This won’t be just any itinerary or Nova Scotia road map that you could easily Google. No — if you’re travelling to Nova Scotia, my map will plot accommodations, where to eat, the best places to visit in Nova Scotia and even include beaches and some Cabot Trail hiking. Heck, I’ve even pinned the few gas stations we saw along The Cabot Trail on this map! We spent nine days doing an intense but jaw-dropping Nova Scotia road trip and I’ve plotted the entire thing just for you, detailing every bit of it below.
Of all the Nova Scotia road trips post floating around on the internet, I haven’t seen one yet that includes a Nova Scotia road map that you can easily copy and follow or adapt for your own holiday down east.
But, consider yourself warned: Nova Scotia will steal your heart. And fast. Visit once, and a piece of you will stay forever. There’s a seismic shift in people’s attitudes and friendliness. Even Halifax, as urban as it is, has a calmness to it that’s palpable. You will deeply connect with this beautiful province, its rich history and both rugged and pastoral landscapes. And you may find yourself looking at real estate listings rather seriously as a result. Because Nova Scotia is magical — and the best part is that it’s doable in as little as nine days.
Here’s what you’ll find in this post about travelling to Nova Scotia:
- A Nova Scotia road map pinned with all of my recommended accommodations, attractions, restaurants and more
- Nova Scotia road conditions info
- Thoughts about when you should visit Nova Scotia and for how long
- Fun things to do in Halifax
- Day trips from Halifax (Peggy’s Cove, Lunenburg and The Ovens)
- Whale watching in Nova Scotia
- Why you need to visit Annapolis Royal
- A couple of Nova Scotia wineries
- Tidal bore rafting (a MUST!)
- Tips & tricks for driving The Cabot Trail and Cabot Trail hiking
- Sheet Harbour Nova Scotia
- Plus other Pro Tips for travelling to Nova Scotia
Travelling to Nova Scotia & the ultimate Nova Scotia road map for first-timers
Only you know how much time you can devote to travelling to Nova Scotia, so prioritize the things you want to see and do and build your itinerary from there — using my Nova Scotia road map as your guide. I’ll detail every stop along the way below to help you figure out what to do in Nova Scotia, from the vibrant Halifax waterfront and the world’s most iconic lighthouse in Peggy’s Cove to sea cave hikes and tidal bore rafting near the Bay of Fundy.
My Nova Scotia road map includes many of the places we stayed (though I’ll note below which ones we preferred), every attraction and activity we stuffed into our trip and where we ate along the way from Halifax to Cape Breton.
Your planning bestie: my Nova Scotia road map
I created this Nova Scotia road map because everyone travelling to Nova Scotia will arrive in different parts of the province — some by air and the rest by land and sea. Whether you fly into Halifax or take a ferry from PEI, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Quebec or even Maine, you can use this map to plot your Nova Scotia road trip as efficiently as possible so you can cluster different regions and avoid criss-crossing the province unnecessarily.
Travelling to Nova Scotia: Nova Scotia road conditions
Now that you’ve had a good look at the Nova Scotia road map above, and have a better handle on your potential route, let’s talk about driving conditions when travelling to Nova Scotia. We encountered a number of different conditions during our nine-day August road trip, so I want you to be prepared.
Because that’s what you can get — all in the same day. We found that Nova Scotia road conditions changed wildly, sometimes from hour to hour. We had days that started off sunny and then had fog roll in. We had days that started with such a thick morning fog that it reduced visibility to about 10 feet in front of us, which then cleared into the bluest skies of our entire visit hours later thanks, in part, to a change in elevation as we drove up The Cabot Trail. We had one day with such torrential rain that all of the ferries were cancelled — which also squashed our whale watching plans (but I’ll get to that later).
I’m a very confident driver, but I’m not used to the narrow and winding roads in Nova Scotia with one-lane highways where the locals seem to take posted speed limits as mere suggestions. Even on the driest, most beautiful days, there were some curves where I went well under the speed limit and even that felt too fast.
We also happened upon a ton of construction across the province. There were times we sat, in a complete standstill, for upwards of 20 to 30 minutes when two-lane highways were reduced to a single lane. This will add time to your otherwise accurate GPS estimates, so allow for some flexibility if you’re driving longer distances. Think of it as the necessary parts of travel, knowing that it’ll improve the visitor experience for years to come.
All this to say: be ready to drive in every road condition. If you’re not typically comfortable behind the wheel, you might prefer booking a fully guided tour of Nova Scotia or basing yourself in, say, Halifax and doing a series of day trips that include transportation instead of renting a car and DIYing it.
Travelling to Nova Scotia: when + for how long?
While I think a 10-day Nova Scotia itinerary would be ideal, if you want to spend an entire day at Inverness Beach — and you easily could — or be much more leisurely on the Cabot Trail — which you definitely should — then travelling to Nova Scotia for 12 days would be even better.
July and August are the warmest months in Nova Scotia, but May happens to be the driest. We went in August and still had one day of such terrible rain that even the ferry between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick was cancelled. Like anywhere, great weather isn’t guaranteed so be ready to roll with it. I think you’ll find that I’ve given you enough ideas here so you can work with what you’re given.
Keep in mind that June to September is whale watching season, so if that’s a bucket-lister for you, these will be your sweet-spot months to travel. There’s more on whale watching in Nova Scotia below.
Although winters can be mild here and tourism definitely drops making it easier to book the best accommodations, you will find that some activities may not be available outside of peak season. Additionally, locals told us that in the cooler months you’ll also contend with weather that can be grey and dreary with that “gets into your bones” kind of dampness. For me, Nova Scotia in the summer is where it’s at — as long as you plan ahead when it comes to hotel and car rental reservations.
Travelling to Nova Scotia: Fun things to do in Halifax
I’m kicking things off with the capital and largest city in Nova Scotia: Halifax. With a long — and often horrifying — history of Indigenous and Acadian conflict with the British, Halifax is so much more than just the economic and cosmopolitan centre of the province; it’s also home to the 1917 disaster that saw the world’s biggest artificial explosion (before nuclear weapons were developed) and was Canada’s primary point of entry for nearly one million immigrants and refugees from Europe and beyond during WWII.
History buffs need apply. Immediately. But don’t worry if you’re not really into the past, because Halifax has plenty more to offer that’s firmly entrenched in the now.
Where to stay
MUIR Halifax, Autograph Collection | 5-star | website
With its spectacular waterfront promenade location, mere steps from the Atlantic Ocean — and I do mean steps, literally — the MUIR is Halifax’s only five-star luxury hotel and well worth the splurge for something extra-special when travelling to Nova Scotia. Highlights include:
- Spacious rooms with bespoke interior design featuring signature MUIR Tartan wool blankets
- Premium amenities, including Aēsop toiletries
- Top-notch tech like bedside lighting and curtain controls
- A complimentary house car for one-way destinations within 5km of the hotel
- Complimentary cruiser bicycles, with helmets and locks
- An extremely well-equipped gym with spin and yoga studios
- A luxe wellness centre with halotherapy salt room, pool and daybed loungers, cold plunge, eucalyptus steam room and infrared sauna
- An in-house art gallery
- A secret speakeasy, open strictly for guests only
- An in-house restaurant (DRIFT, see below) that opens up into the new Queen’s Marque square
- Private tours on a high-speed 24-foot motorboat (fee applies)
- And access to a private yacht if you have oodles of money to burn
- Use or earn Marriott Bonvoy points with your stay
The MUIR is a true luxury hotel in every sense, with those finishing touches and attention to detail that really make the leap from a 4.5-star hotel to what should be (but is not always) the elusive 5-star designation. The location, in the heart of Halifax’s newest development, Queen’s Marque, can’t be beat; it puts you within walking distance of everything along the expansive waterfront and thanks to its house car, you can get up those very steep streets to hit up Argyle Street or the art gallery.
