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The Essential Guide to Nova Scotia

By Renée Suen

02.19.20

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Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve is full of sheltered coves and secluded beaches.

Courtesy of Tourism Nova Scotia

Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve is full of sheltered coves and secluded beaches.

Explore UNESCO World Heritage sites, untouched nature, and culinary trails lined with lobster in this coastal Canadian province.

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Atlantic Canada’s most populous province, Nova Scotia is often considered the economic and cultural hub of the region. Its name is Latin for “New Scotland,” reflecting the origins of some its earliest settlers, yet the province is more deeply shaped by its rich nautical heritage and former role as the immigration gateway to Canada. 

Visitors to this seafaring destination have much to see and do, from hunting for remains in Joggins Fossil Cliffs to touring historic Halifax Harbour and gorging on fresh seafood. Oenophiles will love the vineyards of the Annapolis Valley, while outdoors lovers can look forward to some of Canada’s best national parks. 

Getting around this part of eastern Canada is easiest by car, especially because the best attractions aren’t too far from one another (the four-hour haul from Halifax to Cape Breton Island is the longest drive most travelers make). Just be sure to double-check visitor hours before you go anywhere because many places close early in the off-season. 

Experience pristine wilderness in two biosphere reserves

Featuring 3.7 million acres of coastal beaches, rocky headlands, mountains, and valleys, the Southwest Nova Biosphere Reserve is revered for its diverse nature. Visitors here can camp and hike in Kejimkujik National Park and Historic Site or take advantage of prime stargazing opportunities in the Dark Sky Preserve and Starlight Zone. Also worth exploring is the area’s fascinating First Nations history; the lands within the reserve have been home to the Mi’kmaq people for thousands of years and now include the self-governing communities of Bear River First Nation and Acadia First Nation. Browse artifacts and traditional arts and crafts at the Mi’kmaq Heritage and Cultural Centre, or canoe down the traditional Mi'kmaq waterways in Kejimkujik National Park, where stone carvings and petroglyphs have been spotted over the years.

Watersport enthusiasts, on the other hand, will want to check out Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve on Cape Breton Island. With 600 miles of coastline, the area includes hundreds of sheltered coves and secluded beaches for boaters to enjoy. It’s also home to five Mi’kmaq First Nation communities as well as descendants from early French, Scottish, and English settlers, making it an ideal place to dive deep into Canadian history. To learn more about local life, join in a ceilidh (a traditional Scottish party with singing, dancing, and storytelling) or milling frolic (during which cloth is cleansed and thickened, all to the tune of folk songs) at Highland Village

Hike Cape Breton to see moose, lynx, and minke whales

You might just spot a moose while hiking the Skyline Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Everything that’s beautiful about Nova Scotia is embodied in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Here, you’ll find craggy mountains plunging into the sparkling sea, as well as moose, minke whales, and endangered lynx in their natural habitats. Drive the scenic Cabot Trail through the park, where rivers and waterfalls cut through boreal and Acadian forest, then hike the Skyline Trail, which follows the dramatic Atlantic coastline and is especially scenic at sunset. Come bedtime, sleep under the stars in the oTENTiks (a safari tent-like accommodation with foam mattresses for six) at Chéticamp, Ingonish Beach, or Broad Cove campgrounds, then start the next day with a round of golf at the Stanley Thompson–designed Highlands Links, which ranks among the best public courses in Canada.

Search for skeletons in Joggins Fossil Cliffs

Fossilized species from 300 million years ago are hidden in the rock layers of Joggins Fossil Cliffs.

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Whether you’re an amateur paleontologist or a geology enthusiast, it doesn’t get much cooler than finding fossilized species from 300 million years ago encased in the exposed rock layers of Joggins Fossil Cliffs. Nicknamed the “Coal Age Galápagos,” the area contains the world’s most complete record of life in the Carboniferous era. Everything from plants and insects to dinosaur footprints are visible in the more than nine miles of coastal cliffs, thanks to the constant erosion caused by the Bay of Fundy’s high tides. Stroll along the beach and see what you can spot, or head to the visitor center to browse various fossils and sign up for a guided tour of the grounds.

Discover Canadian history at two UNESCO World Heritage sites

Located on the picturesque Bay of Fundy, the Landscape of Grand Pré features quilt-like, tended farmland established by Acadian settlers in the 17th century. The setting for Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, the area also includes the Grand-Pré National Historic Site. It was here that most Acadians settled from 1682 to 1755 before being deported en masse by the British during the French and Indian War. Today, guests can start their visit with a short film in the hull of a deportation ship, then seek out the site’s duck ponds, statue of Evangeline, Memorial Church, and Landscape of Grand Pré View Park, which offers striking views over the surrounding meadow. 

Time travel to the 18th century in the historic town of Lunenburg.

About 90 minutes south, you’ll find Old Town Lunenburg—one of North America’s best-preserved examples of a British colonial settlement. A stroll along the steep streets will transport you to the 18th and 19th centuries, when the fishing port bustled with tall ships. Walk past the brightly colored historic homes sloping down to the harbor; visit the waterfront and its many artisan shops; and tour the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic, which shares the harbor with Bluenose II, a replica of the famous schooner that’s engraved on all Canadian dimes. 

Sample fine wines in the Napa of the North

Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley is best known for Tidal Bay, a crisp, slightly sweet white wine.

