Day 8: St. Peter’s, Nova Scotia
A fresh sea breeze drifts in from the bay while we enjoy breakfast in camp.
We pack up the Vanagon and drive the inland route along the shores of Bras d’Or Lake nearly to Sydney, then turn south to Louisbourg.
In 1713, a fortress and fortified seaport was built here in the harbour by the French military. To guide ships and fishing boats into the safety of the harbour, a lighthouse was built across the bay in 1734. From this rocky peninsula we enjoy a commanding view of the harbour entrance, laced with treacherous shoals and rocks.
We motor to the fort visitors center, filled with engaging and informative exhibits. But this place really comes alive when the shuttle bus traces the shores of the harbour and deposits us at the gates of the fortress town.
Once a thriving community, this French settlement was captured, destroyed, and abandoned by the British between 1758 and 1768, and languished for two centuries. But in the 1960’s and 70’s, Canada embarked upon a colossal assessment, archeology, and reconstruction of the old town site. Historians, architects, and engineers directed local displaced coal miners to employ 18th-century masonry techniques to rebuild dozens of the original buildings on their locations, in some cases using the very same stones.
Today, we stroll these old streets on a warm and sunny afternoon, immersed in what was once a bustling, remote New World seaside village. We purchase a small loaf of bread from a lovely blond living-history baker girl, and walk the grounds while munching the hard, dark Old World bread which must surely contain a week’s worth of dietary fiber.
From the wharf to the tavern to the Kings Bastion and parade grounds, one can easily get lost in this sprawling open-air museum of over fifty buildings covering 12 acres. Indeed, we are surprised to learn that only about one-quarter of the original town site has been reconstructed, and the majority remains buried beneath layers of soil and centuries of time …
The shuttle bus carries us back to the 21st century, and the VW bus soon carries us to a seaside diner offering fresh seafood. This has been high on my to-do list since our departure from the upper Midwest, and now that we’re here it seems the perfect time to partake of an authentic Atlantic lobster lunch.
We take a table on the outdoor deck overlooking the harbour and the nearby commercial fishing fleet pier, and we place our orders. While we enjoy cold beers before our meal, we chat with a couple of fellow travelers at the next table from New Hampshire. Soon my lobster arrives.
I love a good surf-n-turf combo, and even we in the heartland are quite acquainted with lobster tail. But here is the whole crimson beast. He is perched almost upright on the plate, gazing upward at me rather disconcertingly, his claws awkwardly embracing a small sauce cup as if to say, “Here, I’m delicious with drawn butter. Enjoy my tender flesh!”
Off to one side are arrayed various accoutrements unfamiliar to me, and everything is set out and arranged with all the ritualistic complexity of the Chanoyu Japanese tea ceremony. There is a plastic bib and a plethora of napkins. There is a small wicker basket, presumably for fragments of exoskeleton? There is a set of tiny forks and some sort of cracking implement resembling an Irwin curved jaw locking pliers one might use to remove a rusted nut on a Vanagon clutch slave cylinder.
I struggle with my bib in the sea breeze like George W. Bush with his rain poncho at the Trump inauguration. One of our new friends at the next table helps tie it on, and wishes me well in my first full-on lobster endeavour.
I begin by tentatively turning over the charming crustacean and am puzzled when I discover a small puddle of a mysterious brown-green goo beneath him. Is this some sort of complementary sauce or garnish, or an indication of bacterial infection, or merely a harmless prank played on an unsuspecting Midwestern tourist?
I ignore this for the moment and set about extricating the engaging arthropod from his shell. I find more of the green melange inside and begin picking around it, but I remain perplexed.
“Well,” inquires one of our new friends at the next table, “how’s your lobster?”
“How should I know?” I reply, “I’m from Wisconsin, about as far from an ocean as you can get.”
In the end, I enjoy my meal immensely, and only later do I learn that the strange secretion is known as ‘tomalley.’ You can learn more about it here, and decide for yourself whether I was wise to dine around it.
