travel guide

Atlantic Canada

Photo by Michael George

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why you should visit Atlantic Canada now


Atlantic Canada—consisting of the three Maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island (often referred to as P.E.I.) as well as Newfoundland and Labrador—is a place of remote coastlines, wind-sculpted sand dunes, and scenic parklands. As the first part of North America visited by Europeans, it’s known for its 400 years of history, plus fresh seafood, magnificent vistas, and lovable quirks.The pace may be slower here, but this coastal part of Canada has plenty to offer adventure seekers. Pine forests and rocky cliffs dominate New Brunswick’s unspoiled landscape, while puffins and icebergs are visible in the rugged stretches of Newfoundland and Labrador. For something slightly more low-key, visit the picturesque fishing villages of Nova Scotia or discover the birthplace of the Canadian confederation in P.E.I., the country’s smallest province. Threaded together by scenic routes, the little towns of Atlantic Canada are ideal for road-trippers. Take your time exploring and you’ll be welcomed by locals, who are happy to show off their distinctive food and culture.

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When to Go to Atlantic Canada

The best time to visit Atlantic Canada depends on what you want to see or do, but be prepared for all weather conditions no matter the season. Spring is damp and cool, and while summer is mostly warm and pleasant, it can sometimes go from clear and sunny to rainstorms in minutes. September and October bring cooler temperatures, fewer crowds, and fall colors, but winter requires some grit—if you’re planning on driving, be prepared with good snow tires, antifreeze windshield washer, and a healthy dose of caution: Snow and ice storms can blow through suddenly. Also note that, while Atlantic Canada has a temperate climate similar to that of New England, temperatures in Newfoundland and Labrador are typically cooler and can approach freezing by late summer.

Getting Around Atlantic Canada

Transportation to and within Atlantic Canada isn’t as developed as it is throughout the rest of the country, but there are still several options for getting around. Each province has its own commercial airport, though most visitors fly into Halifax—the region’s main international hub, regularly serviced by Air Canada, United, and discount airlines like Swoop (and seasonally by American Airlines, Delta, and Flair Air). Travelers can also arrive by train; both VIA Rail Canada and Amtrak run through Halifax station. 

Once in the region, you’ll most likely need a rental car. Municipal buses only service cities like Fredericton, Saint John (New Brunswick), Moncton, Halifax, Sydney, and St. John’s (Newfoundland), and cycling is more of a recreational activity. Thankfully, well-marked roads make it easy to drive between provinces. For most places, the fastest route will be via the 100-series highways, but if you’re not in a hurry, opt for a slower, more scenic drive along older routes like 1, 2, and 3, which pass through several communities. When traveling between Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, you’ll cross the Confederation Bridge—the world’s longest, connecting P.E.I.’s Highway 1 to the Trans-Canada highway—over the Northumberland Strait. (Note: There’s a toll charge for vehicles leaving P.E.I.)

Those inclined to travel by water can rely on ferry service. Northumberland Ferries runs from Wood Islands, P.E.I., to Pictou, Nova Scotia, as well as from Saint John, New Brunswick, to Digby, Nova Scotia; Marine Atlantic Ferries goes from Newfoundland to North Sydney, Nova Scotia; and Bay Ferries shuttles passengers from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

Can't Miss

- Newfoundland is home to some impressive icebergs. Head to the shoreline along southeastern Newfoundland or the Labrador coast between late May and early June to watch the 10,000-year-old glacial giants float through Iceberg Alley, or hop aboard a boat tour to see them up close. 

- Fans of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series of novels will want to make a pilgrimage to the Prince Edward Island farmhouse that inspired the fictional home of literature’s most famous redhead. Only open from mid-May through late October, Green Gables Heritage Place boasts a visitor center, heritage experiences with “Anne,” and walking trails like Lover’s Lane and Haunted Woods, just like in the books. 

- A trip to Nova Scotia must include a visit to the Bay of Fundy, home to the highest tides in the world. The bay empties and refills twice a day, so visitors can walk the ocean floor at low tide, then return mere hours later to kayak around Hopewell Rocks. You can also go birdwatching for semipalmated sandpipers at Mary’s Point, rappel 142 feet down Cape Enrage over powerful currents, hike through Acadian forest in Fundy National Park, or hop on a ferry to Grand Manan Island and spot whales along the way.