I mean, sure, you could walk…but when you can hop into a Range Rover and be chauffeured there — why would you? You can walk back down after a night on the town, if you decide to leave the waterfront area at all, that is.
Miss Q and I took advantage of the cruisers available to all guests and booked a couple for the day we planned to visit a number of attractions that are all connected to the waterfront bike path; it made getting around fun — and fast. Each bike has a basket that fits your provided helmet and the locks were easy to use and kept our bikes secure while we popped in and out of museums, restaurants and shops. We ended up with so much extra free time that we were able to fit in an area that we hadn’t even originally planned to visit!
I’ve written more about DRIFT, its in-house restaurant, below in my “where to eat” section, but just look at how pretty the décor is:
Be sure when you’re travelling to Nova Scotia to leave time in your Halifax itinerary to simply enjoy the hotel, too. It has one of the most well-equipped and spacious gyms I’ve ever seen in a hotel, plus spin and yoga studios, and a stunning wellness centre that’s free for guests to use from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. You do need to reserve your halotherapy Himalayan salt room experience ahead of time, though, which is booked in 15-minute increments throughout the day. Miss Q and I spent two hours in the wellness centre and could have happily done so every day had our itinerary allowed it.
Where to eat
Halifax’s culinary scene is still developing, so diehard foodies may find it a bit hit and miss overall and I was surprised that locally caught dishes were almost as expensive as restaurants I’ve been to serving Nova Scotia fish and seafood in other parts of Canada and the USA. Even lobster rolls at the food trucks along the waterfront sold staples like lobster rolls for a few dollars more than The Bicycle Thief — which is arguably the best restaurant in Halifax.
With that in mind, here are my top picks (alphabetically) for coffee, meals and treats while you’re travelling to Nova Scotia and find yourself in Halifax:
- Bluenose II (website here) — perhaps Halifax’s most well-known breakfast diner, it’s been going strong since it opened in 1964. The prices are pretty reasonable considering the portion sizes and food quality. Thanks to its lobster benny, I kicked off my personal goal of eating at least one local seafood dish per day while we were travelling in Nova Scotia
- Cabin Coffee (website here) — if you’re staying down along the waterfront, you’re not going to hike up to Cabin Coffee just for one of its very yummy iced coffees, but if you’re heading back down after shopping on Spring Garden Rd. or you’re already on Hollis St. visiting the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, this is a great little spot for a snack and drink
- Café Lunette (website here) — all of your Instagram photo dreams are about to come true; this place is gorgeous inside. Although it took an inordinately long time for the staffer here to make my mocha, our croissants and other pastries were very good
- Darrell’s Restaurant (website here) — while I don’t recommend walking here if you’re staying at the MUIR (we went on our first night, before I knew how steep the streets were), I do recommend the famous peanut butter burger and house-made milkshakes, which you can request to be served split in two and it’ll still be more than enough for each person!
Pro tip: there’s a Sobey’s grocery store in the same plaza as Darrell’s where you can pick up a case of bottled water to keep in your vehicle while you’re travelling in Nova Scotia. I’ve pinned it on the Nova Scotia road map above. You’ll save a LOT of money and time doing this, even if you end up with a few extra bottles at the end of your visit. A heads up for out-of-towners, though — Nova Scotia charges a recycling fee that’s nearly the same price as the case itself, which will be really difficult for you to recoup. I did the math and, believe me, it’s still cheaper to buy water this way versus one-offs.
- Dave’s Lobster Shack (website here) — although it was a mind-bending $36 for one small lobster roll, this food truck on the Halifax waterfront served the best one I ate throughout our entire Nova Scotia road trip
- DRIFT (website here) — think traditional Acadian cuisine with a contemporary twist that provides a sense of place in an upscale setting. The standout dish for me was its pork belly and scallops dish, which combined two of my favourite things and was executed beautifully on the plate — and in my mouth. On a beautiful summer evening, this is the best patio on the Halifax Waterfront. You can also order room service and breakfast in bed is always nice, but I didn’t like the breakfast dishes nearly as much as the dinner offerings
- Peace by Chocolate (website here) — when their beloved chocolate business in Syria was bombed, the Hadhad family found themselves as refugees in Lebanon for three years before moving to Canada to start a new life. Inspiring story aside, their artisan chocolate is incredible
- Sugah Confectionary & Ice Cream Emporium (website here) — although you can get nice ice cream here, Miss Q was drawn to the freeze-dried candy — and it delivered
- Sushi Jet (website here) — sushi, delivered by robots. The sushi is pretty good, but the robot experience is the real draw if you’re travelling to Nova Scotia with kids
- The Bicycle Thief (website here) — I hate that this lands last alphabetically, because it was our favourite restaurant in Halifax with pasta done to such perfection that Miss Q (my resident pasta aficionado) couldn’t think of a better pasta she’d eaten in her nearly 13 years on Earth. Tables are very close together, but it doesn’t stop the experience from feeling high-end with service that topped every restaurant we visited across the province. There’s a reason you need to make a reservation well in advance
Things to do
There are so many fun things to do in Halifax that I won’t even come close to mentioning them all, but this is what we managed to squeeze in during our three days in the capital city…
Closed to traffic during the summer months, Argyle St. is everything I imagined Halifax would be, with bars, pubs and restaurants lining both sides of the road and the sounds of laughter and clinking glasses coming from every direction while locals and visitors alike spill out onto the streets, chatting with each other like long-lost besties (even though the could’ve just met that night).
There’s a friendliness across Nova Scotia that can be a bit jarring at first if you’re from a big city like Toronto, but you’ll quickly embrace the genuine kindness; and it’s especially true here on Argyle St., where you’ll also find the Neptune Theatre — Atlantic Canada’s largest professional theatre company. We saw the annual Argyle Street Kitchen Party production and it ranked in our Top 3 things to do in Nova Scotia. If that’s not playing during your visit, I have every confidence directing you here for any of its current shows.
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia | website
You have to see the Maud Lewis Gallery, which has been a permanent exhibit here since 1998. A work of art unto itself, Maud Lewis’s actual house is on display here and there are even some pieces here from her husband who ultimately followed in her footsteps, painting simple but idyllic landscapes inspired by their firsthand experiences in rural Nova Scotia. There are two buildings and several floors, some with intriguing experiential art and several thought-provoking multimedia installations. There’s also a huge collection of rug hooking pieces, for which Nova Scotia is known. Every Thursday night, BMO sponsors free public entry to the gallery from 5-8 p.m.
Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 | website
Pass by The Emigrant Statue on your way down Lower Water Street as you approach the Port of Halifax. Still in use today thanks to the thousands of cruise ship passengers who disembark to explore Halifax, Pier 21 was the primary point of entry for nearly one million immigrants and refugees from Europe and elsewhere, as well as the departure point for 496,000 military personnel and Canadian troops during World War II.
My own grandmother walked through this so-called “Gateway to Canada” in the 1940s after a nine-day voyage across the ocean from Southampton, England. It was a remarkably emotional experience to walk through the same archway that she would have walked through 80 years ago, but the bigger highlight of our visit to this exceptional museum was sitting with an immigration records expert onsite to search for my Granny’s UK departure card. It was a free experience, but I wanted a colour printout of the card, which was $20. They also gave me information about how to solicit the Canadian government for my Granny’s arrival card, too.
Halifax Waterfront (more info here)
From the Port of Halifax at the south end to Bishop’s Landing to the north end’s Historic Properties, the Halifax Waterfront is a vibrant, dynamic stretch that makes me weep for the Toronto Waterfront’s potential. It’s everything it should be, with a four-kilometre boardwalk dotted with shops, restaurants, installation art, food trucks and distinct areas shaped like miniature neighbourhoods.
There’s Bishop’s Landing‘s mixed-use space, with some of the best shops we found in Halifax and where you’ll find The Bicycle Thief restaurant; then there’s Historic Properties, which is a collection of seven warehouse-style buildings that were built between 1800 and 1875. Saved from demolition in the early 1960s thanks to their national historical importance, Historic Properties is now a National Heritage Site housing shops and eateries with centuries of Halifax history underfoot. (The ferry to Dartmouth is also close by if that makes it into your itinerary.)
For several hours each day, you can also tour the CSS Acadia, which was once a hydrographic surveying and oceanographic research ship and now allows free self-guided tours onboard from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There are some hands-on artifacts and it’s pretty neat even if you’re not usually into boats. Technically, it’s part of the Maritime Museum but you don’t need a ticket to hop aboard.
Halifax Central Library | website
A library? I’m suggesting you visit a library on your vacation? Why, yes; yes, I am. Because the Halifax Central Library is perhaps the most aesthetically delightful library I’ve ever seen. Miss Q was drawn to it from across the street, before we even knew what it was. There is a large library-inspired art installation stretching nearly the entire width of the main floor that pulled our attention to it as soon as we walked in the front doors. There’s a coffee shop at the front, a large reading room adjacent to the main foyer, a library shop and there’s even a media studio and a creative space upstairs.
Halifax Citadel National Historic Site | website
For one of the best views of downtown Halifax, go up (up, wayyyy up) the steep incline required to reach the Citadel. This hilltop fort is one of the best we’ve been to in Canada (though Miss Q still insists that one of our Ontario Drives is home to her favourite), and there are free guided tours throughout the day if you have older kids who have extra patience in their back pockets. Otherwise, you can easily manage a self-guided tour since you’ll get a map upon arrival and each space has staff (or actual military personnel) dressed in period costumes who help different rooms and exhibits come to life. I suggest timing your visit around the Noon Gun, which still fires daily.
Halifax Public Gardens | website
Come wander through the manicured gardens — it’s free! Though much smaller scale than something like The Butchart Gardens in Victoria — which I wrote about in my “Things to do on Vancouver Island” post — considering there’s no admission charge, the Halifax Public Gardens are impressive. Look for the wrought iron gates that came all the way from Scotland and once marked the garden’s main entrance in 1890, the little bridges, elaborate carpet beds, the stunning agave garden, a number of statues and the restored bandstand, built in 1887. Sit around the Victoria Jubilee Fountain, featuring the nymph Egeria who is surrounded by four water babies. There’s plenty of bench seating around the park, much of which is shaded. The garden is the perfect spot to sit, relax and appreciate life.
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic | website
Miss Q and I visited the Maritime Museum primarily for the Titanic exhibit — and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a permanent exhibit and if you’re fascinated by the story, you’ll be even more fascinated by the artifacts, passenger photos and stories, and a mini-replica of the ship. The rest of the museum, which is Canada’s oldest and biggest Maritime Museum, is best suited to those who are interested in naval and marine history.
Queen’s Marque District | website
Love, love, love, LOVE. This was my favourite spot in all of Halifax. Part of the waterfront, the Queen’s Marque is the newest mini-neighbourhood development and it boasts some of the most interesting features and the finest shops and restaurants. This is where you’ll find the MUIR hotel, but you don’t need to be a guest to experience everything else the Queen’s Marque offers, such as:
- Ridiculously cool public art, such as Tidal Beacon, a soaring 60-foot art installation that changes with the tides; The Siren’s Calling by sculptor John Greer with four Greek mythology figures — halved as mirrors on their back sides — each facing north, south, east and west; and Edoardo Tresoldi’s Sail, a 21-foot-high mesh-like sculpture
- Rise Again, which is a huge stairwell that rises over the ocean’s edge and provides some of the best waterfront views available anywhere in Halifax, both day and especially at night as the city lights reflect on the water
- The Queen’s Landing, providing visitors with an opportunity to personally connect with the ocean. Enormous granite steps sink into the ocean from the Queen’s Marque’s open space, inviting passersby to be part of the changing tide in real time
- Access to eats, drinks and shops like DRIFT, Café Lunette and Another Shop (which is probably my favourite women’s clothing store in Nova Scotia based on all the shopping we did)
Saint Mary’s Cathedral Basilica | website
Look: I’m not even a little bit religious. But I love a great church. From its neo-Gothic architecture to the complex stained glass windows (though not the original ones, since they were destroyed by the 1917 Halifax Explosion) and magnificent vaulted ceiling, it’s free to pop in to take in this gorgeous cathedral — the second Catholic cathedral ever built in Canada. The Government of Canada even designated Saint Mary’s a National Historic Site.
Shopping on Spring Garden Road (more info here)
You probably aren’t travelling to Nova Scotia to shop. But, if you’re looking for something to do on a rainy day in Halifax or have some loonies burning a hole in your pocket, I wanted to include this little section. We asked locals where to go shopping in Halifax and they directed us to the Spring Garden Rd. area. From high-end designer brands like Judith and Charles to tween- and teen-friendly stores like Envy & Grace, plus a charming book shop and staples like The Running Room and Lululemon, there are shops in every direction for a few blocks once you make it to the pinned area on my Nova Scotia road map above.
Travelling to Nova Scotia: Day trips from Halifax
If you’re really looking to use the capital as your hub and venture out from there, these are some great day trips from Halifax that also work nicely for a circumnavigational trip around Nova Scotia where you keep moving each day. Halifax was our starting point and we moved clockwise from there, but you could easily look up guided tours for each of these these if you prefer.
