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.

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.