I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: don’t visit Nova Scotia for Halifax alone. This underrated province in Eastern Canada begs to be explored: the Bay of Fundy for whale watching; celebrated wineries; an old town UNESCO World Heritage Site; and an iconic lighthouse on the Atlantic Ocean that conjures up images of a seafaring past. All this plus magnificent scallops like you’ve never had before.
For our mainland Nova Scotia road trip, my friend Genea and I spent quite a bit of time behind the wheel of our rental car, even after our drive around Cape Breton Island. We simply wanted to see it all.
Our self-drive tour looked something like this:
Keep reading to find out what we got up to!
We decided to spend the night in New Glasgow, an industrial community named by Scottish settlers after Glasgow, Scotland.
There’s little to see here, to be honest, but it was a welcome break after 2 hours of driving from Baddeck on Cape Breton Island. There are actually two advantages to staying in this no-frills town:
- Its proximity to Pictou (a 15-min. drive) and, if you’re PEI-bound, the Caribou ferry terminal (a 20-min. drive).
- The options for accommodations and dining in New Glasgow are more affordable than in the more popular, tourist-frequented towns. You can stay in this town to splurge elsewhere!
Where We Ate
East Side Family Restaurant, a favourite among both locals and visitors, serves up a decent caesar salad and haddock fish cakes (a little too salty for my taste but good value).
Where We Stayed
Tara Inn is a clean, comfortable, air-conditioned motel near restaurants, bars and the downtown area.
Continental breakfast is complimentary.
For more hotel options in New Glasgow, check Booking.com here.
For more picturesque surroundings, of course, you’ll want to stay in the quaint town of Pictou itself, the “birthplace of New Scotland”. After an 11-week journey across the Atlantic, the first influx of Scottish immigrants arrived here in 1773 on the ship Hector, a replica of which can be seen on display in the harbour.
It should be remembered, however, that the original inhabitants of Nova Scotia were the Mi’kmaq who helped the Scottish immigrants adjust to their new land. (The history of the Indigenous peoples of Canada is too often overlooked or forgotten.)
As the Scottish settlement grew, Pictou became the centre of the lumber and ship-building industries, as well as a port for boats of all shapes and sizes. Today, you’ll see everything from kayaks to sailboats on the waters. The town is also a base for visitors heading to or arriving from PEI as Caribou ferry terminal is just 5 minutes away.
Pictou is easily explored by foot.
After meandering the streets lined with historical sites and charming period homes, Genea and I concluded our self-guided tour at the harbourfront before driving back to New Glasgow for a good night’s rest.
Check hotel options for Pictou at Booking.com here.
We made our way from New Glasgow to the Annapolis Valley in 2 hours. From Windsor to Digby, this region stretches along the Bay of Fundy, a body of water between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick renowned for having the highest tidal range in the world.
But it offers something else. I never associated Nova Scotia with wine but the Annapolis Valley is home to some of the best wine-producing conditions in Atlantic Canada. The most acclaimed winery is Luckett Vineyards, an enchanting setting where you can soak in a stunning vista of the lush vineyard and Fundy shores from the outdoor patio.
You’ll also get a view of the authentic, bright red phone booth among the grapes, a nod to owner Pete Luckett’s British heritage (if you have the opportunity to meet him, he’s a charismatic, firecracker of a guy).
I’ve sipped my way through Napa, Sonoma, South Africa and many wineries in Ontario, and Luckett Vineyards is a winner in my books. Their signature Phone Box white and red wines are worth
writing calling home about (do it from the phone booth where all calls to North America are free!).
Needless to say, our wine tasting and al fresco lunch at this winery was an afternoon well spent.
You may find a line-up for the patio during lunch in the summer so arrive during off-peak hours for your best chance of snagging a table (reservations can be made but only for groups of 10 or more).
From Luckett Vineyards, we drove 1.5 hours west to Digby, a fishing port of about 2,100 Nova Scotians in an inlet off the Bay of Fundy. The town was built by the United Empire Loyalists as a hub for lumber as well as transportation for trains and steamships. Today, it’s where visitors can cross the bay by ferry to Saint John, New Brunswick.
Digby doesn’t have the same aesthetic appeal as Lunenburg and it’s a long way from Cape Breton Island where we started our Nova Scotia road trip, but we made the journey for two reasons:
1) Whale Watching
Between June to September, some of the world’s best whale watching opportunities are in the Bay of Fundy, a playground and nursery for up to 12 species of whales including finbacks, minke whales, North Atlantic right whales and humpbacks. They also migrate here for the abundance of food; the bay’s powerful tides produce a rich feeding ground of fish, plankton and krill.
During our stay in mid-July, the humpbacks had arrived! From our zodiac, we got up close and personal with 8-12 of these giant cetaceans as they swam beside us within arm’s reach and even under our zodiac, sometimes startling us when they suddenly surfaced from the water.
These are creatures of magnificent beauty.
If that wasn’t enough, we spotted dolphins and seals along the way to complete our trip.
- The best month for whale watching is August but keep in mind that sightings are never guaranteed. A couple weeks after our experience in July, a friend joined a whale watching tour under foggy conditions and didn’t have a single sighting.