Peggy’s Cove — 45km from Halifax
I’m sorry, but you can’t come all the way to Nova Scotia and not visit Peggy’s Cove. It’s home to one of the world’s most-photographed lighthouses, and you’ll understand why when you see it in person. The boulders perched near Margaret’s Bay on the edge of the Atlantic, smoothed out by centuries of water rushing over them, give rise to the iconic 50-foot lighthouse that peers out over the signature landscape with its colourful houses. Anyone old enough to remember 1998 will likely relate Peggy’s Cove to the devastating SwissAir 111 crash where about 200 people died off the coast here.
Miss Q’s favourite part of our visit was Tanner’s Balancing Rock City, which is pretty much the entire area to the east of the lighthouse. She ran up and down the massive boulders and was so disappointed when it was time to leave, because they went on and on and on.
- Don’t be fooled and pull into the parking lot at the information centre. There’s another large parking lot much closer to the Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse and viewing platform, which is like a work of installation art itself
- Heed the warnings and stay off dark-coloured rocks and certainly stay well back from the ocean.
- Someone told us we’d only need half an hour to explore Peggy’s Cove and I’m here to tell you that’s a LIE! I wish we’d carved out half a day. Aside from hanging out on the rocks and daydreaming, there are also some lovely shops and lots of other areas around this quaint fishing village where beautiful photo opps await
- Holy Mackerel, with its hilarious trinkets and lovely giftables, and the Neil Depew Gallery, with some of the most beautiful and affordable original art we found in Nova Scotia, need to be on your must-visit list while you’re here
Lunenburg — 100km from Halifax
As you drive from Peggy’s Cove to Mahone Bay, you’ll start to see the colourful landscape take shape — and you can expect a lot more of that once you arrive in Lunenburg. The streets all shoot up from the harbourfront at alarming inclines — similar to San Francisco’s Lombard Street. If you’re driving a stick shift, you might want to avoid going up and down too much and just stick to the street that runs immediately parallel with the water. But if you’re travelling to Nova Scotia for a bit of a rush, start at the bottom of Cornwallis St. and head north. I’ve plotted it on the map above.
While you’re heading up that way, turn left on Lawrence Street so you can see the Lunenburg Academy, which looks like something straight out of Harry Potter. Built in 1895, it’s now a National Historic Site of Canada that was a primary school until 2012 and is the only surviving intact 19th-century academy building in all of Nova Scotia — and one of just a few in the rest of Canada.
Aside from its well-known candy-coloured homes, we came to Lunenburg to see the Bluenose II, which you’ll recognize from the Canadian dime. She isn’t always in port since she travels around the Maritimes all summer, so we planned our trip to coincide with one of her Lunenburg days. Although you can go out for tours on the Bluenose II, you’ll need time on your side since the shortest one is two hours long. Between tours, however, the decks are open and visitors are free to hop on and look around — but our timing wasn’t quite good enough and we missed the window by 15 minutes, so definitely arrive at least 45 minutes before a scheduled tour if you want to do this.
Lunenburg’s Historic District is full of historical homes with heritage plaques, some of which are now businesses but all of which maintain the area’s character. It’s worth spending even just an hour wandering around to take it all in, especially the colourful houses on King St. between Montague and Pelham Streets. Some of our notable stops here included the No. 9 Coffee Bar, Sweet Treasures Confectionary, The Mariner’s Daughter (if you’re a yarn freak like I am, proceed with caution) and Boutique By the Sea (where I picked up a pair of puckered muslin-cotton pants for a fraction of the price of that I’ve seen them for back home and out west).
Ovens Natural Park — 120km from Halifax
This was one of our favourite places in all of Nova Scotia and is very much worth the effort to find. Open from May through September, Ovens Natural Park is a campground that also has day passes for its sea cave trail. The 1861 gold rush centred on the shores of what is now Cunard’s Beach, mere steps from where you’ll park once you arrive at “The Ovens.” Visitors can even rent gold pans and try panning right on the beach.
The one-way cliffside trail is well-marked but not suitable for anyone in a wheelchair or with mobility concerns; the stairs that take you to some additional optional viewing areas are steep and uneven in places — some with such low “ceilings” that even 12-year-old Miss Q had to duck. Wear comfortable shoes with excellent grip, bring some water and plan to spend at least an hour following the trail. Without the steps, the trail itself is a fairly easy hike.
The lookout points at The Ovens are jaw-dropping, with two standout sea cave experiences along the self-guided path. Be sure you find Tucker’s Tunnel and Cannon Cave, so named for the loud BOOM noise it frequently makes as water crashes into the cave. You won’t have trouble hearing it, but the walk back up the long concrete staircase is tough if you aren’t in decent shape. Miss Q and I stood in the opening of the cave — which is protected with a manmade balcony — for ages, watching the Atlantic thrash its way into the main cave, BOOM, swirl and burst back out, all while the water levels rose and fell at least a metre or two. Mesmerizing. Until one BOOM was so loud and the sea spray so explosive that Miss Q ran out, worried the water was about to rise up past the balcony.
Though we didn’t experience it during our visit, there are decades of photographic evidence showing some of the sea spray reaching 60 feet or more. Trust me — it doesn’t matter if you don’t see this either. The place is interesting enough on its own.
Travelling to Nova Scotia: Whale watching in Nova Scotia
Having gone whale watching in Alaska last summer on a large vessel, one of the things on my Nova Scotia bucket list was zodiac whale watching. And one of the only places to do it in small zodiacs is down Digby Neck off of tiny Brier Island. I created our itinerary for this side of Nova Scotia entirely around this whale watching tour reservation — which just so happened to coincide with a tornado warning that delivered upwards of 50mm of rain in a single day. The one day we’d devoted in our itinerary to head down Digby Neck to Brier Island, with plans to check out Balancing Rock on the way back. Locals we spoke to agreed that this is the best place to go whale watching in Nova Scotia, so I’m keeping it here in case it’s something you want to do; I simply can’t tell you about our personal experience.
This is very rare, but if it happens to you, too, I’ve included a section on Annapolis Royal, which is where we went on that rainy day instead of sitting, disappointed, in our hotel in Digby. If you do decide to stay in Digby to accommodate whale watching on Brier Island, be sure to have breakfast at The Sea Biscuit Cafe & Eatery — which also has a small but lovely art gallery upstairs — and dinner at The Crow’s Nest.
There are, of course, other options for whale watching in Nova Scotia and if I’d known about the ones on The Cabot Trail in Pleasant Bay ahead of time, I would have called the day ours was cancelled and figure out a way to work it into our itinerary a few days down the road when we would be passing through.
Travelling to Nova Scotia: Annapolis Royal
Annapolis Royal was nowhere to be found on our original itinerary. In fact, I’d never even heard of it before I mentioned to a friend of mine who summers in Mahone Bay how sad we were that our whale watching tour was cancelled and there seemed like little else to do around Digby — in the rain. She suggested Annapolis Royal as an alternative and it was such a lovely day that I hope you’ll consider incorporating it into your own itinerary when you’re travelling to Nova Scotia.
Annapolis Royal was the capital of Acadia and, later, Nova Scotia — for nearly 150 years — until Halifax was founded in 1749. It has a storied history with the Mi’kmaqs, British and French, and faced a total of 13 attacks across the centuries (more than anywhere else in North America).
