When my mother came from Arizona to visit me in Boston two Octobers ago, my husband and I took her on some little drives in the countryside. Each time we passed a tree whose leaves had turned bright red or yellow, she would—uncharacteristically—exclaim in delight or even emit a little sigh of pleasure. We who live in New England may be more attuned than she to the imperfections in our foliage season. On peak weekends the scenic roads are likely to be as heavily trafficked as any urban freeway, rooms in cozy inns and tables at good restaurants will have been snapped up long before we thought to make plans, and prices for whatever scraps are left will be high. Even New Englanders might prefer to go leaf-peeping, as the experience is known, in Canada's Maritime Provinces. Indeed, a few New Englanders do go, and last year my husband and I were among them. We found our fellow tourists to be sparse and hotel reservations easy to come by. We found that food and lodgings cost perhaps a third less than they would have near home, for the U.S. dollar was (and is) strong. And though differences in the composition of the forests of New England and the Maritimes mean the two regions don't give the identical effect, we found that the foliage—tucked into villages or arrayed between quaint farms or splashed across hillsides—was every bit as magnificent as New England's. A red maple leaf is Canada's national symbol for good reason.
Planning a vacation around viewing foliage is, unfortunately, a bit like planning a train trip without a timetable. If you can't expect your timing to be perfect (and how can you?), it's better to be a little early than a little late—in this case because green trees are more attractive than bare branches. Curiously, a number of Canadians in the parts of the Maritimes we visited—Nova Scotia's Cabot Trail, coastal and south-central New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island —insisted that the foliage would be at its peak at their Thanksgiving time, which is our Columbus Day weekend, around October 12. I even heard this maxim last October 6, while standing on a hillside where the leaves were already the color of toast and dropping to the ground. It was a good thing these locals were wrong. Our trip had been planned for the last days of September and the first week of October by the provincial tourist boards, which served as our hosts, and it was timed just about right, give or take a few days.
If it hadn't been, or if the weather had been less agreeable than it was (on average some rain falls about one day out of three in the autumn in the Maritimes, a proportion of rainy days similar to that in New England), not all would have been lost. Visitors to this part of the world can indulge a taste for salmon fishing, fine crafts, traditional folk music, golf, whale watching, or Acadian or Scottish culture. There are impressive historical attractions, such as Nova Scotia's Fortress of Louisbourg reconstruction and, in New Brunswick, the King's Landing settlement. The birdwatching is excellent too: the region is awash in blue herons, and bald eagles are frequently seen. A well-planned foliage trip will take much the same form as a trip undertaken just to get to know the region, because leaf-peepers need destinations to look forward to during and after their forays to see the trees.
One destination I could happily visit often is the Cabot Trail, a 186-mile circular drive on Cape Breton Island, in northeastern Nova Scotia. The best-known and oldest of five scenic drives on the island, the Cabot Trail, which was laid out as a gravel road in the 1930s and was paved in its entirety by the 1960s, is spectacular in the summer, too. With its views of steep rocky headlands falling away beneath wooded hillsides, the trail reminded me of California's Highway One, only with black-and-white-painted churches instead of the Esalen Institute, and sturdy fishermen instead of Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac. (In fact Alan Arkin and Philip Glass, among other celebrities, have houses along the coast south of the trail.)
You get there by flying to Halifax and then making an hour-long hop in a smaller plane to Sydney, renting a car, and lighting out. The Cabot Trail and environs are worth devoting three or four days to. This will give you time to wait out a day or so of bad weather, if need be, and also time to do some looking around off the trail—preferably off all five of the scenic drives. As local people will tell you (and here they'll be right), some of the best foliage viewing is on dirt roads or roads that require you to double back, and no such roads were allowed to be part of the drives.
