Driving Nova Scotia’s south coast

By Stephen O. Addison, Jr.
This article appears on page 6 of the December 2016 issue.
St. John’s Anglican Church in Lunenburg.

My wife, Paula Owens, and I needed an easy, low-stress trip to get away from the summer heat at home. We decided to return to our travel roots and visit Canada, specifically southern Nova Scotia, the only region of the province we hadn’t visited, so in August 2016 we flew to Halifax, via Toronto, to begin our one-week driving tour.

The plan

Our plan was to circumnavigate Nova Scotia’s coast clockwise from Lunenburg to Grand Pré, visiting many of the small towns on that route. With this itinerary, we were often faced with the choice of traveling on the old, more scenic highways (No. 1 and No. 3), which tend to hug the coast, or the newer, more direct (and, generally, limited-access) highways (No. 101 and No. 103) farther inland. We traveled on a mix of both.

August is Nova Scotia’s high season for vacationers, so we expected crowds and high prices. Prices were, indeed, higher than usual but not unreasonable, even with the 15% HST (harmonized sales tax). At least the exchange rate was favorable (about 76¢ per Canadian dollar). 

Crowds were rarely an issue, and we never encountered heavy traffic. Completely booked lodgings were the primary manifestation of the additional high-season visitors.

B&Bs are the most common type of lodging in the region. The paucity of hotels and motels makes having reservations important anytime of year.

The weather was a pleasant change from home; temperatures stayed in the 70s during our visit. We encountered some fog and mist and a few showers, but the inclement weather didn’t hamper us much; in fact, it helped alleviate the effects of the 6-week drought Nova Scotia had been experiencing. 

Due to some ongoing fires and the risk of additional fires, virtually all hiking trails and a few roads into the interior were closed.

A bumpy start

We flew American Airlines between Charlotte and Toronto and WestJet between Toronto and Halifax. WestJet, Canada’s second-largest airline, is not a member of any of the big three airline alliances, but, conveniently, it codeshares with American and Delta. 

Re-creation of the Common Room at the Port-Royal settlement.

Our American Airlines flights were uneventful, but we got off to a bad start with our WestJet flight reservations. Somehow a very minor post-booking schedule change to our American flights messed up our WestJet ticket reservations. Our seat assignments were lost, and we couldn’t get our boarding passes online or from a kiosk. I spent almost two hours talking with remarkably friendly WestJet and American representatives, both on the phone and at the airports, before all of the problems were resolved. 

As a consequence, we received a much-appreciated complimentary upgrade to premium economy on our flight from Toronto to Halifax, our first flight ever on WestJet. 

The WestJet flights, themselves, were pleasant and on time. The WestJet agents, flight attendants et al. were consistently helpful and friendly, more so than the staff of any other airline we’ve flown (with the possible exception of Singapore Airlines).  

After our Tuesday evening arrival in Halifax and a fruitful visit to the tourist office on the airport’s arrival level, we began our 1½-hour drive from the airport to Lunenburg. 

We skipped the nearby and highly popular Peggy’s Cove, since we had visited it previously on a day trip from Halifax. Even on this noncoastal drive, we got to enjoy Nova Scotia’s Scotland-like scenery. 

As we approached Lunenburg, we experienced a navigation problem. Key directional signs were hidden behind vegetation, a problem that occurred several times during our trip. However, GPS saved us.

I tried both a standard GPS device and Google Maps/Navigation on my phone. Google was better (clearer and easier to adjust on the fly), but there were a few times when we couldn’t get a network connection.

It was dusk when we arrived at our home for two nights, the centrally located Kaulbach House (75 Pelham St.; www.kaulbachhouse.com), a historic inn built in 1880. 

Free parking was available in a small lot behind the house, which was important in Lunenburg, as it appeared to have less public parking than the other towns we visited. 

This B&B’s new owners made us feel at home and provided an excellent breakfast each morning. Our double room overlooking the harbor cost CAD171 ($130) per night, including taxes.

Hitting the road

We spent the next day exploring hilly Lunenburg on foot. Kaulbach House was within easy walking distance of virtually all of the town’s points of interest. In addition to the popular Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic (68 Bluenose Dr.), there were several historic churches and homes and even a distillery to visit (Ironworks Distillery; 902/640-2424). (Make reservations first.) 

Lunenburg is possibly a bit overrated, but it was definitely worth a full day’s visit. It was the most touristy town we visited and the only place where we encountered a crowd. 

