Nova Scotia: Driving to PEI, Cape Breton

The Nova Star ferry from Portland to Nova Scotia. Paul Shoul photos.
The Nova Star ferry from Portland to Nova Scotia. Paul Shoul photos.

Lost and Found: A Road Trip to Nova Scotia, PEI, and Cape Breton.

By Paul Shoul

Lost: “unable to find one's way; not knowing one's whereabouts. synonyms: off course, off track, disorientated, having lost one's bearings, going around in circles, adrift, at sea, astray”

Found: “discover or perceive by chance or unexpectedly. become aware, realize, observe, notice, note, perceive, learn”
It was at a crossroads driving through the Annapolis Valley, the breadbasket of Nova Scotia, that my GPS system gave out. Day one of a two-week road trip, I had arrived in Yarmouth on board the Nova Star ferry from Portland Maine.

I was trying to find the town of Urbania, and was completely lost. No map, no signal, nada, up the Canadian creek without a paddle.

Do you know where Urbania is?

An Annapolis Valley happy cow
An Annapolis Valley happy cow

Along these back roads, aside from crops, forest, farm houses, and cows there is only the occasional mom and pop grocery store. I turned back to the last one I had passed to ask for directions.

It was an old, off kilter little place with a crooked sign resembling a faded Norman Rockwell painting. Inside, a group of five locals with very muddy boots were having a conversation that I imagined, (probably correctly) had been going on for 20 years.

They were delighted at the appearance of a stranger but looked at me like I had just asked for directions to Mars.
“Nope” they said, shaking their heads with sarcastic smiles,” looks like you're screwed.”

“I said Urbania,not Albania!” which got a laugh but they still had never heard of it. One of them said to me ”Hell I’m 75, lived here all my life, there are so many twists and turns, dead end dirt roads and cow paths that sometimes even I don’t know where I am going!”. Where are you from?”. “ Boston (Bahhhst-inn) ” I said, thickening my accent for effect.

Kayli Gault river guide at Tidal Bore Rafting
Kayli Gault river guide at Tidal Bore Rafting

They Love Massachusetts Up Here

It turns out that Nova Scotians love all things Massachusetts, the Celtics, the Bruins, and especially Boston. In 1917, a French cargo ship loaded with wartime explosives, caught fire igniting the worlds largest pre nuclear explosion, causing a tsunami, killing thousands and burning down a large portion of Halifax. Boston businesses responded immediately sending a disaster relief train, and they have been grateful ever since.Go figure.

I was not lost anymore, just stopping along the way. They welcomed me to stay, which I did, and did again down the road, and at the next little store until I finally found a map and directions to Urbania. I drove “old school” for the rest of the trip. Getting lost is the best way to find Nova Scotia.

GET BACK IN THE BOATS!!!!

Kayli Gault, our river guide and Zodiac driver from Tidal Bore Rafting Park and Cottages had given us clear instructions when our raft, one of five filled with six passengers each, landed on a sandbar in the middle of the Shubenacadie River to wait for the Tidal Bore.

“Don’t go too far”. suddenly, in the near distance we heard the roar of the bore and then saw the wave racing toward us.

The bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world. Twice a day, 58 million cubic feet of water charges back up its tributaries, funneled into an undulating wave. Kayli is a skilled pilot, her job is to keep us afloat, and apparently to scare the heck out of as well.

For the next hour we made circular runs, crashing up and over the six-foot waves caused by the conflicting currents. Hold on tight to the ropes in the raft, this is natures washing machine on the high cycle!

Before heading back to base we stopped for a little mud sliding. Thick mud lines the banks like slippery fudge. Every rafting trip ends with a chance to cover yourself with it and slide down the banks.

Watch your ankles! Tidal bore rafting has 13 very comfortable 1-2 bedroom cottages, with full kitchens and porches to hang out on after a day of rafting.Tidal Bore Rafting Rafting Park and Cottages 12215 Hwy 215 Urbania, NS.

A Cape Breton Lobsterman

Joe Gilis, a third generation lobsterman in the town of Inverness on Cape Breton Island was waiting for me when I arrived at my friend Jim’s house after a five-hour drive from Urbania.

It is at the end of a half-mile dirt road, perched 100 feet up on the cliffs near the harbor, the front porch looks out on an endless sea.

