Jigsaw puzzles and maps can give you the wrong idea about Nova Scotia. On paper, the province practically looks to be an island, dangling off the tip of New Brunswick, due east of Maine, with nothing between the shore and France except 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean. On that evidence, it only makes sense that Nova Scotia would be all about stubborn fishing villages clinging to the rocks. In your mind (and on the jigsaw puzzles gathering dust in closets everywhere), brightly painted buildings crowd the harborside. Boats chug to and fro. Grizzled lobstermen perch on a pier and read the clouds to predict tomorrow’s weather. All very quaint and scenic.
“Well, good for you. You have us 10 percent!” That’s sly praise with a wink from Lynda, a Nova Scotia native and Classic Journeys guide for the last decade, when I share my vision. “The things folks don’t know is the fun part. I send them home with more Nova Scotia than they bargained for.” Her camaraderie is sincere and instant—and a deep trait in the local DNA. The one comment she hears most often is how friendly everyone is. “Sure. Our rat race is slower than your rat race. Up here you don’t duck your head. You look life in the eye and smile.”
Looking head-on at Nova Scotia surely will put a grin on your face, especially as the clichés crumble. Lynda savors the reaction from the lookout over the Annapolis Valley. It’s the garden district of the province. A long ridge called the North Mountain borders one side with—you guessed it—the South Mountain on the other. (“They look like hills to you. But this is Nova Scotia, and we say they’re mountains,” deadpans Lynda.) In between, a lush sweep of fields and apple orchards is a spectacular display of agriculture. There’s not a fishing boat in sight.
The fact is, you’re never more than 30 minutes away from a body of water in Nova Scotia. Of course, you expect the Atlantic. Likewise, you’ve known since grade school that the Bay of Fundy is here too—though you may not know that it forms almost the entire northwest border of the province. But what about the lakes? Heading inland to Kejimkujik National Park, you could be a thousand miles from the ocean. Here are the lakes the Mi’kmaq natives canoed on. A forest trail passes through a grove of 400-year-old hemlock trees. Lynda recalls a walk there when she noticed two companions lagging behind. The wife appeared to be weeping as her husband consoled her. She hurried back to them with visions of a sprained ankle or a shattered camera, but the woman reassured her. “I’m just having a moment,” she said. “In all my life, I’ve never been anywhere so quiet and peaceful and real. It just overwhelmed me.” One hopes never to shed tears on a vacation, but if you’re going to, can you imagine a better reason?
Even a day dedicated to being out on the irresistible Bay of Fundy manages to happily ruin a preconception or two. Presented with the chance to go whale watching, Lynda says visitors sometimes hesitate, thinking they’ve been-there-done-that off the coast of California or Hawaii. Think again. Our friend Tim is the captain, taking the group out on his lobster boat in search of the humpback, minke and right whales that flourish in the rich waters. “You’ve never been so close to whales,” Lynda enthuses. “Their fins bump the boat harmlessly. You’re so near you can actually smell their breath.” Okay: a diet of a ton of krill a day can result in (I can’t help myself ) whale-itosis. “But the wind blows it away fast enough,” she says. And you know what? She’s absolutely right. It’s an awesome one-of-a-kind experience and, come to think of it, it’s just another occasion when a native looks you in the eye and says welcome.
Between the stately Victorians of Port Royal and the seaside village of Lunenburg—yes, there really is a colorful fishing village!—Lynda can’t resist sharing a litany of surprises. Do you know about the Black Loyalists, former slaves who fled American colonies and swore loyalty to the British king in the 18th century? Have I mentioned the orchids that grow on Brier Island? Did I tell you about the Gulf Stream and how it moderates our climate so we can have a winery just outside Halifax?
Lynda teaches a sweet lesson that every good traveler already knows. Take off the blinders. Meet and listen to the people who live in the place you’re visiting. Expect to be startled, and treasure the revelations. I think there’s no better place to practice those skills than Nova Scotia.
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