Canada – The Maritimes – Part Eight

Fancy a trip to the Atlantic Coast of Canada? Join us as we journey around the Maritimes – New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island (PEI) and Nova Scotia.

#New Brunswick:

From Maine, we travelled by car back across the border into Canada, once again. St Andrews-by-the-Sea was our starting point to explore the Bay of Fundy. We stayed at a newly renovated hotel, Inn on Frederick, run by a delightful Korean couple, Jay and Ann, who were starting  a new life in Canada with their three children. A short drive to the north was St John which boasts a raging tidal bore at the change of tides where adventurous folk ride their surfboards.

Next, we drove on to Hopewell Rocks where you can walk on the ocean floor amongst the weathered stacks, known as the Flowerpot Rocks, which owe their unique structure to the enormous tidal differences of up to 40 feet. For obvious reasons, swimming was discouraged!


On our way, we came across several covered bridges and the forests were already touched by the golden tones of Autumn. There are two ways to access the island; by ferry or by a 14 kilometre toll bridge. We chose the latter and paid a return toll of $45.

North Rustico in the northern centre of PEI was to be our home for three nights. Barachois Inn was built by early French settlers. Opposite the inn was the oldest Catholic church on the island, an elegant white building with black trim. Nearby was a museum which celebrated the site of the first French bank. Our hosts at the inn, Gary and Judy MacDonald, shared tales of island life and culture. I was struck by the rolling green hills, the red soil and cliffs. Potatoes are a major crop and McCains has a number of processing plants there. Pumpkins and scarecrows were everywhere in preparation for Halloween.

Many of the homes in the area were adorned with a star to identify their Acadian origins. At Rustico we were very close to the Anne of Green Gables museum and interpretive centre which was run by Parks Canada. Having read L M Montgomery’s novels as a young girl, I was thrilled to be able to visit the site of many of her childhood experiences and to see a faithful rendition of Anne’s fictional home shared with Marilla and Matthew.

Exploring the island was a treat – from Souris in the east to the capital, Charlottetown, which played a pivotal role in the federation of Canada. At nearby Brackley Beach, there was a fantastic restaurant and art gallery complex with extraordinary pottery, jewellery and stained glass. I was sorely tempted to max out my credit card.

Many of the shops and seafood restaurants were close to closing for the season; a concept we are unfamiliar with in Australia. Like the many geese sighted flying overhead, local business owners were preparing to fly south for the winter in their huge RVs.

#Nova Scotia (and Cape Breton):

Leaving PEI behind, we drove into Nova Scotia with our first stop at the windswept Cap D’or lighthouse built on cliff tops overlooking the Bay of Fundy. Before heading into the capital city, Halifax, we journeyed down to the historic town of Lunenberg with its old wharf and stunning historic homes. Closer to Halifax was Peggy’s Cove which evoked strong sentiments of Scotland with its granite outcrops and lighthouse, and the cottages of a typical fishing village. Windswept barely describes the Atlantic winds lashing the cove.

A short drive brought us into Halifax, home of the Dalhousie University and the Canadian Atlantic naval fleet. The city was founded in 1709 when 2500 British citizens were transported to settle Nova Scotia to counter the French settlement of Fort Louisbourg on Cape Breton. The star-shaped earthworks of the British fort known as The Citadel remain visible to this day. The Maritime Museum was well worth a visit for its exhibits about the loss of the Titanic in 1912 and the cataclysmic explosion experienced in 1917.

There were many artifacts from the Titanic and stories of how the local fishing boats were involved in the collection of the dead as they floated in their life jackets. 300 were buried at sea but a number were brought into Halifax where families might arrange for their transfer home for burial. Though it was commonly  believed that women and children were given precedence for the life boats, it seems this did not apply so much to those from the Third Class passenger list whilst there was a surprising number of men from First Class who were rescued.

One particularly poignant exhibit was a pair of tiny, brown leather, lace-up shoes. They belonged to the unnamed child and rescuers had clubbed together to pay for his funeral.

The story of the Halifax explosion was also extremely moving.  A French vessel filled with highly flammable  munitions was awaiting a convoy – for safety required ships travel together to avoid the German Uboats. A collision occurred with another vessel, sparking a fire. Many Halifax residents rushed to the harbour to view the drama but the boat exploded, turning the city into a conflagration. 1600 people were killed instantly. 9000 were injured – 6000 seriously. Many were blinded by flying glass or suffered terrible burns. A tsunami followed, wiping out the nearby Native American village and the following day a blizzard hit the area compromising the safety of thousands who were homeless. Some 12,000 buildings were destroyed. It is hard to believe the resilience of the remaining residents of the city who rebuilt their shattered lives and made Halifax what it is today – a thriving regional community.

After spending time in the museum, we wandered along the harbour precinct, stopping first at a Poutinerie for some Poutine, a French Acadian dish of chips, covered with cheese curds and gravy.  It was surprisingly delicious and warming in the brisk wind.

Along the wharf, there were signs about a fascinating period in Halifax’s history. Out in the bay, an island stood in silent testament to the conflict between the French and English. After the British conquest of Acadia and the French/Indian Wars, the Treaty of Utrecht in 1710 was signed where the Acadians were allowed to keep their lands provided they signed an unconditional allegiance to England. Some signed in the hope of remaining neutral but many did not, fearing they would be called to fight against France. The Acadians had strong ties through intermarriage with the indigenous peoples and feared attacks upon their villages if they sided with the British. The Native American tribes of the area had joined together in the Wabanaki Confederacy and were strongly allied  with the French. They continued to wage a guerilla war against the British forces in response to their aggression.

