Twenty years ago last August, Greg and I honeymooned on Prince Edward Island. I chose this destination due to my love for the Anne of Green Gables book series, and luckily Greg acquiesced.
As anticipated, PEI was beautiful. In the course of the week, we drove around the entire island and marveled at the flat potato fields that butted right up to the ocean. During that week, a fellow tourist suggested we also visit Nova Scotia, as the topography was completely different.
It has been on my bucket list ever since.
In those 20 years, we’ve also known people who have visited Nova Scotia, including my parents. My great-grandmother came from Nova Scotia and after visiting her hometown and the countryside surrounding it, my mom declared she would like her ashes spread on a sheep farm there.
After sweating it out for 10 days in the desert in August 2017, my plan for 2018 was to visit someplace where we didn’t have to hide in our hotel room when it became too hot. After reading Nova Scotia guidebooks and referring to our children’s summer sports schedule, I determined that June would be the optimal time to visit. July and August are the busiest tourist months, which leaves June to enjoy cooler temperatures, fewer crowds, and cheaper rates.
After hearing about my parents’ trips, I was interested in spending a few days in Halifax before heading to Cape Breton Island. We opted to stay in AirBnBs and found a charming urban loft apartment housed in a renovated church in Halifax.
After a late afternoon arrival in Halifax and dinner, we woke up the next morning and drove to Pier 21, Canada’s smaller version of Ellis Island. Pier 21 wasn’t the original location for immigrants to land when they arrived in Canada, as that pier burned down. However, Pier 21 was the entry point for immigrants arriving in Canada between the years of 1928 to 1971. As with many historical attractions, a short movie aired detailing the history. The film highlighted the openness of Canadians to immigrants, which we found both inspiring and depressing considering the current state of affairs in the U.S.
Following our visit to the museum, we enjoyed lunch at the neighboring Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market. Greg and I opted for lobster rolls, while Julia chose Chinese food and Mitchell ate fish and chips. We enjoyed a stroll along the harbor walk before trudging several miles in the unseasonably warm temperatures to locate a bookstore and bubble tea cafe.
For dinner, we chose the highly recommended 2 Doors Down. The four of us each chose lobster risotto for our meal, splitting cheesecake and rhubarb pie for dessert. We vowed to make it back to the restaurant at the end of our trip if we were able. On the walk home from dinner, I guided the family to yet another bookstore, the charming, independently-owned Bookmark. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the well-known Halifax Public Library, which we passed but didn’t visit.
We woke on our second morning to find a parking ticket on our rental car. Somehow we missed the street cleaning notice and parked in a restricted area. At that point, Greg was ready to leave the city where my laid-back attitude about driving makes him crazy.
Our next destination took us 30 miles southwest to the iconic fishing village of Peggy’s Cove. There, we spent a few hours exploring the rocks surrounding the lighthouse. Greg and the kids climbed as close as possible to the edge, while I spent most of the time yelling at everyone to move back. Near the end of our visit, a bagpiper appeared on the rocks and played “Amazing Grace.”
For lunch, we found a shack in the village that served the most delicious lobster rolls we’d ever eaten. I regret that I didn’t follow my lunch with rhubarb ice cream, a decision made after excessive spending at lunch and a lack of Canadian cash.
Our afternoon was again spent in the car, as we made the almost four-hour drive north to Cape Breton Island.
Cape Breton became famous in the U.S. during the 2016 presidential election, when a DJ from the island invited Americans to move there if Donald Trump was elected. That humorous offer, combined with friends’ photos, solidified my desire to visit.
On Cape Breton, I had reserved a 3-bedroom ranch through AirBnB in Port Hood, on the southwestern side of the island. Perched above the water, the home was cozy and spacious, with a lovely deck that overlooked the ocean and a neighboring horse pasture.
We arrived in Port Hood at dinnertime and stumbled upon the Clove Hitch Bar and Bistro. The food was good, but what we found most endearing was the hospitality of the locals. Seating was limited, but when new customers arrived, other patrons greeted them with hugs and invites to join their tables. During our meal, a singer entertained the crowd, but when a customer decided he wanted to sing, the performer handed over his guitar and mike. The playlist consisted of mostly cover songs, and when the guests knew the words, they joined in.
One mistake I made in planning the trip to Cape Breton was that I didn’t research the distances among towns well enough. We chose Port Hood because friends had recommended it, but it was still more than an hour drive to the town of Cheticamp and the entrance to Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which the guidebook calls “the crown jewel” of Nova Scotia.
After hearing this glowing description, we weren’t going to let the distance deter us. On our first full day, we drove to the national park, stopping at the visitor’s center for advice. The ranger advised that no matter what we do in our two days at the park, that we definitely drive through the entire park, as all sides offer differing views.
Total travel time: one hour, 40 minutes.
We took the ranger’s advice, stopping at several lookout points and taking a few short hikes.
The ranger also recommended if we did make it through the entire park that we eat dinner in Ingonish, as it had the best seafood. Our family loves seafood, so we made sure we reached Ingonish by dinner.
Once we were fed and exhausted, we headed back to Port Hood. Unfortunately, we realized that Ingonish was much farther east than Cheticamp, and we still had a 2.5-hour drive.
The next day we ventured back to the national park to conquer the breathtaking seven-kilometer (four-mile) Skyline Trail hike. Despite the gorgeous views, my children increased my anxiety again by climbing as close to the edge of cliffs as possible in 20-mile per hour winds.
That night, we drove to the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou for dinner. Unfortunately, the small pub was full. We added our name to the waiting list and crammed into a corner. While we were waiting, a man who had just paid his bill approached us and told us that he wanted us to have his table. We were overwhelmed by his kindness, especially considering that he and his party could have stayed all night listening to the live bagpipe music.
Sadly, after three nights in Cape Breton, it was time to head back to Halifax.
Julia and I made a muddy stop in the rain at a beach in Port Hood before the drive back.
Our trip home was uneventful, with the exception of a glimpse of the most wonderful vending machine I’ve ever seen.
Overall, we had a relaxing week with many cultural learning opportunities without crossing the Atlantic. While sitting in the plane on the tarmac, I wrote in a rare tweet, “Sad to leave this beautiful province with some of the warmest and most polite people I’ve encountered.”