On the trail in Nova Scotia

Some whale-watching tours are better than others. In Pleasant Bay on Cape Breton Island, a company called Wesley’s boasts “100 per cent guaranteed whale sightings or your tour is free.” You can’t beat that.

“We only have to give a refund about six times a year,” says tour guide Dawn Swift. This was not one of those times. A few minutes into the excursion, flukes and fins of three pilot whales appear above the water. Dozens more sightings follow.

Our trip to see the whales is one of many stops we make along the Cabot Trail. Carved into the sides of mountains that rise above the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the road winds for 300 kilometres through the highlands and plateaus of Cape Breton. Travelling by bus with Ambassatours Gray Line allows us to enjoy the view while someone else handles the driving.

The scenery is a big attraction on the Cabot Trail, but it’s not the only one. At Cap-le-Moine, we encounter a field of scarecrows, each dressed to represent a different occupation. Twenty years ago, Joe Delaney installed a few straw figures on his lawn to scare off pesky birds. When he noticed tourists stopping to look, he decided to add to he collection. Now there are more than a hundred.

If Joe’s Scarecrow Village is the most unusual site on the trail, the Acadian village of Cheticamp may be one of the most artistic. It’s billed as the “rug-hooking capital of the world.” One of the best-known rug-hookers is Elizabeth LeFort, whose tapestries hang in the Vatican and the White House. You can visit her gallery at Les Trois Pignon in Cheticamp.

Back on the bus heading toward Cape Breton Highlands National Park, I begin to recall my three previous trips to the province and conclude that this journey is by far the most rewarding. I’m learning a lot more this time, due to the Ambassatour guides who provide narration along the way.

At times, it seems there is nothing about Nova Scotia that one of Ambassatours owners and tour guides, Paul Emmons, cannot answer, whether it be the function of a lobster’s left claw or the number of victims of the Titanicburied in Halifax. (“That’s a trick question,” he says. “There are 150 victims buried here plus one survivor, so 151.”)

We pick a good time to make a stop in Neils Harbour. A boat carrying freshly caught lobster has just pulled into shore, and an obliging fisherwoman holds up a large crustacean in each hand for our cameras.

Our next destination is Baddeck, whose most famous resident was Alexander Graham Bell. His estate, Beinn Breagh, is still here, and the Bell museum, a National Historic Site, has the largest collection of artifacts, photos and documents about his life.

We have dinner at the Fortress of Louisbourg, south of Baddeck, in a restaurant called L’Epée Royalle. “You don’t have to bring your own knives,” says a guide. “This is an upper-class restaurant. You get a full place setting.” Oh.

Seems they’re serious about recreating life as it was here in 1744. To find a pub, for example, we are told to look for a spruce bough above an entranceway. Ninety per cent of people were illiterate so written signs were useless.

Founded in 1713, the Fortress was one of France’s key economic and military centres in the New World. Today, it’s North America’s largest historical reconstruction. A four-hectare site with 65 reconstructed buildings, it takes visitors at least a day to explore.

Every town in Nova Scotia has its own charm. Some of the most visited are on the Lighthouse Route, west of Halifax. At Peggy’s Cove, distinguished by its huge granite outcroppings, you can mail a card from the only post office in a lighthouse. At Mahone Bay, once named the prettiest town in Canada, locals will tell you about the “world’s costliest treasure hunt” on nearby Oak Island. Captain Kidd is rumoured to have buried vast riches here.

Few other towns in the province, however, have as many distinctions as Lunenburg does. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the town is also home of the famous Bluenose schooner. “This is one of only two towns left in the world laid out in a military grid. The other is Savannah, Ga.,” explains historian and main tour guide, Eric Croft, who leads us on a walking tour of the town.

We begin at the Lunenburg Academy, a striking building that was once featured on a postage stamp, and end at the colourful waterfront. In between are dozens of well-maintained historic buildings and homes dating to 1760. Many of them are now inns, restaurants, shops and galleries.

Eight days after our trip began, we return to Halifax, home to one of Canada’s best-kept secrets: the Nova Scotia International Tattoo. The world’s largest annual indoor show takes place in early July and is an extravagant display of music, dance, gymnastics, drama and military shows.

This year, an extra special event took place in Halifax, when more than 1,000 participants marked the 100th anniversary of British Troops leaving Canada. The major commemorative gathering took place during the week of July 18.

More information:
Ambassatours Gray Line:
Go to www.ambassatours.com or call toll-free 1-800-565-7173.

Nova Scotia Tourism information:
Go to www.novascotia.com or call toll-free 1-800-565-0000.

Photo: Nova Scotia Tourism and Culture