Nestled in the Annapolis Valley and home to the first European settlement in North America in the 1600s, Annapolis Royal has one of the highest concentrations of Canadian heritage buildings — including Canada’s oldest National Historic Site. This seaside village has picturesque cobblestone roads and has preserved its heritage beautifully. It’s perhaps the most eclectic little town I’ve ever visited, with creative energy oozing from the buildings, and is so compact that you only need to park once and you can explore completely on foot.
Things to do in Annapolis Royal
- Fort Anne National Historic Site (website here) — for 3,000 years, the Indigenous Mi’kmaq people used the river here to reach the south shore of Nova Scotia; that is, until 1605 when settlers arrived from Europe. The Mi’kmaq and these early settlers actually coexisted nicely until 1613 when a 150-year conflict erupted between Britain and France to occupy this part of what’s now Annapolis Royal. This British fortress — and the French settlement that’s now Port Royal National Historic Site, just across the harbour — has borne witness to more wars than any other across the country and offers visitors thousands of years of history in a single visit. We loved the huge heritage tapestry, designed by Kyoko Grenier-Sago that took 100+ volunteers and three million needlepoint stitches to create. And there’s a dressup area for younger kids, where Miss Q tried walking in wooden clogs (not so successfully, I might add!). But perhaps the most interesting relic in the bunch is an original parchment of just two handwritten copies that exist of The Nova Scotia Charter of 1621, the blueprint that established a Scottish colony in North America in this place that would be called “New Scotland” (or Nova Scotia in Gaelic), which is on display in Fort Anne’s Officers’ Quarters Museum. Parks Canada painstakingly restored the document, but unless you read Latin, it doesn’t really matter; either way, it will leave your jaw agape that you’re looking at something this old in Canada, when that sort of thing is usually reserved for European travel
- St. George Street — this is the main thoroughfare of Annapolis Royal and the best place to park. Look for Mad Hatter Wine Bar (a crazy little shop that doubles as a wine bar) before turning southeast on a pedestrian-only road that leads to Church Street. This was our favourite part of Annapolis Royal, where you’ll find ARCH&PO, an outstanding bakery, and a little yellow house called H’arts, which is short for “House of Arts.” It’s an artist studio for several different artists but also a shop that has jewelry from makers in Toronto and handmade art supplies from Manitoulin Island, among more local treasures. The house used to be Lucky Rabbit Pottery and some of the potters’ additions to their home-studio hybrid space remain, like the handmade tiles running up the stairwell. There are lively artist communities everywhere you go in Nova Scotia, but it felt the most alive in Annapolis Royal thanks to H’arts. (It’s not hard to understand why the arts are so celebrated here, with so much natural beauty in every direction and so easily accessible thanks to the province’s compact size.) Head back to St. George St. and go north, past Drury Lane for more heritage homes and a museum
- Annapolis Royal Boardwalk — where you’ll find the Annapolis Royal Lighthouse and a long pathway of inuksuit and balancing rocks called prayer stone stacks. It’s a short but peaceful boardwalk that starts at the Town Hall and ends at the Annapolis Royal Wharf
Travelling to Nova Scotia: Nova Scotia wineries
The Nova Scotia wine region has so much to do for foodies and winos that you’d need to spend a few days in this area alone if you really wanted to focus on wineries. We merely passed through for half a day, but we did make it to two Nova Scotia wineries and they both deserve to be included — for different reasons, because they juxtapose each other so nicely.
Domaine de Grand Pré | website
The oldest winery in Nova Scotia, Domaine de Grand Pré is at the root of Nova Scotia’s still-evolving wine story. It offers daily tours at 4 p.m. from June through mid-October, which will take you through the lush vineyard. I loved the wine tasting in the wine shop, which is open from June to December, where the $15 classic wine flight allowed me to try four different varietals, guided by a really knowledgeable staff member. I liked the Pomme d’Or Ice Cider so much that I bought a carry-on-friendly size to take home with me.
I was expecting to be wowed by our lunch at Grand Pré Wine’s onsite restaurant Le Caveau, but sadly it fell a tad short for me in terms of both food and service. It was very busy and I know most of the hospitality sector is still facing staffing shortages, so it’s possible another visit would elicit different results. The charcuterie board and the wine I paired with it, however, were very good — so if you want a winery food experience and you have lots of spare time on your hands, this is a lovely choice.
Luckett Vineyards | website
In stark contrast to Domaine de Grand Pré’s mature, more classical vibe, Luckett Vineyards is a modern winery concept in both design and execution. Aside from its very clever marketing draw — a fire-engine red British phone booth in the middle of the vineyard that invites guests to call anyone in North America — its wine shop is huge and the covered patio under which diners eat in the open-air when it’s nice out thanks to retractable doors is a more casual, unbuttoned experience in an ultra-contemporary space.
If you’ve got time while you’re in the Grand Pré area (which itself is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site), Grand Pré National Historic Site is another opportunity to learn more about the Acadian culture and the people’s determination to make their home in Nova Scotia, no matter how many times they were kicked out. And for pretty photo opps, a meditative stroll around a garden labyrinth or to pick up some artisan goodies, Tangled Garden is lovely.
Travelling to Nova Scotia: Tidal bore rafting
If you’re travelling to Nova Scotia, tidal bore rafting IS. A. MUST. Full stop.
The water in the Shubenacadie River is brown, but warmer than I expected — proving I really didn’t need to buy a wetsuit for Miss Q after all — and I’m shocked when they tell me there aren’t any helmets. After all, you could chase waves that are more than 10 feet high depending on the moon cycle as 20 to 50 feet of tide rushes into “The Shubie” from the Bay of Fundy, which sees the biggest tidal changes in the world each day.
Unlike whitewater rafting, where waves are created by a strong current rushing over rocks, these tidal waves are created when the Bay of Fundy’s water funnels into the shallow and much more narrow Shubenacadie River and both that surge and current collide. The front wave is called the “tidal bore.” You won’t find any rocks in The Shubie, other than a pebble here and there, and that’s why you need just a life vest — and no helmet.
Similar to whitewater rafting, expect to get wet. Very, very wet. One of the biggest advantages of tidal bore rafting is that your zodiac has a motor and there won’t be a paddle in sight; there’s absolutely no work required on your part, other than holding on.
The Shubie offers the only place on Earth where you can do this kind of tidal bore rafting, thanks in part to its sandy bottom sprinkled with titanium flecks that soak up the sun all day while the tide is out. It heats up single-digit ocean temps dramatically as it floods into the basin at 30km an hour and an astonishing two inches per minute.
Oh, and there’s mud sliding. That’s part of just about every tidal bore tour offered and we had the best time ever with Shubie River Wranglers, which prides itself on creating a fun, safe and information-rich experience from beginning to end, no matter how old you are. There were kids as young as five or six years old in some of the boats and we had an extended multigenerational family in ours, complete with grandparents.