But first the Cabot Trail itself. An issue regularly deliberated is clockwise or not? Every guidebook with an opinion recommends clockwise, apparently on the theory that the cliffside portions of the route might terrify someone who has to drive in the outside lane. We went counterclockwise, and were unterrified and happy with the pace of the scenery in our direction. From Sydney we reached Keltic Lodge, in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, by midday. An old-fashioned, stately hotel high up on a spit the of land between two bays, with hundreds of small mullioned windows through which to see the handsome views, the Keltic Lodge is adjacent to a renowned golf course and has a good dining room. It is a lovely place to have lunch and take a walk down to the point to admire the blazing color or, better, to stop for a night or two.
Driving on through the park, we arrived at various oceanside beauty spots where the scenery, made up largely of evergreens, lichen-dappled rocks, and blue sea, looked just as it would have at the height of summer. A bit farther on, the primarily deciduous forest we had come to see returned. Before and after this trip I took part in a few debates about whether it's nice to have some evergreens in the forest where one is leaf-peeping. Previously I had said, Who needs them? But Canada proved to me that red, orange, and yellow trees look jauntier and brighter where they are set off with a touch of green.
Almost exactly halfway around the trail from the Keltic Lodge we turned off to thread our way through a cluster of picture-perfect villages in the Margaree Valley. Fog had settled into the hollows, lending an eerie Halloween glow to the trees. Soon we reached the Normaway Inn, a rustic sprawl of rooms and cabins reminiscent of a camp that has been in the hands of a well-to-do family for generations. Down the hall from the front desk, in the opposite direction from the pleasant restaurant, is a living room with a big fireplace, board games and card tables, comfortable sofas and chairs, and teetering stacks of magazines. The staff will bring you wine or any of half a dozen or so good Scotches as you while away the time before or after dinner. After our pleasant dinner we wandered out into the crisp night and over to the barn, where a folk band was holding forth to great acclaim.
Once the performance was over, we turned in, and how we slept—how we slept throughout our trip! In the Maritimes we slept soundly, dreamlessly, all night long, beside ocean bays, beside rivers, beside fields of woolly Highland cattle. We slept as if we had a talent for it, except at the occasional bed-and-breakfast that made us nervous. Sometimes B&B proprietors seem to think that the core of their job is not providing hospitality but doing the place up like a museum of knickknacks. Eek! There's no place to put your things, and while the owners have been focusing on appearances, they've forgotten to replace the mattress.
Nonetheless, the Maritimes are chockablock with simple, hospitable B&Bs and clean, quiet motels and cabins (some of these—beware—shut down at the end of September). An agency called Canada Select rates tourist accommodations on a five-star scale. Though it does not appear to deduct points for clutter on the tabletops, it is otherwise quite strict and accurate, so visitors will have a good idea in advance how plain or deluxe a given hostelry is. (For tourist information of all kinds about the Maritimes, call 800-565-2627.) The Keltic Lodge (902-285-2880), which is a four-star establishment, and the Normaway Inn (800-565- 9463), which has chosen to be unrated in recent years, number among the nicest places to stay on Cape Breton, and their rates for two start at, respectively, around $190 U.S. a night, including breakfast and dinner, and $80 a night, including breakfast. To seek out other special places I would begin by consulting an annual guide called Where to Eat in Canada (published in this country by the Harvard Common Press), which also lists a few favorite inns, or the widely available Fodor's Canada, which I thought gave the soundest advice of any general guidebook.
