2 Weeks in Nova Scotia
“Natural Beauty and Maritime Hospitality”
My wife, Sue, and I have often traveled to Canada’s Maritime provinces and there has always been one constant: hospitality. Whether it’s in restaurants, hotels or on sidewalks, we’ve always found east coast folks among the friendliest on the planet. This latest trip was no exception. And, one incident even surpassed our usual expectations. While driving in Cape Breton we became confused about which route to take when we came upon a fork in the road. Rather than following Yogi Berra’s advice, “when you come to a fork in the road take it,” we pulled over on the side of the highway. I unfurled a map and within a few seconds, literally, a pick-up truck pulled over in front of us and a young man jumped out and came over to my window. “Can I help you guys?” He set us straight re our route and after our many thank you’s and his welcome to Cape Breton remarks we were off again. Where else in the world does that happen?
Our first stop was the Margaree Valley where we had rented a comfortable cedar cabin for a week. Each morning the fog rolled into the foot of a distant mountain and was soon burnt off by noon. This valley provides some lovely vistas and has an enchanting mood about it. Our first foray of the week was a trip to the two new golf courses at Inverness, Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs. We played the courses on consecutive days…wow!! I’ve played golf all over the world and soon decided these two were among the most challenging. As far as scenery they are the very best I’ve ever encountered. As one of the people said in our group, “they are works of art.”
The golf courses are located near the Glenora Inn & Distillery so before returning to our cabin we took advantage of it’s proximity. It is a very nice facility that includes rooms, dining and, of course, single-malt whiskies of varying ages. I’ve always been a fan of their 15 year old. The aromas bring up butterscotch, ginger and honey while the taste shows hints of oak, almond, peat and caramel. Delicious. I also enjoyed the 10 year old finished with ice wine. It is definitely worth a visit. And, the food in their self-described “posh pub” is above average.
On our third day we headed to the town of Baddock, situated on Lake Bras d’Or, a spectacular inland sea. The harbour is often full of yachts which always brings out romantic visions of life on the oceans…until Sue brings me back to earth. While you’re in Baddock be sure to stroll the main streets and do a little shopping or stop for a coffee. There is one amazing highlight in this little town: the Alexander Graham Bell Museum. Learn about one of the greatest inventors of any age. You’ll be astounded by the inventions that came from that man’s mind…and it’s a lot more than the story of the telephone…a lot more.
Later that day we headed up the east coast of the Cabot Trail. We stopped at the famous Keltic Lodge so I could have a pint of beer in one of my favourite bars, the Highland Sitting Room. Whoever designed this room had a deft touch, and somehow created a classic, elegant design imbued with a simplicity that is very impressive. I love it!
Our final excursion of the day was a trip further north along the Cabot Trail to Neil’s Harbour. This destination had a ‘foodie’ inspired purpose. The harbour is very pretty with a nice sand bar and lighthouse, but it’s the Chowder House that drew us there. They make a seafood chowder that is creamy and full of flavour and somehow it’s gluten and dairy free. I don’t know how they do it and don’t really care. It’s almost a miracle to get that texture without cream…it’s nice to feel decadent while keeping the cholesterol in check.
[BTW: The Cabot Trail is named after the famous explorer John Cabot who sailed under and English flag and arrived in 1497. His real name was Giovanni Caboto and he was an Italian from Venice!
After a week in Cape Breton we headed towards the Grand-Pré National Historic Park which commemorates the Acadian Settlement (from 1682 to 1755). The site also tells the tragic story of the British deportations which lasted for a seven year period starting in1755. It has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This area is one large meadow where the Acadians and Mi’kmaq lived in relative harmony for over a century before the British took control based on the 1763 Treaty of Paris.
My main reason for coming to this region was to visit two wineries. First, we dropped in Domaine de Grand Pré winery. I had first visited this winery over thirty years ago and met the original owner, Roger Dial, a retired University professor from California. At the time, I thought he was doomed to failure. The only grapes he was using were hybrids like L’Acadie Blanc which make fairly neutral tasting wines with little bouquet or after taste (finish). The winery struggled for years until the Stutz family took over in 2000. They started planting more vitis vinifera varieties, like Chardonnay, but continued with hybrid grapes like Vidal, Seyval Blanc, and Marechal Foch (which I liked a lot). When visiting Domaine Grand Pré be sure to dine at their excellent Le Careau Restaurant.
The second winery that was on my “must visit” list was Benjamin Bridge. Just before leaving Ontario I saw an article about their reserve Méthod Classique Brut getting listed at Gordon Ramsay’s 3-Star Michelin restaurant in London England. I must say that an endorsement from Gordon Ramsay, despite his ridiculous antics, is worth something. The man does have a good palate. This terrific bubbly out shone a 2004 Crystal in a blind tasting in 2012 with leading Canadian wine experts. That’s an amazing achievement.
