Jennifer Hough says Nova Scotia’s Irish immigrant influences are obvious, but it also has its own charm.
BILLED as a Celtic culture mecca, and boasting a landscape like Ireland’s, I wasn’t sure about visiting Nova Scotia.
It seemed too much like home to be a holiday with a ‘wow factor’.
But the flights were booked, and the Corkman and I were headed for the maritime province on Canada’s east coast.
Closer to Ireland than to some parts of Canada, Nova Scotia, meaning New Scotland, is steeped in Celtic tradition; immigrants from both Ireland and Scotland came in their tens of thousands in the 1700 and 1800s; there are towns called New Glasgow, New Waterford, Caledonia and Irish Vale.
So it has its share of all things Gaelic, from music, to language (some communities speak it still), and even ‘highlands’ and locally produced whiskeys.
But it’s not Celtic overkill; there’s so much more to the province. Once outside the main urban centre, Halifax, Nova Scotia sometimes seems like a place that time forgot. A rural wilderness with untouched landscapes and coastlines, it’s got all the fresh lobster you can eat, all the lighthouses you’d want to see, spectacular sunsets, surf beaches and, if you’re lucky, moose grazing by the roadside. And that’s just to whet your appetite.
About the size of Ireland (though with one quarter of the population), you’ll need to plan well if time is limited.
Two things: you should go in summer and you’ll need a car.
The Corkman and I started out in Halifax, the province’s hard-working capital, about a two-hour flight from Toronto.
We stayed at the reasonably priced Delta, less than a ten-minute walk from the action.
Halifax is your archetypal, bustling seaport tourist town.
Vibrant and with the youthful energy of a university town, its charming boardwalk stretches along the waterfront, and is packed with restaurants, hatches selling snacks, boat trips, sunset cruises and holiday trinkets.
Pier 21, essentially Canada’s Ellis Island, sits along the seafront, a National Historic Site that was the gateway to Canada for one million immigrants between 1928 and 1971. It also served as the departure point for 500,000 Canadian military during the Second World War.
Today, it’s a museum that tells the poignant stories of these immigrants, and where you can get your own ‘landed immigrant’ stamp.
The Martime Museum is worth a look, too, if only for its brilliant Titanic exhibit, which features a picture from Queenstown (Cobh) Ireland, courtesy of the Cork Examiner, no less.
Three days was plenty of time to fall in love with Halifax and then feel like it was time to leave. Nova Scotia is road-trip heaven, and the tourist board has a great section on its website with a range of themed routes to suit all needs.
We made up our own and, with a hire car from Thrifty Car Rental, at the Westin Hotel, took off for the seclusion of the east coast.
Liscombe Lodge is one of those places where you wish you had a lot more time to while away. It’s got stunning river views, from a quaint dining room, and rowboats and canoes; and an indoor pool and hot tub.
For us, it was a one-night stopover on the way to Cape Breton, the so-called ‘jewel in the crown’ of the province. Originally an island, it is now anchored to the rest of Nova Scotia by the Canso Causeway.
Think Connemara and the Ring of Kerry, with some Scottish highlands thrown in for good measure, and you’re on the right track.
The Cabot Trail features narrow, winding roads, remote fishing communities, breathtaking views from towering cliff-side roads, fiddling music and old-world charm.
The road takes you through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Here, there’s a slew of excellent walking trails, ranging from short family walks to spectacular hiking expeditions.
The Keltic Lodge, at Ingonish Beach, is a must-stop on the way; stay a night or two if you can.
Set on a rugged peninsula, the setting is stunning. It’s got a golf course, outdoor and indoor pools, a spa, wilderness hiking trails, tennis courts and sea kayaking; fresh and saltwater fishing is also available.
Whale watching is another requisite around these parts. Pleasant Bay is full of the mammoth mammals.
We went out on Captain Mark’s tour. And it didn’t disappoint; by the end, our boat was swarmed by a pod of Minke whales, common in the bay.
If hiking and wildlife-spotting aren’t your thing, there’s an alternative to the Cabot Trail — the Ceilidh Trail.
It’s a scenic drive, too, but it’s all about following the music. In the coastal towns along the route, there’s a local hooley to attend every night with traditional music, step-dancing, square sets and singing. People in these parts are very friendly, so expect chats with locals, too.
So, while it’s true Nova Scotia has many of the facets that a trip to Ireland would, it’s a very different experience. And, after just ten days, I was very sure that I loved all of it.
Dublin to Toronto, British Airways, from €845
Toronto to Nova Scotia, Air Canada, from €210
Where to stay
Delta Halifax, from €125 per night
Liscombe Lodge, from €117, per night
Keltic Lodge, from €142 per night
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