I was basking in the sunshine while bobbing on a boat dock on Springfield Lake 30 minutes north-west of Halifax. It was our last day of our holiday, and I was mentally selling everything and moving to Nova Scotia. Our family had spent ten short days of our summer vacation in Nova Scotia, and everyone was smitten. My husband reminded me that Nova Scotia gets some pretty epic winter weather and I’m cold weather wimpy so visits in the balmy months would have to suffice. Nova Scotia has everything: music, culture, history, the great outdoors, ocean, lakes and a vibrant downtown scene in their capital, Halifax.
Our Nova Scotia adventure began with a drive around the famous Cabot Trail. Time-crunched tourists can zoom through in a day; savvy travellers recommend staying at least three days. Our family took it slow and spent four days in Cape Breton, which in my opinion isn’t enough. I need a month, at least. But without the luxury of an empty schedule and bottomless bank account, we found four was enough to get a taste to come back for more. We spend the last half of our holiday in and around Halifax.
I’ve picked 15 of our favourite things we enjoyed during our visit and highly recommend you add them to your travel checklist when planning your next visit to Nova Scotia.
1. Sail the Seas with Amoeba Sailing Tours
I will jump at any chance to get on the water when I am near an ocean so naturally, we booked a day to sail on Bras d’Or Lake, Canada’s largest inland sea. Captain John and his witty sense of humour had us in stitches as he educated us on the geography, topography, and history of the area. Including the fact that Bras d’Or Lake is brackish, meaning a combination of salty sea and fresh lake water. That’s him holding the Sailing for Dummies book in the photo above- rest assured, he’s been running his sailing tours for over 24 years. Amoeba Sailing Tours are family friendly and children ages 8 and under sail free. On board the Amoeba is also the best vantage point to get a full view of Beinn Bhreagh, the former estate of Alexander Graham Bell. http://amoebasailingtours.com
2. Step back in time at the Fortress of Louisbourg
Travel back in time to 1744 at Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. Over 300 years ago, this French fortress housed over 6000 people within its walls. After being sieged by the British and reclaimed by the French, the fortress was ultimately destroyed by the British in 1760. This historically significant living museum has been reconstructed to 1/4 of its original size and is operated by Parks Canada. http://www.fortressoflouisbourg.ca
3. Hike the Skyline Trail
For incredible coastal vistas on a walkable hike head to The Skyline Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The trail is 7.5 kms or you can take a longer 9.2 km loop. According to Parks Canada, the hike is about 2-3 hours but with young kids expect it to take up to 4 hours especially if you’d like to stop to enjoy the scenery. There are outhouses along the way and the last half is boardwalk and steps. There are no steep inclines or challenging sections but it can just be a long day with little ones so bring plenty of water and snacks. Crazy breathtaking with sweeping views of the Gulf of St Lawrence and you get a bird’s eye view of the Cabot Trail highway below. Bring binoculars and you might get lucky and see some frolicking seals and whales playing in the water below. www.pc.gc.ca
4. Check out the World’s Largest Fiddle
I was so excited about my upcoming trip to Nova Scotia I was rattling off my bucket list of things to experience to a friend. I told her I wanted to hear bagpipes and fiddle music at least once on my trip. A long-time resident of Nova Scotia, she half-joked that I’d be lucky if I didn’t get to hear bagpipes or fiddles every day in Cape Breton. She assured me the place oozes music and it’s not unusual to have random pipers or fiddlers busking in touristy areas. The Big Fiddle at the Port of Sydney stands 60 ft high, the world’s largest fiddle and pays homage to the vibrant Celtic culture in Cape Breton. If you are like me and love Celtic music, head across the street to the Governor’s Pub where local bands play live music nightly and is kid-friendly until 9 pm. And yes, much to my delight, there were bagpipes and fiddle music most nights at Governor’s. http://governorseatery.com.
5. Go Bird Watching
If you are a bird aficionado you will love the Bird Island Boat Tours not too far from North Sydney. If you are like me and can barely tell the difference between a robin and a wren, you’ll still enjoy a ride along the coast learning some unusual bird species, especially the adorable puffins along with a few sunning seals along the shoreline. Running since 1972 by three generations of Captains, this nearly three-hour boat tour is highly educational. Bring binoculars or rent a pair before heading out. I had never seen a puffin before and fully expected large birds the size of penguins. They are actually really quite small so binoculars are a must to get a full view of these cutie pies.
6. Stay the Keltic Lodge in Ingonish, Cape Breton
Since the 1940’s the Keltic Lodge has been an iconic landmark of Cape Breton and recently underwent a five million dollar renovation. The adjacent award-winning Highland Links golf course, Aveda spa, heated outdoor pool, restaurants featuring live music and the nearby Ingonish Beach make this the perfect spot for a family stop along the Cabot Trail with something for everyone. http://kelticlodge.ca.
7. Hunt for Sea Glass at Inverness Beach
If you take a detour off the Cabot Trail you’ll find this gem of a town called Inverness as well as one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen, sprinkled with sea glass. This was one of those quick side trips that was an after thought and could not stop for a short visit that really should have been a full day affair. If you have a thing for mermaid tears, aka sea glass, you’d find lots here if you are willing to shed your shoes and tiptoe into the water where we found lots churning in the water. http://www.novascotia.com.
8. Have lunch at Downstreet Coffee Company
After a day at the beach in Inverness, stop by Downstreet Coffee Company for a cappuccino and a fresh, made-to-order sandwich. Converted from an old bank, you’ll find treasures including local jams and jellies, organic teas, and natural skin care products inside the original bank vault. www.downstreetcoffeecompany.com.
