Nova Scotia – a visit to the other Scotland

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Lake Bras d'Or

Lake Bras d’Or

It was early spring in Canada’s north-easternmost corner. Despite several warnings that it was too early in the year to visit, myself and a friend were nonetheless driving through the pouring rain along Highway 2 from the Province of New Brunswick, across the border into Nova Scotia. Our eastern Canada road trip was nearly at an end, but as I’d always wanted to visit the far east, I was feeling rather chipper, even if the weather was doing its utmost to put a damper on my enthusiasm.

Nova Scotia, meaning New Scotland in Latin, is the second smallest province in Canada, but that’s not to say distances here are short. The ambling coastal road we chose to follow to reach our final destination for the evening, the town of Pictou on an inlet of Northumberland Strait in the southern part of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, stretched over 200 km and took us a good few hours. Cute houses and signs to places named Rabbittown and Pugwash provided some amusement along the rainy road. Later on, the town of Tatamagouche, for reasons unknown, appeared to be enveloped in a strangely strong smell of what could best be described as “wacky backy” – Nova Scotia suddenly bore no resemblance to anything I’d envisaged when planning this trip. Admittedly my mental images had mostly been of sunny shores with men in kilts playing bagpipes. Sunny shores felt exceedingly far away this afternoon, with the temperature hovering around a mere 3 degrees. Soon I came to know the outside temperature intimately – the hire car would let out a hollow beeping noise every time it dropped below 4 degrees, to alert us to the risk of ice on the road. Oh the joys of spring…

Pictou Harbour and the replica of the Hector

Pictou Harbour and the replica of the Hector

It was after dark when we reached Pictou and Braeside Inn, our home for the night . Sadly this was a Sunday night, before the summer season, and short of having our own kitchen (which we didn’t), food was a definite no-no, as no restaurants were open. Oh well, dinner I can live without, but after driving for hours one does need a beverage. Did the inn per-chance have a bar open? No, not this time of year, but luckily they could recommend somewhere on the waterfront. That was closed, but we spotted a likely-looking place down the road. As it turned out, they had just closed, as by now it was 9 pm. They proceeded to inform us there was nowhere else in town. Our spirits plummeted along with the temperatures as we trundled off back towards the inn. Hold on, wasn’t that café looking open? It wasn’t, but the guy tidying up for the day told us what everyone else had avoided mentioning – there was a local’s bar a few blocks away. The Highlander pub wasn’t a class act by any means, but hey, it was open, it was friendly and had everything we needed. There was beer, wine, some pub grub, a pool table, slot machines (ok, we didn’t need those), even live music, so we stayed on and listened to an older crooner, followed by crooner junior, doing different covers. Bizarrely this local’s hang-out stands out in my memory as one of the nicest we visited, so warm and welcoming did it feel after a long day on the road.

The Hector Heritage Centre

The Hector Heritage Centre

Of course hanging out in a cheesy bar with the locals wasn’t the real reason behind our Pictou visit. Pictou is proud to be “the birthplace of New Scotland” and the first wave of Scottish immigrants arrived here in September of 1773 aboard the Hector, a beautiful replica of which sits in the harbour. In town preparations were in full swing for Charles and Camilla’s royal visit the following week, which meant both the Hector Heritage Centre and the ship itself were looking very spruced up and shiny. We took a fascinating tour of the above-mentioned HHC, housed in a formidable wooden building where the displays take over several floors and depict the history of the hardy Scots who made it over to these shores during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Cape Breton National Park

Cape Breton National Park

Not only had I had my fill of kilts and plenty of tartan, but it had also stopped raining and by the time we reached Cape Breton Island, the bleak landscape before my eyes was slowly transforming in the sunshine. Leaving mainland Nova Scotia along the Canso Causeway we now found ourselves in the Celtic heartland of the province, home to the Celtic Music Centre and the Gaelic College. I’d been recommended we visit the former to check out the instruments and have some lunch, but much to my dismay, it was closed when we got there. If Nova Scotia in general was slowly waking up from its winter slumber, Cape Breton, in the very far north, would clearly take a while longer to start stirring. Unfortunately, having again travelled some distance, a loo break was definitely required and as the music centre was shut, I tried next door, where a lot of people were milling about. Luckily they were a) open and b) had a loo – it was only later I realised, somewhat to my horror, that I’d gate crashed a funeral party.

Glenora Distillery

Glenora Distillery

Moving swiftly on, we drove through blessedly blazing sunshine towards our next nightly abode, the Glenora Distillery, in a peaceful, scenic location (to be fair that description applies to most of Cape Breton). Glenora is Canada’s only single malt whisky distillery and lies surrounded by quiet woodlands near a pristine, babbling brook. As well as distillery tours, it has accommodation and a pub/restaurant. Before you get excited on our behalf, the latter wasn’t open yet for the season, but we did get a bed for the night in one of the loveliest locations I’ve stayed in a long while. It was also possible to do the distillery tour, albeit only early morning, but having come all this way, I sure as hell wasn’t intending to miss it. As the first single malt distillery outside of Scotland, opened in 1990, Glenora produces 10, 14, 19, and 20-year old whiskies, ice whisky and a whisky liqueur, the tour ending with a tasting of the 10-year old. Possibly the first time I’ve had whisky before breakfast, but at least I wasn’t the one doing the driving.

I was, however, doing some sight-seeing next, at the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts & Crafts. Open year-round, the Gaelic College runs a variety of day- and week-long courses from traditional music and dancing, to Gaelic language, weaving and kilt-making. Its museum, assembly hall, and gift shop are open to visitors and if you’re really lucky (or a journalist) you might even catch a kilt-making demonstration. Ann, in her second year of training, started showing me the ropes and explained that many kilts are made to measure; each is done by hand and has 7,000 stitches. She currently takes some 36 hours to complete a kilt, but when fully trained she could be down to 12 hours flat. Mightily impressed by her stitching skills, I still controlled all urges to shop for anything remotely woolly or heavy, as I was leaving room in my luggage for Nova Scotia’s rather excellent apple wine.

Ceilidh Trail

the Ceilidh Trail on Cape Breton highlghts the celtic links

Our last stop before returning to the UK was the town of Baddeck, on UNESCO Biosphere Site Bras d’Or Lake. The sun was still blazing down on us, giving us views of the lake that were quite frankly beyond lovely. Cape Breton might not be open for business just yet, but what a beautiful place to be. The small lakeside town of Baddeck had something I hadn’t experienced in a while – a choice of restaurants and shops. After lunch I took a stroll along the lake, admiring the scenery, feeling rather sorry it was my last day – I was just getting into the swing of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, beginning to fully appreciate its charms. The next morning we were off again, driving towards Halifax airport past intriguingly named towns and villages, including the community of Washabuck. A notorious money-laundering centre, perhaps? I wouldn’t put it past Nova Scotia to be that cheeky and get away with it.

Getting there:

Westjet Airlines will be starting a new service Glasgow – Halifax in 2015.  Air Transat/Canadian Affair and Air Canada fly from London, while British Airways, Icelandair and others fly via respective hubs.

For more information about Nova Scotia, click here.

©  Destination Cape Breton for images of Cape Breton

Images and story: ©  Anna Maria Espsäter

First UK Rights

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