Nova Scotia, Mon Amour

The province's quirks and inaccessibility are its very charms

My beloved Nova Scotia adopted a new travel slogan last spring: "There's a reason great places are a little hard to get to." Truer than ever! One of the two main ferry links from the United States has discontinued service. Last summer, at the height of the tourist season, the Halifax International Airport opted to modernize its runways, taking the airport's instrument-landing equipment offline for almost a month.

So now the province can be really hard to get to, requiring, say, a fifteen-hour drive from New York City, or trips to Bar Harbor or Portland, Maine, for the only remaining ferry service from the United States. An even more cumbersome option requires a stay in St.John, New Brunswick (site of what looks like the world's largest oil-tank farm), and then a ferry to Digby, across the Bay of Fundy. Predictably, tourism from the United States to Nova Scotia declined in 2005—and not for the first time.

The province has always had trouble selling itself. Last November, at an Atlantic Maritime tourism seminar in Boston, the kilt-clad media-relations manager Randy Brooks admitted to a roomful of travel writers, "We've found that lighthouses and lobsters don't sell down here." Instead I see the province promoting "bouldering"—think rock-climbing, but smaller—and such oddball fare as the Festival of Extraordinary Teapots. The highlight of the tourism shindig was a PR woman's assertion that Prince Edward Island is "sort of like Hawaii." Both P.E.I. and Hawaii are islands, she noted, and both offer golf. Yes, and Fanny Hill is a lot like the Book of Ruth.

I have spent more time in Nova Scotia than I like to admit. I went to summer camp near Digby for four years, and I have returned again and again for summer visits to a home my grandfather bought just after World War I. Nova Scotia is one of those places where there isn't much to do, so what you can do you do to excess. For instance, my family has visited Ross Farm, "Nova Scotia's Living Museum of Agriculture," at least five times. Think Plimoth Plantation, but much, much smaller. We have seen the instructional videos so often that my wife and I are confident we could weave our own flax if necessary, just as the Rosses did. Hard up for thrills one night in a motel near Truro, we rose at 4:00 a.m., leaving a tiny baby asleep in our room, just to watch the surging tide of the Bay of Fundy rush up the Shubenacadie River. This phenomenon is known as a tidal bore; the predictable wordplay ensued.

One does scramble for things to do, especially on rainy or foggy days, which thanks to global warming are fewer and fewer each summer. Of course, "warming" is a relative term in Nova Scotia. Ever since I was ten years old I've heard endless prattle about the warming waters of the Gulf Stream, which supposedly caress a portion of the Nova Scotia coast. Randy Brooks spoke to the travel writers in Boston of "the warmest water north of the Virginias." I assume he was referring to some plutocrat's swimming pool. I've swum in the Atlantic, the Bay of Fundy, St.Margaret's Bay, and plenty of tributaries in between, and here is all you need to know: BRRRRR! The many inland lakes are swimmable at the peak of summer; the ocean is not. But a portion of it is drinkable: I have never forgotten the taste of Bras d'Or water on my lips. The Bras d'Or, a vast, gorgeous sailing lake favored by rich Americans (for example, the Grosvenors), has two narrow outlets on the North Atlantic. But the water tastes sweet, not brackish; don't ask me why.

In the category of memorable time-fillers, I once drove my family, including a severely disapproving mother, several hundred miles to Great Village, just because the poet Elizabeth Bishop had lived there as a young girl. A poet I met on the fantail of the old, slow ferry had told me that several of Bishop's poems—"Sandpiper" ("The beach hisses like fat"), "The Moose" ("home of the long tides/where the bay leaves the sea"), and of course "First Death in Nova Scotia" ("In the cold, cold parlor/my mother laid out Arthur")—have Nova Scotia roots. "Great Village" is a misnomer: there is nothing at all in the place except a jumbly general store whose proprietor sold me a picture of Bishop's home as it looked when she lived there. I was the second person in three years to have made the pilgrimage.

Today Nova Scotia boasts a modest literary scene. Like Bishop's childhood village, the great Nova Scotia novel—Barometer Rising, by Hugh MacLennan—isn't really so great. It's a historical thriller set in 1917, when a freighter carrying half a million pounds of TNT blew up in Halifax Harbor. The Big Bang sits at the heart of event-starved Nova Scotia's literary universe (yes, I know all about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Evangeline" and the expulsion of the Acadians). Robert MacNeil, formerly of PBS's MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, wrote a novel ("earnest, traditional"—Publishers Weekly) featuring the explosion, and just now Laura MacDonald is promoting her 350-page nonfiction narrative Curse of The Narrows: The Halifax Disaster of 1917 ("excessive detail and flat prose"—Publishers Weekly). The best book featuring Halifax is Anthony Hyde's globe-trotting thriller-diller masterpiece, The Red Fox. Alistair MacLeod's excellent No Great Mischief likewise sprawls across Ontario and Quebec as well as Nova Scotia.

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Alex Beam is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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