Both provinces are relatively flat, and that’s how we’re feeling about them so far: no emotional highs or lows. It’s a matter of perspective, of course, so we should explain ours.
While living in western North America-from Arizona to Alberta-we’ve explored it extensively. To us, big mountains, deep canyons and dramatic coastline are the norm. And for the past 15 years, we’ve lived in the embrace of the Canadian Rockies. Our home is on a mountainside. Soaring crags are visible out the window. So it’s understandable that we’re unmoved by the gently rolling, forest-clad expanses of eastern Canada. A sense of obligation, not satisfaction, is what we feel as we near the end of the first week of our journey. And this doesn’t surprise us. We knew the topography here wouldn’t be spectacular. We told ourselves we’d have to appreciate the details of subtler scenery. And we have.
Walking the leafy streets of south Halifax, we found the tidy, colourful homes unpretentiously charming. The vast, granite outcrops surrounding the lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove kept us happily roaming, much like Utah canyon-country slickrock does. The impeccably-preserved fishing-and-shipbuilding town of Lunenburg (a UNESCO World Heritage site) is an artist’s palette: each home a splash of vibrant colour sharply contrasting with its neighbours and making western Canadian communities seem bland and timid. Cape Chignecto, a peninsula in the Bay of Fundy, is a brilliant example of a community provincial park, where despite only modest scenic assets, locals have successfully created and promoted a worthy destination for hikers.
Feasting on fresh lobster and scallops with Canmore friends who have a home on Prince Edward Island has been the social highlight of our journey so far. Visiting Province House, in Charlottetown, has been the heritage highlight. This is the building in which the concept of a united Canada was first proposed. The structure itself is quintessentially Canadian: noble yet humble. No pomp and circumstance. No armed guards. No Plexiglas ticket booth. No entry fee. No lineup. Just a respectable edifice staffed by friendly, knowledgeable experts ready to engage in meaningful discussion about Canadian history. The film they show at Province House is one every Canadian should see. It’s a re-enactment of the birth of Canada. Though it was dutifully informative, we found it deeply moving. Afterward, Kath picked up a Canadian flag in the foyer and proudly wore it tucked into her daypack while we walked the streets of Charlottetown.
So coming here has already been worthwhile, despite all the monotonous motoring. Rarely is the ocean in view. It’s usually walled off by pretty-yet-unremarkable forest. And because there’s so little topographical relief, you have to be alert at each highway sign. There are no geographic reference points by which to gauge your location. In the west, there’s almost always a dominant, impressive landform in sight, so this constant “Where the heck are we?” feeling is strange to us and disheartening.
We thought Nova Scotia’s northern reaches — Cape Breton Island — might lift our spirits. But the vaunted Highlands are neither high nor distinct. They’re bushy, thickly treed, flat topped, rarely rocky. Nothing like the spiny, fearsome ranges of Scotland. And here, as in the rest of the province, the roads veer inland, so the ocean is visible only occasionally and briefly. After hiking the Skyline trail, our strongest memory of it will be the wind: so pugnacious, most people turned back rather than follow the culminating boardwalk along a ridgecrest overlooking the sea on one side and the Cabot Trail highway on the other.
You intend to hike in Nova Scotia? Here are two more Cape Breton suggestions: (1) The disturbingly-named Meat Cove (far north tip, just east of Cape St. Lawrence), where a tiny, remote community welcomes hikers by providing a free trail-map with descriptions of several long footpaths above the Atlantic Ocean. (2) The coast trail at South Point (north of Ingonish, just south of Neils Harbour), where you can wander on fingers of rosy granite above the surging sea.
On to Newfoundland — a seven hour, overnight ferry trip from Sydney, Nova Scotia. Next stop: Gros Morne National Park.