Author Nicholas DeRenzo Photography Chris Sorensen
DAY TWO | Halifax has long served as an entry point to Nova Scotia, but my plan for today is to see what lies beyond. I set out early and wind down the coast to the South Shore, which looks and feels like rural Maine. Fifteen minutes outside the capital, I’m surrounded by pine-studded islets, pristine lakes, rocky beaches and cottages with brightly colored Adirondack chairs pointing out toward the sea.
Like pretty much everyone who travels the Lighthouse Route, I pull into Peggy’s Cove to get a look at the trail’s namesake—a perfect white lighthouse on a wave-beaten promontory, shrouded in photogenic fog. Just behind me is an equally lovely lobster-fishing village. It’s the kind of view that makes you entertain relocation fantasies, although the porcupine waddling across the street as I depart might be overdoing the cuteness a bit.
After a quick stop for coffee and snacks at the cozy bookstore/bakery Biscuit Eater, farther down the coast in Mahone Bay, I’m on to Lunenburg. This colorful cod-fishing town is home to the continent’s best-preserved planned British colonial settlement, dating to the 1700s—a distinction that has earned it the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’d be easy to do a drive-by gawk, but I’d like to get a closer look, so I’ve set up a tour with seventh-generation Lunenburger Shelah Allen, who co-owns Lunenburg Walking Tours.
We meet at the town’s turreted High Victorian showpiece, the Lunenburg Academy, where Allen went to elementary school. “This is gallows hill, surrounded on three sides by a graveyard—lots of fodder for children’s imaginations,” she says. “People always expect it to be scary or haunted, but I have to say, ‘Sorry! Happy building!’”
As we stroll the surrounding streets, Allen points out a cod atop a church weathervane. “People always ask if the fish is a Christian symbol,” she says. “And I say, ‘Sort of—it’s a symbol of what we’re most thankful for.’” She also introduces me to a renowned architectural flourish that originated here, the Lunenburg Bump, a protruding window in which the lady of the house would sit and knit, to see and be seen. “I think of it as early Facebook,” she says.
Allen is quick to note that Lunenburg isn’t too precious about its heritage. “We don’t wear costumes,” she says. And while the pink and blue and red buildings may look fanciful, they house hardware stores and bars. This is a working town.
We head down toward the waterfront to grab lunch at the South Shore Fish Shack, where Allen insists I order the lobster. “The water’s super-cold, the shells are harder, the meat’s sweeter—we have the best lobsters in the world here,” she says. “Though people from Prince Edward Island would say we’re full of crap.” I hate to take sides in a Maritime dispute, but the lobster is pretty amazing.
On my way out of town, I stop into Ironworks Distillery, which occupies an 1890s blacksmith shop. Along with dark rum (a nod to the province’s rum-running days), the distillery makes liqueurs with flavorings like cranberry and a hearty local fruit called arctic kiwi. I grab a bottle of apple vodka, which still tastes faintly of the fruit grown in the province, and receive a perfectly Nova Scotian outburst when my credit card doesn’t swipe. “Oh turtleneck!” says the cashier, and then, under her breath, “That was me swearing.”
After a short ferry ride across the LaHave River, I stop at the LaHave Bakery. The place feels like an old general store, with wooden shelves loaded with fresh bread made from locally milled grains. It’s the perfect spot to meet Jennah Barry, a rootsy redheaded spitfire singer-songwriter who recorded her indie folk-pop album, Young Men, just across the river, and who lives nearby “on top of this hill, in a little cabin I built.”
Barry clearly has a kinship with the area, especially this bakery. “This is the hub,” she says. “If you don’t know where anyone is, you just come here. None of my friends have cell phones, which is great. When people say they’ll be somewhere, they’ll really be here. We’re the least apathetic people in the world.”
How does being from Nova Scotia play into the way people perceive her? “People see me as this sweet rural girl,” she says. “I don’t feel like an apron-wearing country girl … though I guess I am? I will say I am a very aggressive driver.”
And if this whole singing thing doesn’t work out? “I always have a job waiting for me in PEI,” she says with a laugh, noting her resemblance to the neighboring province’s most famous export, Anne of Green Gables.
Next, Barry takes me upstairs to meet her friend Jesse Watson, owner of Homegrown Skateboards. Here, in a raw attic space that houses a bowl for testing boards, Watson crafts decks out of Canadian hardrock maple and sells T-shirts with slogans like “Too much moxie breeds mayhem in the streets” (from a 1965 Life headline about skateboarders). Talk turns to this year’s once-in-a-lifetime winter.
“It was arctic, full-on,” Watson says. “No one could go out, but there was this weird romance of isolation.”
“You get kind of squirrelly,” adds Barry. “You get up to weirder stuff, because you have to.” As for what counts as weird in these parts: “We’re going to an Under the Sea costume party tonight, and everyone’s congregating here to finish up their costumes,” says Watson, who will be going as a shark head.
“And I’m gonna cut a hole in this blue tarp,” says Barry, “and be water.”
I’m sure I could have whipped up a mean kelp get-up, but I have to head farther south before nightfall. I’ll be staying at the White Point Beach Resort, a 1928 family retreat overlooking the Atlantic that calls to mind the Catskills lodge in Dirty Dancing. A sign by the entrance reads, “Children and bunnies are everywhere,” and there’s truth in advertising. The lawn around my swank-summer-camp beachfront cabin is hopping with domesticated rabbits that escaped and multiplied decades ago. The resort hands out paper baggies of rabbit food by the front desk, but I can’t help but feel they’d do better handing out packets of rabbit birth control.
After a dinner of deliciously rich planked salmon chowder and homegrown mussels at the resort’s Elliot’s Dining Room, I head to the beachside bonfire for s’mores, served with a rotating slate of Nova Scotia–born products, including haskap jam, made from a dark blue Japanese berry that’s fast becoming this region’s superfood du jour. It shows up everywhere here.
I take a stroll on the beach until my sugar high wears off and then head to bed, where I’m warmed by a crackling fire. And yes, it took this city boy quite a few tries to get it going.