On the road in Canada: Nova Scotia’s Lighthouse Route

Washed by the white-capped waves of the unpredictable North Atlantic, Nova Scotia’s rugged coastline is at its most picturesque on warm summer days. When the sun is shining, white-painted lighthouses that have long warned mariners against perils posed by sailing too close to shore stand in elegant contrast to the blue of the sky and ocean.

If you enjoy driving, you can view some of those lighthouses—at Peggy’s Point, Fort Point and Cape Forchu—while following the Lighthouse Route, which sweeps along Nova Scotia’s South Shore between Halifax and Yarmouth. The popular trail runs for 339 kilometres (211 miles).

Of course, you could cover that kind of distance in an afternoon, should you so wish, but some things are best enjoyed at a leisurely pace, particularly if you’re on vacation. The scenic route provides plenty of places for you to pull-over, park up and photograph land- and seascapes.

Onto the Evangeline Trail

After reaching Yarmouth you could always turn your vehicle around and head north-eastwards, back to Halifax. But if you have time available you’d do well to keep on motoring and loop around on the Evangeline Trail. It runs almost 300 kilometres (186 miles) from Yarmouth to Wolfville, skirting along the Bay of Fundy, before dropping southwards to Mount Uniacke, from there it’s an easy run into Halifax.

The Bay of Fundy is the location of the world’s highest tides—with a maximum differential in sea level of more than 16 metres (53 feet) during the spring tide—and one of the best places to observe that natural phenomenon is in the woodland park by the lighthouse at Burntcoat Head. Stopping points along the route include the lighthouses at Masstown Market, Cape d’Or plus Cape George on the Northumberland Shore.

Travelling further east, to Cape Breton, will give you an opportunity to explore the lighthouse at Louisbourg, a destination named after the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, and famed for its French-built fortress and historic town, founded in 1713.

Waterfront huts and houses at Peggy's Cove.
Waterfront huts and houses at Peggy’s Cove.

Driving the Cabot Trail

If you enjoy being behind the steering wheel and the prospect of exploring another stretch of scenic coastal roadway appeals, then you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to drive the 300 kilometres of the Cabot Trail. The route, which is widely regarded as one of the world’s best scenic drives, also skirts through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

A peppering of car parks along the way mean you can stop and walk on 26 different hiking trails. The seaside cliffs of the Cape Mabou Highlands and ocean sunsets of the Skyline Trail are just two of many reasons why the Cabot Trail regularly draws comments of appreciation from travellers.

The Fishermen's Monument at Peggy's Cove.
The Fishermen’s Monument at Peggy’s Cove.

Arrival into Halifax

For much of this maritime province’s history visitors and settlers arrived after long transatlantic sea voyages rather than by air into Halifax Stanfield International Airport, which is named in honour of Robert Stanfield, a former Premier of Nova Scotia. The harbour at Halifax, the Nova Scotian capital, is large, well-sheltered and deep, meaning it remains ice-free in winter—a reason for the British settling and fortifying Citadel Hill in 1749.

The harbour opens out onto the Atlantic and a century ago, during World War One, it was of strategic importance to the Allied nations, who shipped munitions, essential supplies and even troops via the port. Georges Island, named after Great Britain’s King George II, is the site of Fort Charlotte, which bears the name of his queen, and a lighthouse that is approaching the centenary of its construction.

The Canadian Museum of Immigration

Before setting out from Halifax, onto the Lighthouse Route, it’s worth taking time to visit the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, where between 1928 and 1971 almost one million people, from around the world, took their first steps in Canada, the land that would become their home.

Stroll along the broad wooden boardwalk, at which ships used to moor to load and unload cargoes, and you can pop into the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. The attraction conveys the importance of the sea and seafaring to Nova Scotia and its people. Samuel Cunard, the shipping magnate, was born in Halifax and became a catalyst in revolutionising transatlantic transport.

He saw how steam engines presented opportunities for regular sailing schedules, regardless of the prevailing wind conditions. The museum displays a deckchair and other telling artefacts from RMS Titanic, the supposedly unsinkable liner that plunged to the bottom of the Atlantic during her maiden voyage, after a collision with an iceberg in 1912.

Perhaps many other ships would have joined her on the bottom of the ocean if it wasn’t for the beams of light and warning tones of foghorns emitted from lighthouses along the Nova Scotian shoreline?

The lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove

The rustic village at Peggy’s Cove is one of the most popular stopping points on the Lighthouse Route, primarily because of its proximity to Halifax. Photographers love the way the colourful houses and fishing boats reflect in the water of the cove. The lighthouse stands atop of rocks whose smooth surfaces have been rounded by centuries of winter winds and crashing waves.

The small town of Mahone Bay was once renowned for its shipbuilding but in recent years the craft stores have prompted many visitors to park up and take a stroll. The sight of the town’s three waterfront places of worship—the St James Anglican Church, St John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and Trinity United Church—is one of Atlantic Canada’s most iconic scenes. Locals swear it looks most spectacular on balmy autumn days, when the foliage has turned to yellow or red.

The lighthouse at Peggy's Point.
The lighthouse at Peggy’s Point.

A Bluenose in Lunenburg

Pulling into Lunenburg means being able to stretch your legs in a fishing town with colourful façades. It was settled by German speakers in 1753.

A number of Georgian buildings still stand in the town, which has retained its grid pattern layout. As a consequence UNESCO inscribed Lunenburg on its list of world heritage sites in 1995.

Look up and you’ll see protruding windows above the doorways of houses. The architectural feature, known as the Lunenburg bump, is a remnant of the time when women are reputed to have sat looking out, waiting for the return of their seafaring husbands. The Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic stands by the wharf where the Bluenose schooner docked many times. Pick up a Canadian 10 cent piece and you’ll see the ship depicted on the coin’s reverse.

Liverpool and the Mersey

In common with its namesake in England, the River Mersey flows through Nova Scotia’s Liverpool. In Fort Point Lighthouse, which dates from 1855, you can learn how Liverpool was once a base for privateers—state-sponsored pirates—and look out into the harbour, towards the ominously named Coffin Island Lighthouse.

From there you can drive to Yarmouth to complete the Lighthouse Route. Cape Forchu Lightstation, which today has a compact tea room, has cast its light since 1840 and stands 11 kilometres (7 miles) from the town. Samuel de Champlain, the man who has been described as ‘the father of new France’, named the rugged point Cape Forchu in 1604.

Like Champlain, lighthouses have their place in Nova Scotia’s history. Whichever route you choose to drive, the road back to Halifax promises to be scenic and will give you opportunities to explore more of the province’s maritime heritage.

Further information

Discover more about the province on the Nova Scotia Tourism website. Take a look at the Explore Canada site for more ideas about Nova Scotia and the country as a whole.

A figure depicting a fisherman at Peggy's Cove.
A figure depicting a fisherman at Peggy’s Cove.

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