Inverness Cape Breton.
Inverness Cape Breton.

On a calm day, during the fading light of sunset, the ocean mirrors the sky and the line between them becomes indistinguishable. All sense of perspective is lost as they blend into a single abstract canvas of pastel colors, accented only by the occasional lone fishing boat or a whale breaking the surface.

Nobody was going anywhere too soon. Joe has a face painters long for, weathered by the sea, piercing stare eyes looking into and through things, through me, assessing our value and rhythm.

Joe knows waves, ropes, tides, seasons and especially, lobsters. He’s been catching them all his life. A huge pot is boiling on the stove We drink “Alexander Keith's” beer (brewed in Halifax), lots of it. Jim clears the kitchen table, covering it with newspapers. The days catch, a gigantic glittering pile of steaming lobsters are spread out.

The cold waters produce a lobster filled tighter with meat and a slightly tougher tail than Maine lobsters, but the meat is sweeter and more “lobstery” in my opinion.

No butter is needed. Silence descends on the room as we lapse into a lobster eating trance. Regardless of the bounty before us, it is an almost religious doctrine here that nothing is wasted.

Every leg, the body, row, the meat hiding under the head, did you miss the two pieces on the end of the tail shell? everything must be dismantled and devoured.

Joe says that they are the best in the world and I have to agree. At 4:30 the next morning, Jim and I are on Joe’s 30ft. boat the “Missy2” with his sons Alex and Daniel.

It is the last day of lobster season. Waves crash at the base of towering rocky cliffs, eagles crisscross the sky above, a big red sun slowly rises over the horizon. Joe fishes 300 wooden traps that are scattered along the coast.

At 70 Lbs each dry; hauling, stacking, sorting the catch and coiling the lines is a mammoth task, they take in over 500 pounds of lobsters during the day's fishing.

Joe Gillis lobsterman in Iinverness, PEI.
Joe Gillis lobsterman in Iinverness, PEI.

These will be saved for family and friends or frozen to eat in the winter months to come. I will never bemoan the price of a lobster again, these guys work hard.

The arc of beach and golf course in Inverness.
The arc of beach and golf course in Inverness.

The Cabot Trail

Cape Breton is vast and beautiful. With its dramatic coastal views and highland scenery, the Cabot Trail is a must drive destination. The small fishing town of Inverness is also home to Cabot Links, Canada's only true links golf course.

Prince Edward Island is 139 miles long and from 4 to 40 miles at its widest.

The Aboriginal inhabitants of Nova Scotia, the Mi’kmaq, named it Abegweit, “ the land cradled on the waves” It is softer than the rugged beauty of Cape Breton, but no less dramatic. Every direction you look has post card potential.

I arrived at the capital city Charlottetown on board the Northumberland Ferry, a 75-minute cruise from Caribou, Nova Scotia outside of Pictou. Charlottetown is a historic city of approx 34,000 residents and the birthplace of the Canadian confederation.

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

It is a fusion of history and modern culture with an active nightlife and some fantastic restaurants, a destination in and of itself and the jumping off point to explore the rest of the island.

I stayed at the Fairholm Inn, a landmark home in the city for 174 years. Centrally located with nice rooms decked out with antique furniture, good wifi, a very friendly staff and hands down the best traditional bacon and eggs breakfast I had on the trip. PEI sees a lot of tourists each year but its main industry is still farming.

Fairholm Inn Charlottetown.
Fairholm Inn Charlottetown.

The local bounty of vegetables, fruits, seafood, dairy and meats are the foundation of a unique farm to table cuisine.

At the Charlottetown Farmers Market, you can check out the produce offerings from local small farmers, and chow down at a variety food stalls.

If you're in the mood for a beer, go to the source and tour PEI brewing company, just 5 minutes down the road.

Farm to Table Dining

At Lot 30, owner and Chef Gordon Bailey is fusing local ingredients into truly creative dishes in an elegant yet friendly place.

The farmers market in Charlottetown.
The farmers market in Charlottetown.

He blew my mind with his interpretation of surf and turf with a butter poached lobster tail, seared sea scallop, Atlantic beef ribeye rib and a mozzarella potato pave.

This was one of those meals when I was grateful that God created taste buds.