- Outdoors adventurers shouldn’t miss Stonehammer in New Brunswick, North America’s first UNESCO Global Geopark. The area encompasses more than 60 significant geological and fossil sites dating from the late Precambrian period to the Ice Age. Shaped by oceans, colliding continents, volcanoes, earthquakes, and climate change, it’s also ripe for exploration, offering everything from hiking and rock climbing to kayaking and zip-lining over old-growth forests and rapids. Bike the winding trails of Saint John’s Rockwood Park, climb a 452-year-old volcanic rock wall, take a pontoon boat out on the Kennebecasis River, or walk on a fault line, all while appreciating the magnificent nature around you.

Food and Drink

Atlantic Canada is famous for its seafood, so travelers would be remiss not to try Prince Edward Island oysters, Nova Scotia’s Digby scallops, or cod from Newfoundland and Labrador. Additionally, no trip here is complete without a lobster feast, whether in a roll, over poutine, or simply boiled in fresh seawater on the beach and served whole with drawn butter. 

The region’s local cuisine is distinctive and worth sampling. Much of the population in the Maritime provinces is descended from French settlers, a fact that’s reflected in dishes like rappie pie (with meat and grated potatoes), Acadian tourtiere (a meat pie with onion and summer savory), fricot (stew with dumplings), and poutine râpée (potato dumplings). Haligonians also swear by the Halifax donair (similar to a gyro, but with a garlicky sauce made from condensed milk); Islanders stand behind Cows Creamery and its old-fashioned ice cream in flavors like chunky chocolate mint and maple-walnut; and New Brunswick natives are crazy about wild blueberries. (Canada is the world’s largest producer and exporter of blueberries, most of which come from New Brunswick.)  

In Newfoundland and Labrador, look for the pancake-like toutons and brewis (salt cod and hard bread) with scrunchions (fried salt pork backfat), as well as the curiously named Jiggs dinner, which consists of boiled salt beef, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and turnips and is often served with blueberry duff (a sweet and savory steamed pudding). The province is also the only one in the country permitted to serve wild game in its restaurants, so don’t be surprised if you see moose—an overpopulated species—on a menu. 

When it comes to drinks, beer is king. Try Alexander Keith’s IPA or Garrison Brewing’s Tall Ship Amber Ale in Nova Scotia, Moosehead Lager in New Brunswick, and Quidi Vidi Brewing Co.’s Iceberg Beer in Newfoundland.

Culture

Steeped in nautical heritage, Atlantic Canada features plenty of community museums and archives dedicated to the region’s seafaring ways. Visit the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax for an immersion in the World Wars, the Titanic, and the Halifax Explosion. Those more interested in art should head to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (which includes the restored home of prolific folk artist Maud Lewis), while music fans should plan their trip around events like the Cavendish Beach Music Festival in July or the Celtic Colours International Festival in October. 

Seven of Canada’s 20 UNESCO World Heritage sites are in Atlantic Canada. Newfoundland is home to a rainbow of historic homes in the fishing port of Lunenburg and 500-million-year-old fossils in Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, while Nova Scotia boasts the Grand-Pré (a significant memorial to the Acadian people) and Gros Morne National Park (carved by glaciers and featuring deep fjords, alpine ridges, coastal waterfalls, highland tundra, and ocean inlets).

What the Locals Know

- Newfoundlanders, or Newfies, speak with an English dialect that includes words and phrases not spoken outside the region. Don’t be surprised if you’re invited over for some screech and boughten bread (store-bought bread) because you’re a CFA (come from away, or someone from outside the community). 

- Moose are a common hazard on roads, so drive with caution.

- All the Atlantic provinces apply a 15 percent sales tax on most goods and services.

Guide Editor

Renée Suen is a Toronto-based freelance restaurant and travel writer/photographer who searches the world for memorable tastes and the stories behind the plate. In another life, she pursued a doctorate in Cardiovascular Sciences, but now specializes in covering the Canadian food scene, much of it through ambient-light photography. She is a columnist at SingTao's EliteGen magazine and a regular contributor to Toronto Life. Her work has also appeared in The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star Travel, WestJet Magazine, enRoute, NUVO Magazine, CBC Life, and Best Health. Follow her adventures on Twitter at @rssuen.