To commemorate Canada’s 150th birthday, Driving is covering the country with a series of Great Canadian Road Trips, with itineraries revealing not just fun-to-drive routes, but also the pit stops, scenic views and local culture – all the things that make a road trip fun. This month, Sarah Staples takes us along the Lighthouse Route in picturesque Nova Scotia.
Not far from the Alderney Landing ferry terminal in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, two friends are kicking back with a bit of fishing after a day’s work. Their spot, a rocky outcropping near the bridge to Halifax, is where mackerel run at this time of year, explains John Renee, while his friend Claudine casts her line toward the dark water. It’s also a prime spot to capture the low-slung silhouette of Halifax across the harbour.
I’m kicking off a photographic getaway down the south shore of Nova Scotia and its “Lighthouse Route,” a scenic drive that’s just as beautiful as the Cabot Trail, though perhaps less well-known.
For me, this trip is personal. A voyage of discovery. It’s Canada 150 – what better timing, as Canadians, for us to get out and explore the connections we may have to other places within this great nation. I’ve come to Nova Scotia to soak up the seafaring culture, hoping to understand more about the life of my great-grandfather, Capt. Edward Owen Fudge, who was one of Atlantic Canada’s most accomplished Master Mariners of the sail-steam age in the early 1900s.
Capt. Fudge was a Newfoundlander living in Halifax who commanded terns: bigger, three-masted versions of schooners like the Bluenose. He and his brothers, all schooner captains, would sail out of Halifax or Gloucester, Mass., to the Caribbean and Western Europe on a centuries-old triangular trade route defined by sweet winds and favourable currents. Canadian white pine and salt cod would be exchanged for molasses and sugar. The brothers’ lucrative side gig was rumrunning – using their fast, light ships to smuggle booze to Americans during Prohibition.
From my aunt Christine’s genealogical sleuthing, and books like Sails of the Maritimes or my great-uncle’s autobiography, His Life Story as a Fisherman and Businessman by Capt. John Marshall Fudge, I’ve learned just enough tantalizing details about the Fudges to want to know more.
Subtly seared tuna and a comfortable bed await at The Halliburton, a heritage-listed townhouse near the waterfront. I’ve dipped my toes into the city’s history with I Heart Bikes, cycle-touring through highlights like Point Pleasant Park, the Public Gardens and the Halifax Citadel. The next morning, I take a Ford Flex 2017 Limited Edition slicing through sparse forests to the coast.
Nova Scotia has 150 lighthouses, the most in Canada. At least twenty are found along the Lighthouse Route, a themed tourist drive stretching roughly to Yarmouth. I’ll drive as far as Lunenburg, which is manageable in a long weekend, even with plenty of picture stops.
I soon realize I can hop out to snap a scene, then let rip the 3.5L EcoBoost V6 to get me quickly and safely back to highway speed. This is a solid car-trip choice: a crossover utility vehicle with room to haul not just travel essentials and photography gear, but larger recreational items (like surfboards, making the Flex a popular choice in coastal places like California or Massachusetts). All-wheel drive makes it sure-footed if your adventures take you to looser ground, too.
SYNC 3 is another great feature. I can make calls, call up the weather, change my iPhone playlist, find directions to the next B&B; all by voice command, keeping my focus on twisty roads – and on finding the next perfect shot.
I’m starting to wonder where all the lighthouses are when the trees disappear, and the terrain flattens into the smoothed, hulking, glaciated granite of Peggy’s Cove. Unfortunately, rain is pelting sideways there. Disappointed tourists are waiting in the restaurant for a break in the storm to photograph world-famous Peggy’s Point Lighthouse. On a day like today, it looks like it might heave from the exposed shoreline and fly away on the wind.
Peggy’s Cove has about 25 souls left, most working in tourism and living within essentially a never-ending photoshoot. Lunenburg, though, instantly feels somehow more real, even if its Old Town is a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage Site.
At the Grand Banker Bar & Grill, two guys are strumming guitars as their relatives cheer them on. I polish off “The Lunenburger”: six ounces of beef slathered with Nova Scotia lobster and tarragon butter sauce, and topped with a bacon-wrapped scallop. This pub has a homey vibe, no doubt replicated up and down the coast.