At Terre Rouge Bistro,they are all about farm to table. The salads were incredibly fresh. Their lobster roll mixed with shrimp and corn meal crunchy fried oysters was insanely good, and the beef bone marrow appetizer with duck fat toast left me with a dazed after glow of total satisfaction.

Just down the road, Sims Corner Steakhouse and Oyster Bar prides itself on its meat, but the seafood chowder stole the show, luxuriously creamy with fresh seafood and sweet PEI potatoes. Oysters on the half shell served on ice with three sauces were fresh and wonderful.

And finally I tackled a mind numbing serving of Sausage Poutine, ( french fries, gravy and cheese curds) that I could not stop eating. Nothing this bad for you should be allowed to taste so good.

Souris: Only an hours drive from Charlottetown, yet worlds away, Johnny Flynn, founder of the Colville Bay Oyster Company and I floated on a 15 foot flat motorized metal platform harvesting oysters at the mouth of the Souris river on the eastern side of the Island. The boat feels like a large unstable skateboard.

Johnny dances along the edge, reaching to the bottom of the shallow bay with a pair of long hinged rakes to scoop up a few dozen of his famous green shelled oysters. Some have been waiting for him five years since he seeded the bay with them as babies. Each oyster filters up to 31 gallons of seawater a day to feed and breath.

Sir John Macdonald in Charlottetown PEI
Sir John Macdonald in Charlottetown PEI

The local environment or “terroir” imparts unique characteristics to the oysters. Colville bay oysters are salty, sweet, buttery and incredibly clean.“ like distilled ocean”. For the next two days I stayed in Sourris and camped by the ocean at Red Point Provincial Park and campground, a sweet spot, right on the beach with close access to 4 national parks, beaches, two distilleries, and some fantastic restaurants including the renowned Inn at Bay Fortune where I slurped down another dozen of Coville Bay oysters.

Johnny Flynn, Colville Bay Oyster Co
Johnny Flynn, Colville Bay Oyster Co

Back to Charlottetown, I spent the night at the swanky Holman Grand Hotel before heading out the next day back to Nova Scotia via the the Eight-mile long Confederation Bridge between PEI and New Brunswick. A very cool drive over the ocean on a good day, It was an adventure crossing it with Hurricane Arthur
chasing me the entire way to Truro, NS.

Right next door you will find the Glooscap Heritage Center and museum. It’s definitely worth a visit to learn about Nova Scotia's original inhabitants the Mi'kmaq.

Lunenburg

Founded in 1754 Lunenburg has a long history, surviving many wars to become the beautiful town that it is today. The old section is a designated UNESCO Heritage site, one of the best examples of a colonial British settlement.

Confederation bridge PEI and New Brunswick, Canada.
Confederation bridge PEI and New Brunswick, Canada.

The local Mikmaqs at the time were none too happy about it, raiding the town many times as did American privateers during the revolution and the war of 1812.

Acknowledged as one of Nova Scotia's most picturesque towns, these days it also boasts cool restaurants, boutiques and historic Inns.

If there is a competition for the nicest place to stay in Nova Scotia I nominate the Mariner King Historic Inn. Built in 1830, it has been meticulously restored. S where I had thankfully scored a room at the Super 8 Hotel to ride out the storm.

The rooms are gorgeous and comfortable. Give me a 1800s bed frame outfitted with a memory foam mattress, 5 variations of pillows, a superior bathroom and a flat screen TV, and I'm a happy guy. There is also a washer and dryer and a breakfast buffet good enough to skip lunch for.

Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.
Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

For dinner, check out the Old Fish Factory in the same building as the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic. It is laid back, with the old world feel of a place where everyone in town hangs out at. The fresh local mussels steamed in white wine and garlic are fantastic.

Kejimkuyjik National Park:

The drive inland to Keji on highway 8 from Liverpool feels like traveling back in time. The further you go, the less there is, until there are only the 381 square Kilometers of wilderness that is Keji park. It's a designated National Historic site and cultural landscape that was once the home of the aboriginal M’ikmaq for thousands of years.

Evidence of their past lives can be seen not only in the artifacts on display at the main office but seen etched into the rocks in petroglyphs, and felt in the forest. There is a quiet beauty here unpolluted by modern mechanized noise. A designated dark sky preserve limiting artificial lights, you can gaze upon the same brilliant night sky that the Indians did.

