An Atlantic Canada Family Vacation

Name an area with fabulous geological features, lots of historic and cultural attractions, great scenery, and NO hordes and multitudes – in easy driving distance
to New England.

If you guessed Atlantic Canada, give yourself a prize.

Our summer trip to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick was wonderful in every respect – the best vacation we’ve ever taken with kids. Several things made it work: We all loved camping and had fantastic weather (only one rainy day out of 18, never above the low 80’s). Often we’d pull in early and focus our activities on fire building, reading, berry picking, beach walking, rock and shell collecting, swimming/wading and hanging out. While “car camping” may not afford the best spiritual privacy, it was great for the kids to run around and find others to play with.

Also, we generally stuck with national and provincial parks, mostly on the water and free of kitsch decor and activities. In fact, Amherst Shores Provincial Park, in Nova Scotia not to far from where we crossed over from New Brunswick, is the nicest campground we’ve ever been to, anywhere.

Fundy National Park, on the southern shore of New Brunswick, was a special highlight, offering a number of really excellent interpretative programs and hikes for all ages. Fundy Bay has some of the strongest tides in the world, and while they came in slowly, the contrast between low – walk out almost a mile over damp shell-covered sands – and high – waves crashing right up to the beachfront sidewalks. We happened to be there at the end of the Perseids meteor shower and during their special astronomy weekend, so we spent one night stargazing through telescopes with people who knew what to look for. Alana, our eight-year-old daughter, came back with bags of shells and rocks. Rafael, age three, ate his findings – mostly raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and wild mountain cranberries. Intrepidly, he would enter batch after batch of thorny bushes, and was even able to identify the things in the dark.

Just a few miles east of Fundy Park is The Rocks Provincial Park – sort of like the canyonlands of the American West, except that it’s on the beach. Tall rock formations grow out of the beach, some covered with plant life at the top. The power of erosion is strongly evident here, as the water has not only created the rock formations out of once-high ground, but carved out tunnels and caves throughout the rocks. Definitely worth a stopover, but check the tide schedule first! (In fact, a few things we tried to see were closed during high tide, at various points in our trip).

Farther east, the Acadian influence gets very strong. Barn roofs are painted with the Acadian flag, and if you stop a local for directions, you may not understand the answer if you don’t speak French. While our itinerary took us east into Nova Scotia, from what we read, the northern shore of New Brunswick is even more Acadian than the part we traveled in.

One other New Brunswick highlight came on our way back – crossing by ferry to Franklin Roosevelt’s summer home on Campobello Island, right on the Maine border. The mansion is beautiful, the grounds are well-landscaped, and there’s quite a bit of historical information on Roosevelt and his family. Campobello is where he contracted polio, yet he never lost his fondness for the place.

We did stop in the two largest cities, too: St. John and Moncton. Though its Victorian architecture is lovely, St. John was the one place on our trip that we truly didn’t care for. It was hard to navigate, with heavy traffic and confusing signage. We stayed at a littered campground overlooking a large factory(!), and the campground’s lakefront beach featured human excrement all over the bathroom floor. There was a city-wide folk festival going on, but we didn’t have a clear sense of who we should see, and found most of the performances we did manage to catch uninspiring.

Moncton was much cleaner and more modern (including a gorgeous new central library). Its big attraction is Magnetic Hill, way on the outskirts of town. You can put your car in neutral and ride backwards uphill, pulled by the strong natural magnet under the earth. It’s kind of cool, but takes all of two minutes.
Magnetic Hill has been heavily developed and is full of kitsch and expensive tourist amusement parks and minigolf courses, which we didn’t bother with.

As for Nova Scotia: we saw quite a bit of it, pretty much the entire northeastern half, at least along the shores (though we did venture away from the coast, along a large inland sea (where we enjoyed one of our two homestays). It’s very pretty, with red sandstone cliffs dominating much of the landscape, and fishing villages that look a lot like New England. Considering how much of a tourist attraction the far-northeastern Cabot Trail is, the roads, campgrounds, and attractions were amazingly uncrowded. This area is very proud of its Scots-Gaelic heritage, and there are many opportunities to learn about it. Particularly informative, in Pictou, there’s a Gaelic heritage exhibit tied to the story of one of the first ships that brought the Scots to those shores. And everywhere on Cape Breton, but particularly along the northern coast, there are ceilidhs (music swaps), folk dances, shops selling kilts and bolts of plaid (often with bagpipe bands playing out on the lawn).

There are a couple of pockets of Acadian culture on Cape Breton as well – including Fortress Louisbourg, an 18th-century settlement that now functions as a historic recreation, a la Williamsburg, VA or Old Sturbridge Village, MA. Having seen many such places, we were quite impressed with this one. Though fairly compact, it boasts an enormous and thoroughly trained staff, all of whom know quite a bit about their characters’ lives, occupations, etc. It takes several hours to fully explore Louisbourg, especially if you participate in some of the many events that go on all day: dances, musket drills, boat launchings, and so forth (a schedule is posted). Restaurants and bake shops on premises offer period food (modern prices).

Other Nova Scotia highlights included the Alexander Graham Bell home, full of his inventions, his work with the deaf, and so forth, a fabulous industrial museum in Stellarton (Rafael was enchanted!), rock and mineral exhibits in several places, including an entire museum in Parrsboro.

Canada felt in many ways a much more “civilized” place than the U.S. everyone was helpful and friendly, and in most towns the streets were virtually litter-free. We heard a lot of French, saw Gaelic street signs, Scottish bagpipe playing and dancing, ate shortbread and scones, drank excellent tea. We made it all the way to the tip of Cape Breton Island, a twisty dirt road through the mountains, ending at a point with the improbable name of Meat Cove – water at all sides where we camped on a cliff over looking the beach, and almost got blown off the face of the mountain – the wind was so strong that night. The people below us had to retrieve their rain fly, which had blown into the ocean in the middle of the night. Though the privately-run campground itself was ugly and ill-maintained (in rather shocking contrast to the spotless and beautiful locations we encountered almost everywhere else), the scenery was gorgeous – kind of like Big Sur, California, with rounded hills and steep cliffs rising right out of the ocean. We also saw a pair of wild foxes on the dirt road about a mile outside the campground.

In fact, we saw quite a bit of wildlife on this trip, including several Great Blue Herons – flying, perching, and walking around the marshes. Alana and another tourist on the same cliff caught a glimpse of a whale; the rest of us missed it. No moose or reindeer (oh well, but some smaller deer, and lots of birds).

In all we covered 2500 miles, though we made a point of not driving more than four hours in a day, and many days we stayed put. Part of what made the trip work was the blend of activities we all enjoyed with special treats for each of us at various points along the way. and the other part of why it worked was our choice of a destination that had much to offer our knowledge-hungry foursome in terms of scenery, hiking, caving, history, culture, geology, and even astronomy.

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