Nova Scotia’s maritime mélange of cultures

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Victor Block

Visitors are never more than 35 miles away from Nova Scotia’s picturesque coastline. The town of Lunenburg sits on the Canadian province’s south shore and was established by the British in 1753.
Photo © Gary Yim

There are plenty of reasons to visit Nova Scotia (Latin for “new Scotland”) — one of the three Maritime Provinces of eastern Canada.

Many people head for Cape Breton island in the northeastern corner of the province. They may take the famous Cabot Trail roadway, which winds along the island’s rugged Atlantic coastline — reason enough to head to that portion of Nova Scotia.

But rather than follow those crowds during a recent visit, my wife Fyllis and I set our sights on the southern part of the territory to see what it has to offer. We found an enticing combination of Mother Nature at her best, fascinating history and an intriguing mix of cultures.

You’re never more than 35 miles from the sea, and the shoreline is pocked by inlets and bays that are overlooked by tiny fishing villages. The interior changes from forests to low hills to lake settings, while the inviting Annapolis Valley is blanketed by scenic farms.

4,000-year history

What now is Nova Scotia was first inhabited by the Abnaki and Mi’kmaq people, Native Americans who were part of the Algonquian language family.

The first recorded exploration in 1497 by a European, John Cabot of England, was followed by efforts to establish colonies by French explorers, and later by settlers from Scotland.

The 17th and early 18th centuries were marked by armed conflict between England and France over control of the territory, which finally reverted to Great Britain. Nova Scotia became part of the Dominion of Canada in 1867.

The cultural influences imparted by English and French settlers were just the beginning. Other people also arrived, stayed and left their imprint. Vestiges of their differing lifestyles invite visitors to relive times past, and immerse themselves in the unique mixture of traditions.

The narrative begins with the 4,000-year history of the Mi’kmaq First Nation people. Some of their ancestors still live in and around the village of Bear River. Their story is told in depth at Kejimkujik National Park and Historic Site.

Periodic drumming demonstrations and birch bark canoe building activities help visitors get a taste of life back when. You can also hike ancient paths, viewing the petroglyph rock carvings they left behind, drop by former encampment areas, and paddle along Mi’kmaq canoe routes.

The cultural alphabet soup that poured into the region from Europe began when French explorers established a settlement in 1605, which they called Acadia.

In 1621, King James of England and Scotland granted territory to establish the area he named Nova Scotia. The region then became the flashpoint for more than a century of conflict over all of present-day Canada between the French and British. 

Later, settlers from Germany and other German-speaking European countries arrived along with their surnames, holiday celebrations and lifestyle.

Also adding to the mosaic were people who lived in the American colonies but who remained loyal to the British Crown. Forced to leave during the Revolution because of their sympathies, many fled to the future Canada, where they were greeted as United Empire Loyalists. Among them were Black Loyalists who had fought against the British and whose descendants still reside in several communities in Nova Scotia.

A center of Acadian culture is found in villages strung out along the shore of St. Mary’s Bay. There, French is the predominant language, bilingual signs guide visitors, and Acadian flags adorn many houses. Restaurants serve food that would be at home in Paris. At the Historic Village in West Pubnico, costumed interpreters provide an in-depth introduction to the area and its many stories.

There are also opportunities to experience traditional Scottish singing, fiddling and step dancing. During the Antigonish Highland Games, which have taken place each year since 1863, burly men wearing kilts compete at tossing the spruce log “caber,” hammer throw and other heavyweight events.

Scenic drives and tides

If you choose to drive through Nova Scotia, many itineraries are available for those wishing to explore a particular interest. For example, the Lighthouse Route hugs the southeastern shoreline, gentle in some places and rugged in others, and leads past picturesque fishing villages.

The Aboriginal Road Trip leads to museums and natural settings associated with the Mi’kmaq First Nation people. Another drive, which is focused on seafood, includes opportunities to meet local fishermen, haul in lobster traps and learn to shuck oysters.

The most famous scenic route is the Evangeline Trail, which snakes along the western coast of Nova Scotia and passes through not only varied landscapes but also some of North America’s earliest European history.

