We’ve just arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for one of those trips you keep promising yourself but never seem to take; it’s so close on a map, you just assume you’ll get there eventually. Spurred by a stronger US dollar that has discounted nearly every part of our trip — including nonstop, 80-minute flights on Air Canada for less than $300 — that day is here. And maybe it’s the cool June weather, or my love of all things Celtic, or genetic residue from my French-Acadian ancestors who settled here centuries ago, but I’m quickly at ease.
It also helps that Halifax feels like a smaller version of Boston — with more coffee shops, fewer banks, and (dare I say it) friendlier people. We lose count of how many times locals thank us for visiting, and as Bostonians, we receive random declarations of longstanding gratitude: One college student, referring to Boston’s relief efforts in the wake of the 1917 Halifax Explosion, tells us, “Man, you guys really did us a solid like a hundred years ago.’’
We stay in an Airbnb on the waterfront with a placid view of George’s Island in Halifax Harbor. Following the lead of joggers who run past our apartment on the boardwalk, we walk up to the heart of the waterfront district, where we sample from the many food trucks and street vendors, including a poutine-mobile with dozens of twists on gravy-and-cheese-curd French fries.
Outside the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic we find a submarine-shaped playground and giant whale sculpture that entrances our 4-year-old daughter. Inside the museum, she likes the boats, and we like the nautical history.
High on a hill in the center of Halifax is the Citadel, a hard-to-miss, star-shaped military fort built during the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s now a national park and living-history museum where actors re-enact its Victorian-era glory days. Kids can play a scavenger hunt game spanning different parts of the fort; completing five of the dozen or so activities nets you a free souvenir. Our daughter’s favorite task is dressing up like a British sentry — big goofy hat and all — and seeing how long she can stand perfectly still (she lasts all of 18 seconds). Later, a straight-faced guard shows her how it’s done, keeping his composure as she dances around him.
On a blustery day, we visit the Halifax Central Library, which opened in 2014 to architectural acclaim. It’s big, bright, and beautiful — as if Ikea started a bookstore where everything is free. The children’s floor has several creative play spaces, and our daughter quickly settles in at the huge Lego table. Later, we grab a coffee at the rooftop cafe — which also serves snacks and beer — and sit outside with views of the city and harbor.
The weather puts us in the mood for cozy comfort food, which leads us to The Old Triangle, a large-but-proper Irish pub, right down to the snugs (enclosed booths for a more private pint), frequent traditional sessions, and variety of red ales on tap. The menu is one of those dizzying affairs with everything from pub-style curry to gumbo (Louisiana’s Cajuns were 18th-century exiles from the Acadian maritimes, after all), but we stick to standards such as the fish and chips, which is delicious.
The next day we embark on a five-hour drive to see my family in Cape Breton — the scenic, northernmost crown of Nova Scotia, connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. My uncle Chris, who grew up in Massachusetts, fell in love with this area (and my aunt) as a young man, and moved up here in 1975. He built a successful career as a painter, and they’ve been running a craft shop and gallery on the Cabot Trail — the scenery-saturated roadway that encircles Cape Breton Highlands National Park — since I last visited 30 years ago.
Along the way, we stop to eat lunch and stretch our legs in Truro, grabbing some coffee, sandwiches, and treats from from Jimolly’s Bakery Cafe. While the sunny cafe is adorable inside, we order everything to-go — we’ve got plans for a picnic in Victoria Park. We ditch the car near a playground in the 1,000-acre park, then follow a series of kid-friendly hiking trails and boardwalks through the woods to two beautiful waterfalls. Between the well-maintained trails and the exquisite natural beauty at every turn, this pit stop turns out to be a highlight of our trip.
That’s not the only natural wonder nearby, though. Truro sits at the edge of the Bay of Fundy, whose tidal changes are famously dramatic. At Burncoat Head Park, about 40 miles west, the water rises an average of almost 50 feet between low and high tide, and visitors can walk on the ocean floor at low tide.
We arrive at the rustic Ingonish Chalets at 7:45 p.m., and the receptionist knows it’s us because we’re the only people who haven’t checked in yet. They close at 8 p.m., she says, and so do most of the restaurants nearby — except for the Keltic Lodge, a big, high-end golf resort perched on a little peninsula within the national park. We eat in the Arduaine, the more casual of the hotel’s two restaurants, where a musician serenades diners in a glassy room overlooking the ocean. The halibut is pretty outstanding.
In the morning, we catch up with my aunt and uncle at the gallery, and then visit my cousin Shannon, who, with her husband, Ryan, runs a goat farm and soap company just down the road.
Shannon’s small-but-darling farmhouse is fairly ordinary in most ways — except, when you look out the living room window, you don’t see a suburban cul-de-sac or a city block, but a sweeping view of the Atlantic Ocean and the docks my uncle has spent decades painting. It’s just this big, bright, blue sea, casually sitting out there on a Tuesday afternoon like it’s the UPS guy. We can’t help but stare.
The next day is warm enough for us to get a closer look at that water. Across the street from our log-cabin-style chalet, a path through the woods follows a freshwater creek to a long stretch of sandy beach. Undeterred by the breeze and cold water — we’re talking Maine cold — the kids spend hours splashing first in the waves, then in the creek. We have the beach all to ourselves; there is more than enough ocean to go around in Nova Scotia.
Before leaving town the next morning, my cousin Michael and his wife, Adrianne, both musicians, join us for a big send-off breakfast at the Bean Barn Cafe. This low-key local favorite serves up all-day breakfast (including tasty waffles) in a cozy, casual (and cash-only) setting. On our way out of Cape Breton, we’re tempted by the treats and trinkets at the Farmer’s Daughter, a cute country store and cafe in Whycocomagh.
After a late lunch on the mainland in Antigonish, we’re scheduled to drive through Halifax at 5 p.m. on a weekday, so we’re braced for traffic — but it never appears. We fly right past the city at rush hour, thinking it must be some kind of joke.
Our last stop is in Lunenburg, an adorably charming harbor town and a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its tidy 18th- and 19th-century houses, improbable number of shops and restaurants, and unbearable oceanside quaintness. A few miles south of the city is Ovens Natural Park, an oceanfront campground and nature preserve owned by members of the musical Chapin family. Visitors can walk a scenic, roughly mile-long path that hugs the craggy cliffs and, in spots, ventures down and deep into enormous sea caves.
After a stop at nearby Sand Dollar Beach, we head back to mull our many dinner options in Lunenburg. It’s a small town, but the dense streets are packed with appealing restaurants. We settle on the cheerily casual Savvy Sailor, and the waitstaff is so friendly, the fish and chowder so delicious, and the view of Lunenburg Harbor so magnificent, that we return for an encore meal the next night.
We arrive early to Halifax International Airport the next day, which gives us time to relax, drink coffee, and browse a small art gallery in the strangely tranquil terminal. When we pop out into Logan Airport, though, it feels like the New York Port Authority: So. Many. People. And the cab ride home — jerking through traffic like a malfunctioning amusement park ride — leaves us shell-shocked.
That’s when we start making promises about another trip to Nova Scotia.