When my wife and I told people we were going to Nova Scotia to hike, many seemed mystified. The province is not very big, and their mental picture was of a placid landscape on a peninsula better known for high tides than high hills.
My own mental pictures came from a vibrant art exhibit by a Canadian cohort of painters known as the Group of Seven, whose works featured dramatic wilderness scenes in vivid colors. (I’d been there once when I was 4 but had no memories of it.)
Nova Scotia turned out to offer us a a stunning variety of walks, featuring huge, sweeping views. These meanders came with an unexpected bonus — surprisingly personal conversations with complete strangers. Besides being beautiful, it seems, this was the kind of place where paying for strawberries could get you 20 minutes of other people’s family histories, favorite cheeses (homemade stinging-nettle gouda!) and personal habits.
It was a brilliant, cloudless summer day when friends met us at the Halifax airport. We drove two hours toward the Bay of Fundy through the rural western stretch, a region quilted with fields of dense blueberry bushes and dappled with spikes of violet and rust-colored grasses and green-gray spruces. The landscape undulated into the distance — no dramatic peaks but plenty of topographic swoops and potential panoramas.
Arriving in the village of Fox River, we settled into our vacation rental, a converted old schoolhouse. (Our friends owned a share of the place.) The two-story, 3,500-square-foot house had been renovated with large groups in mind. From the outside, it could pass for an 1890s-era church, but once inside you found, on the first floor, four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a shared lounge area.
Upstairs the chef-quality kitchen and living area formed a large, sun-filled great room perfect for making family meals, with huge windows in three directions. One wall of windows looked out over the low bushes of blueberry fields stretching to the bay. In the opposite direction we had a panorama of where the lone road sliced through town and coniferous forest stood beyond.
My wife and I quickly fell into a morning routine: Wake up early (this far north, daylight glows around 5 a.m. in July and lasts past 10 at night), make coffee, take mug down the dirt road to the shore. Along the way, admire blueberry fields.
When we reached the shore, we’d continue across the rounded stones to the water’s edge and dip toes into the icy tide. Then we’d walk back to the house, where all four of us would have breakfast on the sunlight-washed deck and plot the day’s hike.
We got many of our walking destinations from conversations with local folk. The two young nature guides at the nature interpretation center near the town of Economy had recommended a waterfall hike inland toward Economy Falls (which sounds ominously bearish but turned out to simply be the waterfall near the town). The blueberry farmer we met on our morning walk to the bay suggested a little-trod path near the Age of Sail Heritage Museum down the road. He described the route: past a clump of alders to another waterfall, it would probably take half an hour. (He also covered everything from his father’s education at our Fox River schoolhouse to the location of his other fields up the road and his family’s work on the dyke that made the lower fields arable.)
But two of the most satisfying hikes we found came from simply looking at the map: They combined striking vistas of the sweeping coastline with up-and-down bluffs and hills that stretched inland.
For our first hike, our friend Dave picked out Cape Chignecto, at the peninsula’s western tip, where we could do part of a 31-mile loop trail. The walk led us high up, deep into shaded groves of fir and down across wooden bridges over streams, with occasional openings where sunlight burst through and we could get a long view west to the Bay of Fundy, site of those famous 50-foot tides.
Where the trail branched north, we stopped for a picnic lunch at a spectacular overlook. To the west, we could see the cape pointing like an outstretched finger to the Bay of Fundy, its ridge looking hairy with conifers and sloping down to gray rock at the water’s edge.
Soon we met up with two hikers finishing a three-day loop around the cape, returning along the Eatonville trail. Their advice: Don’t bother with the inland branch. The coastal hike is best.
Toward the end of our three hours on the Cape Chignecto loop, the trail took us down to the beach. Two of us ventured into the frigid water until numbness jolted us back to shore. Water temperatures in Nova Scotia, even in July, barely inch above 46 degrees (yes, Fahrenheit).
Afterward we stopped at Advocate Harbor, little more than a wide spot in the road with three miles of beach, for a late lunch at the delightful Wild Caraway restaurant. The low-slung clapboard building has a vegetable garden in the back and an extensive herb garden on the side.
My friends sampled fresh seafood pasta with scallops and cod. My seafood board — local scallops, shrimp and haddock — was beautiful and delicious, washed down with refreshing homemade ginger beer. On the way out, we inhaled the herb garden, with its lavender and thyme. Then we drove back the way we’d come, along the coast.
