Highlights of a family trip to Nova Scotia – Halifax and Cape Breton Island.
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One summer vacation when our daughters were young we travelled to Atlantic Canada and spent 8 nights in Nova Scotia followed by 7 nights in Prince Edward Island. We had traveled to PEI previously, however, this was our first trip to Nova Scotia. At the time of this vacation, Katie was 9 years old and Emma had just turned 3.
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Halifax with Kids
The first three days of our vacation were spent in Halifax where we stayed at The Prince George Hotel located in the heart of downtown. Our central location meant that we were able to walk everywhere that we wanted to in Halifax. We did, however, rent a car so that we would have it available for day trips from Halifax and because we were going to need it for the balance of our vacation. (Check current rates and reviews for The Prince George Hotel on TripAdvisor)
As soon as we had checked in to the hotel we went for a walk to orient ourselves and ended up at the waterfront where we saw Theodore Tugboat sailing in the harbour. Theodore Tugboat was a popular children’s television show about a tugboat that lived in Halifax harbour. Theodore now takes visitors on harbour tours which are designed with children in mind. (Update: Theodore Tugboat no longer resides in Halifax harbour.)
We also discovered that there was a COWS outlet located on the boardwalk (a treat we were familiar with from previous trips to PEI) and we were able to have our first scoops of yummy COWS ice cream of the summer.
The next morning we headed back to the waterfront in order to take a tour on the Harbour Hopper. The Harbour Hopper is a narrated land and sea tour that journeys around historic downtown Halifax before plunging into the harbour for a view of the skyline from the water. The Harbour Hopper is a refitted amphibious military vehicle capable of traveling on land and water and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Atlantic Canada.
The kids were thrilled with the Harbour Hopper ride, particularly when it drove into the harbour, and my husband and I enjoyed the narrative about Halifax and the many historic sites that we passed. (Check reviews and/or book tickets in advance for the Halifax Harbour Hopper on TripAdvisor)
After finishing our tour on the Harbour Hopper we visited the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic which is located on the historic Halifax waterfront. The museum introduces visitors to Nova Scotia’s rich maritime heritage through exhibits on shipbuilding, navies, WWII convoys and the Battle of the Atlantic, the Halifax Explosion of 1917 and the role that Nova Scotia played in the aftermath of the Titanic disaster. Katie had recently read a story in the Canadian Girl series about a girl that had lived during the Halifax Explosion so she was most interested in that exhibit.
We went on a guided tour of Province House which has been home to the Nova Scotia legislature since 1819. Province House was the first legislative seat in Canada and is now a National Historic Site. Province House is built of Nova Scotia sandstone and is considered to be a fine example of the architecture of the Georgian period. In fact, Charles Dickens famously referred to it as “a gem of Georgian architecture“. Not the most exciting place for young kids but occasionally the grownups get a choice in where we visit.
The Halifax Citadel was a more kid-friendly attraction – not in the least because it is mostly outdoors. The Citadel was named a Parks Canada National Historic Site in 1951. According to the Parks Canada website the present citadel was completed in 1856 and is the fourth in a series of forts since 1749 to occupy the hill overlooking the Halifax harbour.
The Citadel is an impressive star-shaped structure with a defensive ditch and earthen ramparts. Today the Citadel is operated by Parks Canada and has been restored to the mid-Victorian period with a living history program. The Citadel is open from May to October and guided tours are available which give a comprehensive overview of the fort and its history.
Serious guards who refuse to smile never fail to amuse my kids, particularly when they are wearing “skirts”! (Read reviews and/or book tickets in advance for the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site on TripAdvisor)
The Town Clock, which is also known as The Citadel Clock Tower, is one of the most prominent structures in Halifax. The three-tiered clock tower was built atop a white clapboard building and erected on the east slope of Citadel Hill at the behest of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent in 1800. It officially began keeping time in 1803. The Clock is now maintained and operated by Parks Canada as part of the Citadel Hill National Historic Site and employees wind the clock mechanism twice weekly.
The next morning we headed out of Halifax for a day trip to Peggy’s Cove and to the town of Lunenburg. The village of Peggy’s Cove is a small fishing community which is located about 43km from downtown Halifax. The Peggy’s Cove lighthouse which is perched on a rocky coast is probably one of the most recognizable landmarks in Canada and is one of the busiest tourist attractions in Nova Scotia. The classic red and white lighthouse on the granite rocks at Peggy’s Point is still operated by the Canadian Coast Guard.
Tourists scramble around on the rocks at the ruggedly beautiful Peggy’s Cove despite the many warning signs that the surf can be unpredictable and, tragically, several people are swept away by the waves each year. Since I have a tendency to be a bit of an overprotective mom when it comes to the ocean my kids were not allowed anywhere close to the edge and we still managed to take great photos.
A highlight of Peggy’s Cove for the girls was the gentleman who had his camera set up to take photos and print them on postcard paper. They were able to have their photo taken at Peggy’s Cove and printed on a postcard that they then mailed to their grandparents from the post office that operated out of the lighthouse at the time.
We left Peggy’s Cove and drove further down the coast to spend the rest of the day in Lunenburg which is approximately 100km southwest of Halifax. The town of Lunenburg was formally established in 1753 as the first British colonial settlement in Nova Scotia outside of Halifax. A vibrant economy developed in the area based on shipbuilding, fishing and other forms of ocean-based commerce.
The government of Canada designated “Old Town” Lunenburg a National Historic District in 1992 and, in 1995, Lunenburg was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in recognition of the town’s cultural and natural heritage.
