Heading North

In Nova Scotia, enjoy the adventure of a foreign land without sacrificing the comforts of home


March 02, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,Sun Staff

In Nova Scotia, even the best-oriented travelers will encounter moments where they completely lose their bearings. After all, where else on the Eastern Seaboard does one find oneself marching along a coastline overlooking what appears to be the ocean -- and facing west?

In some cases, the sense of dislocation is more than just geographic. The visitor to Nova Scotia happens upon places of such isolated splendor that it is difficult to believe that one is still tethered to the land mass of North America, a mere 90-minute flight from Boston, and has not, in fact, passed over into some Nordic fantasy land.

For my wife and me, that moment came on an early summer hike at the furthest tip of Cape Breton, the rugged island that lies just northeast of the Nova Scotia mainland. We had set off from the tiny community of Meat Cove, a settlement populated almost entirely by three extended Scottish families -- the MacClellans, MacDonalds and Frasers.

After an hour's march on a deserted logging trail over one of the high, green knobs that give the Cape Breton coast its distinctive allure -- and wins it comparisons to the Scottish Highlands -- we descended toward the even more secluded, second cove that was our destination.

Having passed not a single hiker, we were surprised when we suddenly heard heavy footfalls on the trail behind us. We turned to see bearing down on us a very large wild horse, its long tail swinging; quickly, we stepped off the trail to allow it to pass.

Minutes later, we saw why the horse was in such a rush. The trail opened onto a stunning coastal plain, a broad wave of low grass bordered by high cliffs. Beyond, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the sea that bounds Cape Breton to the west, rushed toward its meeting with the North Atlantic on the island's east. Somewhere beyond that, invisible, lay Newfoundland. A strong but warm wind blew in off the water toward the ridge behind us. And there, a hundred yards away, was the horse, gamboling in the breeze, then rolling onto its back, legs waving in the air.

We followed the horse as it continued down the plain to the cove where, as it turned out, it had an appointment -- five other horses, including a colt, awaited it. From a respectful distance, we watched as the party of six played in the sun, oblivious to our presence. By that point, the scene seemed so unreal that we would not have been surprised if the horses had sprouted unicorn horns.

But that is Nova Scotia's appeal -- such moments are very real, and they are very attainable.

We may have felt that we were at the end of the earth, but we had hiked only two hours on a manageable trail to reach it. A few hours later, we would be driving the 20 minutes back to our highly civilized inn, a large, handsome 1898 house with several parlors, private baths in most guest rooms, and a rear deck overlooking the water where we took our breakfast.

And that night, we would be dining nearby on mussels and halibut -- accompanied by Keith's, the superb Nova Scotia beer -- at Morrison's, a restaurant that, with its wide floorboards, bottle-lined walls, strong-jawed patrons and round-faced waitresses, is as honest an embodiment of rustic elegance as one can hope for.

One finds the same heady mix of foreignness and reassuring comfort all around Nova Scotia, a peninsula roughly the size of West Virginia appended to the coast of Maine and New Brunswick. On summits in Cape Breton National Park, one is more likely to find a well-kept wooden bathroom than another hiker; the equally incomprehensible Acadian French and Scot-inflected English spoken in the province give you the thrill of being abroad, yet walk into a bar and there's baseball on TV.

The province of just under a million people is more rugged than pastoral Prince Edward Island, which lies just to its north; at the same time, it is more accessible than even harsher Newfoundland, the East Coast's last stop on the way to the Arctic. Nowhere else, perhaps, can vacationers from the eastern United States travel so quickly, easily and inexpensively -- and yet feel as if they've landed very far away. Think of Nova Scotia as Maine, the premium edition: fewer tourists and outlet shops, friendlier locals, more languages, a more striking coastline and -- not to be overlooked -- the advantageous Canadian exchange rate.

Bustling Halifax

For us, as for most who arrive by plane (the province is also accessible by ferry from Maine or New Brunswick, or by road from New Brunswick), the visit began in Halifax, the province's capital and largest city. Halifax is best known for its large harbor -- it's the second largest in the world, in fact -- but it would be wrong to write it off as a gritty port town.

In fact, the city is a surprisingly cosmopolitan hub of some 350,000 (suburbs included), well stocked with a range of hotels, restaurants and shops and worth spending a couple of days in before or after touring the countryside.

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