudly proclaims to be the most photographed in the country and perhaps the world. Peggys Point lighthouse in fact is the photo in the introduction at the top of the page. It is closed to the public but it really is a nice-looking building in a great location.

Surrounding the village is a landscape of granite rocks that had been deposited along the shore by the receding of an ice ridge some 20,000 years ago. The rocks can be clambered on, which is fun. But be aware: Don't go on the rocks where the waves are because you can be swept out to sea! The photo here shows the rocky edges of Peggys Cove, with the top of the lighthouse in the background.

For more information see here.

We stop at a restaurant on the drive back for dinner. I try a draft of Garrison beer, locally made in Halifax. A nice flavor that didn't overpower the fish I order, but also pretty unmemorable.

Peggys Cove

Peggys Cove

Peggys Cove

The Beauty of Peggys Cove - A Short Video from Canadian Tourism

Nova Scotia Shoreline Near Peggys Cove!

Nova Scotia Shoreline Near Peggys Cove!

Nova Scotia Shoreline Near Peggys Cove!

Burncoat Head Lighthouse View

Burncoat Head Lighthouse View

Whitewater Rafting off the Bay of Fundy

Riding the Tidal Bore by Zodiac Boat on the Third Day!

The Bay of Fundy is world famous for its fast-rising tides (the fastest in the world) and one of the more unusual natural events in the world: the tidal bore. The tide comes in so quickly that it collides with rivers going downstream, forcing the course of the water backward and creating rapids and whirlpools. Then the tide goes out, leaving large expanses of sand behind to be covered up again some hours later when the tide reverses once more. For more information tidal bores see here.

Whitewater rafting companies have sprung up to give tourists the thrill of riding these rapids, and we took advantage on our first day of sunshine. The cost was about $320 for the four of us at Rivers Runners (website here. ) but it's a great trip on the Shubenacadie River, which in 2009 Backpack Canada named one of the top 5 whitewater rivers in Canada.

We ride a Zodiac boat through a series of rapids to about nine kilometers up the river, taking time to spot bald eagles along the shore and even jumping overboard for a short swim! We were told the water would be cold, but it isn't.

On the drive back to the cabin we stop at Burncoat Head Lighthouse and Park just for another glimpse of the Minas Basin. Here is a photo from in front of the lighthouse with the tide in.

We stop for dinner in Windsor (the birthplace of hockey, at least that's what the sign says!) and I have a porter from a Halifax brewer called Propeller. A heavier beer than I normally like with food, but it was a fine way to end the day.

All the Brown Mud Will be Covered With Water Once the Tide Comes in!

All the Brown Mud Will be Covered With Water Once the Tide Comes in!

All the Brown Mud Will be Covered With Water Once the Tide Comes in!

Video of Whitewater Rafting on the Shubenacadie River - By Canadian Tourism

This is a short video that gives you a flavor of what we did when we went rafting on the river. What isn't shown? The beautiful eagles that line the river, and the fact that partway through the raft found a quiet spot and let us all jump in for a quick swim!

House in Lunenberg Nova Scotia

House in Lunenberg Nova Scotia

Touring Lunenburg, the Quaint Southern Shore Town

A UNESCO World Heritage site

With rain coming down hard for the third of fourth days here in Nova Scotia, we decide to visit the town of Lunenburg on the south shore. It is a UNESCO world heritage site, proclaimed for being the best example of a planned British settlement in North America. The town's roads were laid out with seven roads intersected by nine when the town was begun in 1753, and have remained the same ever since.

Many of the houses of the village are from the 1800s, with signs posted about which shipbuilder, merchant or mayor erected the building (see photo). It is a lovely town, but with a few too many art galleries and tourist shops for me. We stopped in the Ironworks distillery, a boutique maker of rum, vodka and liqueurs.The distillery's building really had been an ironworks until 2004, making ship parts. The still was making vodka from apple juice that day, and we sample an Arctic kiwi liqueur and a blueberry one. Opened two years ago with a still made in Germany, it is the only licensed rum maker in Nova Scotia, the owner proudly proclaims.

We then visited the Knaut-Rhuland home, which was built circa 1793. The tour guide tells us that none of the furnishings are original but they do give us a strong sense of what live was like back then. The house has seven fireplaces, and I imagine in the winter they would be sorely needed.

Upstairs in the hallway is a model layout of the town, and it very clearly shows just how hilly the place is. Some streets seem to climb up at about a 60- or 70-degree angle. The tour guide tells me that didn't matter to the British -- they selected the site strictly on the basis of the harbor. The town's 672 lots were divvied up using playing cards, with each one marked by a number. The settler was told to choose a card, and the number he selected was his lot. Pretty democratic!