It leads past forts and fishing villages, through the scenic farmlands of the Annapolis Valley, and by the Bay of Fundy, which is famous for having the highest tides in the world (they have been recorded to rise as much as 54 feet).

Adventurous souls may opt for a unique tidal bore rafting experience, riding a crest of water created when the incoming tide battles against the river outflow to generate 13-foot-high waves.

Fyllis and I opted to observe the tidal phenomenon in a more sedate way in the town of Digby. Our anticipation was whetted by a clock in town center that indicates the time of the next high tide, and by establishments with names like Rising Tide Café and Changing Tides Diner. We watched boats that rested at pier level during high tide descend to well below the dock as the water drained out of the bay. Then we saw local residents venturing out on the exposed mud flats to gather clams for that evening’s dinner.

By the way, clams, along with lobster and a variety of seafood, make Nova Scotia the leading fishing province in Canada. But Digby is best known for another mollusk. It lays claim to the title “scallop capital of the world” because it is home to a large scallop fishing fleet, and their haul has a reputation for outstanding flavor.

Waterfront towns

Yarmouth, another town in the southern reaches of Nova Scotia, long has been associated with fishing. A walking tour leads past a number of the nearly 200 elaborate homes that were built in a variety of styles by ship owners and captains during the late 19th century, when the town’s prosperity reached its peak.

A stroll through Shelburne’s Waterfront Heritage District transports visitors back to the late 18th century. That’s when an influx of Loyalists from the former American British colonies arrived. Some of the homes they built still stand, and a display at the Shelburne County Museum invites children to “Dress up like a Loyalist.”

If you can find time to spend a day to stroll through Annapolis Royal, do it. The area is where the French established the first permanent European settlement here in 1604. The colony changed hands a number of times as the French and English battled for control. After a decisive victory by England in 1710, it was named Annapolis Royal in honor of Queen Anne.

St. George Street, which runs through the middle of town, is lined by buildings built over the course of three centuries. Among the oldest are a wooden house constructed in 1708 by a French officer, and the 1710 home of a silversmith, which later served as an inn and today houses a small museum.

Fort Anne in Annapolis Royal occupies one of the most hotly contested pieces of land in North America. The first fort was erected on the site in 1629 by the Scots, and several forts were constructed later by the French. The fortress that stands today was built by the British. Visitors may walk the earthen walls that date back to 1702, explore a gunpowder magazine, and check out the British field officers quarters, which house an interesting museum.

A very different setting is encountered nearby at the impressive Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens. It features areas devoted to Mi’kmaq, early Acadian and 17th century English gardening practices and designs.

A replica of a 17th-century Acadian home overlooks salt marshes and the dykes that were constructed by farmers to transform them into arable land. It offers a peek back at the lives of French-speaking settlers — one among the many stories that bring the history of Nova Scotia to life.

If you go

Digby Pines Golf Resort & Spa combines an aura of history with a strong record of ecotourism. Low-level electricity is used throughout the hotel with an emphasis on natural light, the kitchen recycles to such a degree that nothing goes to a landfill, there’s a green roof atop the spa, and the rooms’ headboards are made from recycled doors. In cabins with fireplaces, compressed sawdust replaces wood because it has a zero percent carbon footprint.

The resort is open from mid-May to mid-October. Rates begin at $159 (depending upon the exchange rate at the time). For more information, call (800) 667-4637 or log onto digbypines.ca.

An inviting budget-stretching alternative is Hedley House by the Sea, which overlooks Smith Cove from a four-acre setting of lawns and gardens. The 14-room motel is blanketed by fresh flowers. Rates begin at $71. For more information, call (877) 826-2500 or log onto hedleyhouse.ca.

Not surprisingly, many a restaurant menu includes Digby scallops in some form. Among ways I saw them prepared were pan seared, fried, grilled, encased in prosciutto, wrapped in bacon, on pizza, in salad and swimming in chowder.

Electing to eat something other than scallops during two dinners at the appropriately named Dockside Restaurant in Digby, I opted for grilled haddock ($14 with sides) and fish and chips ($9), both excellent. For more information, call (902) 245-4950 or log onto fundyrestaurant.com.

For information about visiting Nova Scotia, call 1-800-565-0000 or log onto
www.novascotia.com.