We were on a deadline. We had to get to Fredericton in New Brunswick for a business appointment I had in a few days. So we had a lot of ground to cover. But we knew we wanted to visit Nova Scotia; there was something romantic about the name, something exotic about the images we had of this island, its isolation, the wildness of its climate. So we crossed in the ferry from the very civilised Prince Edward Island, and ventured into what seemed like the wilderness of Nova Scotia. We reluctantly missed Cape Breton Island in the north, but chose one of the minor roads to cut through to the east of Nova Scotia, and drive down to Halifax along the coast.
New Zealand is not highly populated, and we sometimes find the endless towns and villages of western Europe a bit claustrophobic. So we felt at home in Nova Scotia. It was gloomy weather, raining off and on, on this spring not-so-sunny Sunday. The forest was lush and pretty, but if I’m honest after a while it became a little monotonous. (Driving through to Fredericton a few days later was even more so). I was surprised at that, as I am usually very appreciative of natural beauty, loving being out in the countryside, admiring the scenery. But all we could see were trees, trees, and more trees.
We stopped at a small town for lunch. There was a small river or inlet and the land rose up behind it. Houses were nestled in the trees on the side of the gentle hill. The roads were informal, barely sealed, but we found a parking space, and ventured out to explore. Church was just out, and the locals were talking and laughing before heading home for their Sunday lunch. Others were going to a small restaurant, disguised as a small cottage. It was the only restaurant we could find, so we decided to join them. It was tiny, with at most a dozen tables spread between the rooms of the cottage, and obviously family run. This was home cooking taken to the extreme. Roast meat and lasagne, salads, fresh bread and some desserts. We paid in advance, realising it was a buffet, all-you-can-eat place. The preacher was taking full advantage of this, filling his plate three times at least. (Yes, we counted!) The families enjoying their lunch chatted to him – one of them in particular obviously saw him as an eligible bachelor, pushing one of the daughters to talk to him, fawning over him. He didn’t look so interested.
We ate lightly, knowing that a heavy meal and a warm car could spell disaster on the road, when it was hard enough remembering to drive on the wrong (right) side of the road. . In Europe, I remind myself or my husband to stay right by saying “follow the (insert relevant colour) car.” But Nova Scotia’s roads were relatively empty, making this system obsolete. New Zealand has the same problem, with open empty roads and tired tourists who veer to the wrong (right) side of the road without other cars to follow, and sadly with often fatal consequences. (Many of New Zealand’s main roads have arrows reminding tourists that they need to be driving on the left.)
As we reached the coast, we began to see the scenery we had expected. Forests grown right to the sea, small picturesque inlets and islands, sea fog creeping through the coves. Photography was difficult with the fog and lack of light. But the sun courageously poked through later in the afternoon, and we were able to capture this.
We reached Halifax later in the afternoon, unscathed, still driving on the wrong (right) side of the road. We were surprised at its size, having expected somewhere smaller and cosier. But we managed to navigate our way (without GPS) through the streets to our hotel, and that evening explored the chilly waterfront boardwalk, and enjoyed a meal in a warm and cosy restaurant.
The next day we set off. It was cold. It was windy. In fact, after a few hours I looked at my husband and said “I think we’ve found somewhere that might even have worse weather than Wellington!” Like Wellington, it was a compact, walkable city, even with the hills, and there was plenty to keep us entertained. We walked along the waterfront, imagining how lovely it must be in the summer, how the locals of Halifax (Haligonians!) must revel in the warm weather, in the beauty of their harbour (just as we Wellingtonians do), after their long winters. We strolled the streets, both modern and old, and explored churches and cemeteries, though not those holding the graves of passengers from the Titanic. 100 years on from the Titanic disaster, these cemeteries are no doubt extremely busy right now with commemorations.
At mid-day we climbed up to the Halifax Citadel, watched the firing of the noon gun, listened to the plaintive sound of the bagpipers, and learned a bit more about the history of this British empire fortress. It was a living museum, and I will admit that my husband appreciated the armaments and other Victorian-era equipment rather more than his frozen wife.
But the highlight of our visit was Pier 21, the Museum of Immigration. This is the site where one million immigrants, refugees, war brides, evacuee children and displaced persons arrived in Canada between 1928 and 1971, and where half a million troops left their country for foreign battlefields in WWII. The museum held photos, artefacts, and most importantly, and the stories of the immigrants, with video and voice recordings providing a very moving experience. Perhaps as the descendants of immigrants who also travelled across the oceans, I felt an affinity to those hardy enough to both make the journey, and make a new life in this enormous, at times inhospitable, place. We stayed as long as our feet would allow, imagining what it had been like to arrive in that new land, and left appreciative of the ease of travel in the 21st century, of the comforts of warm hotel rooms, cars (even those on the wrong side of the road) and hot hearty meals.
The following day, we ventured out in our car again, exploring further south. We went to the major tourist attraction, Peggy’s Cove. It seemed ironic to me that this featured so strongly in images of Nova Scotia, and of Halifax, when it was the only rocky outcrop we saw in hours of driving along the coast. It is however undeniably stark and beautiful. I know I’m in the wrong island, but this is the landscape I pictured when I read Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. The photos speak for themselves.
But if I’m entirely honest, my main memory of Nova Scotia is the cold, wild wind. I can only imagine what it is like in the middle of winter, but equally I suspect that, like Wellington, on a good day, and in the summer, it is glorious. More than any other place I’ve been, Nova Scotia felt to me as if it was at the ends of the earth. And perhaps that’s why I felt comfortable there. I could relate, coming from a country tucked away at the very bottom of the Pacific at the other end of the earth, with this little, brave place perched on the edge of the Atlantic.