We clamber back into the Westfalia and continue north a few kilometres to Main-à-Dieu, the most easterly community in Nova Scotia. There’s another small task on my to-do list, so I steer the van onto the cobble beach and down a concrete boat ramp. Lorie jumps out—whether for safety or to take photos, I do not know—and while a half dozen amused commercial fishermen watch from a nearby pier, I roll forward a couple of feet into the ocean until the seawater laps around the hubcaps.
In the last two years since removing this van from a prolonged storage and installing a new engine and rebuilt transmission, replacing the entire cooling system and half the brake system, plus countless other tasks large and small, this Vanagon has dipped its wheels first in the Pacific and now the Atlantic Ocean.
And before we return home from this trip, it will have been doused in the spray of Niagara Falls.
I savor the moment, and the countless hours of effort and the thousands of miles from one edge of the continent to the other, which has brought us here. Then, much to the disappointment of the fishermen, we back out of the water and head up the highway.
We drive the coast roads to Glace Bay and then to North Sydney, where a wrong turn nearly puts us aboard the gigantic evening ferry to Newfoundland, and what might have been an intriguing $400, 16-hour detour.
We finally roll into a small private campground at Big Bras d’Or.
Day 9: Big Bras d’Or, Nova Scotia
Under overcast skies we motor around the shores of St. Anns Harbour and join the Cabot Trail.
Named for the Venetian navigator whose 1497 visit to the North American coast is often believed to have been the first European exploration of the mainland of North America since the Vikings, the auto route now encircles most of Cape Breton Island. Generally hugging the coast for much of the route, the 300 kilometre (190 mile) Trail offers spectacular ocean views, and traverses the steep hills of Cape Breton Island.
As so often, I have opted to drive the Trail in a counterclockwise fashion, in order to afford Lorie the best views and photo opportunities from the Vanagon’s passenger seat.
We head up along the southeastern shore of the island, puttering our way up the first long steep climb to Cape Smokey. Though cloudy today, the lookout here offers commanding views of the high and dramatic cliffs falling down into the sea, and reminds us of the rugged western shore of Ireland.
We pass through a succession of small fishing villages and finally enter the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
The first in Canada’s Maritimes, the national park encompasses over a quarter-million acres of perhaps the most dramatically scenic portion of the island, with broad high plateaus which drop off steeply into deep river cuts or the surrounding Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of St. Lawrence.
We stop for lunch at the Coastal Restaurant in Ingonish. Lorie spies poutine on the menu, the renowned Canadian specialty made of French Fries (or sometimes cheese curds) topped with a light brown gravy. We’ve already munched on the poutine-flavoured chips while driving, but here’s our chance to try the real thing. She asks our server if it’s good.
“Well,” he considers for a moment, “it’s probably not good for you. But it is good.”
After consuming the entire plate with our sandwiches, we can agree on both counts.
When we leave we find two couples lingering near the Westfalia in the parking lot. Turns out they’re traveling in a 90’s VW EuroVan Westfalia parked nearby and a large pickup camper, and are from our neighboring state of Minnesota. We chat and swap stories and suggestions from the region, and finally bid farewell.
The next 20 miles (or, as they say up here in Canada, 32 kilometres) is the most beautiful coastal driving we’ve enjoyed so far, the smooth curving highway tracing the dramatic rocky shore northward.
Down a side road we find the Hide Away Campground and Oyster Market, and take a camp site perched on a high bluff overlooking North Harbour near Dingwall. After dinner we take a couple of cold bottles of beer across the way and watch the clouds play around the heights of Cape North.
Day 10: Dingwall, Nova Scotia
We wake to a cold and blustery morning, and enjoy a hot breakfast in the Westfalia before heading out and continuing north.
At the small village of Cape North we stop to visit the North Highlands Community Museum.
Though small, the museum boasts excellent historical exhibits on the human inhabitants of Cape Breton, from the first aboriginal settlements through the arrival of Europeans, to those who live here today. In our brief visit here, we take in more culture about Cape Breton’s fishing families, lighthouses, shipwrecks, farms, and mines than we’ve learned anywhere else on this trip, and we go away with a richer understanding of the people who live in this remote, beautiful, and sometimes harsh place.
