The hidden depths of Atlantic Canada

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Beneath the handsome lighthouses, sweet fishing villages and multicoloured forests of Atlantic Canada lies a wild history of pirates, ghosts and shipwrecks. In this extract from Lonely Planet Magazine, travel expert Christa Larwood guides you through the region's stormiest sights.

Cape Race

The headland of Cape Race juts out into the Atlantic like a determined chin. Giant waves hurl themselves at its black volcanic sides, spraying water hundreds of feet in the air. This cape on the far southeastern edge of Newfoundland is a forgotten corner of the world, home to just two lighthouse keepers and an itinerant family of harbour seals. Yet less than 100 years ago, this was one of the most important places in the Western world, where the famous Cape Race telegraph station relayed breaking news and messages between Europe and New York via an ingenious system of undersea cables. On the evening of 14 April 1912, the station received the radio transmission ‘CQD MGY’. A ship was in serious trouble out on the frigid North Atlantic waters, and there was no mistaking which one - MGY was the unique call sign of the magnificent RMS Titanic.

The tragic sinking has resonated down the years, but while the Titanic was the most famous vessel to founder off the Newfoundland coast, this area - with its sharp rocks, treacherous icebergs and heavy seas that can tear a ship apart - is known as ‘the Graveyard of the Atlantic’. Thousands of sunken vessels litter the seabeds of the whole region, stretching across to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick - evidence of an extraordinary history of maritime disasters, filled with tales of brave fishermen, wily smugglers and bloodstained privateers.

The jagged rocks at the Newfoundland coast can tear a ship apart. Photograph by Justin Foulkes

Related article: Coves, cliffs and lighthouses of Canada's epic east coast

Trepassey

Trepassey is now a quiet seaside town where holidaymakers come to paddle in the dark aquamarine water, and it’s unlikely that those walking along its black, stony foreshore would know of its place in pirating lore. In 1729, the dread pirate Black Bart, known for his natty clothes and plumed scarlet hat, arrived in the bay here, plundering and burning 21 merchant ships in the village harbour before setting sail for the West Indies. Bloodthirsty brigands such as William Kidd and Henry Morgan are also known to have terrorised ships on these waters, and may have left a greater legacy than a few sunken shipwrecks.

The idyllic lighthouse setting belies a past of shipwrecks and heroism. Photograph by Justin Foulkes

New Brunswick

To the west of Newfoundland is New Brunswick, where great forests of maples, poplars and larches are busy turning bright shades of red, gold and fuchsia in the chilling air. On the province’s eastern flank, a broad river - the mighty Miramichi - empties into the sea, and it’s here that US presidents, visiting dignitaries and Hollywood stars like Jack Nicholson regularly come for a bit of peace and quiet. They stand up to their thighs in water and cast rods in the tree-dappled sunlight, hoping to catch one of the salmon that the river is famous for - so large, locals say, that the fish will gobble up squirrels that fall into the water. The river flows into the broad, flat Miramichi Bay, which is sheltered from the wider Gulf of Saint Lawrence by a string of low-lying islands. Water laps gently against the shore; there is barely a breeze. It’s a far cry from the foggy, wild coasts of Newfoundland, but even here, stories of man’s struggle with the sea pervade. This area bears the legacy of one of Canada’s worst maritime disasters when, in 1959, a hurricane swept in and destroyed much of the local salmon-fishing fleet.

Autumn colours sweep across New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Photograph by Justin Foulkes

Hopewell Rocks

100 miles or so to the south, where the lower edge of New Brunswick meets the Bay of Fundy, the colossal power of these seas is demonstrated as regular as clockwork. Groups of chatty walkers make a clanging noise as they descend the metal stairs to reach Hopewell Rocks, a motley collection of sandstone outcrops on a muddy beach against a high, green-fringed cliff. These have each been sculpted into shape over aeons by a twice-daily rush of 100 billion tonnes of water flooding into the bay - enough to overflow the Grand Canyon. As the sky darkens into dusk, the tide begins its advance and visitors are ushered up the stairs by a fluorescent-vested park ranger – the beach is no longer safe. The overlapping waves stream over the brown sand and begin their climb up the rock face, higher and higher, until the whole surface of the bay has risen almost to the cliff’s edge - an extraordinary 46 feet. With each tide, a hundredth of a millimetre is washed and carved from the oddly shaped rocks, gradually changing the landscape with a constant, inexorable force that will continue until the cliffs themselves are worn away.

 The tide-worn shapes of Hopewell Rocks. Photograph by Justin Foulkes

Getting there and around

Air Canada (aircanada.com) and BA (ba.com) fly to Halifax International airport. Open roads and scenic coastal drives mean that car hire is a good option. Several firms operate in the cities of Halifax or St John (rentalcars.com).