In Nova Sco­tia a warm wel­come is a shore thing

Stun­ning panora­mas, en­gag­ing con­ver­sa­tions with lo­cals just part of the beauty of pic­turesque At­lantic prov­ince

The Hamilton Spectator - - TRAVEL - DAVID A. TAY­LOR, NOVA SCO­TIA — Hik­ing trails

When my wife and I told peo­ple we were go­ing to Nova Sco­tia to hike, many seemed mys­ti­fied. The prov­ince is not very big, and their men­tal picture was of a placid land­scape on a penin­sula bet­ter known for high tides than high hills.

My own men­tal pictures came from a vi­brant art ex­hibit by the Group of Seven, whose works fea­tured dra­matic wilder­ness scenes in vivid colours. (I’d been there once when I was four, but had no mem­o­ries of it.)

Nova Sco­tia turned out to of­fer us a stun­ning va­ri­ety of walks, fea­tur­ing huge, sweep­ing views. These me­an­ders came with an un­ex­pected bonus — sur­pris­ingly per­sonal con­ver­sa­tions with com­plete strangers. Be­sides be­ing beau­ti­ful, this was the kind of place where pay­ing for straw­ber­ries could get you 20 min­utes of other peo­ple’s fam­ily his­to­ries, favourite cheeses (home­made sting­ing-net­tle Gouda) and per­sonal habits.

It was a bril­liant, cloud­less sum­mer day when friends met us at the Hal­i­fax air­port. We drove two hours to­ward the Bay of Fundy, through the ru­ral western stretch, a re­gion quilted with fields of dense blue­berry bushes and dap­pled with spikes of violet and rust-coloured grasses and green-gray spruces. The land­scape un­du­lated into the dis­tance — no dra­matic peaks, but plenty of to­po­graphic swoops and po­ten­tial panora­mas.

Ar­riv­ing in the vil­lage of Fox River, we set­tled into our va­ca­tion rental, a con­verted old school­house. (Our friends owned a share of the place.) The two-storey house had been ren­o­vated with large groups in mind. From the out­side, it could pass for an 1890s-era church, but once in­side you found, on the first floor, four bed­rooms, two bath­rooms and a shared lounge area.

Up­stairs, the chef-qual­ity kitchen and liv­ing area formed a large, sun-filled great room per­fect for mak­ing fam­ily meals, with huge win­dows in three di­rec­tions. One wall of win­dows looked out over the low bushes of blue­berry fields stretch­ing to the bay. In the op­po­site di­rec­tion, we had a panorama of where the lone road sliced through town and a conif­er­ous for­est stood be­yond.

My wife and I quickly fell into a morn­ing rou­tine: Wake up early (this far north, day­light glows about 5 a.m. in July and lasts past 10 at night), make cof­fee, take mug down the dirt road to the shore. Along the way, ad­mire blue­berry fields.

When we reached the shore, we’d con­tinue across the rounded stones to the wa­ter’s edge and dip our toes into the icy tide. Then we’d walk back to the house, where all four of us would have break­fast on the sun­light­washed deck and plot the day’s hike.

We got many of our walk­ing des­ti­na­tions from con­ver­sa­tions with lo­cal folk. The two young na­ture guides at the na­ture in­ter­pre­ta­tion cen­tre near the town of Econ­omy had rec­om­mended a wa­ter­fall hike in­land to­ward Econ­omy Falls (which sounds omi­nously bear­ish, but turned out to sim­ply be the wa­ter­fall near the town). The blue­berry farmer we met on our morn­ing walk to the bay sug­gested a lit­tle-trod path near the Age of Sail Her­itage Mu­seum down the road. He de­scribed the route. Past a clump of alders to an­other wa­ter­fall, it would prob­a­bly take half an hour. (He also cov­ered ev­ery­thing from his fa­ther’s ed­u­ca­tion at our Fox River school­house to the lo­ca­tion of his other fields up the road and his fam­ily’s work on the dyke that made the lower fields arable.)

But two of the most sat­is­fy­ing hikes we found came from sim­ply look­ing at the map: They com­bined strik­ing vis­tas of the sweep­ing coast­line with up-and-down bluffs and hills that stretched in­land.

For our first hike, our friend Dave picked out Cape Chignecto, at the is­land’s western tip, where we could do part of a 45-kilo­me­tre loop trail. The walk led us high up, deep into shaded groves of fir and down across wooden bridges over streams, with oc­ca­sional open­ings where sun­light burst through and we could get a long view west to the Bay of Fundy, site of those fa­mous 15-me­tre tides.

Where the trail branched north, we stopped for a pic­nic lunch at a spec­tac­u­lar over­look. To the west, we could see the cape point­ing like an outstretched fin­ger to the Bay of Fundy, its ridge look­ing hairy with conifers and slop­ing down to grey rock at the wa­ter’s edge. Soon we met up with two hik­ers fin­ish­ing a three-day loop around the cape, re­turn­ing along the Ea­tonville trail. Their ad­vice: Don’t bother with the in­land branch. The coastal hike is best.

To­ward the end of our three hours on the Cape Chignecto loop, the trail took us down to the beach.

Two of us ven­tured into the frigid wa­ter un­til numb­ness jolted us back to shore. Brisk.

Af­ter­ward we stopped at Ad­vo­cate Har­bor, lit­tle more than a wide spot in the road with five kilo­me­tres of beach, for a late lunch at the de­light­ful Wild Car­away restau­rant. The low-slung clap­board build­ing has a veg­etable gar­den in the back and an ex­ten­sive herb gar­den on the side.