I met with owner Gerry McConnell’s sister, Marge, who gave us a brief history of the winery which is nestled in the Graspereu Valley. The astute owners managed to pick a vineyard site that has a warm micro climate perfectly suited to sparkling wine grape varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They also were wise to bring in top consultants like Peter Gamble and Champagne oenologist Raphaël Bribois, former chef de cave at Piper Heidsieck. The overall results have been amazing (I sent a case of their 2007 vintage back home!). Their other wines were also of interest. In particular I enjoyed their Cabernet Franc, finding its red current nose and crisp taste much to my liking. However, the real surprise was their lightly sparkling, off-dry Nova 7. I’ve never had a wine that had such an overwhelming floral bouquet…it smelled like a bunch of roses backed up with exotic fruits. The taste was very appley and fresh. A delicious wine with low alcohol (8%) which encouraged us to enjoy a bottle or two. Note: The winery is also certified organic .
A lot of people rave about Halifax. For me it’s just another city though it has a nice harbour and some great pubs and music venues (I love east coast music!). The famous Lower Deck Bar & Grill is a must visit for music lovers…it has hosted some of the best bands, including Great Big Sea, to have ever come from the Maritime provinces.
The highlight for Sue and I was our visit to Nova Scotia Art Gallery where we saw the paintings, and house, of Maude Lewis. We were inspired by the excellent movie about her life called “Maud” – her story is very interesting! And, actress Sally Hawkins gives an Oscar worthy performance. Maude’s art is best described as joyous. Despite severe medical problems, she managed to create a substantial collection of paintings of all seasons. Her work seems simple on the surface, folk art for sure, but they seem to resonate at a deeper level.
After the show we ate at the Wooden Monkey. The food was very good along with the service. I enjoyed the best fish, fresh haddock, I had during our whole trip. The fare is all organic with a decent wine list. Definitely recommended. Also, don't miss Peggy's Cove when you're in the vicinity!
Other Points of Interest
My wife Sue flew home from Halifax while I continued on to Digby where I met up with some friends from Switzerland. We stayed at the one time railway hotel, The Digby Pines. Of course, we all had the famous Digby scallops for dinner…actually, for dinners. They are among the most succulent seafood one could ever imagine. Cooked properly, that is barely, they literally melt in your mouth leaving a mild, creamy, salt water taste on your palate.
This was not my first visit to the Digby Pines hotel, built in 1903. It has charming pubic rooms and comfortable lodgings. I love the ‘old world’ feel of the place. Babe Ruth was known to frequent the hotel in the 1930’s helping to spread the fame of this provincially owned hotel (managed by Newcastle Hotel + Resorts). The property is a member of Choice Hotels’ Ascend Hotel Collection.
After a few days of recreation and relaxation, including some lively discussions about the nature of “free will”, go figure, we moved on to Lunenburg but not before a fun afternoon at the Roof Hound Brewery. Owner Les Barr talked us through their fairly wide array of beer styles. The brewery is way out in the country but we were quite happy we made the trip! Our group broke into 3 parties, with each taking their own route across to the south coast of Nova Scotia. I traveled with close friend Chuck as we fumbled our way through the beautiful landscape. By pure chance we found the little village of Bear River and stopped for coffee at Myrtle & Rosie’s Café where I indulged with their berry explosion muffin – excellent! Across the street we bought gifts for our wives (or as Chuck said, “for she who must be obeyed.”) at The Flight of Fancy gift shop. It is a store worth visiting as it has a great range of artwork and craft items. After talking to Carmen, the manager, we discovered that Bear River Vineyards was nearby. It didn’t take us long to find the winery and start tasting their wines. Turns out this area was the first location chosen for grape planting in the province. A wine maker from Annapolis Royal determined that Bear River was an ideal spot for growing European grapes. The Riesling we tasted supported his judgement.
Finally we arrived at Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a town one can stroll almost endlessly among narrow streets and well-preserved architecture. The walk along the port is very restorative. The restaurants are all quite interesting. We had one of our best meals at Magnolia’s Grill (not to be confused with the chain). Their lobster linguine was to “die for”. It was our last night and a lovely way to finish our east coast sojourn.
Cajun Cedar Log Cottages – cajuncedarlodgecottages.com (902.248.2494)
Keltic Lodge Resort & Spa – Kelticlodge.ca (800.565.0444)
Chowder House - (902.336.2463)
Glenora Inn & Distillery – glenoradistillery.com (800.839.0491)
Grand Pré Estate Winery – grandprewines.com (902.542.1753)
Benjamin Bridge Vineyards – benjaminbridge.com (902.542.1667)
Art Gallery – artgalleryofnovascotia.ca (902.424.5280)
The Wooden Monkey – thewoodenmonkey.ca (902.444.3844)
The Digby Pine Resort – digbypines.ca (902.245.2511)
Myrtle & Rosie’s Café - (902.467.0176)
The Flight of Fancy – firstname.lastname@example.org (902.467.4171)
Bear River Vineyards – wine.travel (902.467.4156)
Roof Hound Brewery – roofhound.ca (902.245.8121)
Magnolia’s Grill – magnolias-grill.com (902.634.3287)
Note: When in Annapolis Royal be sure to visit Still Fired Distilleries (902.880.1338). Buy the “Root Beer Moonshine”…you’ll be surprised!