Photo J.P. Ford



By John Patrick Ford

Canada’s best-kept secret is discovered in the unique beauty of the Maritime Provinces. Driving through the rural landscape of the Atlantic seacoast opens surprisingly new insights into remote North America. Here the French and British fought bitterly for colonial possession until Canada became a confederation in 1864 with political and trade ties to the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Targeting a portion of the Maritimes for a starter week drew me into the most scenic parts of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Cape Breton, the northern tip of Nova Scotia, offers spectacular coastal routes. Celtic and French settlements founded in the 18th century still reflect their respective cultural heritage today in language and food.

The icing on the cake of Maritime treats is the incomparable Cabot Trail, a forested, cliff-hanging route that loops around the end of Cape Breton. Along the way, the road dips down to surf-swept beaches and fishing marinas that endure the raw wind and tides of the turbulent North Atlantic.

The west shore of Cape Breton hosts an historic Celtic culture brought by the Scots and Irish colonial settlers. Daily entertainment by fiddlers serves up toe-tapping jigs and reels while sampling local seafood specialties in the villages of Mabou and Judique. At the entrance of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park is the French-Acadian settlement of Cheticamp. Cottage industry hand crafted goods can be purchased in a culture center where authentic Acadian food is served.

On the east coast of Cape Breton is the oldest site of French settlement. Fortress Louisbourg is a replica built on archeological remains of the stronghold of French resistance to British conquest of Canada in the 18th century. A walking tour of the walled town packed with shops, taverns and residences provides a living history of colonial lifestyle in remote North America. Costumed actors play out their roles as soldiers, blacksmiths, farmers and domestic help while you stroll on cobblestone lanes among the restored buildings.

            The Cape Breton loop deserves several days to absorb the Celtic and Acadian cultures and spectacular marine scenery. Along the way, savor the abundance of Atlantic seafood: cod cakes, scallops, salmon and haddock are standard gems of the sea in plentiful roadside cafes. If seafood is not to your taste, there are farmers’ meat pies, Breton bread pudding and delectable French pastries baked in the local style.

The next destination on the Maritime Provinces route is Prince Edward Island. No wonder this charming region is everyone’s favorite. Rolling hills of green crops, picturesque fishing marinas and coastal hiking trails remind me of England’s Devon and Cornwall. Access to the island is by ferry or on an incredibly long bridge.

Either way you land in a pastoral setting of lobster boats and story-book villages. The biggest attraction to P.E.I. is Green Gables at Cavendish where the legendary Anne has entertained young girls in books and film for 100 years. The Kindred Spirit Inn next to Green Gables offers old fashioned British inn-keeping hospitality.

After touring the coast and bays, I settled down to feast on lobster and oysters. P.E.I claims to be the lobster capital of the world, and the oysters from Malpeque Bay are world famous. The Landing Oyster House and Pub at Tyne Valley serves them fresh daily. The island natives have a knack of preparing seafood to titillate any traveler who is hesitant to try.

Longer tours of the Maritimes can extend north to Gaspé Peninsula and even Quebec City to get the full impact of French traditions. However, there is much more of New Brunswick to discover, especially around the Bay of Fundy.. Halifax, capital of Nova Scotia, is the principal portal to the Maritimes and deserves some time to visit. A popular tourist attraction is the Fairview Cemetery where the victims of the “Titanic” are buried and the historic exhibit of the sea tragedy at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

Halifax International Airport serves most airlines with convenient hotels nearby if for travelers who prefer to rent a car and start off on a tour of the Maritime Provinces without time in the commercial seaport of Halifax. Country inns and B&B’s are plentiful in the Maritime villages. A handy base on Cape Breton is Glenora Inn and Distillery near Inverness is the only single malt whiskey distiller in North America offering comfortable rooms and a lively pub with nightly fiddlers.

First place award for travel by San Diego Press Club 2010