Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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It’s 8:00 on a hot Tuesday morning in July.

And how are you folks making out this morning?’ asks our cheery-eyed waiter.

‘Um, pretty good thanks,’ we guess in reply.

Okay then, well … enjoy!’

I look down upon arguably the most extravagant breakfast I’ve faced to date. Lobster Benedict. A hefty red beast of a crustacean, its claws dabbed in Hollandaise sauce, pitched alongside two poached eggs, a blueberry pancake and half a dozen asparagus spears, with miscellaneous hints of cayenne pepper, paprika and maple. My wife regards me with one eyebrow raised. It’s not yet been forty-eight hours since we both dined on lobster.

I know’, I say, smoothing down my belly. ‘But hey, it’s Nova Scotia’.

Those were the early days, before we’d worked out that while Nova Scotia is the world’s largest exporter of lobster, Nova Scotians don’t really eat those strange ten-legged creatures. Even if you can now pick up a McLobster Burger in McDonalds.

As it happens, Nova Scotia is shaped like a lobster. The province is located on the eastern shore of Canada and covers an area about two-thirds the size of Ireland. Surrounded by salt-water on three sides, mostly Atlantic, this is one of the closest parts of North America to Europe which is why Basque fishermen and horny-hatted Vikings have been paddling around these shores since the Dark Ages. Of course, St Brendan also signed the Visitors Book.

The Irish connection is never far away. This may be ‘New Scotland’ but quarter of Nova Scotia’s 930,000-strong population claim to be Irish. You get a sense of this pretty quickly. They love Barry’s tea. They light their fires with Zip. There’s a pirate called Captain Claw on afternoon TV who says ‘ah sure that’s grand’ a lot. And one of their biggest cultural zones is the Ceilidh Trail, a thriving Celtic music scene fronted by stars such as Natalie MacMaster and The Rankins.

Many of the provinces’ ‘Irish Scotians’ came from Ulster. In the 1760s, for instance, Derry born Alexander McNutt settled some 500 Protestant and Presbyterian families from Derry in and around Halifax (Nova Scotia’s capital). Today, there are towns called New Dublin, New Waterford, New Ross and Athlone. (Conversely Louisburg in Co Mayo was named for the Nova Scotian fortress of Louisbourg).

In the 19th century, Halifax was the first port of call for most ships coming from Ireland. Thousands of Famine refugees disembarked here. Thousands more arrived to build Canada’s railroads. Small wonder that Keltic Lodge, the sumptuous Cape Breton retreat where I found my Lobster Benedict, boasted a sizeable welcome sign which bellowed ‘Ciad Mile Failte’ [sic].

Keltic Lodge occupies the site of a summer house where Alexander Graham Bell used to stay. The peace served him well and, having invented the telephone, he later taught deaf people how to read in nearby Baddeck. Nova Scotia’s inventive streak continued in 1907 when Marconi initiated the first permanent transatlantic wireless service from Glace Bay on the west coat across the Atlantic to Clifden, Co Galway.

Before Nova Scotia became Scottish or Irish, it was French. The original French inhabitants were a peaceful, earnest and deeply religious people. They came here in the early 1600s and named it ‘Acadia’, meaning ‘Peaceful Land’. The Acadians, as they were known, studied the moons and tides with the indigenous Mi'kmaq and worked out how to build enormous dykes to control the water and irrigate their farms. All ran smoothly until 1755 when the Seven Years War erupted between France and Britain. British Redcoats rounded up all 10,000 Acadians, sent the men off one way and the women off another. The vast majority fetched up in Louisiana where they became the Cajuns. A surprisingly moving reenactment of this sorry episode can be seen at the Grand Pre Historical Site.

Today Nova Scotia is about as peaceable a land as you will find. It is truly the land of 100,000 welcomes. Everyone from blue rinse grandmas to crystal meths fanatics takes the time to say hello. They are a charming, friendly and old-fashioned people. They like their government. They drive slowly and they do not do traffic jams. You don’t need to lock your car. Supper is down the hatch by 7pm and most people are asleep by 10. ‘Holy Jumpers!’ is a swear word. Adaptors are called powerbars and kids go to the beach with ‘a pail and shovel’.

The most rebellious outburst I saw in three weeks was a man sporting a t-shirt with the slogan: ‘Traffic Laws Suck’. Rather disappointingly he was driving a Golf. Nova Scotia isn’t perfect. It has pot-holey roads and some clumsy resorts with too much tarmac. There are unsolved murders and killer bears and nasty bugs. They leave their porch lights on all day. They keep saying ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ when you just want to be invisible. They put way too much mayo on the salads and you can’t buy booze from a shop on a Sunday.

But the bottom line is that Nova Scotia rocks. There are fantastic beaches from sandcastle-friendly Ingonish to surfer-central Lawrencetown (L-town to the dudes). There’s stacks of history, including two World Heritage sites. Wolfville is a wonderful old-world university town on the Annapolis coast, close to the Red Cliffs of Blomidon (from which the expression ‘Blow me down!’ derives). A discreet landmark near here are the three concrete ‘Jellybean Cottages’, notable for their multi-coloured chimneys, built by a local tycoon to generate optimism during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The province’s most hum-dinging landscape is the Cabot Trail, a skimpy road that wends its way through the Cape Breton Highlands, a breath-takingly beautiful woodland panorama, with occasional glimpses of icy lakes and the cobalt ocean beyond. Spruce grows like wildflower here and there’s enough trees to supply China with bogpaper until the fourth millennium. We spotted a wild moose standing by the roadside, pretending to be a fir tree on the off-chance we had a machine gun affixed to the roof-rack. Jump off the Cabot Trail at Pleasant Bay and go see some whales. We struck lucky with a school of twenty Pilots and a couple of Minkes headed south. It’s mesmerizing stuff, particularly when one pirouettes a spyhop upon the surface. Hmmm. Whale Benedict. Now that would be a challenge.

Five Essential Activities

1. Head south to Liscomb Mills for fishing, backcountry canoeing and wilderness walks. (www.liscombelodge.ca)

2. Winter skiing in Cape Breton from the Martock resort to the Bras d’Or Lake, including the 21 alpine trails in the Wentworth Valley. (www.goski.ca)

3. Whale-watching in Pleasant Bay – an endangered sport as conservationists take on the tour operators but Wesley’s Whale Watching Tours is the pick of them.

4. Explore the historical links between Ireland and Nova Scotia at the Gaelic and Historical Society Museum in Mabou. (www.mabou.ca/gaelichistorical.htm)

5. Ponder the fate of the Titanic and visit the cemeteries in Halifax where 120 of the 300 bodies recovered were buried. (http://titanic.gov.ns.ca)


Fly to Montréal with Canadian Affair (www.canadianaffair.com) and take the ViaRial Ocean train (www.viarail.ca) on an epic 18-hour journey along the St Lawrence into Halifax.


In Wolfville B&B, 56 Main Street, Wolfville - comfortable, friendly and spectacular gourmet breakfasts. (www.inwolfville.ns.ca)

Keltic Lodge, Ingonish, Cape Breton – an elegant spa resort set against the beautiful backdrop of the island’s north Atlantic coast. (www.kelticlodge.ca)

Car Rental

Thrifty Car Rental, Halifax. Tel: 902-422-4455 (www.thrifty.com)