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.