One of the first areas to cultivate grapes in North America, the Annapolis Valley is renowned for its signature white wine, Tidal Bay. Made from slow-ripening grapes, it’s crisp, aromatic, and slightly sweet—a perfect embodiment of the region’s cool microclimate and coastal terroir. Try it for yourself by catching the Wolfville Magic Winery Bus, a hop-on, hop-off excursion that visits five of the area’s celebrated wineries, including Domaine de Grand Pré (the oldest farm winery in the Annapolis Valley), L’Acadie Vineyards and Luckett Vineyards (both in the rural community of Gaspereau), and Benjamin Bridge (Canada’s acclaimed sparkling wine house). In addition to tasting several memorable vintages, you’ll learn a little about the region’s history and connection to food as well as why the Annapolis Valley is the center of wine country in Atlantic Canada. 

Walk through time on the Halifax Waterfront

At the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, you can learn about how Halifax played a central role in recovering victims of the “Titanic” disaster.

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Stroll the 2.5-mile boardwalk along the Halifax Waterfront and you’ll uncover captivating maritime history. Start at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, where more than 1 million immigrants entered Canada between 1928 and 1971, then enjoy a snack at the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market, which is the oldest continually operating market in North America. Next, head to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to learn about the devastating Halifax Explosion of 1917 (when two ships, one full of explosives, collided near the harbor, destroying the Richmond district and killing nearly 2,000 people) and the city’s link to the Titanic disaster, before making your way to Halifax Harbour, where you can shop a range of boutiques and galleries, drink a local beer at Garrison Brewing, or treat yourself to ice cream at the popular Cow’s Creamery kiosk. 

The harbor is also the place to pick up a water taxi to Dartmouth or McNab’s Island for hiking or gaze out at the shipbuilding and naval bases servicing Canada’s main Atlantic port. 

Go whale-watching on the Atlantic Ocean

Minke and fin whales flock to the Atlantic shoreline between June and October.

Few wildlife experiences match the spectacle of watching a whale breach, tail slap, or spray from the ocean’s surface. See it for yourself on one of Ambassatour’s Coastal Nature Tours, which travel to the mouth of Halifax Harbour, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the cliffs of Chebucto Head, to spot minke and fin whales in their natural habitat. A dozen species of cetaceans frequent the Atlantic shoreline between June and October, so you’re practically guaranteed a sighting, but also keep your eyes peeled for the seabirds frolicking against a backdrop of lighthouses and picturesque islands.

Follow the Lighthouse Route

Peggy’s Cove serves as a great first stop on Nova Scotia’s picturesque Lighthouse Route.

Handsome red-and-white lighthouses dominate Nova Scotia’s southern shoreline, serving as important symbols of the province’s maritime heritage. Get a closer look by driving the Lighthouse Route, a scenic roadway that spans the 210 miles between Halifax and Yarmouth. Make your first stop Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse, which stands on a small, rocky peninsula that’s constantly pounded by surf, then wander around the nearby fishing village, where you’ll find gift shops and art galleries alongside colorful cottages. The winding route also features several prime picnic spots and scenic overlooks, so take your time driving. When you reach the end, be sure to snap a picture of Yarmouth’s unique Cape Forchu Lighthouse, built in 1962 as the world’s first example of an “applecore-style” lightstation. 

Dine on the Bay of Fundy floor

Since the Bay of Fundy completely empties twice a day, you can dine on the ocean floor at low tide.

Home to the world’s highest tides, the Bay of Fundy empties and refills twice each day, shaping the coastline’s towering cliffs and spectacular rock formations in the process. Survey the volcanic basalt cliffs by hiking the 9.9-mile out-and-back Cape Split Trail, or raft the tidal bore into the bay and experience the rush of the incoming water, which can rise nearly 30 feet in just three hours. You can even beachcomb for intertidal debris on the ocean floor, then return six hours later to admire the bay filled with water. For the ultimate culinary adventure, join the Flying Apron Inn & Cookery for its Dining on the Ocean Floor experience, which includes a seafood lunch atop the red rock cliffs, a private tour of Burntcoat Head Park, a three-course dinner on the Bay of Fundy floor, and a campfire on the tidal flats with a view of the incoming tide.

Taste your way along Nova Scotia’s culinary trails

French explorer Samuel de Champlain established the Order of Good Cheer—one of North America’s first gastronomic societies—in Port Royal, Nova Scotia, in 1606. Today, his legacy lives on in the more than 80 wineries, breweries, cideries, and distilleries that make up the province’s Good Cheer Trail. Along the route, which runs from Yarmouth to Sydney, you can sip Tidal Bay wine, meet award-winning brew masters, and sample single-malt whiskey straight from the barrel.

Get a taste of the Maritimes on Nova Scotia’s Lobster Trail.

Equally delicious: the Chowder Trail, which leads fans of the seafood-studded soup to fine chowder purveyors between Cape Breton and Yarmouth. Or try the Lobster Trail, which passes U-Cook Lobster in Peggy’s Cove (where fresh-from-the-ocean lobster is prepared the Maritime way—boiled in seawater and cracked at the table), and Capt. Kat’s Lobster Shack in Barrington Passage (try the poutine topped with chunks of lobster). 

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Travel Guide to Atlantic Canada