Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s four Atlantic provinces, is a place of remarkable contrasts. On the one hand, it’s an island of natural and pastoral beauty with lighthouses, rocky coastlines, picturesque villages and farms, towering lighthouses, thick forests and the wild highlands of Cape Breton Island, yet, it’s also home to a vibrant metropolitan culture as seen in its capital Halifax, also referred to as a “mini-San Francisco.” Still, even in Halifax one gets a sense of the remote, rugged charm of this land, a quality complemented by Nova Scotia’s fiercely independent, yet unreservedly friendly inhabitants. Nova Scotia isn’t just a place to unwind; it’s an arena for exploration, adventure and self-discovery. Those who venture to this off-the-beaten-path destination will find themselves richly rewarded.
The first inhabitants of Nova Scotia were the Mi’kmaq people, who were skilled hunters, fishers and traders. European exploration might have started with the Norse Vikings in the 11th century, but it can be most reliably dated to John Cabot’s expedition in 1497. After Cabot, French explorers such as Samuel de Champlain, established fledgling colonies and French immigrants to the island gave rise to Canada’s Acadian culture.
The island was officially named Nova Scotia (New Scotland) in 1621, by decree of the British King James I. France saw this as a violation of its sovereignty, and so a war raged between Britain and France throughout the 17th century, until the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht gave the colony, except for Cape Breton Island and Ile Saint-Jean, to England.
The capital, Halifax, was founded in 1749 as a military outpost and a means of competing with France’s Fortress of Louisbourg at Cape Breton.
The Seven Years War between Britain and France brought major upheaval to Nova Scotia. In 1755, the British, fearing that the colony’s Acadian population would side with the French, rounded up over 6,000 Acadians and forced them onto ships bound for America. 3 years later, Louisbourg fell to the British. The Treaty of Paris of 1763 gave Cape Breton Island to the British, thus uniting Nova Scotia under British rule.
In the aftermath of the American Revolution, Nova Scotia became a safe haven for pro-British Loyalists, former slaves and European immigrants. The island developed a strong economy based on fishing, lumber, shipbuilding and trade.
The establishment of the Dominion of Canada in 1867 brought resentment from many Nova Scotians who did not enjoy the idea of losing their oceanic trade links with America. Nevertheless, the province has since been well integrated into an independent Canada. Nova Scotia today is highly diverse population and culture-wise, and has an economy increasingly dominated by tourism.
Halifax: The most popular attraction in Nova Scotia’s capital is Citadel Hill, (a.k.a. Fort George.) It’s on this beautiful hill with encompassing views of downtown that Halifax was founded, and it’s here that the British defended against both the French and American Revolutionary armies. In a sad chapter of Canada’s history, the Fort served as an internment camp for over 8,000 immigrants from “enemy countries” during World War I. Visitors can experience daily live military re-enactments courtesy of the British 78th Highlanders and Royal Artillery. Those who come after hours will be treated to the Citadel Ghost Walk and hear spooky stories dating back to the early 1800’s.
The Halifax Public Gardens are one of the finest Victorian gardens in North America. The park is well-maintained and is a perfect spot for strolling or picnicking. The best time to come is during spring and summer when the flowers are in full bloom.
The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has an expansive collection relating to Canada’s ship history. Of particular note is the CSS Acadia. The Acadia is the only ship to have served in the Royal Canadian Navy in both World Wars and, in its later life, charted almost all of Eastern Canada’s coastline. It has been featured in numerous films and documentaries, but the primary reason to visit the Maritime Museum is the Titanic collection, representing the largest of its kind in the world. The Titanic collection includes personal items from the ship’s crew and passengers, a model lifeboat and interactive displays about the ship’s doomed voyage.
Another fantastic museum to visit is Pier 21. This complex of unassuming brick buildings was once known as “Canada’s Ellis Island.” From 1928 to 1971, it processed over 1 million immigrants and served as the departure point for almost half a million Canadian military personnel during the World Wars. The museum tells the stories of immigrants who came to Canada with little more than the clothes on their backs and ended up helping make Canada what it is today.