There are guided cultural tours led by Mi'kmaqs like Donna Morris, who asked me “Do you know where the Mohawk indians got those funny hair cuts? From pulling out their hair after fighting with us Mi’kmaqs!”. There are also mountain bikes and canoes to rent.

I spent my time just walking with the deer in the woods, listening to the trees. There are a range of camping opportunities from serviced sites to hook up your RV or tent with electricity, showers and bathrooms, to backcountry sites accessible only by hiking or canoe. I spent two cozy nights in my trusty Kelty tent, and loved every second of it.

Musells at the Old Fish factory Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.
Musells at the Old Fish factory Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

If you need to stock up on supplies, or just want to have a beer and let someone else do the cooking, there is an oasis of civilization right down the road near the entrance to the park on Highway 8.

The Wilder Restaurantand General Store was opened by two refugees from the film industry, Shannon Macdougall and Lekas Bell.

The food is fantastic, ranging from fires and chicken to Quinoa casserole. Even if this was not the only watering hole the woods, it would be worth a visit to just for the quality of the food and good people.

On to Yarmouth

My last night in Nova scotia was spent in Yarmouth at the Rodd Grand Yarmouth Hotel. Yarmouth is an active port and home to a large fleet of fishing vessels going out to Georges Bank and receives the largest catch of lobsters in Nova Scotia. There is a lot to see in the area but I spent the short time I had walking the docks.

There was no doubt in my mind what my last meal would be. The lobster I had that night at Rudder’s Seafood Restaurant and Brew Pub was perfect.

The next morning I boarded the Nova Star ferry for the ten-hour cruise back to to Portland Maine. I had avoided the casino on the trip over, but this time I cashed in $100 dollars and took my seat at the blackjack table.The woman next to me could not lose, winning over $900 at the table and on the slots. On my other side sat a gentleman who could not win, losing over $300. Three hours later I cashed out with exactly $101 dollars. What a great trip.

Tips on driving in Nova Scotia

a white tailed deer at Kejimkujik National Park, Nova Scotia.
a white tailed deer at Kejimkujik National Park, Nova Scotia.

Door to door from my home in Northampton MA, I drove over 2,246 miles. Here are a few things I learned.

You can pump gas before you pay. I was totally confused my first time filling up, coming from America where trust is in short supply. Nova Scotians assume the best of a person.They are really nice folks.

Tim Hortons is your friend. You will find this coffee shop and fast food joint everywhere often along with a gas station. They have free wifi, and a comfy chair section with flat screen TV’s. In smaller towns, they are a community gathering spot. Named after a famous hockey player, Canadians love their Timmy's more than any Starbucks or, gasp, Dunkin' Donuts. Tim is the place for coffee in Canada, for sure.

Rudder's Restaurant and Brewery, Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
Rudder's Restaurant and Brewery, Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

Visitor information centers. At most major destinations along the road are the Visitor Information Centers sponsored by the Nova Scotia Tourism Department. They always have bathrooms and are staffed by helpful folks eager to give you brochures, ideas, and really good directions.

Looney and Toonie. A Canadian dollar is called a Looney, a two-dollar coin is called a Toonie. Canadians have a sense of humor and public radio stations often feature comedy skits. Sometimes I was confused as to what was real, or just really funny.

Highway signs giveth and taketh away. Confusing at first, highway signs are posted a 1/4 mile before a turn but not actually at the road you need to turn at. I missed many until I figured it out, but I still don't get it.

Drive fast and be polite. In Liverpool, I stopped to talk with a police officer to ask how long the drive was to Keji national park. He told me about an hour if I kept to the speed limit, but I should make it it it in under 45 mins. When I mentioned that I observed people drove fast around here he smiled and said, “ I give folks around 15 kms over the speed limit, but watch it”. On long stretches of roads through empty forest traffic moves pretty fast, but I saw speed traps at the outskirts of many towns.

Drive slow and leave extra time. It is just too beautiful not to slow down and stop often.

This trip was made possible with the assistance of Nova Scotia Tourism and PEI tourism. Camping equipment was provided by Kelty.

Paul Shoul

Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he’s lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there though his work in the Valley Advocate and Preview magazines. He’s also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.