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Canada: the history and must see sights of Nova Scotia

Kieran Meeke / 19 January 2017

Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017, Canada is a fascinating country full of history and intrigue. The eighth installment in a series of articles, we look at Nova Scotia.

Peggy's Point Lighthouse in Nova Scotia Canada
No part of Nova Scotia is more than 40 miles from the sea and shipbuilding became an important trade in the later 19th century.

Cool mountain peaks and even ‘cooler’ cities, Canada offers a world of experiences. Find out more about our holidays to Canada here


Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick are the three Maritime Provinces that together with Newfoundland and Labrador form the region of Atlantic Canada.

Nova Scotia, with its capital of Halifax, is made up of a large peninsula and Cape Breton Island to its north, as well as some much smaller islands. 

Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were all part of the French colony of Acadia, founded in 1605 as the first permanent European settlement in Canada. 

The French were driven from Acadia in 1755, with many settling in French-ruled Louisiana (where their name was corrupted into “Cajun”). English-speaking settlers from New England, Ulster, Yorkshire and elsewhere replaced them.

Many American Loyalists also arrived after fleeing the American Revolution, including the father of Cunard Line founder Samuel Cunard who was born in Nova Scotia in 1787. 

No part of Nova Scotia is more than 40 miles from the sea and shipbuilding became an important trade in the later 19th century.

Connected to the US state of Maine to the west and Quebec to the north, New Brunswick has a very different climate, landscape and culture to the rest of Atlantic Canada. 

It retains a large minority (33 per cent) of Arcadian descendants and is officially bilingual. These French exiles made their way back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and kept themselves apart from the English settlers.

Large numbers of Irish also arrived after the Potato Famine of the 1840s and the capital of Saint John still has a marked Irish culture.

Forest covers about 83 per cent of the province and shipbuilding was also a major industry here during the mid 19th century but gave way to textile, pulp and paper mills in the 20th century.

Mining (zinc, silver and lead), fishing and the refining of petroleum are also major industries.

Prince Edward Island lies to the north of Nova Scotia and is the idyllic inspiration for the 1908 novel “Anne of Green Gables”, repeatedly filmed since for both cinema and TV. 

The economy of this “Garden of Canada” relies on agriculture (including producing a quarter of Canada’s potatoes), fisheries and tourism. It’s the place to relax with beach walks, golf (there are more than 30 courses) or exploring the many small communities.

Getting Around

VIA Rail’s 836-mile “Océan” route connects Montreal to Halifax, passing through several stops in New Brunswick.

Halifax Transit runs regular buses in the region and the ferries between Halifax and Dartmouth. A shuttle service also connects Halifax and Dartmouth with Halifax Stanfield International Airport. 

Halifax is a walkable city but also has a cycle rental scheme called at i heart bikes. Helmets must be worn.

Outside Halifax, rental cars are the best option. Ferryboats take both passengers and vehicles, while internal flights are a quick way to hop around.

Major Sights


The capital of Nova Scotia is noted for having more pubs and clubs per capita than any other city in Canada. It is built around the world’s second-largest ice-free harbour, which is still a working one.

Don’t miss: The Citadel was built by the British in 1749 and has kept the city safe every since, with the noon-day gun a reminder of its martial past.

Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21

More than a million immigrants, including war brides, refugees and entire families, passed through this Canadian version of Ellis Island from 1928 to 1971. This Halifax museum tells their, literally, moving story.

Must-do: Spend some time in the research department to learn about any ancestors who came to Canada.

Fairview Cemetery

After RMS Titanic sank in 1912, more than 100 recovered bodies were buried here in Halifax. Among them was “The Unknown Child”, a two-year-old subsequently identified as Sidney Goodwin whose English family were emigrating to Canada.

Must-see: The grave of “J. Dawson”, an Irish coal trimmer on-board Titanic who was identified (wrongly) as the Jack Dawson played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Bay of Fundy

Noted for the highest tides in the world, up to an incredible 40ft, this bay is bordered by both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. You can drive the picturesque shoreline but the most exciting way to see it is from a speedboat. 

Twice a day when the tide turns, massive waves deliver a “white-water rafting” experience.

Must-do: Enjoy a mudslide on the banks as a unique way to cool down during the warmer months.

Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site

Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell built a summer home near the village of Baddeck in Nova Scotia with the wealth from inventing the telephone. 

He experimented here with powered flight, a hydrofoil that was the fastest boat in the world, solar panels and composting toilets among many other subjects.

Must-do: A “white glove” tour lets you handle some of Bell’s personal items, historic documents and exhibits.

Sable Island National Park Reserve

Sable Island is about 100 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, reachable only by plane or boat, and is famous for its herd of around 600 wild ponies. 

There are also colonies of seals and birdlife, and some 300 shipwrecks around the shoreline.

Must-do: See the lone tree that has survived on the island.

Fortress of Louisbourg

This reconstructed 300-year-old village in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is brought to life by costumed reenactors. In the mid-1700s, this had one of the strongest fortifications in North America but the British captured it from the French in both 1745 and 1758. 

This last defeat allowed Wolfe to attack Quebec, leading to the end of French rule in Canada.

Must-do: Buy some bread from the 18th century bakery.

Cabot Trail

Often called “North America’s most scenic drive”, this is at its best in autumn when the leaves change colour to a wide palette of browns, oranges and reds. The dramatic ocean views can also be seen by hiking, kayaking, horse riding, or by boat.

Must-do: Shop with the many artisans, from potters to jewellers, who live on or near the trail.

Whale Watching

A number of former fishermen operate tour boats that will show you whales, porpoises, seals and seabirds. Most operate between June and September, the best time to see whales. 

You can also join a kayak tour to see the coast at a more sedate pace – although the whales are harder to track.

Must-do: Bring your camera and hope for a “fluke” shot of a whale diving.

Sherbrooke Village

Operating from June to September 20, this depiction of a typical village of the 1860s is Nova Scotia’s largest open-air museum. 

Costumed re-enactors include a blacksmith, potter, baker, photographer, printer and weaver, among others, who tell the story of when this settlement was a gold rush boomtown on St. Mary’s River.

Must-do: Keep an eye out for the bald eagles which nest along St. Mary’s River.

Green Gables

This farm in Cavendish, P.E.I, is one for long-term fans of the red-haired orphan. You can see a recreation of Anne’s room and hear the story of author Lucy Maud Montgomery. 

First published in 1908, her book has since sold more than 50 million copies and is particularly popular in Japan – as you will note from the number of Japanese visitors.

Must-do:  Follow the walking paths on the property to see the Haunted Woods and Balsam Hollow.

Northumberland Coast

The Northumberland Strait to the south of Prince Edward Island shelters a beautiful stretch of coast along the northern shores of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. 

Towns such as Souris on PEI, Pictou in Nova Scotia, and Shediac in New Brunswick (“Lobster Capital of the World”) are filled with holiday homes that take advantage of sandy beaches and the warmest waters in Canada.

Must-do: Look out for the Ghost Ship, a flaming schooner said to ply the Northumberland Strait for the past 200 years.

Cool mountain peaks and even ‘cooler’ cities, Canada offers a world of experiences. Find out more about our holidays to Canada here

Major Events

Annapolis Valley Apple Blossom Festival

Held from the last Wednesday in May to early June in Kentville, this festival brings around 100,000 visitors to see the Apple Blossom Grand Street Parade and its associated events. It marks a history of apple growing here dating back to the 1600s. 

Halifax Jazz Festival

The largest summer festival in the Atlantic region is held every July in Halifax, featuring around 350 local musicians and headline act Lauryn Hill in 2016. It now spans a week and attracts some 60,000 spectators. 

Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo

Nova Scotia highlights its Scottish side with this weeklong celebration of bagpipes, tartan and martial music. Held in late June/early July, to span Halifax’s notable Canada Day celebrations on July 1st, it is “the world’s largest annual indoor show”. 

To Colours International Festival

One of Canada’s premiere musical events attracts Celtic musicians from around the world to Cape Breton every autumn. 

Scots and Irish settlers have left a legacy of music, song and dance that is showcased as a time when the autumn colours of the island are at their best.

PEI Fall Flavours Festival

This October-long event is a friendly battle between local communities around Prince Edward Island, who show off the best of their local produce prepared by celebrity chefs. 

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.