Our second visit to Canada’s Maritime Provinces took us to southern New Brunswick and eastern Nova Scotia with two primary objectives: visit the Bay of Fundy – home to the greatest tidal fluctuations in the world; and drive the Cabot Trail, consistently rated as one of the top scenic drives in the world.
Our first stop in New Brunswick was the town of St Andrews-by-the-Sea, originally settled by Loyalists, folks who decided to leave the British Colonies after our nasty little revolution. Unfortunately for them, once the borders were drawn the original settlement was on the “wrong” side and had to be moved across the river to remain safely under the crown.
A picturesque town with a very strong New England feel, and yet a distinctly Canadian air St Andrews is great for a quick stop – although you may opt to take one of the many cruises on offer, including to Campobello Island, summer home of Franklin Roosevelt. We had our first (of many) lobster dishes at the Gables Restaurant, on a charming laid back deck right on the water. It’s also worth noting that the famous Algonquin Hotel in St Andrews was renovated in 2013 and is now an Autograph Collection property.
It’s an easy two and a half hour drive from St Andrews to Fundy National Park, but you’ll want to make stops along the way, perhaps including the city of St John for a visit to the historic City Market or the nearby Reversing Falls. If you are staying in or near Fundy National Park we recommend a stop in Sussex to pick up supplies. The park is large, encompassing inland areas where you can spot moose and other wildlife, as well as the stunning coastal zones. Hiking trails are well maintained and options including kayaking, camping, etc. We stayed at the Fundy Highlands Chalets, located within the park and just a short drive from the town of Alma. The chalets were built in the 1940s and the current owners have made significant improvements. It is a pleasant rustic experience with great views – plan to stay at least two nights to fully explore the park. You are also in the middle of the Fundy Dark Sky Preserve – it is dark at night… very dark. On clear nights you can’t miss the Milky Way.
The nearby village of Alma offers a few shops and restaurants, including the Harbour View Market & Restaurant. A combination grocery store / restaurant isn’t where you would expect to find INCREDIBLE sea food chowder, but you won’t want to miss it. Take some time to hang out in town and you will quickly notice the immensity of the tidal fluctuations here –
In the Alma marina, large fishing boats rest on the sea bed at low tide and a few hours later they are floating in 30 feet of water. You can literally see the water rush in or out, depending on the time of day. It’s also a short but stunning drive along to coast out to Cape Enrage – very much worth the effort.
On our way from Fundy National Park to Nova Scotia, we stopped at Hopewell Rocks. This is another great spot to witness the power of the Fundy tides. The rocks are essentially pillars, some with vegetation still clinging to the top. We visited at low tide to walk on the sea floor and along the cliffs and sea caves. At high tide you can kayak along the shore and between the rocks. Hopewell Rocks is a private concession and might feel a bit like an amusement park, but it is worth the visit.
It’s a long drive to Cape Breton, which is in fact a very large island to the northeast of “mainland” Nova Scotia. Plan to stop along the way – there are plenty of opportunities including towns, historical sights, parks, etc. It took us about six hours to make it to Baddeck, on the shores of Bra d’Or (bra-door) Lake, a very large inland sea. As a main hub on the Cabot Trail, Baddeck is well equipped for tourists with a range of quality hotels, restaurants and shops. We stayed two nights at the Silver Dart Lodge in one of their pet-friendly cabins, which have been updated and includes wood stoves. The views from your private deck are spectacular. Baddeck was also the summer home of Alexander Graham Bell and there is a museum honoring him and the flight of the Silver Dart in 1909, the first powered flight in the British Empire.
You need to rest up a bit before heading out on the Cabot Trail – Not so much because of the long drive around the northeastern tip of Cape Breton, but because you will be stopping every few minutes to either eat, shop, or enjoy the spectacular scenery. There are also numerous options to break up the trip – including camping in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. According to the Cabot Trail tourism map (available at Nova Scotia welcome centers and various museums and merchants on Cape Breton Island), the entire Cabot Trail drive takes about five hours. What the map doesn’t tell you is that this is without stops. If you plan to stop for meals, hikes or sightseeing beyond the occasional photo stop, you should plan for a fairly long day. There are many artisanal shops along the route – we tend to buy souvenirs that hold great memories and also serve a day-to-day purpose. Larch Wood Canada is famous for bowls, cutting boards, and other items made from local wood. You can visit their unpretentious, rustic outlet along the Cabot Trail.
We chose to end our trip with a treat by staying at the Keltic Lodge in Ingonish. The lodge was built in 1939 and occupies a peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. Arriving at the property feels a bit like going back to a simpler, more refined time. On site is the Purple Thistle restaurant; while we wouldn’t travel to Cape Breton for the food alone, the atmosphere is warm and the views from the dining room and adjacent bar are stunning. Whether you stay at the lodge or not, be sure to make a photo stop and head out on the Middle Head Trail at the far end of the property – you don’t want to miss the views and a walk through an eerie forest which we dubbed Witch’s Wood because of an abundance of small twisted trees.
We were in Cape Breton during the Celtic Colours festival. Held every October and timed to the peak of the fall colors, the festival is a celebration of all things celtic – with a heavy emphasis on live music. There is something for everyone. Regardless of the time of year, there is so much to do on Cape Breton you will need to pick and choose based on your interests and available time. We did not visit the Glenora Distillery or the town of Inverness, known for its authentic Scottish atmosphere. Nor did we make it to the Louisburg Fortress – apparently a must-see for history buffs and a treat for the kids.
Just a note on Nova Scotia travel: We did not visit Halifax or southern Nova Scotia, which includes the famous tourist stops of Lunenburg and Peggy’s Cove. There simply wasn’t enough time to pack it all in. We have finally adopted the motto of “less is more” with our travels – Although I can’t say that a road trip of nearly 2,000 miles constitutes “less!”