Bluenose II Lunenberg Nova Scotia

Bluenose II Lunenberg Nova Scotia

St. John's Church in Lunenburg

A Sanctuary in the Rain!

We then walk through Lunenburg in a rainstorm to St. John's Anglican Church, considered one of the architectural delights of the town. To our dismay, we find it closed in the middle of the afternoon!

As we were about to trudge off, wet and disappointed, a young woman opens the church's side door and invites us in out of the storm. She explains that the building is officially closed and that she was a student who is simply practicing on the church piano. But since she is starting as a tour guide for the church the very next day she figures she might as well let us in! How's that for good luck?

The church is lovely in the ''carpenter Gothic'' style, with lots of dark oak timber and a beautiful star-filled sky painted above the chancel. The guide explains that the stars are in the exact alignment they would have been above Lunenberg looking toward Bethlehem on the day that Jesus Christ was born. It's amazing to think that the sailors who helped found the town could have provided such a detailed map of the sky, but the guide tells us that experts have confirmed it.

Unfortunately, while the church has existed since 1754, the current building is mostly new construction. A fire on Halloween night 2001 destroyed the roof, two walls and parts of the interior. The building was reconstructed to its 1892 appearance. For photos of the church after the burning see here.

On the way out of town we drive by the Bluenose II schooner, which has been pulled out of the water and is being renovated. The boat was built in 1963 by the Oland Brewery as a marketing tool and is a reproduction of the first Bluenose, a famous fishing schooner that claimed the title of the fastest in the world by winning races for 17 years before World War II. The original Bluenose has appeared on Canadian money, stamps and license plates over the decades. For more information on the boats see here.

After leaving Lunenburg we drive a short distance to the shore town of Blue Rocks, which the tour books had said was attractive but we didn't see anything of interest. Skip it would be our advice.

On the way back to our cabin we eat in Bridgewater, a town that looks like it has had better days. In homage to the Bluenose, I order the Oland Schooner ale. The beer is light enough that it doesn't overpower my meal but there's nothing particularly remarkable about it.

Grey Seal Bay of Fundy Nova Scotia

Grey Seal Bay of Fundy Nova Scotia

Whale Watching on the Bay of Fundy

P.S. Whales Don't Like Rough Water

From the moment we decided on Nova Scotia we had marked down ''whale watching'' as one of the things we felt we needed to do. Unfortunately, the rains had forced us to keep postponing any attempt until today.

We book spots on Ocean Explorations, which uses Zodiacs instead of the larger tour boats. This doesn't enable you to get nearer to the whales but you are closer to the water and you zoom along much faster. Also, as Ocean Explorations owner Tom Goodwin told me, on the Zodiac you only get the truly adventurous who are looking for whales -- no crying babies, no little children running around.

Ocean Explorations also has one other advantage: It was closer to where we were staying. Most of the whale watching tours run out of Brier Island, while the Zodiacs leave from Long Island, which cuts our driving down by probably 30 minutes or so and eliminates taking a second ferry from Long Island to Brier Island. The ferry from the mainland to Long Island is $5.25 roundtrip, and the voyage takes all of 5 minutes.

The Zodiac is booked full, with 12 of us gathered to go out on the bay. However, a few minutes before we are scheduled to go out, Tom makes an announcement. The wind has caused very choppy waves, which the whales do not like. Many of the other tour boats have canceled, because it is unlikely that any whales will come to the surface.

He gives us all an option: We can cancel at full refund, or go out for a minimum of 90 minutes to seek a whale. If we don't see any, he'll give us a partial refund. At the very least it'll be a fun ride in the Zodiac and we'll see grey seals.

If you want a guarantee that you'll see a whale, go to Marineland, Tom tells us.

It's too late for us to postpone the whale watching for a day -- the things we plan to do tomorrow are in the other direction, too far to do today. And tomorrow's our last day.

So we agree to the deal. In fact, only two of the 12 passengers drop out.

And it's off we go into the Bay of Fundy!

Tom pushes the Zodiac up to 20 mph and we go bouncing along the incoming waves, up and down like an amusement ride. Tom laughs and says Disney spent millions on developing rides that mimic the same motion!

He slows and pulls us close to some rocks, where we see a grey seal lazily sunning itself. A harbor seal is in the water nearby. We then zoom out three miles into the bay, searching the horizon for water shooting up in the air (a sign of the whale using its blow spout). One passenger points out a porpoise fin, but I miss it.

Our search is in vain. After more than an hour we head toward a cove where grey seals live year-round. Up to a dozen are in the water, their wet heads sticking out to watch us. From a distance they look like a pack of dogs frolicking in the water. The photo is of one that was sunning on a rock.