The skies begin to clear as we drive a winding gravel road, the northernmost road on the island, until it peters out at Meat Cove. Rare in this place of rugged terrain and steep cliffs, Meat Cove Campground is a flat and broad expanse of grass perched above the crashing waves. We choose a campsite and pop the Westfalia top, then stroll up to the chowder hut to enjoy fish-and-chips at the outdoor tables.
Gazing along the mountainous and jagged north coast of the island, to Black Point, Cape North, and the distant St. Paul’s Island, I cannot recall another meal in such a picturesque setting …
It seems this somewhat remote spot attracts a rather hardy and varied traveller: we share the rustic campground with an older couple from Ontario sleeping in the back of their pickup, college kids in rental cars, retirees in sleek Sprinter RVs, and a couple of seasoned Germans touring on a pair of mud-spattered vintage BMW R100 motorcycles. There are even a couple of other Westfalias camped near the cliff edge.
Day 11: Meat Cove, Nova Scotia
I rise at 5:45 a.m. to witness one of the earliest sunrises on the North American mainland each day. A few other campers are up too, sipping coffee and gazing around blearily, and a quiet excitement pervades our little campground as the eastern sky lightens and the sun finally breaks the horizon with an almost audible flourish …
Lorie and I quickly break camp and motor back out to the pavement of the Cabot Trail, continuing our circle tour of the island.
This stretch of highway from Cape North to Pleasant Bay traverses the most rugged and mountainous part of Cape Breton Island, tracing the Aspy River up a picturesque gorge formed by a deep tectonic fault. It is days like this that we appreciate the broad vistas and visibility offered by the wide Vanagon windshield.
We descend the Highlands and rejoin the rugged shore, and when we pause at a roadside scenic overlook we again meet the Minnesota folks in the Eurovan. Like us, they’ve been quite keen for a whale-watching boat tour. One woman tells us that when she called a tour operator in nearby Cheticamp she was told that no reservations were needed. But when they all showed up at the dock for their tour, they were informed that the boat was full and there was no room for them.
To add to her disappointment, today—and the next several days in fact—high winds and waves have indefinitely cancelled all whale-watching tours …
When we arrive in Cheticamp, Lorie shops in a small grocery store to replenish our victuals. I sit in the Vanagon with the windows down to enjoy a harbour breeze and to peruse our maps. As other customers come and go in the parking lot, I catch snippets of a foreign tongue which I soon identify as Acadian French. To my ears, their neighborly greetings and friendly chatter sound more melodic than the French we heard in Quebec, and evoke memories of our visits to their distant cousins’ Cajun country of New Orleans, Louisiana.
Highway 19 plays tag with the coastline, sometimes closely skirting the shore and sometimes traversing deep in the woods, and we soon enter a region settled largely by Scottish immigrants. The landscape is reminiscent of that green and moist country; indeed, the name Nova Scotia means New Scotland.
We stop at the much-extolled Glenora Distillery for a tour and perhaps some gifts for friends at home, but we are surprised to find their prices … um, unbecoming a thrifty Scot. On the day of our visit it seems their gift store is out of stock of their more affordable whiskies, and offers only their top-shelf limited-edition specialty bottlings. I ogle the amber ambrosia, but for the same cost as I usually enjoy a bottle of authentic single-malt Scotch whisky (ya know, made in Scotland), here one can barely purchase an imprinted polo shirt …
I have no doubt my cat-sitter would be suitably impressed by a $350 bottle of the esteemed single-malt but we move on, pausing only long enough for a photo of the Vanagon beneath the distillery’s entry archway, which garners us glares from the driver of a passing Mercedes.
As we proceed southward to complete our circumnavigation of Cape Breton Island, I helpfully announce our arrival in each new town in my best Sean Connery brogue:
Lorie only rolls her eyes and turns the stereo louder.
We motor across the causeway and turn east, hugging the twisting coastal road to Fox Island, and find a quiet site in an RV park overlooking Chedabucto Bay. The lights of Port Hawkesbury twinkle across the Straits of Canso.
