Think Nova Scotia is all folk music, high tides and lobster? Well, think again. Prepare to discover a province packed full of architecture, celebrity chefs, delicious wine and some of Canada’s most potent design inspiration.
by Colin and Justin
As this issue publishes, it’ll be two years since the perilous blight of COVID-19, and all its nefarious iterations, landed squarely in the middle of a largely unsuspecting global populace. For fear of reminding everybody just how hard these last 24 months have been, we’ll focus on the positive aspects (wait: positive aspects?) as we venture, cross province, to wax lyrical about Nova Scotia. Joys we might never have discovered were it not for the way in which the last two years have played out.
Described on provincial vehicle licence plates as “Canada’s Ocean Playground,” the Atlantic province is surrounded by four major bodies of water: the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to the north, the Bay of Fundy to the west, the Gulf of Maine to the southwest and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.
According to the 2016 Canadian census, the largest ethnic group in Nova Scotia is Scottish, at 30 per cent, a statistic that goes some way to explaining why, when visiting, we feel so at home. There’s a familiarity, you see, and an undeniable gentleness to the folk we’ve met out east. It’s fair to suggest our travels to the beautiful province help quell huge homesickness, an emotional malaise brought on by restricted access to our beloved Scotland.
As much as Nova Scotia is known for its beautiful, rocky coastline – and its attendant mix of cobblestone and sandy beaches – it also boasts around 5,400 lakes (some freshwater, some salt water and some brackish), which perhaps explains why so many Ontarians adore the province: it’s packed with familiar Cottage Country topography that resonates with many from this spot of Canada.
While the landscape might feel familiar, however, the food scene is decidedly different to Cottage Country. Seafood, obviously, is a significant part of the offering: lobster, crab, scallops and mussels being just a few of the delicacies pulled from the Nova Scotian drawer in Davy Jones’ bountiful locker. Gastronomes insist you haven’t tasted a lobster roll until you’ve had a local lobster roll, and we’d be hard pushed to disagree. And the scallops – and indeed the snow crab – have a sweetness all their own.
But from where stems our affection for Nova Scotia? Well, since landing, a decade and a half past, on Canuck shores, we obsessed with the dream of visiting. And the dream that, one day, we might wander the softly undulating rock that surrounds Peggy’s Cove – the undisputed poster child of Canadian tourism – attired in kilts. What better place, after all, for two new Canadians to show their “newness” than in a province whose literal translation (from its Latin name) is New Scotland?
With best intentions, however, our schedules – and monthly trips back to “old” Scotland – bridled that ambition. But hey, having tied down a window of opportunity, our thirst was finally quenched just before COVID’s grip took hold.
With several Ontario and U.K. builds underway, and an ambition to one day tackle a property on the Atlantic coast (more of that later), the adventure seemed like a perfect opportunity to appraise potential while simultaneously stocking up on travel and decor inspiration.
And so, cameras and notebooks in hand, we set off, discovering quickly thereafter that Nova Scotia boasts some of this country’s most exciting architecture.
From Maritime saltbox clapboard homes, to fantasy log cabins in hidden forests, from tiny oceanfront abodes, to concrete structures that would make the staunchest modernist swoon, the province is a designer’s dream.
Arriving in Halifax, we spent the day familiarizing ourselves with the beautiful capital. Fascinated by the Titanic story, we toured the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to research the tragedy (Canadians were amongst the first to send help) before visiting the graves of many of those who perished. Quiet, reflective times, indeed, but our adventure had only just begun.
Later, we visited the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia to familiarize ourselves with artist Maude Lewis. Profiled in Maudie, the movie starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, the late Ms Lewis’s work is now lauded as amongst the world’s best folk art.
The centrepiece to the exhibition is Maude’s original (tiny) home, relocated to the gallery from its original site in Marshalltown. We love colour, so Maude’s naïve (yet vibrant) paintings serve as a rich reminder to add at least one standout element (a jaunty accent wall, perhaps, or a carefully chosen textile) to enliven each project.
Leaving Halifax, our design odyssey took us to the Annapolis Valley, a patchwork of fields, orchards and vineyards where Mother Nature’s deft hand is ever visible courtesy of the Bay of Fundy’s tides and an ever-changing landscape of rocky shores and salt marshes. And, oh, those wines. Nova Scotia, you see, has a long history of grape growing that stretches back to the 1600s. Today, there are over 20 wineries located across the province and close to 1,000 acres of grapes that yield product that’s globally revered for its fresh and bright style.