9. Fly a Kite at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum
Alexander Graham Bell fell in love with the beauty of Cape Breton and made his summer home in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. While visitors are not allowed at the still privately owned estate of Beinn Bhreagh, you can visit learn about his life and accomplishment at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum. A visit to the museum takes about two hours but if you have some extra time, there are behind the scenes tours including the White Glove Tour. With kids in tow, we decided to enjoy one of Alexander Graham Bell’s favourite pastimes, flying a kite. The museum offers kite making activities at a scheduled time during the day. You can sign out a kite from the museum or pick up one at gift shop has many varieties of kites of all prices and sizes. www.pc.gc.ca.
10. Dine in the Tatamagouche Train Station Dining Car
The Tatamagouche Train Station is one of the most charming spots you’ll find in Nova Scotia. A retired CN Rail station that has been lovingly converted into a cafe, gift shop, restaurant and boutique hotel. We made the detour to Tatamagouche on our way from Cape Breton down to Halifax and stopped for lunch. We dined on goodies picked that morning from the nearby vegetable garden. My kids were entranced by all the weird and wonderful trinkets and toys available for purchase in the gift shop. This was a quick stop for us but you can read about her stay in a rail car on Helen Earley’s article, A Child’s Dream: The Train Station Inn, and The Charming Village of Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia.
11. Trace Your Ancestors at Pier 21 Museum in Halifax
In 1951, my husband’s father and his family left the Netherlands and arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1951. From 1928 to 1971 nearly one million people immigrated to Canada at what is now Canada’s Museum of Immigration. We wanted to take our kids to show them where their Canadian story began. They loved the kid-friendly hands-on activities which included playing a game of chess in a Colonist train car; similar to one their Oma and Opa rode on when they made their way out west to Alberta and British Columbia.We only spent a few hours but if you are a history buff, it might seem like it would take days to experience all the museum offers. For the grownups, try to pass the Citizenship Test, it’s harder than you might think. Visit pier21.ca for more information.
12. Parkour at Peggy’s Cove
After their obligatory photo op for their mom in front of the world famous lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove, my kids were itching to jump, scramble and climb across the bouldered coastline. There is plenty of place to run and play AND to see the ocean without having to get so close to the ocean that it becomes unsafe. One of the appeals of Peggy’s Cove is the rough and tumble of the waves smashing against the rocks but there are signs everywhere advising visitors to stay off the black rocks and way from the unpredictable water. This is not the beach to dip your toes in the water. Peggy’s Cove is also a great spot to pick up souvenirs. There are plenty of art galleries and gift shops. Hags on the Hill offers locally made artisan items from hats and scarfs to pieces of art. For the most beautiful pieces of beach decor in affordable pewter, check out Amos Pewter. Visit www.peggyscoveregion.com for more information.
13. Hunt for Spies at the Citadel
If you have to pick only one thing to do in Halifax, choose the Citadel National Historic Site. This star-shaped hilltop fort built in the early 1800s is a living history museum with interactive and educational programs running daily including Be a Soldier For a Day program for grown-ups and kids and Ghost Walk Tours.
My kids loved the Parks Canada XPlorer Program. We picked up a satchel at the reception filled with the necessities needed to track down a spy and save the Citadel! Clues are scattered around the Citadel for children to find and record in their booklets. After completing the activity they got a keepsake souvenir to remember their day at the Citadel. We loved tagging along on their adventure. We might have missed some important exhibits during our visit to the museum if we hadn’t been on a mission to solve a mystery. Visit http://pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/ns/halifax for more information.
14. Eat Copious Amounts of Lobster
Living in land-locked Alberta lobster is a rarity at family meals. When planning our trip to Nova Scotia I intended to eat as much lobster as humanly possible: lobster rolls, lobster mac and cheese, boiled lobster..you name it, I was going to eat it. Lobster is easy to find and is on nearly every menu including McDonald’s but our family’s favourite lobster spot was found at Baddeck Lobster Suppers. They specialize in locally caught seafood and smoky smell of fire-planked bbq salmon was almost enough to deter us from our lobster-eating mission but not quite. The all you can eat mussel menu might sound enticing to some but the portions were so big we barely could finish round one.
15. Jump in a Lake
There are over 3000 lakes scattered around Nova Scotia and fun at the lake is part of Nova Scotian culture. Our lakeside retreat belonged to friends who have since converted their place into an Airbnb rental so lucky you can stay there too! Mornings started with sipping coffee and basking in the sunshine on the dock while we lazily watched kayakers and SUPers float by. We ventured out in a paddleboat to investigate the uninhabited island in the centre of the lake and cooled down tossing the kids off the docks and jumping in ourselves. In the evenings our kids tried their hand at fishing and were successful capturing tiny ones they ruefully tossed back in the water. In the evening we would head back to the dock, wine glass in hand and watch the sun go down.
Despite all our crazy adventures wandering around Nova Scotia if you ask my kids to name their favourite part of the holiday they would both cheer about the time spent at the lake. Wherever your family adventure in Nova Scotia takes you, be sure to schedule to time to kick back and relax at a lake in Nova Scotia. Enjoy some east coast hospitality at Beverley and Alan’s Airbnb rental. Visit https://www.airbnb.ca/rooms/15658405 for more information and to book your stay.
I’d love to hear about your favourite spots in Nova Scotia! I bet we missed some great spots on our family adventure.