Facing the wild swells of the Atlantic, Nova Scotia is heavily influenced by the sea. With its candy-striped lighthouses, salty fishing towns and towering red cliffs, this Maritime province feels thrillingly rugged and wild, especially in winter, when storms thrash the coastline and the ocean freezes. But come summer it's a different picture: Nova Scotians emerge to hike the trails, lounge on the beaches, tuck into gigantic lobster suppers and celebrate their Celtic roots with lively ceilidhs (parties with music and dancing). Life here has always been tough, but the locals' warm-hearted humor can't fail to make you feel welcome.
Most adventures begin in seaside Halifax, followed by a jaunt to postcard-perfect Peggy's Cove and Unesco-listed Lunenburg. Further afield, the vineyards of the Annapolis Valley beckon, along with the wild coastline of Cape Breton, the lakes and forests of Kejimkujik National Park and the incredible tides of the Bay of Fundy.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Nova Scotia.
The fortunes of the province that became Nova Scotia are inextricably bound up with this mighty fortress, built by the French but battled over countless times before finally being burned to the ground in 1760. The current site recreates the fortress as it was in 1744, right down to the people – costumed soldiers, cooks, orderlies, musicians, gardeners and artisans create a real sense of time travel, and bring the place to life with stories and free guided tours.
Telecommunications pioneer and inventor Alexander Graham Bell fell in love with Bras d'Or during a family holiday – apparently the hilly scenery reminded him of his Scottish homeland. In the late 1880s he built a lavish summer estate, Beinn Bhreagh (Gaelic for beautiful mountain), on a peninsula across the bay from Baddeck. This fascinating museum at the edge of town houses full-scale replicas of Bell's groundbreaking Silver Dart aircraft, along with electrical devices, telegraphs, telephones, kites and medical inventions.
Perched atop the grassy hillock looming over town, this star-shaped fort played a key role in Halifax's founding. Construction began in 1749; the current citadel is the fourth, built from 1818 to 1861. The grounds and battlements inside the fort are open year-round, with free admission when the exhibits are closed, but it's better to come between May and October, when you can visit the barracks, the guards' room, the signal post, the engineer's store and the gunpowder magazines.
This isolated wilderness on the Bay of Fundy offers some of the best coastal hiking in Nova Scotia. The 55km coastal loop usually takes three days to complete, encompassing dramatic coastline, isolated bays and lofty sea cliffs, but there are plenty of options for easier hikes. The tides are dangerous, so stick to the trail. All hikers must register at the visitor center, where you can discuss itineraries and make backcountry-campground reservations.
The highlight of the cove is this picture-perfect lighthouse, built in 1914. It's supposedly the most photographed lighthouse in Canada, and for many years served as a post office.
There's an argument that this dockside museum is Canada's most important institution. Between 1928 and 1971, Pier 21 was the Canadian version of the USA's Ellis Island, where all prospective immigrants arrived. More than a million people passed through these redbrick halls, and it's an emotional experience to walk through the very same doorways where refugees from across the globe began new lives. A mix of audiovisual exhibits, poignant artifacts and personal testimonies make for a powerful and moving museum.
Located on the site of the Old Joggins No 7 Coal Mine, this impressive visitor center relates the story of the World Heritage–listed Joggins Fossil Cliffs, home to one of the world's best fossil records. Dating from the Carboniferous period (about 300 million years ago), fossils include lycopsid trees, root systems known as stigmaria and ancient shrimp-like creatures called pygocephalus. The center puts the site into context through exhibits and audiovisual displays.
The province's premier art institution is a must-see. It has a strong collection of local art, particularly the work of folk artist Maud Lewis, including the original tiny house (measuring 3m by 4m) where she lived most of her life, and which she turned into a living canvas. The main exhibit in the lower hall changes regularly and features anything from ancient art to the avant-garde.
The strategic importance of Annapolis Royal, particularly its access to the Annapolis River, led to decades of conflict, mostly centered on this impressive fort. The first redoubt was built by the French in the 1630s; the current structure was designed by French military architect Vauban in 1702. You can wander the bulwarks and battlements (now mostly grassed over), and there's an interesting museum in the old officers' quarters with exhibits including a four-panel tapestry depicting 400 years of the fort's history.