Next stop on our style harvest (around three hours from the Lightfoot & Wolfville Vineyards, where we stopped for lunch) was the Tobeatic Wilderness Area in the UNESCO Southwest Nova Biosphere. It was there we checked into Trout Point Lodge (Canada’s only member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World), an atmospheric log cabin with a build style redolent of traditional homesteads and classic Canadian construction.
After a night’s rest, we grabbed the LaHave ferry and made haste for Shobac Cottages, a group of contemporary residences by Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects. While there, we invited Brian Mackay-Lyons, designer and owner of the beautiful community, to join us for dinner, cooked onsite by Craig Flinn, one of Atlantic Canada’s most respected chefs.
To say we were staggered by Chef Flinn’s magical use of local produce (his Cullen Skink soup is to die for), and the remarkable homes designed by Brian are an understatement. Add to the picture undulating pastures populated by cattle, sheep and horses, as well as breathtaking ocean vistas, and the estate feels like a lost village at the end of Earth: albeit a 21st-century iteration with inspiring architecture, stellar food and fascinating company.
Yes indeed, our Nova Scotian odyssey proved quite the journey. But, of course, all good things must come to an end. And so it came to pass we travelled back to Ontario where, shortly thereafter, the first year of COVID unravelled around us. Lockdowns ensued, panic spread and much of what we take for granted suddenly stalled. Our ability to travel became compromised and so we waited, with bated breath, for things to change.
When travel restrictions eased at the end of 2020, we made a leap of faith and decided to travel to the remote fishing village of Louisbourg, Cape Breton, where we’d heard tell of an interesting hotel called Point of View Suites, which had just come to market. Due to governmental protocols, we were required to self-isolate, which we chose to do (with the seller’s consent) in the shuttered oceanside hostelry.
It’s fair to report we were immediately smitten due to the hotel’s oceanside position, its fishing village location and its close proximity to The Fortress of Louisbourg, North America’s largest re-creation of an 18th-century site. Thereafter, we quickly conspired a plan to make our hotel dreams come true. And we made an offer which was subsequently accepted. Aye, smack dab in the middle of a pandemic. But more of that in another issue.
If considering a trip to Nova Scotia, we’d also recommend you experience The Cabot Trail, a 300-km highway that weaves through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, affording, as it does, spectacular valley and coastal views. We suggest taking two or three days to properly enjoy the spectacle: play a round of golf on the world-class greens of Highlands Links, indulge by visiting the area’s much loved restaurant scene and peruse the countless artisan shops that pepper the renowned trail. For those with a sense of adventure, book a sea-kayaking trip, or embark upon a safely organised whale-watching tour. But don’t, whatever you do, consider the Cabot Trail an exclusively summer destination – across winter there’s also plenty to do: downhill or cross-country skiing, winter hiking and snowmobiling being just a few pursuits that will augment the Nova Scotian thrill factor.
Little wonder then, as a new year dawns, the province continues to attract vacationers and permanent settlers alike.
“Reaching the one million citizens mark is a significant moment in our province’s history,” says Premier Tim Houston. “The world,” he adds, “is learning just how special Nova Scotia actually is; we have momentum and we’re still growing.”
Visiting Nova Scotia, as we see it certainly, is like submitting to some sweet, beguiling spell. A spell so potent we were captivated from the very moment we touched down on the province’s undeniably beautiful terrain. And it’s a spell which becomes ever more binding with the passage of time. We’ll never ever leave Haliburton, nor our beloved Drag Lake, but the Atlantic province has claimed a part of us, in so many ways.
Just the facts
Some places to visit:
• The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic Maritime, Museum.NovaScotia.ca
• The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, ArtGalleryOfNovaScotia.ca
• Tobeatic Wilderness Area, NovaScotia.ca
• Highlands Links, GolfCapeBretonHighlands.ca
• Luckett Vineyards, LuckettVineyards.com
• Lightfoot & Wolfville Vineyards, LightfootAndWolfville.com
• The Fortress of Louisbourg, pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/ns/louisbourg
Some places to stay:
• Trout Point Lodge, TroutPoint.com
• Shobac Cottages, Shobac.MLSArchitects.ca
• North Star, under renovation, Facebook.com/ColinJustin
• The Quarterdeck Resort, Quarterdeck.ca