Even though it was a full five days before the full moon, when the tides are highest and the most aggressive, and the rain from the day before our tidal bore rafting tour — the rain that cancelled our whale watching trip — dulled our tidal waves, it was still an exhilarating experience and perfect for Miss Q who was pretty nervous before we went out. When we asked our captain, who happened to be the owner of Shubie River Wranglers, how we sign up for the “extreme” tides, he said guests can contact him when they’re starting to plan their visits and simply ask, because the tidal information he works with tell him months and months ahead of time what to expect.
- Tidal bore rafting operates rain or shine
- Take a waterproof smartphone case (you can also buy them onsite or rent a GoPro)
- Wear rugged water shoes like KEEN sandals and a mud-friendly outfit that you don’t care could be stained for life
- Shubie River Wranglers offers raincoats, and even if it’s a hot day, once the sun starts to go down, you’ll be glad you wore one
- Miss Q didn’t need the wetsuit in the end, but she was happy to have the extra warmth and any kid who typically runs cold may want to have one, too
- Bring towels and dry clothes and shoes to put on after rafting; there are warm showers onsite where you can get cleaned up before getting back into your vehicle
Where to stay
SEEK Wilderness Accommodations | 3-star | website
After tidal bore rafting, we rested our heads for the night in Truro at SEEK Wilderness — a small, forested enclave of yurts and shipping-container cabins that back on to Victoria Park, one of Canada’s largest public parks. This is the kind of place I wish we’d been able to stay a few days to really sink our teeth into. We made good use of the eco-tub just beyond our front door; they’re the first of their kind in the Maritimes (using 90 per cent fewer chemicals than other hot tubs). There was a fire ban during our stay, so we couldn’t make a fire at the cozy fire pit with the provided firewood, but we were so exhausted from tidal bore rafting that it was no big deal.
The list of what is and isn’t available in the cabins and yurts is available here. We would come back and stay at SEEK in a heartbeat.
We hit up nearby NovelTea Coffeehouse & Bakery the morning we checked out before moving on to The Cabot Trail portion of our Nova Scotia road trip.
Travelling to Nova Scotia: The Cabot Trail
Ahhh, The Cabot Trail. If travelling to Nova Scotia meant missing out on this, I don’t think I would have gone.
A bucket-lister that could easily eat up an entire trip to Nova Scotia all on its own, this is one of the country’s most-famous drives — a 300km section of Nova Scotia that takes you along Cape Breton’s breathtaking coastline. It is a road tripper’s dream. While the scenic loop can be done in as little as a day, allowing time to stop at a few of the designated lookouts and tackle Cape Breton Highlands National Park‘s most iconic hiking trail, I would suggest four days to truly take it all in.
The most scenic drive in Nova Scotia
Driving The Cabot Trail felt in some ways like the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland, which is part of my 7-day Ireland itinerary. But with the advantage of wider roads and the familiarity of driving on the right hand side. On perfect, clear days, the winding roads with frequent changes in elevation have a Thelma-and-Louise-esque feeling of freedom, with “oohs” and “ahhs” guaranteed from beginning to end. (Er, not that kind of end. This is where we part ways with Thelma & Louise.)
When I started thinking about travelling to Nova Scotia and mapping out this trip, I read a few times to drive The Cabot Trail counterclockwise to take advantage of being closest to the guardrail and make pulling off into lookouts easier. In the end, I listened to locals who suggested the opposite — and it had its own advantages, including hiking the Skyline Trail first thing in the morning before pushing on to spend the balance of our day exploring more of what The Cabot Trail had to offer without worrying about making it to the trail by a certain time. The views were still exceptional (actually, I think we had better views at every turn!), I never felt like it was difficult to pull off, and some of the lookout entrances happened to be on the right-hand-side anyway.
Things to do on The Cabot Trail when you’re travelling to Nova Scotia
Again, we were only on The Cabot Trail for two days, so this won’t be the broadest list out there — but it’s a start and it’ll show you how much you can see and do if you also find yourself with limited time. This list is organized to move clockwise around The Cabot Trail, starting at the Canso Causeway:
- Nova Scotia Visitor Information Centre (website here) — one of five Visitor Information Centres in the province, the one in Port Hastings is on your immediate right as soon as you cross the Canso Causeway, which brings you from the mainland to Cape Breton Island. Even if you don’t plan to go into any of the info centres while travelling to Nova Scotia, there’s a small parking lot at this location that’s perfect for photos looking back at the mainland
- Inverness Beach (website here) — keep driving north on the Ceilidh Trail (still part of The Cabot Trail, it’s a 100km coastal stretch along the Gulf of the St. Lawrence on Cape Breton’s west coast) until you come to Inverness Beach. You won’t hug the coast the entire time but be prepared for the start of the many mind-blowing views you’ll earn during your tour of The Cabot Trail. If you read that the water here is warm because it’s shallow, I’m here to tell you to prepare for a much colder dip. It’s the Atlantic Ocean, and even in the heat of August, Miss Q wore a wetsuit and still had to adjust. It’s a gorgeous, sandy beach with non-stop waves — complete with riptide warnings that you should discuss with your children before going in. There’s an area that’s dog-friendly and another section with a lifeguard during peak season, and The Beach Hut is open most days from 12-7 p.m. and serves great burgers, fries and shakes, so you don’t even have to worry about trying to pack a picnic lunch if you’re road tripping. Keep your eyes peeled for sea glass (we found clear, green and blue pieces!) and so many pretty, smooth rocks on the beach; including some that look like “drops of caramel,” per Miss Q’s description
- Grand Étang — as you’re driving to my next suggested stop, watch for the pulloffs on the west side of the road in Grand Étang. The coastal views here are insane and worth breathing in
- Centre de la Mi-Carême (website here) — this is the only place in Canada dedicated to sharing the centuries-old Acadian tradition of mask-making and -wearing. Like Halloween in many ways, Mi-Carême — which translates to “mid-Lent” — is a truly ancient art and practise that began in Medieval Europe and is rooted in the belief that you could cheat a little during Lent as long as no one saw your real face; and it’s still celebrated every year in this part of Nova Scotia, even if the religious undertones have dwindled. The Centre has masks to view, purchase or even make, in addition to a small museum devoted to its history. There’s a mask-making experience every day at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., which lasts two hours and costs $25 per person; call ahead to ensure there’s space. There’s also a really nice photo opp on the grounds near the parking lot, with some colourful houses around a small pond
- Chéticamp (website here) — this is a great place to put the breaks on for the night, fuel up if you need to and get some snacks from LeBlanc’s General Store for your Cabot Trail hike in the days to come; it’s one of only a few remaining traditional Acadian fishing villages in Nova Scotia. And although it’s still very firmly French, if you only speak English, there’s no need to worry. Everyone we encountered spoke and understood English perfectly; though, as we do in Quebec, we always tried to at least greet and thank people in French. Be sure to visit Les Trois Pignons Cultural Center (from mid-May to mid-October), which Miss Q thought was going to be boring and it turned out to be one of her most memorable things about travelling to Nova Scotia — it features Acadian antiques and the world-famous celebrity rug hookings by Elizabeth LeFort. You’ll want to catch a sunset while you’re in Chéticamp, which pairs nicely with dinner on the patio at l’abri café, restaurant et bar. And if you’re looking for an early-morning breakfast before escaping into the Cape Breton Highlands, Aucoin Bakery is a good option. Don’t bother trying to get a shot of the Caveau Point Rear Range Lighthouse; I have no idea why it’s displayed on Google Maps because it’s on someone’s private property
- The Skyline Trail — since I have an entire Cabot Trail hiking section below, I’ll point you there instead. Just know that if you’re driving clockwise following my Nova Scotia road map above, Cape Breton Highlands National Park is next
- MacKenzie Mountain Look-off — after your hike, you’re going to be H-U-N-G-R-Y. But just before you reach the one and only restaurant we saw in the park, the Rusty Anchor (open seasonally), there’s a lookout that locals suggested to try to see whales without doing an organized whale watching tour. I’ve plotted it on the map even though we didn’t have time for it ourselves, because I hope you’ll spend more than just one night on Cape Breton Island to check this out
- Beulach Ban Falls (website here) — it usually takes some effort to see a great waterfall, but not this one. As you’re briefly exiting Cape Breton Highlands National Park at its northernmost side, you’ll see a sign on your right for the falls; watch for it carefully, because you won’t have cell service and can’t use Google Maps or Waze to get there from the Rusty Anchor. Unless you’re game for a 2km walk, do not park in the first parking lot you see. Instead, drive down the narrow dirt road (slowly, watching for oncoming vehicles) until you reach the next parking area. From here, it’s just a five-minute walk through the woods to reach the nearly 70-foot-tall Beulach Ban Falls
- Green Cove (website here) — you may read that this is a “trailhead,” indicating that it’s a hiking trail. I saw no such trail, but it is a fantastic lookout and I strongly recommend making a pit stop. The rocky landscape is a beautiful contrast to the waves that crash against it, and though there have been whale sightings here, the day we visited rewarded us with at least a hundred seals sunning themselves on a small island nearby
- The Bitsy Bean (website here) — near Igonish Beach, which we sadly didn’t get to this time around, this great little roadside coffee shop serves fantastic frozen lemonade, believe it or not!
