Nova Scotia: an alternative to the mountain vacation

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  • | 12:00 p.m. August 14, 2002
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Hot, huh?

There’s an alternative to the six-hour interstate drudgery to Asheville; try Nova Scotia and Maine.

We made the journey earlier this summer and it combines a good visit, good weather and a bit of adventure. No foreign nation is better to visit than Canada (they speak English, plus it’s a bargain) and few American states have the quirky nature of Maine.

Our trip was eight days with three days touring in a rental car, three days with a relative and one travel day that turned into two days because of bad weather.

If you’re going — and you should consider it — here’s what we found.

Getting there

In this era of tough travel, this was the worst part of the trip (though that statement applies to almost any trip involving air travel.) Getting to Boston is reasonably easy, requiring no more than a stop in Atlanta or Charlotte, but then you’re flying puddle jumpers.

Avoid the Boston airport, if you can. You’ll remember that two of the Sept. 11 planes departed from there and we can guarantee that it won’t happen again. The security there isn’t this off-the-street bunch you’ll see at our airport; these are big, tough men who checked everything you carried and who looked you in the eye. At our security gate, we counted 11 guards. None smiled.

Our route

We did a grand tour, flying to Bangor, taking a ferry to Yarmouth, N.S., driving around Nova Scotia (literally; it’s sort of a circle), the ferry back to Maine, then flying out of Bangor.

If we did it again, we’d fly to Halifax and come back home from Bangor. Air tickets are in the $300 range, round-trip.

The weather

As advertised. As cool as the mountains without the winding mountain roads. Gets warm in the cities, though: one day it was 91 in Bangor and 90 in Jacksonville.


We were in-and-out, but it seemed like a good town. Lots of high-tech businesses there.

Bar Harbor

This is one of the fancy Maine coastal towns where the rich go to escape the New York City summer streets. Your image of it is like ours was: a quaint place with tony shops. The reality: it’s a cross between Fernandina Beach and Daytona Beach, with the commercial fishing area of the former and the T-shirt shops of the latter.

Ah, but the rich are there, and it’s fun to look through the phone book. David Rockefeller has six listed numbers.

The Cat

Bar Harbor is almost due west of Yarmouth, N. S., which is at the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia. An enterprising company runs a ferry between the two, but it isn’t your image of the quaint old ferry.

It’s called The Cat because it’s a catamaran and it’s as high-tech as any airplane you’ll ride. The thing looks like a giant box. It holds 260 cars and 900 people, is over 100 yards long, runs 55 miles an hour and glides so high on the water that semi-rough seas don’t bother you.

It takes three hours, which gives you time to see a movie (they have a kiddie show on one side of the boat, a more adult show on the other,) waste money in the “casino” (nothing but slot machines,) eat at one of the three snack bars or drink at the bar.

This isn’t your cross-the-St. Johns ferry in cost, either. Two people and one car: $216 each way.

The lighthouses

Yarmouth is a pleasant fishing village and it’s on the opposite side of Halifax on the main part of Nova Scotia. There are two routes around the province — to the east, it’s the “Lighthouse Route” and to the west it’s “The Evangeline Route.” We chose the lighthouses going, Evangeline coming.

This turned out to be the boring part. To see the lighthouses, you have to get way off the main road. And, you quickly discover that your image of a lighthouse isn’t what you’ll find. We look at lighthouse like we see in St. Augustine: big and tall. In Nova Scotia, where they sit on bluffs rather than sea level, they’re little things.

The dollar

This is why it’s cheap. The listed prices are about the same as you’ll read in America, but the Canadian dollar is around 60 percent of ours. A $60 dinner will turn out to be $36 when you get your credit card bill.

Changing money

If you have to get cash, go to a liquor store. They’re run by the government and they have to give the best rate. Next best: ATM. Put as much on your credit card as possible, of course.


The provincial capital. Lots of history, mostly about the sea. They’ve rebuilt their waterfront much like Savannah’s, with shops, restaurants and attractions spread along the water, unlike ours, where things are crammed into the Landing.