Thursday morning, as we left Lunenburg, we backtracked to Mahone Bay, located 10 to 15 minutes northwest of town, where there were three cute, old churches worth a photo stop. All three churches were located on the inland side of Highway 3 across from free parking lots along the waterfront. 

We continued an hour and a half to Shelburne, where we spent a couple of hours visiting three adjacent attractions: Ross-Thomson House & Museum, Shelburne County Museum and J.C. Williams Dory Shop Museum. All three were covered by a single $10 ticket. We learned more than we expected about dories (traditional wooden watercraft) at the worthwhile J.C. Williams Dory Shop Museum.

The Queen Anne Inn in Annapolis Royal.

Another hour of driving took us to Yarmouth, where we first visited the interesting Yarmouth County Museum (with an incredibly broad range of exhibits). Its admission price also included a guided tour of the adjacent Pelton-Fuller House, the summer home of the original “Fuller Brush man.” 

Afterward, we checked in at the Lakelawn Motel (641 Main St.; lakelawnmotel.com), a motor-court-style motel that was a fun throwback to the early days of vacationing by car. Opt for their hearty breakfast, which includes more fruit than you probably eat in a normal week! Including the added breakfast for each of us, we paid a total of CAD151.

Yarmouth and beyond

Our first stop on Friday morning was Yarmouth’s huge tourist office, located near the ferry port. It had plenty of free parking plus a friendly staff who fulfilled all our needs. 

I’d suggest picking up the brochure there for a self-directed one- to two-hour walking tour of ship captains’ houses. The itinerary includes most of Yarmouth’s tourist attractions. You can leave your car parked at the tourist office while you take this highly recommended walking tour. 

There was more to see in Yarmouth than we had expected. It deserves a full day of your time.

Due to fog, we skipped a planned side trip out to the Yarmouth Lighthouse on Cape Forchu. Based upon advice from a French family we met while touring the Pelton-Fuller House, we drove three-quarters of an hour up the coast to tiny Church Point (Pointe-de-l’Église). 

There we visited Sainte Marie Church, built in 1903-1905. It’s one of the largest wooden buildings in North America. 

Ten more minutes took us to equally tiny Saint-Bernard, where we checked out the great acoustics in St. Bernard Church. This large, stone church was erected, it is said, by adding one row of stones per year between 1910 and 1942.

After another 45 minutes of occasionally rainy driving, we arrived at Sandy Cove on the Digby Neck, a long peninsula that extends southwest into the Bay of Fundy from the town of Digby. 

Based on my pre-trip research, we had relatively high expectations for the peninsula’s scenery, but it wasn’t noticeably superior to the incidental coastal scenery along our route. Maybe the rain and light fog influenced our opinions.

We moved on another hour north, passing Annapolis Royal, to visit the Port-Royal National Historic Site, where there is a re-creation of Champlain’s 1605 Port-Royal settlement. This was definitely worth an hour or so. 

If you visit, be sure to ask one of the costumed Parks Canada staffers to give you a brief introductory tour.

Our final drive of the day was 10 minutes back to Annapolis Royal, where we gratefully settled in for two nights at the wonderful Queen Anne Inn (494 St. George St.; queen anneinn.ns.ca), built in 1865. This was the best (and most expensive) lodging of our trip. 

The inn had been renovated to provide plenty of space and modern conveniences while maintaining its 19th-century charm. Our huge room, with a four-poster queen-sized canopy bed and period furniture, cost a total of CAD189 ($146) per night. 

The included breakfasts were terrific. One morning during breakfast, the town crier came in and provided a lively overview of the day’s activities.

Historic sites

Fueled by a hearty breakfast, we began Saturday with a 4-kilometer round-trip hike to the Annapolis Tidal Generating Station. (Normal people drive to the station.) I’m an engineer, so it was no surprise that I was interested in touring this facility, but my wife also found our free tour interesting. Avoid visiting during low tide because the facility will be generating electricity then and tours aren’t allowed to “go below” to see the generating equipment. 

Next we spent a couple of hours wandering through the beautiful Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens, taking a break in their on-site café. This attraction charged significantly more for admission (CAD14.50 for adults) than any other site we visited. Many museums and historic homes merely requested a donation, typically only CAD2-CAD4 per person. 

Afterward we visited the nearby Fort Anne National Historic Site, said to encompass the most fought-over land (by the British, French and Native Americans) in North America or, at least, Canada. 