- Cabotto Chocolates (website here) — do yourself a favour and make a point to pop into this small house on the side of the road selling hand-crafted Belgian chocolate. Every single thing we bought (and we bought a fair bit) was divine; I’m a serious choco-holic and I only eat the good stuff, and I was floored by its Peakn’ Puffins, hand-painted truffles and a daily special that was a spicy dark chocolate concoction that could compete on the world stage of chocolate
- Charlene’s Bayside Restaurant and Cafe (website here) — open seasonally, if you miss getting the seafood chowder at Charlene’s, you’ve missed the best one you’ll ever have in your whole life. I’m a chowder hound and tried numerous bowls while we were in Nova Scotia, adding to the hundreds I’ve enjoyed throughout my lifetime, and I can say — without skipping a beat — that this is the best seafood chowder EVER
Cabot Trail hiking
With 26 hiking trails from which to choose, it’s not hard to understand why people from all over the world continue travelling to Nova Scotia for Cabot Trail hiking opportunities. Do note that even if you’re just driving through the park — which is inevitable if you’re driving the entire Cabot Trail loop — you must purchase a park pass at either entry point at the Parks Canada Visitor Centre. If you’re driving clockwise, your park entrance will be the one in Chéticamp; counterclockwise, you’ll find yourself at the Cape Breton park entrance in Igonish, which is a beautiful building.
The most popular Cabot Trail hiking trails are: the Skyline Trail, Franey Trail and Acadian Trail. We chose the Skyline Trail because we aren’t hardcore hikers and we heard this was a relatively easy and well-cut and -marked trail. I’d like to tackle the Acadian Trail during our next visit to Cape Breton Island, which is considered a more moderately difficult hike.
The Skyline Trail
Even if you’re travelling to Nova Scotia without a pair of hiking boots in sight, The Skyline Trail is an excellent option. Only running shoes are required for this easy, meandering trail that’s part finely ground limestone and part boardwalk underfoot. There is a fork in the path not far from the trailhead where you can decide whether you want to take the shorter out-and-back trek (to the left) or the longer loop option (to the right). We went with the left because we weren’t staying a second night along The Cabot Trail — I recommend you do so you can plan to take the extra time to hike the loop.
Getting to the trailhead early, around 8:15 a.m., meant we scored great parking, there were no lines for the washrooms and the trail was almost empty, allowing us to hear birds and babbling brooks. Plus, there was no one in our photos! Depending on how fast you walk, you can expect the shorter trail option to take 2.5 hours or so. We spent a lot of time at the lookout, so our roundtrip hike was closer to the three-hour mark.
The Skyline Trail is a very gradual downhill slope on the way to the lookout point — and it’s effortless. The path is flat and wide enough that you could even bring a stroller (though I’d still suggest a carrier). Watch for birds, butterflies, slugs and caterpillars; we saw many of each en route. Once you arrive at the lookout, there are several descending platforms that each provide a different photo opp.
It’s important to stay on the boardwalk here, since the rock face is a long, long drop that you’re unlikely to survive. Some 30-something guy, standing precariously on the rocks several feet from the boardwalk asked us to take his photo and I refused, not wanting to be any part of his unintentional suicide mission. This isn’t a joke and it’s not a time to test the boundaries of your bravery; you really could die here if you choose to leave the safety net of the boardwalk. Don’t worry — you can still get within arm’s reach of the dramatic cliff that edges the Atlantic.
And these views… They’re hard to beat and if you’re not on a strict timeline, the salty mountain air is calling for you to sit and stay awhile.
One of the things Miss Q loved the most up here was looking down at the road we’d just driven, seeing the twists and turns with a bird’s-eye view. She even pointed out a spot where we’d driven over a waterfall, which we couldn’t see from the road.
There are benches at every viewing deck, which you may need to use on the way back up, because this part is steep, y’all. And since you know you came downhill all the way here, guess what’s coming for your entire way back up the Skyline Trail? Sure, it’s a mild incline that’s very gradual…but it’s long and unless you’re in great shape, you’ll feel it. Just sip your water, take a break here and there and don’t stress about your speed.
On our way back into the parking lot, a group heading down the trail saw us sweating and cheering that we were back at the car, and they asked, “Was it worth it?” HELL. YES.
Cabot Trail hiking tips
- The trails are busiest between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.; if you’re hiking outside of these hours, you should let a loved one know your entry time and expected exit time just in case something happens (it’s not a terrible idea inside of this window either)
- Take lots of water, bug spray, sunscreen, sun hats and snacks (if you have kids or like some frequent noshing yourself)
- Be bear and moose aware; we didn’t see either during our Cabot Trail hiking experience, but there were loads of signs suggesting we could. Read the warning signs and the suggestions on how to handle your encounter before starting your hike
- There are only two washrooms along this trail — one in the parking lot and one about 25 minutes in
Where to stay
I hesitate to make a big to-do about Laurie’s Motor Inn, where we spent our one night on The Cabot Trail, because it was just OK. The furniture had seen much better days and our sink clogged almost immediately, but I will give credit where it’s due — the bedding was crisp and clean and the mattress was pretty comfortable. This is proof that locking in your preferred accommodations along The Cabot Trail early is a must; this would not be my first choice.