From here you could go on to discover other parts of Nova Scotia. Or you could see a bit of New Brunswick, where last year the leaves were a few days behind Cape Breton's. I would begin by flying to the old port city of Saint John and pausing for a day or so there. Saint John's historic district, which was largely built during the prosperous shipbuilding times of a century and more ago, is fun to poke around in. So is the omnibus New Brunswick Museum at Market Square, which has well-mounted displays of everything from whale skeletons to antique timbering tools to contemporary craft work. Furthermore, Saint John is home to the Reversing Falls, where, depending on the tide level in the Bay of Fundy, water rushes into or out of the Saint John River. New Brunswick has more than its share of gee-whiz attractions, such as the world's largest ax and a supposedly magnetic hill that is said to pull cars up it, against gravity. From Saint John I'd drive the sixty miles southwest to St. Andrews, and settle in for a few nights. The drive itself is pretty, combining ocean and foliage views. And St. Andrews is a very posh little seaside town: on its shopping street you'll find French faience pottery and thousand-dollar vests made in Scotland of pheasant feathers. There's a fine golf course at the Algonquin Hotel and an ambitious botanical work in progress in the Kingsbrae Horticultural Garden, which will open to the public next year. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's vacation home on Campobello Island is within reach, and out in the bay is Minister's Island, where you can tour the mansion that a century ago was the home of William Cornelius Van Horne, the builder and later the chairman of Canadian Pacific Railways. Part of the fun of an excursion to Minister's Island is that it's accessible only at low tide: you rendezvous at the end of a road and drive in convoy behind your guide across tidal flats where great blue herons, gulls, and people are busy scrounging up a seafood dinner. Within four hours or so you'd better be out of there (you will be), or else you'll have to wait half a day to return.
But all these things are really just excuses to come stay at the extraordinary Kingsbrae Arms, which when it opened last year became the first inn to receive Canada Select's five-star rating. Adjacent to the Kingsbrae Horticultural Garden, the inn's hundred-year-old building presents a severe façade of vertical gray cedar shingles and shuttered windows. But the inn has a garden of its own around back, and the interior has been decorated so avidly, so intensely, with pillows and patterns and fabrics and fringes and marble and gleaming wood, that a guest seems to have wandered into some Maritime Shangri-La, friendly Lhasa apsos and all. There's plenty of room for your things: in fact, to make sure there would be, the owners, Harry Chancey Jr. and David Oxford, commissioned mahogany armoires from a local craftsman. In the sitting room there's a bar where you can pour yourself a warming glass of sherry or what-have-you after your rambles, and upstairs there's a pantry full of complimentary snacks to raid at will. Chancey and Oxford have refined their interior-design and guest-pampering skills over almost a decade of owning and operating Centennial House, in East Hampton, New York. They and their staff cook breakfast for everyone, and elegant lunches and dinners on request. Rates at Kingsbrae Arms start at about $125 U.S. for two, including breakfast; call 506-529-1897.
Or you could visit Prince Edward Island, the most dreamlike of Canada's provinces. Now that the Confederation Bridge links PEI to the mainland (it opened this past June), the island seems ready to awaken and join the twentieth century—just in time for the twenty-first. Many residents and loyal repeat visitors are fearful of this new development, and insist they'd rather dream on. But unless you're a fan of Anne of Green Gables, or of goofy children's attractions such as a park full of miniature renditions of the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, and so on, there isn't much to do on PEI except visit the gorgeous pink-sand beaches, drive around, and gawp at the busloads of giggling young Japanese women in flounced petticoats and calico who are Anne of Green Gables fans. As the fall progresses, the beaches become less appealing—but the scenery becomes more so. The still-green fields fill up with big round bales of hay, and the vines, shrubs, and trees grow ruddy like the beaches and the fertile red-clay soil. What would draw me back to PEI, too, is a terrific inn. The Inn at Bay Fortune was established eight years ago in what had been the summer home of the late actress Colleen Dewhurst, on forty-six bucolic acres by the sea. This was once at the heart of an artists' colony, and the inn's owner, David Wilmer, hopes that one day it will be again. For now the special feature is the dining room, serving innovative food such as spice-crusted PEI bluefin tuna and roast-venison-and-emu stew. After some days in the Maritimes, where generally you'll get a good dinner as long as you order lobster, mussels, or salmon and refuse any offer of sauces, it will be obvious to you that this dining room is worth driving forty-five miles from Charlottetown to reach. Unlike most of the restaurants we visited, the Inn at Bay Fortune's was full of people—and when being someplace bustling made me happy, I realized what a long psychological distance I'd come from New England. The rooms in the inn are very sweet, with fireplaces and fires laid in them, awaiting just a match. Here rates start at about $90 a night for two, including breakfast; in season call 902-687-3745.
Then again, you could continue your trip by wending your way slowly south to New England, following the turning of the leaves. But why would you want to do that?