Province House is the meeting place for the Nova Scotia legislature and is Canada’s oldest provincial parliament building still in use. It’s also the home of Britain’s first overseas self-government. This “gem of Georgian architecture” (in the words of author Charles Dickens) can be toured for free.
South Shore: A short drive out of Halifax, the South Shore is one of the most scenic coastlines in Canada. The 211-mile route from Halifax to Yarmouth is known as Lighthouse Route. The most famous site along this route is Peggy’s Cove, one of Nova Scotia’s many picturesque fishing villages. Peggy’s Point Lighthouse is one of Canada’s most well-known and possibly most photographed lighthouse.
Lunenburg is another excellent stop on the way. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this fishing town’s colorful red buildings and charming boutique shops make it seem as though it was ripped straight from a postcard. The Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic gives visitors an in-depth look at this vital Canadian industry and provides a neat aquarium for the kids.
Cape Breton Island: Just off the northeastern tip of the Nova Scotian mainland lies the rugged Cape Breton Island, famed for its Scottish heritage and outdoors activities. Sydney, the largest city on the island and second-largest in Nova Scotia, doesn’t have a whole lot to see besides the world’s largest fiddle, but it’s a good jumping-off point for exploring the rest of Cape Breton.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park is unarguably the highlight of outdoors Nova Scotia. Spectacular wildlife, mountains, waterfalls, stunning cliffs, deep green forests, and majestic ocean views are some of the many reasons to go here. Hiking, climbing, kayaking, whale watching and the Highlands Links golf course (rated among the world’s top 100 courses by Gold Magazine) are among the park’s best activities.
Adjoining the park is the Cabot Trail. This scenic drive starts at Baddeck, most famous as the location of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s home. Bell was attracted by the island’s beauty and peacefulness. He nicknamed the house Beinn Bhreagh (“beautiful mountain” in Scottish Gaelic) and built an adjacent lab where he conducted research in powered flight and hydrofoil technology. The estate itself is not open to the public, but the nearby Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site has many original artifacts and documents relating to Bell’s personal life and work.
At the end of the Cabot Trail lies Meat Cove, the northernmost settlement on Cape Breton Island. The sweeping ocean views, towering cliffs, whale watching opportunities and camping spots make it worth the extra driving.
Besides the Highlands and Cabot Trail, one of the best sights on the island is the Fortress of Louisbourg. When the original complex still stood in the 18th century, it was one of the largest and most expensive European colonial forts. The fort was painstakingly reconstructed by the Canadian government in 1961 and turned into a National Historic Site. The site has costumed guides who demonstrate 18th century style cooking, crafts, music and military reenactments. Be sure to bring warm clothes as Louisbourg can get chilly. Once you’re done stepping back in time, hike over to the highly photogenic Louisbourg lighthouse and take a moment to admire the uniquely Nova Scotian view.
Daven and Eat
There are two Orthodox shuls in Nova Scotia: Chabad of the Maritimes in Halifax can be reached at chabadmaritimes.com or by calling (902) 422-4222. The other is Beth Israel Synagogue in Halifax (Modern Orthodox) which can be reached at thebethisrael.com or (902) 422-1301.
Nova Scotia has no kosher restaurants but kosher food can be obtained through Chabad of the Maritimes. The main supermarkets – Sobey’s and Superstore – carry a limited kosher selection. For a full list of Halifax markets carrying kosher items, go to http://theajc.ns.ca/halifax-nova-scotia-kosher-food/
Currently, a flight from LAX to Halifax costs about $560 per person round trip via Air Canada. The island, which is really more of a peninsula, is connected to New Brunswick on the mainland via a narrow spit of land so driving all the way there is possible. Driving distance from L.A. is just over 3,600 miles or about 54 hours. Cape Breton Island can be reached via Highway 104 which is part of the Trans-Canada Highway.