Day 12: Fox Island, Nova Scotia
We drive southwest along the Marine Drive through a series of tiny fishing villages: Port Felix, Charlos Cove, Larry’s River, Seal Harbour, and others.
Contrary to the name, the Marine Drive does not in fact trace the sea coast. Due to the very rugged and rocky nature of this region, the road instead follows a winding route several kilometres inland, only periodically emerging from the dense forest and cutover scrubland to a bay or a river mouth, with a sleepy fishing village now in long decline due to big-haul industrial fishing.
To make matters worse, the condition of the pavement is possibly some of the worst we’ve seen so far (except perhaps for the aforementioned Montreal expressways). Rough, rutted, broken—even the vast stretches of compound potholes are only patched with slightly shallower potholes …
With roads like these one wonders how these small remote communities even came to be, until one realizes that the villages probably sprang up long before there were roads. They were instead for a long time connected only by the fishing boats and the ships plying the coast, carrying people and freight from village to village. Only later were these roads carved out from the rough granite landscape.
The road improves only when it finally ends—and I do mean “ends”—at the landing for the Country Harbour ferry. We trundle aboard for the one-kilometre crossing, the deck man chatting with us about old VWs, commercial fishing, and informing us that the ten-minute ferry ride saves us over an hour of driving the inland route.
The pavement which awaits us on the south shore of the harbour is indeed much better: new, smooth, and making for proper driving on an enjoyable and scenic route. We stop at Beanie’s Bistro in Sherbrooke for fantastic paninis (and free Wi-Fi), then refill the diesel and drive to a campground at Murphy Cove.
In addition to the typical tidy RV park, Murphy’s Camping also offers several secluded tent sites, and we select one tucked away at the back end of the short loop, completely unoccupied on the day of our visit.
After a frustrating day on bad roads, guided by a recalcitrant and unreliable GPS unit, hunched over the Vanagon steering wheel intently dodging cavernous potholes, well … Papa needs a beer.
Later, after dinner we enjoy a crackling campfire while the moon drifts in and out of the scattered clouds, glittering on the calm Atlantic waters of the cove just below our campsite …
Day 13: Murphy Cove, Nova Scotia
Considering yesterday’s hectic driving experience, we decide to forego our planned drive along the twisty and reportedly quite scenic southern Lighthouse Coast today, and instead opt for a simpler and more direct route. On wide smooth motorways we swoop along at speeds which seem positively hypersonic, from Tangier through metropolitan Halifax and beyond.
In Bridgewater we stop for lunch, and take a sunny table on the back deck overlooking the namesake river at the River Pub.
At a nearby table we overhear several other diners discussing the upcoming 2016 US presidential election south of the border. They’ve no doubt heard the reports of some disconcerted Americans planning to seek political asylum in Canada should things go sideways.
“Before they come up here they should know what they’re getting themselves into,” one of them declares. “Those Americans should have to spend the winter on Cape Breton Island. Whoever survives until Spring is welcome to stay!”
Everyone has a good laugh, including us, though we may not be chuckling on November 9.
Back in the Vanagon, we cruise up and over the southern peninsula, through Kejimkujik National Park, and finally descend into Digby, Nova Scotia.
It’s near dinner time, so we stroll the front street overlooking the bay in search of a good restaurant. There’s a general family-style diner, a pizza joint, and the House of Wong, offering something called Canadian-Chinese food.
“That’s just Wong …” Lorie declares.
Digby is of course famous for its scallop fishing fleet, so we finally select a seafood restaurant and enjoy a sampler platter of fresh clams, shrimp, scallops, and other delicacies from the Bay of Fundy.
Afterwards, we take a nice room at the Admiral Digby Inn and enjoy drinks on the balcony overlooking the Annapolis Basin.
Day 14: Digby, Nova Scotia
After an early breakfast, we jump in the Vanagon and drive southwest along the narrow peninsula of Digby Neck separating St. Marys Bay from the Bay of Fundy. When we run out of road we board the East Ferry and cross to Long Island, then drive its length to Freeport. Another ferry carries us across to Brier Island.