Nice place. Compare it to St. Petersburg without the downtown high-rise condos.

The Titanic

This was the closest city to the Titanic wreck and a local museum has a terrific exhibit, including an original deck chair. If you’re really into it, there’s a graveyard nearby with 120 non-survivors.


Because Canada relies on tourism, they’re smart enough to have excellent tourist offices. There were three in Halifax alone and the attendants can make reservations anywhere in the nation.

Plus, you can find them — well-marked.

Try finding tourist information in Jacksonville.

The language

Nova Scotia was originally settled by the French who eventually were pushed aside by the Scots (language quiz: What does “Nova Scotia” mean?) Even though both groups are Canadians today and the mother counties are long in the past, it’s a bilingual place and many signs and menus are in French and English. Lots of products, too: our soda can said “Diet Pepsi” on one side and “Pepsi Diéte” on the other. (Quiz answer: new Scots)

The people

We didn’t see any of the rivalry between the French Canadians and the English Canadians like you’ll find in Montreal and, for that matter, in Daytona Beach (popular bumper sticker in Volusia County: “Go back home and take a Frog with you.”) Everyone was delightful, even those who weren’t in the hospitality industry.

The tides

If you look at a map, you’ll see that Maine and Nova Scotia are separated by a big bay. That big bay leads into smaller bays on the Nova Scotia side. Without getting into too deep an explanation of something we really don’t understand, let us only say that these dynamics produce some hellacious tides.

The most inland part of a big bay is a town named Truro where the tides go up and down about 50 feet. Look out your window at the nearest five-story building, and imagine water going that high and then draining out.

Don’t see anything but floating docks around there.


For those of you weird enough to think scallops are good to eat, this seems to be the mecca for the things. It’s a village (no T-shirts shops) on the western side of the province which is busy because of the scallop fishing and also because it’s an entry point by a ferry to St. John, New Brunswick, which is almost due west.

You have your own opinion about scallops. To us, they taste just the same in Digby as in Jacksonville. Lousy.


While we’re on the culinary tack, another image popped: Nova Scotia may make its living off fishing, but no one seems to care much about lobsters.

Ah, but go back to Maine. If there’s a constant along that coast, it’s lobsters. Every restaurant has them and you also can get them at roadside stands, where they sell a particularly repulsive-looking sandwich called a “lobster roll.” It’s a giant hoagy crammed with lobster meat mixed with other stuff.

The lobsters? They’re a little smaller than ours but taste better, which may be because they’re steamed right in front of you.


Bar Harbor: lots of tourist places and they’re catching on, converting old motels into what they hope you’ll think is a quaint bed and breakfast.

Nova Scotia: There are two major choices. The Delta chain is throughout Canada (they also have one property in Orlando, which you see on I-4 as you near Universal) and is excellent, and the province-run “signature resorts,” which the government took over when the Canadian Pacific railroad no longer could maintain them. We stayed at The Pines in Digby and yes, you’ll want to go back, too.

Other thoughts

• If you can’t find what you want on, try

• Canadian bureaucrats get frisky, too. During our visit, the head of the Toronto power company (their JEA) was booted when an audit discovered she had charged the government $330,000 in limousine rides, mostly to get her children from school. She also had seven club memberships and had billed the government $40,000 for home repairs. But don’t worry about the poor soul; she’s only 44, and she’ll have a pension of $150,000 a year for life.

• No “Joe Six-Packs” in Canada. Beer comes in eight-packs. Expensive, too — Canada taxes liquor and beer heavily.

• Canadians seem to have only two destinations when they travel: Myrtle Beach (for golf) and Florida (for warmth.) This is the time of year to plan vacations (they take their’s in the winter, of course) and Disney ads are in every newspaper. (The Halifax newspaper lists the Myrtle Beach weather daily.)

• Canada is big into recycling. You even get a blue bin in your hotel room.

• Hot dogs in Maine are red. A merchant dyed his brand some years back and now everyone expects a red hot dog. Looks gross.

— by Fred Seely