Canada sprawls impressively across the upper tier of the North American continent with patchy expanses that reach into the Arctic. Below, densely populated urban areas give way to what appears to be forbidding emptiness, with gigantic Hudson Bay punching a hole in the middle. Tucked cozily into the southeast corner lie the country’s Maritime Provinces.
They are well-named. In a trip to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and a brief foray into New Brunswick, I was never far from water, significant water — the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Northumberland Strait and the clear, green, delightfully cold Atlantic.
The bus tour I had signed up for made a swing from the Halifax airport up to the Bay of Fundy, across Prince Edward Island over to Cape Breton for a run up the Cabot Trail, then down to Baddeck and the Fortress of Louisburg. It concluded with two days in Halifax itself.
The last bus tour I took consisted of 14 couples and me, the lone single senior. People were kind and pleasant, but tended to stick to their couple groups. This trip was different. Of the approximately 48 passengers, most were couples, but there was also three other single women, two single men and two teens. This combination created a much livelier atmosphere.
As an older single woman, it was natural for me to socialize with everyone. At meals, I might sit with a couple or two, or perhaps another single woman, the mom with two teens, or my seat mate, a single man. I saw my single status as having distinct advantages — and it was fun.
The Bay of Fundy’s tides are the highest on Earth. Twice each day, one hundred billion tons of water flow into the bay, overpowering its rivers and changing their direction. The roiling, white capped, brownish flow is visible from New Brunswick’s Hopewell Rocks observation platform. A vivid description provided by rangers, assisted by sophisticated audio-visual equipment, also is effective. The Bay of Fundy belongs on every travel geek’s bucket list.
The pristine farms and fields of Prince Edward Island, as well as the “Anne of Green Gables” house itself, make L.M. Montgomery’s beloved books come alive. In the evening, our group feasted on the island’s famous lobsters, mussels and blueberry pie, the last two placed on a constantly replenished bar, allowing for second (and third) helpings.
After a ferry ride across the Northumberland Strait, where only a few braved the fog, mist and wind that plastered us against the wall of the top deck, we reached Cape Breton Island and went on to the tiny town of Cheticamp.
In this windblown village, Acadian culture is kept alive, not least in the memories of the descendants of those who, during the French and Indian War (1754-63) when the British expelled thousands of French Canadians from the Maritime Provinces, managed to stay put. The Great Upheaval was immortalized in Longfellow’s “Evangeline.”
In Cheticamp, we ate French meat pie, visited its famous hook rugging center and, most mesmerizingly, listened to heartbreaking Acadian songs rendered by silver-haired, throaty Sylvia LaLievre. Cheticamp was one of the surprises and high points of the trip.
Another was the still very active effort to preserve Gaelic traditions and language, as evidenced by St. Ann’s College, where we caught sight of students wandering around the campus in kilts.
A partial foray onto the Cabot Trail and a ride across Cape Breton to the Atlantic took us finally to the coastal town of Baddeck, where we visited the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site and sailed part of the magnificent Bras d’Or Lake system.
We also attended a “ceilidh” (pronounced “kay-lee") in a tiny church hall, a time-honored Scottish gathering at which we listened to exquisite fiddle and bagpipe playing, watched step dancing and enjoyed oat cakes and the strong hot tea that is as ubiquitous in the Canadian Maritimes as it is in the United Kingdom.
We completed our trip in Halifax itself, with its large harbor and steep hills. After being out in the countryside a good bit, it was invigorating to wander along the city’s busy pier and graceful streets. Once again, what stuck in the mind was not necessarily at the top of anyone’s list of tourist sites.
We had already heard quite a lot about the great explosion of 1917, when a Norwegian vessel collided with a French munitions ship. We had heard less about Halifax’s role following the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. It was the city of Halifax that sent boats containing ice, undertakers and clergy to perform the grim task of recovering bodies. Ultimately, over 300 were identified, many of whom were buried in Halifax.
Our tour guide took us to the Fairview Lawn Cemetery, a section of which contains Titanic victims, their grave sites marked with numbers that reflect the order in which they were taken out of the water. The stones are laid out in a bow pattern to reflect the shape of the liner with an opening at the top where the iceberg would have hit, a poignant, if slightly bizarre touch. It was difficult not to cry. Many did.
Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are a satisfying mix of cozy villages, modest towns and breathtakingly dramatic scenery. Dreamy and full of the unexpected, it is a perfect escape.