Rolling off the ramps and onto this island of islands, way out here at land’s end, we feel as though we’ve entered another place and time. The island is home to only about 200 inhabitants, most working in the commercial fishing industry. At less than 15 square kilometres, virtually surrounded by the sea and often shrouded in fog, it can be a confining place, and at least one young lad who grew up here longed to see more of the world.
A lot more.
Joshua Slocum lived on Brier Island, working in his father’s shop making shoes and boots for local fishermen. But in 1860 at age sixteen, Joshua ran away from home to work on a variety of ships. He sailed to Europe, South America, Asia, and more, rounding Cape Horn twice before age eighteen. Slocum exhibited a knack for sailing and soon took command of a succession of large sail ships, enjoying a life of adventure at sea.
But at age 51, his wanderlust still unsatisfied, he set out from Boston on the first solo journey around the world, in a rebuilt eleven-meter sloop oyster sailboat, the Spray.
“I had resolved on a voyage around the world, and as the wind on the morning of April 24, 1895 was fair … the sloop shot ahead under full sail. … A thrilling pulse beat high in me. My step was light on deck in the crisp air. I felt there could be no turning back, and that I was engaging in an adventure the meaning of which I thoroughly understood.”
Spoiler Alert: he made it.
Having solo-sailed a distance of more than 74,000 km (46,000 miles) in just over three years, he sailed the Spray into the harbour at Newport, Rhode Island. He chronicled his adventures in a memoir, Sailing Alone Around the World, about which one reviewer raved, “Boys who do not like this book ought to be drowned at once.”
After paying our respects at the modest memorial to Slocum and his epic voyage, we drive out to the Brier Island Lighthouse. The westernmost lighthouse in all of Nova Scotia, the light is perched on a raw and rocky ledge with a commanding view of the Bay of Fundy. Adjacent to the lighthouse grounds is a 1200-acre reserve managed by the Nature Conservancy, with trails threading the bogs and wetlands that are havens for migrating birds.
We return to the tiny village of Westport and board a boat for a whale-watching tour with Brier Island Whale Watch. We motor through the Grand Passage and out onto the open Bay, cruising west for several kilometres.
The engaging onboard naturalists provide helpful background information on the marine life of the Bay of Fundy, and tell us that a portion of all profits from the boat tours goes to support further whale research.
Soon someone shouts, “There she blows,” and we all turn to see the telltale spout of an exhaling whale, the lingering vapor silhouetted against the afternoon sun. The boat veers sharply and carefully approaches the pod of marine mammals, then slows to a crawl.
Another humpback breaks the surface nearby and spouts, almost immediately followed by a smaller whale beside her, who exhales a baby-sized spout. The crowd goes wild.
During the warmer months these waters are inhabited by hundreds of female humpbacks escorting their yearling calves. They have been living and grazing here all summer, feeding on the abundant krill, squid, herring, pollock and mackerel found in the Bay of Fundy, growing fat and fit for their upcoming journey to the Gulf of Mexico, where they will spend the winter.
Over the next couple of hours we see perhaps 12 or 15 adult whales, many with their offspring, all just cruising about, rolling and splashing with their flippers and generally reveling in these final days of summer.
The boat chugs along the western side of the island and we now get a view of the Brier Island Lighthouse from the water. Lounging on the rocks at the south entrance to the Grand Passage are hundreds of seals, while bald eagles watch from above.
As the sun sets and the tide turns, we motor back into the inner harbour and ease up against the pier.
Lorie and I drive the Vanagon onto the returning ferry, then race the length of Long Island to catch the next ferry on the half-hour. But in my rush I miss the final turn and go rocketing up into what soon narrows to a private roadway. Realizing my mistake, I quickly stop and turn around, only to see the ferry raising its boarding ramps and shoving off.
At least we’ll be the first in line for the next ferry …
We finally make it back to Digby, where we enjoy a Recardo’s Pizza as a full moon rises over Digby Harbour.