Lance Richardson is fascinated by Nova Scotia's natural 'treasure' and its weathered, adaptive people.
Nobody knows what's buried on Oak Island in Mahone Bay, nor does anybody know who put it there. Nobody knows if the Money Pit, as it has come to be called, hides the lost jewels of Marie Antoinette, though some have suggested as much.
It has been excavated sporadically - and unsuccessfully - since 1795. Some have argued that the pit holds documentary proof that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays. If it wasn't for booby traps (with six fatalities to date), Canada could finally pin this great mystery on Freemasons, the Knights Templar or Sir Francis Drake. Even Captain Kidd has been fingered as a possible culprit: perhaps pirates, returning to the Caribbean by way of the Gulf Stream, stopped off in Nova Scotia to hide their booty, like dogs hiding a bone, on the edge of the northern Atlantic. Spanish scissors and coconut fibres have been found in the pit - odd, given that the closest coconut tree is more than 2000 kilometres away.
The chairman of the Friends of Oak Island Society, Charles Barkhouse, remains unconvinced by the Captain Kidd theory. "No pirate did this because it's a massive feat of engineering," he tells me one morning when I stop to see the island, closed to visitors though clearly visible from the shore. "Still, somebody went to a lot of trouble to bury something of great value out there."
Maybe he's right, along with past believers such as Errol Flynn, who tried to scour the island in 1940 until he discovered that search rights already belonged to John Wayne. Maybe, on Oak Island, the two unknowns of "who" and "what" really do equal something incredible.
But a drive through the southern counties on the peninsula of Nova Scotia makes a competing theory ring with poetic truth, if not the enthusiastic support of local treasure hunters, such as Barkhouse, who continue their search today. Perhaps the Money Pit is just a sinkhole. Perhaps the traps are underground caves, tragically giving way during excavation. Perhaps an avowal of "treasure" - now hopelessly enmeshed in the romance of historical myths - is just a strange human response to a strange natural phenomenon.
This idea certainly applies to a much wider area of Nova Scotia. Following the coastline south-west from Oak Island, I cross into the UNESCO-designated Southwest Nova Biosphere Reserve. Defined as "a region that demonstrates a balance between humans and the biosphere", it is characterised by conservation and sustainable development.
"It's about protecting what we have while still having a viable community," my guide, Monica MacNeil, says, pointing out the one-of-a-kind flora and fauna, virgin forest, marine environment and preserved towns.
We drive clockwise through the five counties that comprise the area - Queens, Shelburne, Yarmouth, Digby and Annapolis - along with a national park and wilderness area at their core. It's not long before I suspect that "balance" is a euphemism for "adaptation", this place being a cultural equivalent to the Galapagos. Nature has created strange conditions and residents have responded in kind, forming a destination in a genus all of its own.
There is almost nowhere in the biosphere that is more than a 50-minute drive from the ocean, either the open Atlantic or the Bay of Fundy, a body of water wedged between the peninsula and the Canadian province of New Brunswick. The ocean hangs over everything, often as a thick fog. Pulling into Crescent Beach, for example, is like arriving at a ghostly picture of purgatory, the grey sand and low surf disappearing just metres ahead in every direction. Two dark figures emerge, then fade away, perhaps hunting for quahogs. People use their feet, MacNeil explains, feeling through the surf with their toes until they sense a crunch. Then they use a fork to retrieve the clam - not, as I imagine, a kitchen fork but a spading fork called a clam hack.
If my default assumption roams into the territory of fantasy, then that's because of towns like Lunenburg, just outside the biosphere. One of the most intact British colonial settlements in North America, it looks like the fantasy of a seaside village, with its jumble of sherbet, red and periwinkle-blue clapboard houses clustered around the waterfront. Shops have such names as the Dog Shop and Spinnaker Inn; the town's pride and joy is the beloved Bluenose II, Nova Scotia's sailing ambassador. Many of Lunenburg's mansions were owned by reputed captains and feature "widow's walks", small rooftop eyries that gave women a vantage point from which to watch for their husbands' ships. The name is revealing; the Altantic is savage and unforgiving, taking many lives. Perhaps the vibrant colours of the town are part of the balancing act with the natural environment.
In Shelburne the fantastical nature of the setting has rubbed off on the inhabitants. Many are writers and artists (or an editor of Vanity Fair, for that matter), reviving the economy through creative pursuits. You could mistake the biosphere's proudly "loyalist town" (loyal to the British, after its founders decamped from the revolting American colony in the south) for a scrubbed version of a sea shanty. Sticking my head in the window of Ross Thompson House, I'm met by a woman in period costume, sitting quietly in the corner. Then a posse of costumed people run across the dock and jump into a boat, rowing into the harbour for no discernible reason. This is the Shelburne Longboat Society.
Before the British, much of the biosphere area was occupied by Acadians, 17th-century French settlers. Though the British did their best to run Acadians off the peninsula, they returned after the American Revolution and mixed with Mi'kmaq natives in remote pockets. A museum at Church Point in Digby, Rendezvous de la Baie, shows how the natives' climate-adapted techniques for everything from hunting to moccasin making was absorbed into Acadian life. Similarly, Acadian ways have been absorbed into modern life, along with the strong British influence.
Driving through Annapolis vineyards, I find L'acadie Blanc, unique to the region. I hear variations of French that exist only here. I eat rappie pie, an Acadian dish made from grated potatoes and broth with none of the usual qualities of pie but the consistency of warm glue.
In the biosphere, disparate cultural elements are drawn together, exposed to the sea and served up as something recognisable yet idiosyncratic. Even eating lobster the Nova Scotian way means breaking the claw from the knuckles, holding it upside down, then tilting your head back to drink as you pull the claw apart to make the juices flow. MacNeil explains this next to Cape Forchu Lighthouse, rain lashing, fog roiling around the tiny spit of land. On the last Monday of November, residents of Digby congregate here in the early hours to hold lights above their heads - beacons to loved ones - as the boats head out to set lobster traps. Maybe they figure that without the lights the fishermen would never find the place again. The biosphere is like a hallucination of the sea - or Brigadoon, but more Canadian.
Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Destination Southwest Nova Association.
Air Canada has a fare to Halifax from Sydney for about $2620 low-season return including tax. Fly to Toronto (20hr including transit time in Vancouver), then to Halifax (2hr). Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect. See aircanada.com. The Southwest Nova Biosphere Reserve is a 90-minute-drive south of Halifax.
MacKinnon Cann Inn in Yarmouth is a good base for exploring Acadian culture in the biosphere, with period-themed rooms and a dining room in 1880s Victoriana. Rooms cost from $C145 ($140). See mackinnoncanninn.com.
B&B in Annapolis Royal, the lavish Hillsdale House, is close to the New World's, Port Royal settlement. Rooms from $C110. See hillsdalehouseinn.ca.
A good way to experience the biosphere environment is by hiking in the Kejimkujik National Park, which is also a historical site that features Mi'kmaq petroglyphs. A seaside section is accessible at Port Joli.
Acadian heritage gets a fascinating close-up in the Rendezvous de la Baie museum at Church Point, Digby, which also serves Acadian cuisine. See rendezvousdelabaie.com.
The Annapolis Valley is the heart of Nova Scotia's wine scene and includes the Domaine de Grand Pre, which has a cellar door. See grandprewines.ns.ca.
See destinationsouthwestnova.com; swnovabiosphere.ca.