Back on shore, our disappointment at not seeing any whales is tempered by the seals and the fun ride. As for the refund? The trip ended up costing $138 for the four of us instead of $237. Fair enough.

Here's the Zodiac Boat We Used When Searching for Whales!

Here's the Zodiac Boat We Used When Searching for Whales!

Here's the Zodiac Boat We Used When Searching for Whales!

Calling All Whale Watchers!

Balancing Rock Nova Scotia

Balancing Rock Nova Scotia

Hiking On Nova Scotia's Long Island

The Natural Phenomena Known as the Balancing Rock

It's late afternoon when we finish our failed whale-watching trip, but we decide there's enough time to to check out two short hikes on the island. The first, about a mile down the road from the Zodiac place, is a natural formation called the Balancing Rock.

To reach it from the road, we walk more than a quarter mile through a very wet trail, stepping on fallen branches to avoid the puddles, then take 235 steep steps to the shoreline of St. Mary's Bay (the opposite side of the island from the Bay of Fundy. For more information on the bay see here ). The trek was worth it. The columnar basal sea stick is four feet wide and stands 20 feet tall, and it really is impressive. The rock looks like it should topple over into the bay, but it doesn't.

A few more miles along the road is a local park on the right side of the road. From the park there is a path down to the shoreline of the Bay of Fundy. A sign at the beginning of the trail says it is a quarter-kilometer to the beach, but it seems much longer to us. This trail is rougher than the first one, steeper and wetter, and not well-kept at all. My suggestion is to wear hiking boots, because my sneakers were soaked by the time we reached the bottom.

The tide was in, so all we saw was the waves hitting the rocks. Still, it was gorgeous. When the tide is out you can go down onto the beach itself.

Back on the mainland we visit Digby for dinner. Digby, we learn, was started by Loyalists who fled the United States after the Revolutionary War, and there is a Loyalist cemetery from 1803 a few blocks from the water. The town is named for the admiral who led the ships that brought the Loyalists to this spot. For more on the history of Digby, see here.

The town advertises itself as the home of the world-famous Digby scallops, so I order them for dinner. And they are very, very tasty! Not bland like many scallops I've had, and richer with a bit more of a meaty texture. Well worthwhile. I wash them down with a Moosehead Premium Dry, a lighter beer than I usually drink and one with a bit of an aftertaste.

The Sounds of the Waves Against the Balancing Rock

Here is a short video we took of the waves hitting the shoreline at the Balancing Rock. It's hard to capture just how rough the water was hitting the rocks but this may give you some idea.

How to Cook Digby Scallops

Margaretsville Waterfall

Margaretsville Waterfall

Building a Dam in Margaretsville

Talking to a Lobsterman about Art

We decide to sleep in on our last day in Nova Scotia so the kids can try out the campground's pool. But it really is just too cold for swimming, and both climb out within minutes.

We head to nearby Margaretsville (which, inexplicably, also appears as Margaretville on some road signs!). The tide is out at this Bay of Fundy shoretown, and the town has a beautiful rocky beach that goes out for about 40 yards.

What's also neat is that the low tide has caused two streams that flow into the bay to turn into waterfalls along the town's rocky cliffs. One is narrow, maybe only a foot across, and tumbles over a cliff about 20 feet high. The other is broader, maybe eight feet across, but is lower down, maybe only 11 feet.

We walk over to the wider waterfall to discover that there is a small patch of sand standing dry in the middle of the water flow. Our 10-year-old son says that won't do, and begins to pile rocks on top of each other to direct the water at the island. I pitch in, and about 20 minutes later we have forced the water to cut across most of the previously dry sand. What had once been an island the size of a kitchen table is now just a sliver of dry land no bigger than a baseball bat! We congratulate ourselves on a job well done, even though we know the rocks will probably just be washed out of place once the tide comes in.

A local woman and four children appear. The kids are in bathing suits and begin to frolic under the waterfalls. My guess is that this probably has been something locals have done since the town was settled.

While we are playing on the beach, my wife visits a local artist studio. Inside there is art by a number of painters, and she buys a small rendition of Peggys Cove by a woman named Erica Bent. I start chatting with the artist manning the studio that day. His name is Armon Lewis, and he tells us he had been a fisherman with his own boat back in the 1960s and 1970s before a lot of fish died out, then he was a lobsterman for five years before retiring. Now he paints.

Even though I know little about sailing or fishing, he enjoys telling us about the first ship he built, which later foundered off Cape Breton. He points to one of his paintings, which shows two boats at anchor. The blue one is the second one he built, and his son now uses it.

We didn't have our camera on the beach, but here is a great shot of the waterfall from Flickr. The photo is used with permission from the photographer, Becky Parkinson.