The second hike chosen from the map lay east of Parrsboro, a larger town east of Fox River, in Five Islands Provincial Park. On a map, the little islands fan out from the shore into the bay, erupting like tectonic fireworks. Our walk to Red Head (the name refers to the orange headland rising over the water) was an easy downward one-hour lope through woods. The trees occasionally opened to reveal the promontory looming closer each time.
We returned uphill to the main park area, sweating from the midday effort, and plunged into the Bay’s frigid water again.
I only needed a moment to revive.
Generations of people had plunged into these waters, usually in boats, and on another day we explored that history when the Age of Sail museum in Port Greville appeared suddenly after a sharp turn in the rural road. It, too, looked like a clapboard church, which seemed somehow fitting given the culture of seafaring and shipbuilding that it enshrined. The museum memorialized a period of over a century when the British Crown, facing a domestic timber shortage, encouraged Nova Scotia shipbuilding.
Over 700 ships were built just on this slice of shore near Parrsboro over a 115-year period. (The whole Bay of Fundy shore produced a mind-boggling 8,000 ships.) Nova Scotia did for the age of sail what Detroit did for car culture: It launched the vessels. The work drew workers and their families to the coast, and massive timber operations sent thousands of tree trunks sluicing down rivers to feed the industry.
The museum was crammed with artifacts chronicling the shipbuilding boom and the lives lived onshore. There were huge templates for building a ship that could be followed like a dressmaker’s pattern. The massive tools included saws taller than we were.
Rounding a corner into the next room, I saw from behind a figure rocking in a chair — a woman with a gray bun hairdo, looking like Norman Bates’s mother. I was terrified.
She turned out to be an animatronic hostess known as Grandma. Set off by a motion sensor, she told stories of life on this perilous shore in the 1800s. As she droned on, she didn’t sound scary so much as a little sad, and her stories were poignant.
Elsewhere in the museum, I stood transfixed by “Around Cape Horn,” a video loop of a 1929 film made by a young man who shipped out of Nova Scotia on the sailing ship Peking. I watched crew members scale the rigging in pitching seas and high winds. Footage taken from the masts showed sailors hauling ropes on the deck as surf washed over them; the cameraman and narrator, Irving Johnson, said that one sailor in the scene would, soon afterward, be swept overboard.
Later that day, we drove from Port Greville to the rocky cliffs of Cape d’Or and its lighthouse. The road ended on a bluff, and from there we walked down the cliffside path — steep but a reasonable distance. Near the picturesque lighthouse, we found a homey cafe where you could buy snacks and a simple lunch.
As usual, we met more friendly Nova Scotians. One woman down for a few days from Cape Breton shared tales from their wandering drive (along with her husband’s weekly work schedule and her daughter’s salary).
On our last evening at the schoolhouse, we cooked a dinner of fresh scallops and a dessert of strawberry shortcake, made with delicious, just-picked berries. We played word games and listened to CBC on the radio as dusk spread over the water and daylight finally faded after 10 p.m. With no cellphone service and unreliable Internet, the unhurried radio interviews felt like companions from an earlier age.
The next morning, it was time for our last stroll to the bay. The ritual of walking and water and stories had become as gravitational as the Fundy tide that swept the buoys in a vast arc of churning water off Cape d’Or. And now that tide was taking us back to the world.
But not without one more story. Going through airport customs in Halifax, usually a wave-through formality, turned into a lingering conversation as the customs officer told us about the big snowfalls of last winter, and the big melt of the spring, and couldn’t we stay a minute longer to talk?
Taylor is a Washington-based writer and instructor in the Johns Hopkins Graduate Certificate in Science Writing program. His website is davidataylor.com.
More from Travel:
Cape d’Or Lighthouse
1 Cape d’Or Rd., Advocate Harbor
The lighthouse keeper’s residence is now a scenic guesthouse. Double rooms from $80 night.
3721 Highway 209, Advocate Harbor
Fresh local seafood, and vegetables and herbs from their garden. Mains range from $15 to $30.
That Dutchman’s Cheese Farm
132 Brown Rd., Upper Economy
Delicious cheeses made on site with local ingredients, plus jellies, candies and gifts.
The Age of Sail Heritage Museum
8334 Highway 209, Port Greville
Exhibits featuring shipbuilding and life on Nova Scotia in the pre-steamship era. Admission $4, students and seniors $3, under 12 free. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. mid-May to mid-October.