Most visitors to Nova Scotia arrive in summer, which is a prime reason to hold off until fall for a weekend getaway to this wild yet easy-to-reach Atlantic destination.
Another is the fantastic foliage display, as spectacular as any found in New England but with fewer crowds and, in many cases, discounted lodging rates and admission prices to boot -- especially welcome now that the Canadian dollar has basically reached parity with the U.S. dollar.
Squint at a map of Nova Scotia and the two-piece province takes the shape of a whale on the Atlantic Ocean: The head and body stretch southwest, toward the Maine coast, and the tail (Cape Breton Island) points northeast.
Arriving at Halifax Stanfield International Airport is the best way to go for a short visit. Nonstop flights take about 90 minutes from Boston, two hours from New York City and three hours from Chicago. You probably won't need a car to get around Halifax, the provincial capital, but to really enjoy Nova Scotia's multifariousness, both scenic and cultural, you'll want to take to the road.
Drop Anchor in Halifax
Although forest cloaks more than three-quarters of the province, the defining feature here is the coastline -- more than 4,700 miles of varied terrain that weaves in and out of intimate coves, elongated harbors and tranquil bays, along rocky headlands, rugged scrubland and tide-etched bluffs. An easy way to experience the seascape is to follow one of the 10 mostly coastal "scenic travelways" the province has mapped out.
Each of the routes has its own appeal, but the 210-mile
Lighthouse Route, tracing the convoluted southwest shore, provides a taste of quintessential Nova Scotia without overloading your itinerary.
Halifax makes an excellent base from which to explore not just the south shore but much of the province, and it also offers a good introduction to Nova Scotia's maritime history.
Founded in 1749 as a British naval station, the city sits along Halifax Harbour, said to be the second-largest natural harbor in the world.
Although the greater metro area counts more than 370,000 residents, Halifax itself is quite manageable. Many of its attractions are clustered near the waterfront, where old warehouses have been reincarnated as restaurants, shops and museums.
A major draw at the
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (C$8.50) is its Titanic exhibit, which includes artifacts from the famous wreck. The ship sank some 500 miles to the east, and boats from Halifax were dispatched to recover victims, of which some 120 were laid to rest in Fairview Lawn Cemetery (3720 Windsor St., near Connaught Avenue).
The highest point in town is occupied by the
Halifax Citadel (about C$7-C$11), a National Historic Site with views of the skyscraper-studded downtown and the waters beyond. The star-shaped fortress was completed in 1856, the fourth fortification to be built on the site.
Food and Lodging
While many resorts and inns around Nova Scotia start closing for the season in late October or so, Halifax lodgings tend to stay open throughout the year.
Good upscale options in the downtown area include the
Halliburton (doubles from C$130), a boutique hotel occupying three adjacent early-1800s town houses; the recently spruced up
Lord Nelson Hotel & Suites (doubles from C$165), a stately brick building across from the
Halifax Public Gardens; and the business-oriented
Prince George Hotel (doubles from C$140).
The city's restaurant scene, meanwhile, may surprise you with its sophistication and breadth of offerings.
The Prince George is home to the modern
Gio restaurant (entrees C$24-C$33), where chef Ray Bear has garnered attention for unusual combinations such as a maple-roasted rack of lamb with a flax-seed crust and blueberry mustard.
Da Maurizio (entrees C$28-C$33), a classy, white-tablecloth spot in a former brewery, serves standout homemade pastas such as agnolotti stuffed with king crab and goat cheese and rich entrees such as foie gras-topped roasted pork tenderloin in a port-wine reduction. At
Seven Wine Bar & Restaurant (entrees C$25-C$37, small plates C$9-C$15), you can make a meal out of such appetizers as panko-crusted crab-and-halibut cakes in the downstairs lounge or head upstairs for heartier portions of organic, locally sourced fare. The more-casual
Murphy's Restaurant (entrees C$10-C$25) on Cable Wharf has surf, turf and waterside views. Or you can try one of the city's numerous pubs, such as the
Lower Deck (entrees C$11-C$23), which is part of the lively waterfront
Historic Properties complex.
From Halifax, following the Lighthouse Route for just a few hours will bring you to some of Nova Scotia's most photographed sites.
About 30 miles southwest of the city is
Peggy's Cove, a famous -- or by now perhaps infamous -- fishing village known mainly for its lighthouse; you'll recognize the beacon (today home to a post office) from the postcards, but the crowds may take you aback.
Continue another 40 or so miles to Chester and then Mahone Bay, two alluring vacation-resort villages with lovely old homes and quiet demeanors. You'll see postcard No. 2 in the latter, where three 19th-century churches -- Trinity United, St. John's Lutheran, St. James Anglican -- stand sentinel on Edgewater Street, facing the bay.
From here it's less than 10 miles to Lunenburg, where the Old Town district has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.
This is postcard No. 3: a village of gently sloped streets with a tidy jumble of colorful buildings huddled by the water.
Founded by the British in 1753, it became a major shipbuilding and fishing center -- a story told at the
Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic (C$9). It's here that Canada's famed
fishing schooner, the racing legend depicted on the Canadian dime, launched in 1921. The replica
makes Lunenburg its home port and offers twice-daily
cruises (C$35) when in dock in summer.
But don't worry if you miss this boat:
Lunenburg Whale Watching Tours (C$45) schedules three-hour cruises daily, weather permitting, through October. Even if you don't spot a minke or a humpback, you'll get a great perspective on Nova Scotia's awesome coast.
After breathing in all that sea air and working up an appetite, head to the quirky dinerlike Magnolia's Grill (128 Montague St.; entrees C$6.50-C$14) for another taste of the sea -- milky scallop chowder or delicate fish cakes, for instance -- and start making plans for your next trip to Nova Scotia.
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Chris Swiac, a freelance writer and editor based in New Jersey, has written for The Wall Street Journal, MobilTravelGuide.com and Fodor's Travel Guides, where she was a senior editor.