A replica of the Silver Dart hangs above a CF-104 Starfighter at the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum.

We finished our day’s explorations with a stroll on the boardwalk along the Annapolis River and a walk along Lower St. George Street, the town’s showcase street, lined with historic homes, shops, restaurants, etc.

At the recommendation of our hosts at the Queen Anne Inn, we dined that night at the nearby Garrison Grill in the Garrison House Inn (350 St. George St.). While relaxing on their screened veranda, we were expertly served the finest meal of our trip. Our entrées were accompanied by small portions of seven different, delicious vegetables. 

The total cost for the two of us, including a half liter of local white wine, taxes and tip, was only $77. This was one reason that Annapolis Royal became our favorite town of the trip. It is worth a full day, preferably more, of your time.

Sunday morning, after another excellent breakfast, we walked 15 minutes to the far side of Annapolis Royal to visit the O’Dell House Museum (136 Lower St. George St.), where we learned about 19th-century life in the Annapolis Royal area. After an informative hour exploring this old stagecoach inn and tavern, we walked back to the Queen Anne Inn, collected our car and reluctantly departed. 

An hour-and-a-quarter drive north took us to the Grand-Pré National Historic Site, the last of many Acadian sites along the “Evangeline Trail” that we encountered on Nova Scotia’s southwest coast. The exhibits there brought to life details surrounding the tragic deportation of the Acadians in the late 1750s and early 1760s. However, don’t expect any actual ruins or even replicas.

Mansions and museums

For something completely different, we backtracked a few minutes south to Wolfville to visit the nearby Gaspereau Vineyards, one of many wineries in the area. We sampled several of their wines and then redeemed a coupon that we had picked up at the tourist office at the Halifax airport for a free large glass of wine each plus a small cheese board. 

Returning to Wolfville, we checked in at the Blomidon Inn (195 Main St.; www.blomidon.ns.ca), a restored 1881 sea captain’s mansion. Our room (CAD$160) was small, but we had a very large bathroom, supposedly the first indoor, plumbed bathroom in the area. 

After enjoying the inn’s complimentary afternoon tea (served 3:00 to 4:30 p.m.), which included delicious scones, we walked to Wolfville’s Waterfront Park, a good place to observe the Bay of Fundy’s remarkable tides. 

Wolfville’s downtown had all of the services a visitor might need along with several appealing restaurants.

Monday morning’s breakfast was just a cold buffet, good but certainly not up to the standards of our other breakfasts. This reinforced our opinion that the Blomidon Inn isn’t up to the standards of its peers, although it’s likely still the best in the area. 

Before leaving Wolfville, we spent a couple of hours at the instructive Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens and the adjacent K.C. Irving Environmental Science Centre at Acadia University. Both were free and definitely worth a visit, but good luck finding a legal place to park.

Back on the road again, we drove 45 minutes to Uniacke Estate Museum Park, which our AAA tour book indicated was open daily (June 1 to Oct. 1). The beautiful grounds surrounding the house and Uniacke Lake were open, but the estate’s Georgian-style country mansion (built 1813-1815) was closed on that Monday. 

A half hour after leaving the estate, we arrived at our trip’s final attraction, the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum near Halifax’s airport. The museum (suggested donation, CAD8) has an extensive collection of Canadian civilian and military aircraft, including the Silver Dart, which made the first powered flight in Canada.

Once we finished with the aviation museum, we drove the final two kilometers of our trip, filled the car’s fuel tank at the gas station just before reaching the airport’s rental-car-return garage and then returned the rental car. 

Our lodging for the night, the Alt Hotel Halifax Airport, was located steps away. This new, modern hotel is across the street from the airport terminal and is connected to the terminal by a skybridge. 

Our two-queen-bed room (CAD181 with all taxes) was well equipped, functional and quiet. There are a number of other hotels located near the airport, but you’ll need a shuttle to get to the terminal from any of them.

Early Tuesday morning we enjoyed a tasty breakfast (not included in our room rate) at the hotel’s café, then walked to the terminal expecting the quick security processing we had been told by a WestJet agent to expect. 

That didn’t come to pass. The security line stretched for much of the length of the terminal. 

It was an hour before we exited the security screening area and headed for our gate. Be forewarned that there are a great many morning flights scheduled to depart Halifax in the 7:00-to-8:00 time frame, hence the long line. 

We caught our flight with time to spare, but it wasn’t a relaxing way to finish an otherwise relaxing trip.