Nova Scotia, Mon Amour

The province's quirks and inaccessibility are its very charms

My wife would have you visit Halifax; I am not so sure. I do love the grass-covered old fortress, the Citadel, but I love the grassy old battleworks in Annapolis Royal, 120 miles to the west, much more. (And be sure to check out the eye-popping Annapolis Royal Historical Gardens.) Halifax bills itself as "a hot spot"—"Exciting. Eclectic. Romantic"—and perhaps it is all of those things. It was the Halifax-based Salter Street Films that produced the hilarious television shorts "Talking to Americans," which cruelly mocked Americans' wild ignorance of events above the 49th Parallel. In one episode a staffer asked Columbia students and professors to sign a petition urging Canadians to discontinue the practice of abandoning the elderly on ice floes. Many did.

I do admit to having wonderful memories of Halifax. One night, while my mother and I were attending the Atlantic Film Festival—think Cannes, but smaller and colder—a driver parked directly athwart our parking space, so we couldn't get out. A hearty band of inebriates streamed out of the local pub, lifted the offending automobile, and dumped it in the middle of the street. Halifax entered my family's mythology when we learned that a server at a local Tim Horton's—think Dunkin' Donuts, but a hundred times better—had been selling marijuana in bags of doughnut holes, called Timbits. If you asked for fifteen Timbits instead of the customary twenty, you got dope. After the bust my sons and I kept asking for "fifteen Timbits," to no avail. Canada-philes will not be surprised to learn that the accused never spent a night in jail.

Tourism authorities would insist that you visit the painfully quaint town of Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It leaves me cold. There you can tour an old-fashioned fishing vessel called the Theresa E. Connor. That takes about twelve minutes. Of the Atlantic Fisheries Museum—need we say more? If you know your Canadian art history, you know that Lunenburg's Houston North Gallery was founded by James Houston, the Toronto artist who taught the Inuit—a "First Nations" people, in Canadaspeak—how to earn money carving little slouch-shouldered polar bears out of dolomite and soapstone. That's a must-visit for anyone fascinated by Eskimo art, which I am not.

For my family Lunenburg's main attraction has always been the Subway restaurant and proximity to the beautiful "town of three churches," Mahone Bay. In the continuing interest of time-killing I have attended the Wooden Boat Festival at Mahone Bay five times in the past eight years, and I neither own nor have much interest in wooden boats.

Any jackass can kick down a barn, as Bill Clinton used to say about naysayers. So what should you do in Nova Scotia? The Cabot Trail, around Cape Breton Island, is unspeakably beautiful. On your way there, be sure to taste those sweet Bras d'Or waters, and don't miss the Alexander Graham Bell Museum, near the beginning of the trail, where Canada boldly takes credit for the Bostonian's invention of the telephone. You must visit Louisburg, the restored eighteenth-century French fortress on the right claw of the lobster-shaped province. At the tail end of the province Francophone Acadian culture lives on in the dreary Pubnicos (Upper West, Middle West, Lower West), where I have stayed. The food there is terrible. But my family's favorite Nova Scotia restaurant—the Quarterdeck, in Summerville—is only a half hour away. And don't miss the opportunity to see seals gamboling in the frigid Atlantic waters off the Seaside Adjunct of the Kejimkujik National Park.

In summary: Yes to Annapolis Royal, with that citadel and those gardens; yes to Wolfville, with its famous Acadia University and the theater festival I plan one day to attend; yes to biking on the flat terrain everywhere in the province; and yes to picnicking at the wonderful provincial seaside parks that crop up every ten miles or so. Yes to visiting Tancook Island, once the throbbing center of Nova Scotia's sauerkraut production. Yes even to the two terribly sad Swissair Flight 111 memorials bracketing St. Margaret's Bay, and to the graves of Titanic victims in Halifax's Fairview Cemetery, which are laid out in the shape of a broken hull.

Randy Brooks tells me that Nova Scotia has stopped billing itself as "hard to get to." "In general, I think we're accessible," he says. Of course, his interests and mine are opposed. He wants thousands of tourists to flock to the province. As for me, it is a treasure I would prefer to keep to myself.

Alex Beam is a columnist for The Boston Globe.
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