My wife and I have always wanted to visit New England, to see the tree colours in the fall. However, we have been rather discouraged by friends who have made this trip and reported that the best tree-viewing areas were frequently overpopulated with tourists.
In 2019 we learned that the Canadian province of Nova Scotia can also boast wonderful autumn tree colours, together with charmingly unspoiled traditional fishing villages and attractive towns. So we booked a trip to the province for late September/early October.
Our first stop was Peggy's Cove.
Its traditional vernacular clapboard buildings and fishermen’s harbour had a timeless (and somewhat rickety) charm. And although the village is popular with tourists, it still has the look and air of what it remains - a working fishing community, largely free from gift shops and fast food joints.
The Peggy’s Point lighthouse, while picturesque enough, is not the most attractive one in Nova Scotia, although it does sit quite majestically at the end of an impressive solid granite promontory
As it turned out, lighthouses would feature strongly in our trip – Nova Scotia is well-endowed with them!
Lunenburg on Mahone Bay is one of the gems of Nova Scotia. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it was founded and built by the British in the 18th century.
It remains an important fishing community with an Atlantic Fisheries Museum, but it has inevitably become a tourist attraction, too.
The majority of its original colonial buildings survive, almost all built of timber and painted in gloriously bright colours. There’s a wonderful choice of restaurants - if you love seafood, you may want to move there!
After Lunenburg we drove northwards across the province to the small coastal town of Digby, on the Bay of Fundy. This huge inlet separates Nova Scotia from the province of New Brunswick and has the world’s highest tides.
On every tide, 160 billion tonnes of water flow in and out of the bay – more than the entire combined water flow of the world’s rivers.
It gave us a convenient base from which to explore the coast and to visit Annapolis Royal – one of Canada’s most historic towns with its traditional Nova Scotian lighthouse.
Just outside the Annapolis Royal is a reconstruction of that original settlement, Port Royal. Its buildings have been faithfully recreated and furnished, and traditionally dressed “residents” can often be encountered.
In the mild autumn weather the timber buildings appeared comfortable enough, but I imagine that a Canadian winter here was a test of endurance for the settlers and troops.
After an overnight stop in the town of Truro (Nova Scotia is full of British placenames – Yarmouth, Halifax, Brighton, Cambridge, Liverpool... there are dozens of them), we headed north to cross the Confederation Bridge to Canada’s smallest province: Prince Edward Island.
The bridge is a hugely impressive structure – over 8 miles long and standing on 62 concrete piers.
After the charms of Nova Scotia, we were a little underwhelmed by Prince Edward Island. It’s not unpleasant, it has some handsome old lighthouses and some good beaches, but for us it didn’t really compete with the much more varied and interesting province back across that amazing bridge.
We had an enjoyable couple of days pootling about and photographing lighthouses, but we were keen to get back to the delights of Nova Scotia.
After returning to northern Nova Scotia we drove north across a narrow strait to Cape Breton Island, which is home to the world-famous Cabot Trail.
The charming town of Baddeck advertises itself as the start and finish of the Cabot Trail, and so it is.
It sits on the shore of the huge Bras D’Or Lake, which joins the sea at both its north and south ends, so the lake actually divides Cape Breton Island in two.
It was the home of Alexander Graham Bell and features a museum of his many inventions.
The Cabot Trail starts modestly as a pleasantly wooded lowland drive, but before long it starts to gain altitude and pass through forests which well and truly lived up to our autumn colour expectations.
What’s more there was none of the New England tourist overcrowding that we had been told about. We often drove for miles without seeing another vehicle.
The stands of evergreen conifers were punctuated by the reds, oranges and yellows of maple, birch and mountain ash, sweeping up hillsides and around lakes.
One word of warning: some of the road surfaces in Nova Scotia are terrible – crumbled, cracked and potholed! I was glad to be driving a large American SUV with soft suspension.
The route of the Cabot Trail wanders partly along the coast and partly inland, with plenty of wayside hiking and biking trails.
It passes through small communities, many of whose names betray the strong French influence that still exists on the island’s west side - Belle Côte, Terre Noire, Grand Étang, Chéticamp... the latter being where we stopped at a boulangerie to buy our lunchtime baguettes.
Feeling a bit cocky, I ordered these in my passable French and was promptly replied to in English. I think that’s called a put-down! But in typically Canadian style it was all very friendly and courteous.
Approaching the north of Cape Breton Island, the Trail arcs eastwards, passing out of the French-influenced area and into a part of the island that claims a strong Scottish heritage. We passed attractive coastal communities like Neil’s Harbour and South Harbour, arriving at the Keltic Lodge at Ingonish Beach for a two-night stay.
This is a huge hotel and golf complex that sits at the top of spectacular cliffs of red rock. Despite its size, it was beautifully run, luxurious and uncrowded, and our annexe room had large picture windows with a wonderful view of the main building at sunset.
After a couple of days exploring the Ingonish area, we headed off on the final southward leg of the Cabot Trail, enjoying more of the spectacular scenery. We negotiated a complex series of inlets of the Bras D’Or Lake to arrive in the town of Sydney for an overnight stay in a harbourside hotel, where we received a surprise free upgrade to a penthouse suite!
A full day’s drive the next day took us to our final hotel in the small resort of Liscomb Mills. We enjoyed a quiet day, with a local trip to a small village called Marie Joseph. This proved to be a worthwhile photo-opportunity for anyone (like me) who loves to photograph rotting and wrecked boats.
The tiny village was clearly in a very depressed state, and appeared almost deserted. There were several “dead” vessels dotted around, including a fairly substantial ship which appeared to have been beached with its tug still attached. Both were rusting hulks and looked as though they had been there for years.
Our final day’s drive meandered through attractive scenery and communities, back towards Halifax Airport for an evening flight home.
Our overwhelming impression of Nova Scotia was of a unique mix of French, English and Scottish traditions which have blended happily into an overwhelmingly Canadian character.
The province sticks out eastward into the Atlantic in a way that gives it an almost island feel, even though it is actually attached to mainland Canada by a neck of land. It is a community that lives predominantly by the sea, with clean air, incredibly blue skies (mostly!), beautiful scenery and the most courteous and friendly people you could hope to encounter.
It’s landscape photography heaven!
Left from top:
1. The harbour at Peggy’s Cove
2. The quaint harbour at fishing village Blue Rocks, just outside Lunenburg
3. A traditional Nova Scotian lighthouse at Annapolis Royal
4. Interior of the original Port Royal Governor’s residence
5. Cormorants in a Prince Edward Island Lake
6. A schooner passing the lighthouse in Baddeck Harbour
7. A lowland section of The Cabot Trail
8. A roadside view of Lake O’Law, which we passed along the way
9. Side-by-side rusting hulks at Marie Joseph
Right from top:
1. Peggy’s Point Lighthouse
2. Traditional dorys in Lunenburg harbour
3. Reconstructed settlers’ buildings in Port Royal
4. The Confederation Bridge from Nova Scotia to Prince Edward Island
5. A museum of old lighthouses on Prince Edward Island
6. The boardwalk around Baddeck waterfront
7. A Cabot Trail hillside clothed with autumn colours
8. The Keltic Lodge complex at sunset
9. Nova Scotia fishing boats back in harbour after a day’s work in the Atlantic Ocean