“It was my dream to move back home,” says Lunenburg-born Adam Bower, a sommelier and management veteran of Delta and Fairmont hotels. He devised the signature burger after taking over the Brigantine Inn and its ground-floor pub in 2014. “Everyone here knows you and your family, and we look out for one another,” he adds.
The next morning, Bluenose 2, a replica of the beloved emblem of Nova Scotia, the Bluenose, sails through the harbour as I make my way there on a leisurely stroll with Lunenburg Walking Tours.
South-shore Nova Scotians were boatbuilders, skilled global navigators – and often rumrunners, too. At the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic, I’ve paused, gobsmacked, before a vintage Mexican banknote in the rumrunning display that might well have belonged to Capt. Fudge. Beyond the entrance to Halifax Harbour, he once accepted “payment” for bootleg in what turned out to be worthless Mexican Revolutionary currency. It was his financial ruin, but he was nothing if not a survivor.
The museum is like a window into the tenacious way of life that great-grandfather leaned on to overcome hardships of his time. In 45 years at sea, he sailed past First World War U-boats lurking offshore of Nova Scotia, and pirates backed by rival rum syndicates. He weathered a Pandemic flu, the Great Depression, devastating failures of cod and herring stocks and the capitulation of the mighty schooners to steel-hulled competition. He even survived two shipwrecks. How the hell did he make it through?
Next is a long, languid sea-kayaking tour with Pleasant Paddling, near Blue Rocks, a working fishing village just outside Lunenburg. I’m switching up my perspective, slowing down to experience the connection of the paddle slicing through water – this pure sense of place.
I keep driving, to Mahone Bay, full of artists and fun boutiques. And to Chester, a tony enclave where golf and yachting dominate the clubby social scene. Bikers I meet there treat me to lunch of fish cakes and advise a detour around the Aspotogan peninsula. I’ve travelled extensively abroad but never seen anything like the colourful parade of squat, wooden homes attached like barnacles to umpteen sheltered coves, interspersed with bold-ocean coastline and beaches. It would take a summer – at least – to chart all the photo-worthy moments, the histories behind place names like Blind Bay or French Village.
“The first thing we Nova Scotians want to do is feed you,” biker Big Steve had said. And at the Shore Club in Hubbards, I feast on lobster, potato salad and unlimited steamed mussels and boogie all night to a live band at Canada’s oldest surviving dancehall. My grandparents met at a dancehall similar to this in Halifax, and it feels like I’m keeping them close to the heart.
When I arrive back at Peggy’s Cove, it’s transformed by the late-afternoon sun. Waves tinged bright green are crashing hypnotically against near the lighthouse, exploding into white spray. I see it, the magic, now.
Sarah Staples is a 2017 National Magazine Awards finalist in feature-writing. See more of Sarah’s south-shore trip photos at @itravelnwrite.
When you get there
Stay: In Halifax at The Halliburton, a heritage townhouse converted into a 29-room inn and fine-dining restaurant (thehalliburton.com). …In Lunenburg, at the Brigantine Inn featuring direct harbour access and gorgeous views (brigantineinn.com). …. In Hubbards, at Dauphinee Inn, walking distance to the Shore Club dancehall (shoreclub.ca). Eat: Expertly prepared fish in a classic dining-room at Stories on the ground floor of The Halliburton, Halifax (thehalliburton.com)… A traditional lobster supper (you can purchase your dance ticket with your meal) at the Shore Club, Hubbards (shoreclub.ca). … “The Lunenburger” at the Grand Banker Bar & Grill (grandbanker.com). Do: Meet Lunenburg Walking Tours daily at 10 am at the Lunenburg Academy at the top of Old Town Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site(lunenburgwalkingtours.com). … Take the “Paddle Through the Islands Sea Kayak Tour” by Pleasant Paddling, meandering through the islands around Blue Rocks (pleasantpaddling.com). … Cycle with I HEART Bikes from historic Halifax Harbour on their two-hour “Halifax City Tour” (iheartbikeshfx.com). Drive: A 2017 Ford Flex Limited. From Halifax, take Route 333 to Peggy’s Cove. Continue to Tantalon and look for signs to Route 3 – the Lighthouse Route, winding through south-shore towns such as Chester, Mahone Bay, Hubbards and Lunenburg. Detours to the pretty village of Blue Rocks (via NS-332) and around the Aspotogan Peninsula (via Route 329), for yet more quaint coves and bold ocean views.