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THE LIGHT FANTASTIC
Alf Alderson explores Nova Scotia’s wild and windy coastline by campervan.
The 1,800 km from Toronto to Halifax is best travelled at a relaxed pace, which is just as well when you’re at the wheel of a 27 ft ‘RV’ (recreational vehicle). By taking your time you can pull off Quebec’s bouncy, potholed roads to enjoy dinner and a cold beer before retiring for the night on the banks of the vast St. Lawrence River; you can watch the sun set over the forested shores of New Brunswick’s Grand Lake the next evening before flaking out once more in your king size bed; and finally having reached Canada’s Atlantic coast you can park up above a beach and reflect on a drive well done before consulting the map and deciding which part of Nova Scotia’s wild, indented coastline to explore first.
For British drivers a huge vehicle like this can be a daunting sight and size at first, but the wide and relatively quiet freeways you tend to stick to provide plenty of chance to get used to its bulk, and the freedom it gives to literally live on the road make for an ideal way to discover a country as huge as Canada. And with opulent facilities that included bathroom and shower, ‘extendable’ living room (the walls slide out when you park up) and two king size beds we were hardly roughing it.
Before commencing our exploration of Canada’s Atlantic coastline I visited the surf shop at Lawrencetown Beach. Improbable as it may seem, for all its snow, ice and general frozen northness, Nova Scotia has a small and insanely enthusiastic surf population and I was here with the intention of briefly becoming part of that tiny circle of madness. Never before had I encountered a surf shop beside a road sign advising motorists of the danger of blowing snow, but unfortunately there were to be no surfable waves during my stay.
So, from attempting the unpredictable we did the painfully predictable and drove south to ‘the world’s most photographed harbour’ at Peggy’s Cove. I have no way of knowing if this bold statement is based on fact or is merely North American hype, but the painfully quaint fishing village and its dramatic lighthouse set atop huge stone pillows of granite are worth a visit despite the throngs of tourists whose numbers you are helping to swell.
I particularly enjoyed my encounter with the lighthouse’s grumpy postmistress. The building also serves as a post office, sending both written and luminescent messages out to the world, and its proprietor has clearly answered the same dumb tourist questions once too often. Having sent our postcards we drove an hour or so south to Lunenburg, a delightful harbour of perfectly preserved, pastel-shaded clapboard houses clinging to impossibly steep streets which lead down to the dockside.
Here you can stroll the decks of the elegant schooner ‘Bluenose’, which features on the back of the country’s 10 cent coin, or visit the equally absorbing Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic. Whilst you wouldn’t expect to get somewhere as lovely as this to yourself, Lunenburg is big enough that unlike Peggy’s Cove you’re not constantly rubbing shoulders with fellow tourists.
The following day we made the short return drive north to Halifax where we hooked up at an out-of-town campsite then took the ferry across what is generally regarded as one of the world’s finest harbours to the downtown area. Having been born in Halifax, Yorkshire I was keen to see its Canadian namesake, and have no hesitation in saying that it knocks spots off the original, putting me in mind of a small and more manageable version of San Francisco or Vancouver.
Halifax has the feel of a place in which people’s lives were shaped; British immigrants flooding in to swarm east across Canada’s vast landscape; survivors of the Titanic disaster staggering ashore from their rescuer’s vessels; seafarers of two world wars heading east in Atlantic convoys to play Russian roulette with German U-boats. This history is well preserved in The Citadel, an impressive 18th century star-shaped fortress that guarded what was one of Britain’s most important imperial strongholds, and the fascinating Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, and after a long afternoon exploring these we were glad to grab a seat and one too many beers at the Lower Deck Bar beside the harbour and enjoy Halifax’ legendary live music scene.
Those beers were a source of regret for much of the following day on the five-hour drive north from Halifax to Cape Breton Island. This wild and windy island’s southern shores were settled by Scots, and ceilidhs, pipe and fiddle music are a big part of local culture (you can even take a course in bagpipe playing in the town of South Gut St. Ann’s), but as you travel further north towards the whale watching town of Chéticamp, Scottish place names give way to French, and the Acadian flag is seen fluttering in virtually every garden.
The Acadians arrived here from France in the 1800s, erecting huge Catholic churches which seem somewhat out of proportion to the small communities they serve, with many eventually drifting south as a result of discrimination and persecution to form what are now the Cajun communities of the US Deep South.
North again from Chéticamp you hit one of the most scenic roads in North America, the Cabot Trail, which for 300 kilometres twists, turns and climbs through a wild maritime landscape of 500-metre peaks and misty forests in which moose wander, and falls away on the seaward side to wave battered cliffs, quiet beaches and views across the grey waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence towards Newfoundland.
I’d hoped to see moose on a couple of hikes into the uplands, but had no luck – however, I was more fortunate with a whale watching trip out of Pleasant Bay where I was one of only three customers on a wet Saturday afternoon who enjoyed the sight of fifty or so pilot whales dipping, diving and leaping in the wind chopped seas.
That wind became the tail end of a hurricane a day later, which chased us on our return journey back across Nova Scotia, past the world’s biggest tides in the Bay of Fundy, and well into New Brunswick before finally petering out. With cold bright early autumn skies acting like a switch to turn on the vibrant colours of the maple leafs, the forests we drove through on our return to Toronto were now gigantic red, russet and orange blankets across the hillsides, like a million miniature Canadian flags waving goodbye to our ship of the road.
Alf Alderson travelled to Nova Scotia with Canadian Affair (08700 753000; www.canadian-affair.com). A two-week package in September, including flights (in this case Birmingham-Toronto) and fully equipped four-berth motorhome costs £1,393 for two people. This includes 160 free kilometres of travel per day and an additional charge of 29 cents per km once this is exceeded – so you’ll need to calculate your intended travel distances as it can get costly if you clock up a high mileage.
For further information on travelling in Canada contact Visit Canada, P.O. Box
170, Ashford, Kent, TN24 0ZX, Tel. 0906 871 5000 (60 pence per minute).
Obviously Canadian RVs are left-hand drive, so you’ll need to be comfortable with driving on the ‘wrong side’ of the road. You should also be comfortable in charge of a large vehicle – the average North American RVs will be as big as the biggest campervan you’re likely to see on European roads.
You’ll be given a full ‘tour’ of the vehicle before taking it away and shown how to ‘hook up’, fill and empty water and waste tanks, etc., and you’re provided with an owner’s manual, but don’t worry about breakdowns – you get an emergency number to call, even for flat tyres.