- Make a reservation in advance! Spots fill up quickly especially in August.
- Depending on the tour operator you select, it takes 45-90 minutes to reach the whale watching boats from Digby (including 1-2 ferry rides).
- Select a tour operator that offers the option of a zodiac. You’ll get closer to the whales than from a regular boat.
- Digby is the destination for whale watching in Nova Scotia, superior to excursions from Lunenburg and even Cape Breton Island (trust me, I put in the research).
2) Digby Scallops
Who knew Digby is home to the world’s largest scallop fishing fleet, earning its title as the scallop capital of the world? This small Nova Scotian town isn’t so obscure after all.
If you’re a seafood lover and don’t sample these sublime morsels of goodness while in Digby, I will judge you. Harshly. Eat them three times a day if you can. Watch the fleets bring in their catch at the harbour. Worship them. Harvested daily off the town’s shores, scallops simply don’t get fresher than this.
Where We Ate
I put myself in a seafood coma at Churchill’s Restaurant & Lounge at Digby Pines Golf Resort and Spa. And I fear I’ll never have scallops like the ones I had here ever again.
Also worth trying: the rich and creamy penne with beef tenderloin, and duck perogi appetizer.
We had some of the best meals of our Nova Scotia road trip at this fine dining establishment.
Where We Stayed
If you want to splurge on accommodations in Nova Scotia, Digby Pines Golf Resort and Spa is one place to do it. Dating back to 1929, it’s the town’s landmark property and one of the most iconic in the province — a majestic, Norman-style chateau once owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway and now the Nova Scotian government.
With a view of the Annapolis Valley and Bay of Fundy, the resort is a secluded getaway, yet within walking distance to the Digby harbour. You may not want to leave Digby Pines Golf Resort and Spa at all though — the large, outdoor heated pool, AVEDA spa, 18-hole golf course and wooded hiking trails will keep you either busy or pampered.
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This was our most memorable overnight stay in Nova Scotia.
For more hotel options in Digby, check Booking.com here.
From Digby, we drove 2 hours to Lunenburg on the south shore. One of five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Nova Scotia, Lunenburg’s Old Town is arguably the most beautiful town in the province.
The rainbow colours of the 18th and 19th century buildings, well-preserved British architecture and horse-drawn carriages give this waterfront community its distinct historical character. It’s a tourist destination, no doubt, but maintains its traditional feel.
Lunenburg is a fishing port more than anything else, with a seafaring history that’s alive and well today. Tall ships including the Bluenose II, a replica of a famous racing schooner, can be seen either anchored in harbour or carrying passengers at sea.
The weather refused to cooperate with us while we were in Lunenberg and we were pressed for time so we didn’t sail on the Bluenose II or enjoy a picnic of steamed lobster (another must-do).
Instead, we strolled the boardwalk and through the narrow streets, poking into the artisan shops, before heading to our last stop of our Nova Scotia road trip.
Check hotel options for Lunenburg at Booking.com here.
One hour east of Lunenburg on the way to Halifax is Peggy’s Cove, a tiny fishing village in a narrow inlet and the location of Peggy’s Point Lighthouse. Nova Scotia is peppered with over 160 lighthouses but this one is the most famous and arguably the most recognizable image of Nova Scotia, one that graces many a postcard and book cover. Majestically perched on the rocks, towering above the waves of the Atlantic, this tall, red and white structure was built in 1915.
There’s more to Peggy’s Cove than the lighthouse though; the whole area is scenic. It’s worth spending time on the surrounding boulders, watching the surf — it’s hypnotizing. But exercise caution: don’t get too close to the waves and avoid the dark, slippery rocks. The sea, which has swept visitors away in the past, can turn from calm to treacherous in a matter of minutes.
Explore the wharf, small coves and side roads too for different perspectives of the area. No matter the weather, you’ll likely find excellent photo ops.
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I had high hopes for capturing epic sunset images of both Lunenburg and Peggy’s Point Lighthouse but Mother Nature delivered cloud and fog instead that day which, despite my initial disappointment, made for intriguing, atmospheric shots.
Check hotel options near Peggy’s Cove at Booking.com here.
We made it back to Halifax in less than an hour (given their proximity, you can also make Lunenburg and Peggy’s Cove a day trip from Halifax).
What You Should Know:
- Book your Halifax car rental and Cape Breton accommodations well in advance. Prices for vehicles climbed, and hotel options diminished, the longer I waited to book. Remember you can always cancel reservations without penalty later.
- Don’t forget to visit Cape Breton Island too! Click here to read about our coastal drive around the island.
- Be prepared to be smartphone-independent at times. Our internet was slow or spotty at some hotels. We also intermittently lost our cell phone signal throughout our road trip which led us to lose our way a few times because we relied on our phones as our GPS.
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What did we miss? Let me know in the comments below.
Disclosures: My stays at Tara Inn and Digby Pines Golf Resort and Spa were complimentary but rest assured all views expressed in this post are my own. I also earn a small commission from Booking.com if you click on one of their links and make a reservation through their site at no cost to you (thank you for your support!).