Longing for the feel of wheels beneath you? Dreaming of lush paint-by-number landscapes, white foam rollers crashing into rugged rock faces, ancient lighthouses and lobster suppers, high steppin’ fiddlers and smiling faces? You need a road trip - the Canadian Maritime Provinces is where you will find it all.
Thinking two weeks isn’t enough to see it all? There is never enough time and this classic Canadian road trip will make you envious of the retirees just mooching along at their own pace. But if two weeks is all you have, pack the cooler and hit the road.
Campers will find plenty of places to pitch their tents, but the east coast is Bed & Breakfast country and an easy way to meet locals. Sometimes it seemed like we were sleeping in Martha-Stewart-land with the bedspread matching the chairs matching the dried flower wall hanging. In another bedroom I was certain the furnishings, from the red velvet chaise lounge to the heart-shaped bed had been swiped off the set of the Dating Game. But in every case we were welcomed by open-hearted hosts with warmth and interest and an eagerness to share what they knew of the area. In comparison, the one night we spent in a chain hotel felt cold and inhospitable.
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There is nothing gussied up for the tourists here, no Disneyland. But the locals are much given to painting their homes in bright hues of turquoise, emerald green, robin’s egg blue, sunshine yellow, even bright red. One truly memorable home celebrated the owner’s Scottish heritage in a meticulously painted tartan. That is one photo I regret not turning back to snap.
If you like living museums, check out Sherbrooke, a restored 1800’s era village. Costumed interpretive guides bring this museum to life, functioning in the shops, pharmacy, hotel, doctors office, blacksmith and so on. At Canso you can take a boat trip over to the Grassy Island National Historic Site to view old British fortifications. Finish off the day propped up against a log on the beach, watching the working lighthouses come to life across the water on Cape Breton Island.
Two – Sydney,
Connecting to Cape Breton via the Canso Causeway, follow the southerly route that meanders along the Bras d’Or Lakes to Sydney. The "Lakes" are actually a deeply-indented arm of the Atlantic Ocean offering peaceful anchorages, picturesque islands, hiking, biking, boating and a rich ecosystem.
Fortress Louisbourg, the largest historic reconstruction in North America, is worth a stop. It was erected by the French in 1720-45 to defend their interests but passed back and forth during the British/French hostilities until it was finally demolished by the British. Today, about 25% of it has been reconstructed which might not seem like much but it is big. It bustles with costumed characters who march through the square, bake bread, dust furniture, guard the gates and generally communicate a good sense of what life in the fort was like.
Day Three Stephensville,
We began with the ferry to Port aux Basque, a pleasant 5-6 hour voyage with outdoor entertainment courtesy of the whales and porpoises, regulars on the route. Indoors, staff go out of their way to make this a genuine Maritime experience. There are singers and musicians and comedians, making merry on washboards and squeezeboxes and ugly sticks, an eclectic collection of clanging, banging noisemakers. There are board games and movies and recliners to sleep in. When all else fails, food and more food; hearty stick-to-your-ribs pork roast and mashed potatoes with real gravy kind of food.
Rolling off the ferry, our little rental car hugs the narrow, winding route taking us up, through and over the imposing grey granite entrance to "The Rock." Some time later, we pulled over to the side of the road in Stephensville to consult our accommodation guide. Within moments a friendly policeman had pulled parallel.
“Lost are ya?”
“No, not lost, just looking for a place to settle for the night.”
“Follow me,” he tossed out the window as his patrol car swooped in front of ours and took off.
George, the friendly B&B host in whose driveway we were deposited, took a serious interest in marking up an itinerary for us. As a former health inspector, there was no corner of the province he hadn't travelled into, so he eagerly plotted the highlights …and since it did prove to be an extraordinary six days I'd have to say he knew what he was talking about.
One of his must-sees was a drive that evening around Port aux Port. This picturesque peninsula is attached to mainland Newfoundland by only the narrowest strip of land, it’s an “almost-island” in every sense, being the centre of the French culture and population in Newfoundland.
Day Four Gros
But there is a great deal more than old rocks to be seen here. The fjords are spectacular, many say they out-fjord Norway itself and there are plenty of boat tours to ensure enjoyable exploration. There is hiking and kayaking and fishing and wildlife. With 150,000 of them on the island, moose topping 500 kg are a common sight and I never tired of watching these awkward, ungainly creatures. Unfortunately they are given to lurching unpredictably in front of cars, a traumatic event for the moose, the car and the driver alike, so expect them to do the unexpected and drive defensively.