My friends sam­pled fresh seafood pasta with scal­lops and cod. My seafood board — lo­cal scal­lops, shrimp and had­dock — was beau­ti­ful and de­li­cious, washed down with re­fresh­ing home­made gin­ger beer. On the way out, we in­haled the herb gar­den, with its laven­der and thyme. Then we drove back the way we’d come, along the coast.

The sec­ond hike cho­sen from the map lay east of Parrs­boro, a larger town east of Fox River, in Five Is­lands Pro­vin­cial Park. On a map, the lit­tle is­lands fan out from the shore into the bay, erupt­ing like tec­tonic fire­works. Our walk to Red Head (the name refers to the or­ange head­land ris­ing over the wa­ter) was an easy down­ward one-hour lope through woods. The trees oc­ca­sion­ally opened to re­veal the promon­tory loom­ing closer each time.

We re­turned up­hill to the main park area, sweat­ing from the mid­day ef­fort, and plunged into the Bay’s frigid wa­ter again. I only needed a mo­ment to re­vive. Gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple had plunged into these waters, usu­ally in boats, and on an­other day we ex­plored that his­tory when the Age of Sail mu­seum in Port Gre­ville ap­peared sud­denly af­ter a sharp turn in the ru­ral road. It, too, looked like a clap­board church, which seemed some­how fit­ting given the cul­ture of sea­far­ing and ship­build­ing that it en­shrined. The mu­seum memo­ri­al­ized a pe­riod of over a cen­tury when the Bri­tish Crown, fac­ing a do­mes­tic tim­ber short­age, en­cour­aged Nova Sco­tia ship­build­ing.

More than 700 ships were built just on this slice of shore near Parrs­boro over 115 years. (The whole Bay of Fundy shore pro­duced a mind-bog­gling 8,000 ships.) Nova Sco­tia did for the age of sail what Detroit did for car cul­ture: It launched the ves­sels. The work drew work­ers and their fam­i­lies to the coast, and mas­sive tim­ber oper­a­tions sent thou­sands of tree trunks sluic­ing down rivers to feed the in­dus­try.

The mu­seum was crammed with ar­ti­facts chron­i­cling the ship­build­ing boom and the lives lived on­shore. There were huge tem­plates for build­ing a ship that could be fol­lowed like a dress­maker’s pat­tern. The mas­sive tools in­cluded saws taller than we were.

Round­ing a cor­ner into the next room, I saw from be­hind a fig­ure rock­ing in a chair — a woman with a grey bun hairdo, look­ing like Nor­man Bates’s mother. I was ter­ri­fied.

She turned out to be an an­i­ma­tronic host­ess known as “Grandma.” Set off by a mo­tion sen­sor, she told sto­ries of life on this per­ilous shore in the 1800s. As she droned on, she didn’t sound scary so much as a lit­tle sad, and her sto­ries were poignant.

Else­where in the mu­seum, I stood trans­fixed by “Around Cape Horn,” a video loop of a 1929 film made by a young man who shipped out of Nova Sco­tia on the sail­ing ship Pek­ing. I watched crew mem­bers scale the rig­ging in pitch­ing seas and high winds. Footage taken from the masts showed sailors haul­ing ropes on the deck as surf washed over them; the cam­era­man and nar­ra­tor, Irv­ing John­son, said that one sailor in the scene would, soon af­ter­ward, be swept over­board.

Later that day, we drove from Port Gre­ville to the rocky cliffs of Cape d’Or and its light­house. The road ended on a bluff, and from there we walked down the cliff­side path — steep but a rea­son­able dis­tance. Near the pic­turesque light­house, we found a homey café where you could buy snacks and a sim­ple lunch.

As usual, we met more friendly Nova Sco­tians. One woman down for a few days from Cape Bre­ton shared tales from their wan­der­ing drive (along with her hus­band’s weekly work sched­ule and her daugh­ter’s salary).

On our last even­ing at the school­house, we cooked a din­ner of fresh scal­lops and a dessert of straw­berry short­cake, made with de­li­cious, just-picked berries. We played word games and lis­tened to CBC on the ra­dio as dusk spread over the wa­ter and day­light fi­nally faded af­ter 10 p.m. With no cell­phone ser­vice and un­re­li­able In­ter­net, the un­hur­ried ra­dio in­ter­views felt like com­pan­ions from an ear­lier age.

The next morn­ing, it was time for our last stroll to the bay. The rit­ual of walk­ing and wa­ter and sto­ries had be­come as grav­i­ta­tional as the Fundy tide that swept the buoys in a vast arc of churn­ing wa­ter off Cape d’Or. And now that tide was tak­ing us back to the world.

But not with­out one more story. Go­ing through air­port cus­toms in Hal­i­fax, usu­ally a wave-through for­mal­ity, turned into a lin­ger­ing con­ver­sa­tion as the cus­toms of­fi­cer told us about the big snow­falls of last win­ter, and the big melt of the spring, and couldn’t we stay a minute longer to talk?

PHOTOS BY DAVID A. TAY­LOR, FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The view from Red Head along the hik­ing trail at Five Is­lands Pro­vin­cial Park in Nova Sco­tia, Canada.

The sky­line of Fox River vil­lage, with the old school­house where David A. Tay­lor and his wife stayed in the top right cor­ner. A two-storey house that could pass for an 1890s-era church.

DAVID A. TAY­LOR, FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The Cape d’Or Light­house on the Bay of Fundy is a lodg­ing op­tion., with a lovely café nearby.

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