By Alison Gardner, Editor, Travel with a Challenge
Fans of American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, will recall his harrowing, quasi-historic tale of Evangeline’s lifelong search for her intended bridegroom, Gabriel, snatched by the British military on the day of their wedding. He and thousands of other French Acadians who settled on Canada’s east coast, were deported in 1755 from what is today southwest Nova Scotia.
Fact or fiction, what could be a better name than the Evangeline Trail to highlight the region’s rich settler history, enticing visitors to wander the Acadian, British and United Empire Loyalist lands occupied by Europeans since 1604? In a recent visit to the region, I discovered a new breed of 21st century settlers arriving from across North America, come to restore and preserve southwest Nova Scotia’s history by proudly showcasing their adopted heritage as some of the finest vacation accommodation anywhere on the continent.
The Evangeline Trail of Southwest Nova Scotia. Map courtesy of Nova Scotia Assn of Unique Country Inns (NSAUCI).
The Evangeline Trail route makes a perfect self-drive exploration of one to two weeks, to meander around tranquil inlets, lighthouses and coves, sample fresh seafood including lobster and Digby scallops, and stare agog at the dramatic tides of the Bay of Fundy in action. You won’t have to wait long!
Twice each day tides rise and fall 19 to 24 feet, leaving whole inlets and harbors waterless and good-sized fishing boats tilted askew alongside towering wharves and breakwaters. The volume of water moving through the Bay of Fundy each day is estimated at 14 billion metric tons, that is the combined flow of all the rivers on earth. You might want to read that a second time!
It is because of these extraordinary tide changes churning up delicious meals for marine mammals that the Bay of Fundy is an ecotourist paradise with 17 species of whales, including an occasional visit from the giant Blue Whale, and numerous other marine species. Such activity around the bay also attracts 450 resident and visitor bird species making it a prime birdwatching area.
The one mile boardwalk trail to Balancing Rock includes 235 steps. Alison Gardner
Acadian cottage at Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens. Alison Gardner
Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens, www.historicgardens.com, is worth a long stroll in a beautiful setting with first class ocean views. A perfectly-restored Acadian farm cottage is also open for viewing and there is a great garden shop worth browsing. Right in the town, the Gardens are open daily from mid-May to mid-October.
Bear River First Nation Heritage & Cultural Centre, www.bearriverculturalcenter.com, at Bear River near Digby, has a fine interactive museum showcasing Mi’kmaw native culture and excavated artefacts dating back thousands of years.
Balancing Rock on Long Island: take a 10 minute ferry ride from Digby Neck for a well-maintained but challenging forest walk with 235 boardwalk steps to the shore to view dramatic columnar basalt rock formations.
The Bay of Fundy is a geological and marine life miracle that deserves special attention whether from the shore or out on the water on an educational marine ecotour. Whales of every size and a rainbow of marine mammals and birds come to call! Brier Island Whale and Sea Bird Cruises, www.brierislandwhalewatch.com.
Historic Lighthouses dot the Yarmouth and Bay of Fundy landscape, and any one of them is worth stopping by to visit. Some have small restaurants, museums, and gift shops but all have great views, of course, and lots of stories of daring rescues.
Fort Anne National Historic Site, www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/ns/fortanne/natcul/histor_e.asp, in Annapolis Royal was built as a military fort guarding the bay through three centuries of Acadian and later British settlement of the region. Its 1702 earthworks and moat as well as its museum and setting are exceptional. Open May 15 to October 15.
A highlight of my Evangeline Trail holiday was a night time Graveyard Tour led by history interpreter, Alan Melanson, of proud Acadian heritage himself. Nothing silly or “ghostly” about this tour. With each guest carrying a rustic lantern to navigate the large cemetery attached to Fort Anne, my one-hour tour was full of historic insights laced with compelling personal stories about the way people lived and died here over nearly four centuries!
Graveyard Tour, Fort Anne. Alison Gardner
Just over a century ago, Yarmouth on the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia, was the fifth largest shipping port by tonnage in North America and the third largest shipbuilding town in the world. No wonder it exudes a grace and polish, boasting wide residential streets lined with thick-trunked canopy trees and imaginative multi-storey mansions that comfortably slept a dozen family members.
Today Yarmouth is a picturesque, relaxed town of 7,000 still looking to the sea with its large fishing fleet. Until a few years ago, American visitors could conveniently catch a ferry from the state of Maine direct to Yarmouth, but today US visitors must drive north into Canada to cross the Bay of Fundy on BAY ferries, www.bayferries.com, from St John, New Brunswick to Digby, Nova Scotia, landing midway on the Evangeline Trail.
MacKinnon-Cann Inn, Yarmouth. NSAUCI
For the mid-sized towns of Yarmouth, Digby and Annapolis Royal, the Evangeline Trail is a series of historic working villages living on fishing, farming and, of course, tourism. There are also award-winning wineries like Domaine de Grand Pré at the north end of the Trail where you may stop for lunch, a vineyard tour and a leisurely tasting. You can explore tempting side-roads, peninsulas and island-hopping ferry routes to mini-islands with little fear of getting lost even without a map. As the proverbial crow flies, there are under 100 miles between Yarmouth and Acadia’s heartland at Annapolis Royal, but once you catch the searching Evangeline spirit, you will surely agree that the crow flies much too straight and much too fast to be on holiday.
Bedrooms are one-of-a-kind in these country inns. Above: Thistle Down Country Inn. Below:Farmhouse Country Inn. Alison Gardner
There is a happy balance in spending a few days sampling the quiet, laid-back serenity of the countryside inns interspersed with the dress-for-dinner, sweeping staircases, 12-foot ceiling elegance of the restored town mansions. Check out the Evangeline Trail Accommodations below with descriptions and contacts for my nine top “sleeping with history” picks. Evangeline and I collaborated on this one ….. Visitors will find very little conventional hotel/motel accommodation along the Evangeline Trail, but they are guaranteed memorable sleeps in some of the finest settings in North America.