Day Five Twillingate,
In fact, Twillingate's main claim to fame is that it sits in the middle of "Iceberg Alley", the route humongous Greenland bergs take as they scrape and scour their way south in the spring and summer months. There are plenty of tour boats in the area to take you out for a closer look , but not too close. Only 1/5 to 1/10 of the berg is above the waterline and what’s below fans out in massive, far-reaching spurs. As the iceberg melts, its centre of gravity shifts causing it to roll without warning. You don’t want to be over one of those spurs when that happens.
Six, Seven, and
Eight St. John’s,
The waterfront is always a lively place, the scene of one festival after another. Expect toe-tappin’ music, great pub grub, and plenty of people watching. Even the yacht crowd tie up and come ashore here. Sylvester Stallone was wandering through the crowd with a child on his shoulders the day we were there. At least that’s what they said.
Signal Hill, sitting high atop St John’s harbour is always worth a visit, for the spectacular view if nothing else. But the history is interesting too. The use of the site for military purposes dates back to the 1700s and the fortifications are brought to life each summer by students re-enacting military scenarios, shooting off cannons and marching around in uniform. Signal Hill is also where Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless transmission in 1901. Hello - information age.
Take a spin up-island to Cape Spear, the most easterly point on the continent. This is where "the new world begins" as they say, and from here it's actually much closer to Ireland than it is to Thunder Bay, never mind Vancouver!
Another trip worth taking is to Bay Bulls for a tour of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve and to see the gargantuan humpback whales. We'd noticed the boat leaving the dock as we arrived, so on buying our tickets we figured on a long wait. They'd have none of it.
The captain's wife got on the horn and called the boat back. We tore down to the dock, strong arms swung us onboard and with everyone laughing and congratulating us on "making the boat", we were off. This was a rollicking little cruise, with the captain singing, telling jokes and sharing his rich understanding of the wildlife. And yes, there were whales, puffins and a cute penguin-like little bird that lays its eggs on the rocky ledges of Gull Island, then poops all over them, gluing them to the rock. Smart bird.
Good thing we didn’t have to wait for the boat to return because the scheduled 1.5 hour cruise turned into a 3-hour party. That’s Newfoundlanders for you.
Knowing we needed to catch the ferry back to Cape Breton in the morning, we headed down to the Argentia area for our final night in Newfoundland. Argentia is where the US forces patrolling the North Atlantic were headquartered during World War II. It's also where Roosevelt and Churchill met to design the Atlantic charter.
Day Nine Sydney,
Ten Cabot Trail,
Day Eleven, Twelve,
and Thirteen Prince
PEI is not a big island, only 224 km long with no part of it more than 16 km from the ocean. Pull out a map and plot a course around the island, every kilometre will bring more of the same: sparkling blue ocean, gracious heritage homes decked out in wedding cake gingerbread, vibrant red sandstone cliffs, picturesque steepled churches, quiet country lanes smothered in wildflowers, historic landmarks and miles of sandy beaches.
We particularly enjoyed the working harbours where we stretched our legs, chatted to the fishermen and watched the lobster boats coming and going. We thought a lobster trap would make a great souvenir …until we tried to lift it. They dump a cement slab in the bottom of the trap to sink it. Tossing those traps is no doubt the reason PEI men don’t need gym memberships.
Of course everyone has to at least pass through Cavendish, or “Anne Land” as many know it. This is the home of Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables books beloved by generations of young girls around the world. Cavendish has become an extremely commercialized destination: souvenir shops and chain restaurants, miniature golf, water parks, bumper cars, petting zoos, magic shows, a wax museum, even a Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
If all that gives you a headache, rent a bike and get yourself onto Confederation Trail. The trail is a 274 km cross-island pathway built on the bed of an abandoned railway. There is a maximum 2% grade, making it beloved by flatland cyclists. It’s easy-to-negotiate by foot, cycle and wheelchair. There are benches and shelters every 2 km and most communities have an entrance along the trail.
With a promise in our hearts to return, we departed via the stunningly elegant Confederation Bridge.
Day Fourteen Halifax,
Back to Halifax and the late flight home. In all, an extraordinary experience, the Maritimes. Would longer be better? Of course. But if two weeks is all one has, it’s long enough to savour the salty flavour of Atlantic Canada.
Best time to go? During the Canadian summer and fall – June to September.
Nova Scotia to
Prince Edward Island
Provincial Tourism Contacts
to Newfoundland (full details on
Sydney to Argentia & reverse
or Ferry to Prince
Island (full details
on website listed
Bed & Breakfast