It may be the 'forgotten province' on the Atlantic, but Paul Wade finds Nova Scotians never forget their roots.
Our first visit to Nova Scotia starts in some style at the Halifax Saturday morning farmers' market, slurping down oysters at a dollar a time. All round us, Halifax folk chat over local cheeses, heritage apples and maple syrup. They also stock up on cornish pasties, scotch eggs and steak and kidney pies, a reminder of the region's strong British ties.
High on the hill, the brooding Citadel guards the vast harbour. Behind the ramparts, tartan-togged soldiers change the guard and fire a cannon, nicknamed Kathleen. In a 260-year-old tradition, the noon gun is still fired daily, sending echoes across the old rooftops.
Another major draw is Pier 21. Canadians are not known for wearing their hearts on their sleeves, but we see visitors dabbing their cheeks as they tour Canada's Immigration Museum. Between 1928 and 1971, about 1.5 million men, women and children walked through this quayside shed. Most were Europeans but many were Canadian troops leaving to fight in World War II. Dreams that came true were balanced by tragedy and disappointment. Many Canadians come to find their roots. In a small office, staff help them sift through passenger lists. "We get happy endings almost every day," we are told.
Halifax is fun, with 30,000 students from half a dozen colleges providing some edge. An old school friend, who has lived in Canada for many years, is a professor here at Dalhousie University. Over a pint, we chat about Nova Scotians. "They often feel as if they live in the forgotten part of Canada," he says. "Tourists know all about the west, with its mountains, Mounties and moose, but little about the east, with its rocky shorelines and great seafood."
Recalling our school history books, I realise that the Maritimes got short shrift: United Empire Loyalists escaping the American Revolution; General Wolfe and the Plains of Abraham; the ejection of the French Acadians. End of story. But, as my wife and I are about to discover, no province celebrates its heritage better than Nova Scotia.
About two-thirds the size of Scotland, with most of the population in and around Halifax, Nova Scotia is criss-crossed with near-empty roads. We drive past signs inviting one and all to a Saturday Nite Card Party or a Penny Auction. At the back doors of wooden homes, logs are piled next to quad bikes. Quilts hang out to dry on washing lines.
About three hours north-east of Halifax is the tastefully preserved Sherbrooke Village. Women in long dresses gossip in the lane and a blacksmith clangs away in the forge. With no traffic noise, we are transported back to the 19th century. In this living history museum, most of the 80 old houses are still private homes but 25 are busy with traditional skills such as quilting, candle-making and pie baking pie.
Nova Scotian communities include Truro, Welshtown, Antrim and Arisaig, yet the first European settlers were not from the British Isles but from France. Still alive and well, 250 years after Britain seized control of Canada, is an outpost of Nouvelle France on Cape Breton Island. Once over the soaring Canso Causeway, we pick up the Fleur-de-lis Trail, one of 11 "scenic travelways" themed to help visitors understand more about the province and its multicultural history. On this route, we drive through a pine forest, past signposts pointing to French-speaking fishing villages, such as Petit-de-Grat.
But nothing prepares us for Louisbourg. As we crest a hill, the enormous fortress appears, dominating the shore. Although remote now, this was once the key to French Canada, one corner of the triangular trade between the French West Indies and the mother country. Abandoned after the British breached its defences in 1758, what we see today is the result of 50 years of restoration. On the ramparts, a soldier patrols; below, farmers herd sheep and musicians do their best to persuade us we are in the 1740s.
Then, it is on to the Cabot Trail, a roller coaster of a road that loops around one headland after another, opening up glorious vistas of towering cliffs dropping into the Atlantic. After the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts, with its Great Hall of the Clans, we make for the Ceilidh Trail, its theme confirmed by road signs announcing Inverness and Dunvegan and mailboxes labelled Cameron and Chisholm.
At the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique, director Kinnon Beaton explains why everything seems more Scottish than Scotland. "After the Highland Clearances, some 25,000 Gaelic-speaking Scots arrived here. As well as the language, they handed down their fiddle music, bannock and scones," he says.
In the south-west of the province, the Evangeline Trail is named for the heroine of Longfellow's poem about the Acadians, the French settlers expelled by the British in 1755. The road runs along the Annapolis Valley, known for its soft landscape. Foodies come for the wineries and the scallops in Digby; geologists detour to the fossil cliffs at Joggins; we head for Port Royal.
Rebuilt to the original plans, this small wooden fort is where the French set up shop in 1605. Clad in a smock and breeches, our guide encourages us to try on wooden clogs and stroke the silky smoothness of a real beaver pelt, the lure for French and British colonisers.
Before we fly home, my old school friend drives us to Peggy's Cove, with its lonely lighthouse, the three churches at Mahone Bay, and the brightly painted clapboard houses in Lunenburg. Munching cranberry squares, we tell our host he was right about the landscapes, the seafood and the history. "But you didn't mention the people themselves. They welcome everyone as if they are family," we say. "Not surprising," mutters the Prof, "most likely they are."
United Airlines flies daily from Sydney to Halifax, via Los Angeles and Chicago's O'Hare (partnering with United Express), from $2250. Phone 131 777, see unitedairlines.com.au.
Canada and Alaska Specialist Holidays has a six-night, seven-day Celtic Trail self-drive package from $1169 twin share, plus car hire starting at $579. Phone 1300 794 959, see canada-alaska.com.au.