The word “unique” is an overused, frequently misleading, term in our current day vocabulary. However, in the case of the Nova Scotia Association of Unique Country Inns, www.uniquecountryinns.com, it is entirely accurate. I slept in, toured and sampled signature breakfasts and other meals at nine different NSAUCI member properties, each one distinctive in terms of restoration and furnishing, architectural style, garden landscaping, quirky family history, and perhaps most surprising of all, the unlikely and entertaining tales of present ownership. I literally stepped out into the pages of history with each one.
Bread and Roses Inn, Annapolis Royal. NSAUCI
While some were actually built as holiday accommodation, the majority of properties were originally private homes, some on a grand scale reflecting the world-class commercial wealth of the region. Only in the past decade or two have many been converted to inns to save them from decline or the wrecking ball! Even within a single inn, no two rooms are alike in design or furnishing – if they are not full, ask to tour and pick your room. Almost all properties are owned and personally operated by people from other parts of Canada or the US who came, saw and fell in love with the southwest Nova Scotia landscapes, seascapes, gentle climate and gracious pace of life.
Elegant breakfast room at Thistle Down Country Inn. Alison Gardner
Only two picks have 20-something people in their multi-generational family team. The rest are clearly labors of great passion sprung to life in the hands of individuals who have had long professional careers such as mining engineer, banker, police officer, teacher, a hospice worker or airline steward. Each owner could have more logically retired to a less rigorous lifestyle than their current hospitality demands, but each one glows with the energy of what they have chosen to do. They are also great storytellers, sharing tales of research and renovation in order to showcase the authentic history and spirit of their properties for guests willing to lend an ear.
Harbourview Inn, Smith’s Cove. NSAUCI
Farmhouse Inn, www.farmhouseinn.ns.ca, at Canning is a genuine farm property near the top end of the Evangeline Trail, an easy run to Halifax Airport. Open year round, it has been authentically restored and furnished. Your hosts are a lively mother and daughter team moved there from Ontario.
Harbourview Inn, www.theharbourviewinn.com, at Smith’s Cove has been welcoming summer visitors since 1899, including many loyal vacationers from the US through several generations of family, returning still to a place of happy childhood memories. Open May 15 to October 15.
MacKinnon-Cann Inn, www.mackinnoncanninn.com, is a Yarmouth gem saved from the wrecking-ball in 2000 and restored to its original Italianate Victorian charm by perfectionist American owners who take equal pride in architecture, interior design and their gourmet menu. Open year round.
Falcourt Inn, www.falcourtinn.ns.ca, near Middleton was built as a gentlemen’s fishing and hunting retreat in 1920 with a sweeping field and riverside location unchanged today. Open year round, with simplicity and authenticity reflected in rooms and public areas.
Queen Anne Inn, www.queenanneinn.ns.ca, is an 1865 Annapolis Royal property with 10 mansion rooms and two suites in the restored carriage house. Open May 1 to November 30, ask your retired Alberta mining engineer host to prepare his signature surprise for breakfast.
Bread and Roses Inn, www.breadandroses.ns.ca, is one of only two brick mansions in Nova Scotia, truly elegant in both interior restoration and garden landscaping. Built in 1882 by a dentist and pharmacist, it is now owned by a retired RCMP officer and
his wife. This Annapolis Royal beauty is open April 1 to November 30.
Garrison House Inn, www.garrisonhouse.ca, situated across from must-see Annapolis Royal’s Fort Anne National Park, this seven-room inn with a full-scale restaurant has actually welcomed guests since 1854. Open mid-May to mid-October.
Queen Anne Inn, Annapolis Royal. NSAUCI
Hillsdale House Inn, www.hillsdalehouseinn.ca, is a 13-room Annapolis Royal property on a 12-acre town estate. Built as an inn in 1859 and now open from April 1 to November 30, it has hosted numerous celebrities including King George V of Britain. It is proudly pet-friendly.
Thistle Down Country Inn, www.thistledown.ns.ca, is the only historic property on Digby’s harbor where you can watch the highest tides in the world. Open May 1 to October 31, this 1904 Edwardian beauty offers six historic rooms and in a separate building six modern rooms.
Hillsdale House Inn, Annapolish Royal. NSAUCI
Sleep and eat at Garrison House Inn. NSAUCI
Of course, you are in lobster and Digby scallop country but you will also find the freshest fish and best seafood chowders anywhere in the world.
Yarmouth hosts a traditional community lobster feast in late June which delights visitors and locals alike. Check the Yarmouth website, www.yarmouthonline.ca/.
Garrison House Inn, Annapolis Royal, www.garrisonhouse.ca, has a rustic restaurant renowned for fresh local cuisine including seafood. Looking for the owner of this historic b&b? You’ll find him in the kitchen!
Rudder’s Seafood Restaurant, Yarmouth, www.ruddersbrewpub.com/, has its own micro-brewery and a summer patio overlooking the bustling waterfront.
Queen Anne Inn, www.queenanneinn.ns.ca, special afternoon teas on Wednesday and Thursday and elegant dinner on the garden deck where fresh seafood is a specialty served Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Lavena’s Catch Café, Freeport on Digby Neck, allows you to watch the Briar Island ferry and the Fundy’s dramatic tides come and go while sampling outstanding seafood.
Award-winning Domaine de Grand Pré winery, www.grandprewines.ns.ca, has a fine dining lunch and dinner restaurant that nicely complements its popular wine shop, wine tastings and vineyard tours. Many menu items reflect the cuisine heritage of its Swiss German owner, Hanspeter Stutz.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.