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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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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. Built to protect French interests in the region, Louisbourg was also the area's administrative capital. It was continually developed from around 1713 to 1745, when the British finally captured it after a gruelling 46-day siege. The fortress then changed hands twice more until 1760: that year, when British troops under the command of General James Wolfe took Québec City, the walls of Louisbourg were destroyed and the city was put to the torch. In 1961, with the closing of many Cape Breton Island coal mines, the federal government funded the largest historical reconstruction in Canadian history as a way to generate employment, and 50 buildings are now open to visitors. Be prepared for lots of walking, and bring a sweater and raincoat even if it's sunny when you start out. There's an ever-changing array of tours and activities on offer, from nighttime candlelit walks to period dinner theater; check the website for what's on each season. You can even camp in the fortress grounds in period-style pup tents. Though the scale of the reconstruction is massive, three-quarters of Louisbourg is still in ruins. The 2.5km Ruins Walk guides you through the untouched terrain and out to the Atlantic coast. A short interpretive walk opposite the visitor center discusses the relationship between the French and the Mi'kmaq indigenous people and offers some great views of the whole site. Travelers with limited mobility can ask for a pass to drive their car up to the site; there are ramps available to access most buildings.
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. It's an enlightening insight into the restless and curious mind of one of the 19th century's great inventors. Though he's understandably best known as the inventor of the telephone, Bell explored many areas, particularly the idea of human flight. He conducted his first experiments at Beinn Bhreagh, culminating in the development of the Silver Dart airplane, which took off from the ice of Baddeck Bay on 23 February, 1909, just over five years after the Wright Brothers' first flights. Bell also developed one of the earliest hydrofoils, a boat design that uses wing-like foils to gain greater speed on the water. You can see a replica of it at the museum, along with family photo albums, tetrahedral kites, notebooks and even Bell's own beloved walking stick. Special 'white glove' tours allow you to access parts of the collection not normally open to visitors; ask at the ticket desk for details. After a long and storied career, Bell was buried at his beloved Beinn Bhreagh in 1922, aged 75.
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. Between May and October there's a variety of extra activities on offer, including informative guided tours explaining the fort's shape and history, spooky ghost tours (adult/child $14/8), the chance to dress up as a soldier for the day ($199), and even the chance to fire three rounds from a Snider-Enfield rifle ($22).
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. The centrepiece of the permanent collection is the main Pier 21 Story, which traces the immigrant journey from start to end and includes some evocative recreations, including replicas of a ship's cabin and dining car, the original processing hall, and a rickety rail car. As you wander around, it's the small details that are most affecting: the exhibit of children's suitcases, for example, or the Dutch kists (trunks) into which people tried to pack all their worldly belongings, large and small. Downstairs, the Canadian Immigration Story tackles the evolution of the immigrant experience through to the present day.
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. When the fort fell to the British after a week-long siege in 1710, the event effectively marked the conquest of Acadia and signified British dominion over Nova Scotia. Annapolis Royal served as the province's capital until 1749. The fort survived numerous attacks from French forces, who often drew local First Nations people (including the Abenaki and Mi'kmaq) into their campaigns, but it eventually became less significant after the fall of Québec in 1759.
This interpretive center explains the historical context for the deportation of the French-Acadian people from Acadian, Mi'kmaw and British perspectives, and traces the many routes Acadians took from, and back to, the Maritimes. Beside the center, a serene park contains gardens, an Acadian-style stone church, and a bust of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who chronicled the Acadian saga in Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, and a statue of his fictional Evangeline, now a romantic symbol of her people. In 2012 the landscapes of this area became a Unesco World Heritage site. Beyond the park you can see the farmland created when the Acadians built dikes along the shoreline, as they had done in northwestern France for generations. There are 12 sq km below sea level here, protected by just over 9km of dikes.
One of Atlantic Canada's most famous and spectacular national parks, Cape Breton Highlands occupies 20% of the Cape Breton Island landmass. It's accessible by the famous Cabot Trail, a third of which runs along the edge of the park. With dramatic highland scenery, it's a superb place for hiking; the park's most famous route is the 8.2km round-trip Skyline Trail. Park permits can be purchased at the entrance gates in Chéticamp or Ingonish Beach. Entry is free if you already hold a Parks Canada Discovery Pass (adult/family $67.70/136.40). If you're visiting outside the July–October summer season, you can purchase an 'early bird' park pass for $19.60/49 per adult/family.
The first distillery in North America (and the only one in Canada) to make single-malt whisky, this renowned producer claims to take its secrets straight from the old country. Guided tours explore the process and include an all-important tasting. The distillery also has its own pub (mains $12 to $17) and a fine-dining warehouse restaurant (mains $32 to $47). From June to October you can catch a ceilidh (party with music and dancing) at lunch or dinner. There are also attractive rooms ($189 to $319), either in the original inn or in a separate lodge, as well as a selection of self-contained timber chalets (from $359).
A one-woman passion project, these glorious terraced gardens are a must-see for horticulturalists. Split into a series of 'rooms' by hedges of beech, box and yew, and stocked with a wonderful array of flowers, trees and herbs, this is a lovely place to wander. At the delightful tearoom (open 11am to 4:30pm Wednesday to Sunday) all the jams and chutneys are made with garden goodies. The gift shop is probably the best-smelling shopping experience in Nova Scotia; there's a huge selection of herb jellies, vinaigrettes, cordials, liqueurs and chutneys to try and buy. The gardens are 5.5km from Wolfville along Hwy 1.