We passed by some awesome-looking glamping domes near Pleasant Bay that I now have on my wish list for next time.
Extra tips for The Cabot Trail:
- Make sure you leave enough time to do some of the pull-offs — and be patient while looking for wildlife. We ended up seeing the magnificent wolf pictured below on one of these pull-offs
- Like I mentioned earlier, one night just wasn’t enough and when you’re travelling to Nova Scotia, earmark at least two — if not three — nights just for The Cabot Trail
- Construction stops along The Cabot Trail were frequent and really cut into our timing upon arrival on the island, delaying us nearly 30 minutes from reaching Inverness Beach when we first arrived and slowing our exit as well the following day
- Drive carefully and follow speed limits; we heard sirens while hiking and when we were exiting the parking lot, traffic was backed up heading counterclockwise because of a really bad motorcycle accident. This is not the memory you want to take home with you after travelling to Nova Scotia
- If you’re hoping to visit Igonish Beach, keep in mind that the entrance is in the park and do NOT believe your GPS when it tells you to keep on truckin’ out the park exit
- Your Google Maps timing may not account for the free, 24-hour Englishtown ferry that you’ll need to take between Cape Breton Island and mainland Nova Scotia, so give yourself extra time when heading clockwise on The Cabot Trail. This is the smallest ferry and the shortest ferry trip (at just 500 feet) I’ve ever encountered, and it actually took longer to load and unload vehicles than it did to complete its crossing!
Travelling to Nova Scotia: Sheet Harbour Nova Scotia
Part of Nova Scotia’s magic is its serenity. Once you leave Halifax, it’s just so quiet. Even driving here (save for the construction) is peaceful. So, please — when you’re travelling to Nova Scotia, schedule some downtime to just be. The Sheet Harbour area is a nice path back toward the airport and ending your Nova Scotia road trip with some R&R before real-life re-entry is a must. I really wish we’d stayed here for at least two nights. As you drive through Sheet Harbour, be on the lookout for rapids — there were so many tumbling right along the side of the road in this part of the province.
Taylor Head Provincial Park, with its white sand beach, was high on our list — but Mother Nature had different plans and we ended our trip enjoying lunch at a café instead.
Where to stay
The Marmalade Motel | 3-star | website
The Marmalade Motel is, essentially, a COVID project. Ontario transplants wanted to shift gears and bought an old, rundown motel and June-ified it. (If you don’t know about The June Motel in Ontario’s Prince Edward County, you can get a sneak peek of it in my slip dress post.) Except they actually did it all themselves.
And, OK, it’s technically 15 minutes outside of Sheet Harbour Nova Scotia, in a tiny rural town called Port Dufferin, but oh my god, it’s adorable. Don’t let the “motel” part fool you; the beds and bedding are amazing and the little touches here and there certainly set it apart from your preconceived notion of what a motel will be.
The couple who own it gave each room its own unique boho story. There are only eight rooms, but they’ve used each space wisely, offering different configurations with king, queen and double beds. Each room has ocean views and a private balcony, high-speed internet access and a smart TV with which you can use your Netflix, Prime and other log-ins. The contactless check-in and -out procedure is a breeze and the communication leading up to your stay is carefully thought out and very detailed to ensure you have everything you need.
Unlike many seaside properties you’ll find when travelling to Nova Scotia, there are no nightly minimums at The Marmalade Motel — and it’s pet-friendly.
With a swing in front of each room (right on your porch!), we felt the immediate ease and playfulness that carried through our stay here. This is a respite — a welcome pause — after a lot of driving, walking and doing. We will be back for sure one day.
Other highlights include:
- A new new geodesic dome was being delivered the day we checked out; set to overlook the Atlantic, this will be the only restaurant in Port Dufferin and the only dining dome of its kind in Nova Scotia — and it’ll be just outside your balcony. It’ll be worth travelling to Nova Scotia again just to dine here!
- There’s a large hot tub at one end of the hotel, free for guests to use
- Free access to the private wharf and sundeck
- Free use of standup paddleboards
- Great add-ons like breakfast in bed, charcuterie and picnic boxes are available, which is especially helpful since there is literally nothing else nearby for food unless you go into Sheet Harbour
Once you’re in Sheet Harbour, The Marmalade Cafe & Coffee Bar (yep, same owners!) is the perfect lunch stop if you’ll soon be en route to the Halifax airport. Using locally sourced coffee and other ingredients whenever possible, everything we tried here was great. My mocha was served in a large bowl-like mug and my reuben was piled high, like it should be. The service is spot on, and there’s a fun magnetic wall with those little word magnets so you can create poetry while you dine.
Travelling to Nova Scotia: Final tips and tricks
- When we started thinking about travelling to Nova Scotia, we mapped out our ideal route using Google Maps and found driving times pretty accurate for planning ahead and determining how far we could travel in a given day. However, using Waze GPS on the ground ensured a more accurate estimation getting from Point A to Point B. That said, due to very unpredictable cellphone service across the province, I suggest you request a rental vehicle with built-in GPS.
- When travelling to Nova Scotia, expect gas prices to be considerably more expensive than you’re used to if you’re coming from the USA or western and central Canada, perhaps with the exception of British Columbia where it may be more on par. We found fuel was about 20 to 30 cents per litre more than in Ontario.
- Speaking of fuel, gas stations on The Cabot Trail are few and far between so keep a careful eye on your fuel tank. We saw just five as we drove the entire length of the trail, and I’ve marked them all on the Nova Scotia road map above. If you’re going clockwise, there’s one as you start on the path to Inverness, another one in Mabou, one in Chéticamp across from Le Gabriel restaurant, one at Cape North/Middle Aspy, another as soon as you get into Igonish and one last one in Beddeck before you exit The Cabot Trail.
- Pay close attention to restaurant hours — pretty much everywhere. We were disappointed on more than one occasion after driving for hours only to find most restaurants had already closed or weren’t even open on the day we were in town. It was rare to find restaurants outside of Halifax open past 7 p.m. and some were open only Wednesdays to Saturdays. If you’re travelling to Nova Scotia and have your heart set on specific restaurants, research their days and hours of operations ahead of time to plan around them.
- Cellphone service everywhere outside of Halifax can be quite spotty, with many areas in Cape Breton Highlands National Park and the more rural stretches being non-existent. Ensure someone you know at home has a copy of your itinerary when you’re travelling to Nova Scotia and make a daily check-in plan with them.
- Since weather can be unpredictable, if you have activities or attractions that you’d be devastated to miss, plan an extra day or two in that area to allow for rain-checks. For example, if we’d had one extra day in Digby, we could have gone whale watching; similarly, we heard from people who drove The Cabot Trail in the fog and, with just another day or two on their side, they could have hung around and waited for clearer skies.
DISCLAIMER: While I was compensated for this post, I ultimately spent more of my own money travelling to Nova Scotia, trying so many activities and restaurants to bring you the most robust information possible within the span of nine days. Opinions and suggestions are all my own.