We decided to hire one of the horse and carriages available on the waterfront to take us on a 35 minute tour of the picturesque “Old Town” of Lunenburg. The driver kept us entertained with stories about the history of the town while we trotted up and down the streets. After our carriage ride we wandered around the waterfront admiring the colourful buildings and browsing through the boutiques and galleries.
Lunenburg is famously associated with the tall ships and the Bluenose II was docked at the waterfront while we were in town. The ship, which is very impressive up close, is a replica of the original Bluenose that was the most famous of Nova Scotian fishing schooners. The original Bluenose has been pictured on the Canadian dime since 1937.
The Bluenose II is operated by the Lunenburg Marine Museum Society on behalf of the province of Nova Scotia. Crew members live on-board the ship during its six month season as it serves as a sailing ambassador promoting the history and legacy of Lunenburg and Nova Scotia.
After completing a day of sightseeing we ate dinner at a restaurant on the waterfront that was located in a refurbished jail which the kids found highly amusing.
Stewiacke, Nova Scotia
The following day we left Halifax and drove to Cape Breton Island with a brief stop in the central Nova Scotian town of Stewiacke along the way. Although this was our first vacation in Nova Scotia, it actually was the second time that we had visited a particular rest stop in Stewiacke. Several years earlier, while vacationing in Prince Edward Island, the Air Canada pilots went on strike and, as a result, we had no way of returning home to Toronto from Charlottetown. We were, eventually, able to get booked on a flight from Halifax to Ottawa so we drove from PEI to Halifax and stopped in Stewiacke on the way.
Stewiacke’s claim to fame appears to be that it is located precisely halfway between the North Pole and the equator. They also have an interesting attraction called Mastodon Ridge which boasts a replica of the mastodon whose bones were unearthed in a nearby quarry. The rest stop also has miniature golf, an outdoor play area, a small museum and places to eat making it a great place to stop and stretch the legs and spend an hour before getting back in the car.
Cape Breton Island with Kids
We arrived at The Inverary Resort in Baddeck, Nova Scotia on Cape Breton Island for a 5 night stay. The Inverary Resort is located on the shores of the Bras d’Or Lake (an almost-landlocked inlet of the sea) making it ideally suited for families that want to engage in any number of water sports.
The resort offers a variety of accommodations that are suitable for families. We chose a 2 Bedroom Suite that was located on the third floor of the Argyle building. The suite had a small kitchenette and a lovely sitting area located between the two bedrooms which allowed us to get the kids to bed and still watch tv or read in the evening. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at The Inverary and would definitely return.
The Inverary has a boardwalk along the lakefront and there are a number of water sports available. We had a lot of fun kayaking and cruising in the pedal boats. Katie and Emma (and many of the other kids who were staying at the resort) also spent a great deal of time with nets on the boardwalk catching crabs and then releasing them back into the lake. The staff even organized crab races with each child cheering on the crab that they had caught. A very simple activity that provided endless amusement for all the kids.
We visited the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site on Chebucto Street in Baddeck. There are a number of exhibits in the museum relating to Bell’s many achievements including the invention of the telephone. There are also many hands-on activities which were quite popular with the kids.
One of our days in Baddeck was spent driving through Cape Breton Highlands National Park as we circled the world-famous Cabot Trail. The National Park stretches across the northern tip of Cape Breton Island between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean. The Cabot Trail is one of the world’s most scenic routes running across northern Cape Breton for almost 300km.
Approximately one third of the trail is located within the boundaries of the National Park. We decided to drive the Cabot Trail clockwise so we headed toward the Acadian village of Cheticamp to enter the park from that direction. We made a pitstop at a gift shop in Cheticamp and watched women demonstrate the rug hooking for which the village is renowned.
It took us the entire day to drive the magnificent Cabot Trail. We drove along the rugged coastline and climbed the winding roadway to the precipitous cliffs of the coastal mountains then descended the scenic switchbacks to drive through valleys and farmland. The views of the ocean are breathtaking for the passengers – the driver dare not take his or her eyes off the road. This drive should definitely only be undertaken in a car with good brakes!
We didn’t hike any of the numerous trails (Emma’s little legs weren’t up to the challenge) but we did stop a number of times at the pull-overs along the way to savour the stark beauty of the landscape and to try and capture that beauty on film.
Another great day trip was to the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada which is the largest historical reconstruction in North America. The site is a re-creation of a 1745 era town with homes, gardens, taverns and other businesses. Costumed actors bring to life the activities of the original inhabitants of the Fortress.
The two inns in the town also serve authentic recipes from the time period. We had a cool, rainy day when we visited the Fortress but we still enjoyed walking around the buildings and watching the scenes acted out by the residents.
Our final day in Baddeck Katie decided that she would like to try one of the riding lessons that we had seen advertised by a local riding stable called Rocking Horse Ranch and Rehabilitation Center. Katie had a very enjoyable hour long lesson and Emma even got to sit atop a very friendly miniature pony.
Before long it was time to leave Nova Scotia behind. We drove to Caribou, Nova Scotia to catch the Northumberland Ferry which offers seasonal service to Wood Islands, Prince Edward Island. The 75 minute ferry ride across the Northumberland Strait went by very quickly with local musicians entertaining the passengers during the crossing.
Nova Scotia is a wonderful family-friendly destination with enough activities and attractions to satisfy any family. The province has a vibrant capital city, a colourful history, beautiful beaches and seacoast, diverse culture, plentiful outdoor adventure activities, delicious food and friendly people. What more could any family ask for?