I was lucky on my first trip to Canada to be shown a few hidden gems, some way off the usual tourist trail, by some of the husband’s old friends who live there. We spent an incredible 2 weeks travelling around the coastline of Nova Scotia. Not currently a massive tourism hotspot, that looks set to change with the release of new film Maud which is set in this stunning landscape – so if you want to get in ahead of the crowds book now!The Hollywood film tells the tale of Maud Lewis, an inspirational painter whose child-like pictures, drawn on every inch of her tiny seaside cottage and sold for pocket money on the roadside, eventually came to world-wide acclaim. It’s easy to see where her inspiration came from as you journey round the picturesque bays, coves and forests of the island – and it seems many others have been similarly inspired judging by the huge number of art galleries we passed on our travels.
The usual tourist trips are really lovely. We did some stunning hikes along the dramatic coastal Cabot Trail at Cape Breton, loved the Louisberg fortress reconstruction complete with actors and canon fire, and spent a relaxing sunny day exploring Kejimkujik National Park lakes and beaches (all national parks and tourist attractions are free this year to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday!). But the most memorable things we did were the ones locals told us about, not the guide books…
So here are my top 5 unusual and amazing ‘off the beaten track’ things to do in Nova Scotia, Canada:
The Bay of Fundy is world famous for its huge tidal range – as the sea funnels in and out it can rise and fall by a spectacular 16 metres. In certain areas known (and kept secret) by some (slightly crazy) locals, the retreating tide leaves rolling dunes of chocolate-coloured, mineral-rich, tingly, warm, soft mud – pure and ready to roll in. Think spa treatment mixed with water park. Stripped to our undercrackers we spent a good hour shooting down hills on our bellies, wading up to our thighs and wallowing in shallow pools. For over a week afterwards my legs felt softer than I ever thought possible.
When we were invited by a friend to strip and roll around in mud, we thought it was either strange Canadian humour or an organised activity with designated sliding areas. It was neither. Due to the danger of the tides this is something that can only be done with someone local who knows the sea there like the back of their hand, and where to find the best mud, uncontaminated by debris. Not only was it one of the most ridiculously memorable experiences of my life, I’ve now booked into a local spa for a mud treatment after realising the benefits!
The Cabot Trail is a scenic round-trip drive of about 6 hours. With lots of stops for hiking trails, beaches and coves you can take it in in one day or several. The Skyline Trail is the most famous pit stop with a boardwalk stretching down to a viewing platform perfect for a sunset picnic overlooking the sea and the craggy coastline. But venture slightly off the tourist trail at the top of the loop and take the road, then the dirt track, up to Meat Cove for a more unique experience.
Pitch a tent on the cliff’s edge for the best wake-up view right from your bed. There’s a lovely restaurant at the campground, kayak and paddle board rental and lots of biking and hiking trails to explore. With fire pits, BBQ areas and a bar, there’s a real community feel and it’s easy to make friends. Chill on the beach below, swim and jump of the rocks jutting out of the sea. It’s right on the half way point of the Cabot Trail so the perfect place to stay overnight between adventures.
With so many sheltered coves and bays, Nova Scotia is the perfect place to paddle. We brought our own inflatable kayak and launched at the bottom of Prospect, near East Coast Outfitters – the only kayak guiding and hire place based there. Other than a couple of their groups, we didn’t see anyone – except a group of 3 locals from Halifax sporting expert sea kayaks, who told us they come to paddle in this quiet, hidden gem backwater 3 times a week. We could definitely see why. The water is so clear, the seaweed such a pretty yellow colour, the little islands such fun to explore, the colourful homes dotted about the shore so quaint. We pulled up to sunbathe on the rocks and dive into the water near where some yachts had moored for shelter, and could have spent every morning like this.
Back on land, stretch your legs on the lovely hike at nearby Sandy Cove, Terence Bay. We jogged a loop and it was a joy, jumping onto rocks, and tip toe-ing single tracks through the bushes – it was like we were the first to discover it. Our loop ended at the moving memorial to the hundreds of people lost when the SS Atlantic Steam Ship went down there in 1873 – the worst sinking prior to the Titanic. A boardwalk takes you along the coast to a lovely park with lots of inscribed benches (presumably for memorial ceremonies) and a pavilion. There’s also a museum and monument.
Dinner and Dancing at The Shore Club, Hubbards
Stride up the painted lobster ‘red carpet’ and straight back in time in this art deco-style venue labelled ‘Nova Scotia’s Last Great Dance Hall’. Set at the end of a stunning bay strewn with harbours, beaches and pretty houses, the club is decorated in bright colours that tell you fun WILL be had by all that enter.
First we had the lobster supper, which we’d been assured was one of the best around. The small lobster costs around 35 dollars, comes with unlimited salad and mussels, and all was delicious. Tables are picnic bench style and you’re seated together with fellow diners in true friendly Canadian style so that a festival vibe is already in the air by dessert. After eating you wait outside while staff turn the hall from dining room to dance floor. A little walk and a drink on the nearby beach is exactly what you need anyway after all that food. When we returned to the club there were queues to get in and the place was already pumping. A band reminiscent of Chic, complete with soul singers and a brass section, were tearing up the stage and EVERYONE was dancing their heart out to their favourite covers. The place was packed with people aged 8 to 80, bikers to townies, gangstas to grannies, having the time of their lives. It was such a fun and uplifting atmosphere we stayed dancing and chatting until 2am.
Just a 15 minute drive from picturesque yachting town Chester and 20 minutes out of the main city of Halifax, this is an experience not to be missed. Live music and dancing is usually held every Saturday in summer. We stayed at the Halifax Backpacker’s Hostel, less than a 10 minute drive away. It was great value and the boys running the place were really friendly – they even took us out for breakfast!
The whole community turns out for the Wednesday afternoon races followed by drinks and snacks in the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron club house. The best way to get in on all the excitement of course is by boat and we were thrilled when a friend offered to take us out to the start line. With a glass of wine in hand we watched the sails scudding along, and cheered on the crews during the burst of activity on deck as they turn around the buoy so close together they’re almost touching. Even for someone who knows nothing about sailing it was exciting. The icing on the cake was checking out all the luxury pads lining the harbour on the way back in, and picking out which one would best suit us and our future yacht. Well, we can dream.