The British government viewed the resistance by the Acadians, and their refusal to sign the oath of allegiance, as a future threat to security and decided to transport the Acadians out of their territory without any distinction between those who had remained neutral and those who had not. Some were transported to France, to England or to other colonies. On an island in Halifax harbour, some of the more active dissidents were imprisoned. They were joined by many others in the enforced removals.

Eventually, later in the century, the British relented and allowed the Acadians to resettle in Nova Scotia, Cape Breton and New Brunswick as long as the groups were isolated from each other and not a large enclave. Once again, they had to sign an oath of allegiance to the crown.

Some of those who were transported returned to the Americas and settled in the south in Louisiana but many thousands died through sickness or drowning when ships were lost at sea. The British forces went on to defeat the French at their Fort Louisbourg on the east  coast of Cape Breton and the strength of the Wabanaki Confederacy waned.

An interesting aspect of this story reflects the impact of religion for the French and the Meti (those of French/Indian extraction) were strongly Catholic and the British, staunchly Protestant. I found this whole period of history absolutely engrossing, and the stories very moving, having little prior knowledge of the hardships endured by the Acadian folk in this extraordinary region.

My purpose in visiting the Maritimes was to explore the history of the Scots and we were not disappointed at the little town of Pictou in the north as we made our way towards Cape Breton. Here we found a wonderful museum and heard the story of the Scots who arrived there on their ship, the Hector, to settle New Scotland – Nova Scotia. Once again, displaced Scots had gathered in the north, this time at Loch Broom, near Ullapool, to make the journey to Canada in search of a new life.

They endured horrendous conditions, a storm which forced them back into the Atlantic for a fortnight when their rations were already dangerously low and a Smallpox epidemic which killed seventeen of their children.  One of the poignant aspects of this tale was how the families begged the ship’s captain to let a piper board the vessel, even though he could not pay the fare, for he was crucial to their emotional wellbeing. The piper must have kept their spirits up through such a traumatic voyage. Many found, once again, that their new life was not as promised and after the disastrous voyage, they set out to clear the forests and build their homesteads.

Their ancestors at Pictou continue to honour this voyage and worked with the broader community to build this history museum with its information about tartans and clans, and to build a replica of the Hector. Climbing down into  the bowels of the ship was a salutory experience for us – to witness the cramped, dark conditions and imagine the horrors of such a voyage. These desperate folk were brave indeed.

Cape Breton:

Some twenty five thousand Scots have made Cape Breton their home. Amongst them were my own family members, displaced from Glendale in western Skye.

Cape Breton is a feast for the eyes. Within the centre of the island, for it is an island joined now by the Canso Causeway, is a great lake system – the Bras d’Or Lakes, an inland sea –  and the road to Baddeck skirted the picturesque shoreline.

We were fortunate indeed to have friends on Cape Breton who welcomed us so warmly on many social occasions. Our home for the time being was a wonderful old cottage which overlooked the Baddeck River. In the distance were lush fields, forest and mountains.

The town of Baddeck  is a very pretty place and its central location served us well, One of the many highlights of our trip was the Cabot Trail, which takes about four hours to complete by car through mountains and forests with fabulous sea vistas.  We visited Fort Louisbourg and also a whisky distillery, set against a patchwork of russet and golden amber on the mountainside. I loved the restaurants, cafes and bookstores at Baddeck and a fabulous shop, Baddeck Yarns. Such a colourful place – a haven for anyone passionate about knititng.

The Celtic Colours Festival started towards the end of our visit but we were lucky to be able to attend three fantastic concerts. if you love the fiddle, Celtic stepdancing and Gaelic singing, you will adore this festival.

Other highlights included visits to the Gaelic College and the Highland Village at Iona. The latter is in a superb hillside location with expansive views over the Bras d’Or Lakes. There are houses from many different historical periods and each one has an interpreter who decribes life at the time. It was all done in such an authentic manner that the experience was truly memorable. Our visit to the stone black house, so called because of its dark interior and lack of windows, was brilliant as we had missed seeing inside one on the Isle of Lewis due to its closure at the time.

On Cape Breton and across Canada, there are reputed to be many moose and bear. Try as we might, we saw nary a one! To remedy this situation, on our journey back to Halifax to catch our flight  to Boston, we stopped off at the Shubanackie Wildlife Sanctuary run by Parks Canada. There we saw a very elderly pair of moose and a couple of thick-set black bears, industrious beavers and hyperactive otters, bald eagles and owls, snoozing raccons and some powerful-looking cougars – amongst many others. Who knew porcupines could climb trees or river otters were so quick to bite their keepers? All of the animals had been injured in some way and could not be returned to the wild.

Over the past weeks, we have been following the path of the early Scots and Cape Breton did not dissappoint. Stories were told of a staunchly Presbyterian minister, Norman MacLeod, who gathered his flock in disgust and took them far away to New Zealand because of the unholy way of life on Cape Breton at the time. Today, links remain between the ancestors of these folk with their shared heritage, across NZ and Canada. Perhaps the most compelling aspect for me were the many Gaelic speakers we came across and the strong Scottish influence evident on Cape Breton.

Sadly, our time in Canada had come to an end. What an honour it was to have made this journey across such a a stunning country. Can’t wait to go back!

Join me for the next instalment as we travel to New England and New York before we make the long trek home to Australia.