by Elizabeth Willoughby
Wait for it – that first clear night sky after Labour Day. “Clear moon, frost soon,” as they say. The days, still warm, are getting shorter and the nights crisper, but autumn’s bonanza really kicks in after a cold snap sends shock waves through forests, sparking a surge of brilliant colour splashing across the canopy. Oaks turn red, poplars golden and maples scarlet, orange and flaming yellow. Breathe in, breathe deep – it’s not only for your eyes, and there’s no better way to experience glorious autumn at its best than through immersion.
Canada’s eastern provinces provide ample opportunity for awesome “colour drives”, but southwestern Nova Scotia, standing as a gateway to the Atlantic with the Bay of Fundy’s dramatic tides jutting in behind, has a few secrets. Haute cuisine, award-winning wines and luxury auberges are flourishing across this spit of land. If you have some days saved up, this route is designed for all the senses in the lead up to Canadian Thanksgiving, before everything packs up by mid-October for the season of hibernation.
1st stop: Lunenburg
113 kilometres/ 70 miles (1.5-hour drive) from Halifax Stanfield International Airport
(car rental at YHZ)
Take the leisurely drive along Nova Scotia’s South Shore. Stop at the Peggy’s Cove lighthouse if you must; at Ivan Fraser’s homestead museum slash art studio if you dare — and while you’re there, ask him about his Peggy of the Cove children’s book series; and stop at Mahone Bay for a glimpse of creativity and humour where scenes using stuffed celebrities and nursery rhyme characters are displayed on autumn lawns and rooftops. Nearby is Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Town settled by Germans that the British recruited in 1750. Its history is preserved in architecture and industry, including fishing and shipbuilding. It’s a port of call to tall ships and home to Nova Scotia’s Bluenose II, re-launched in 2012. At sunset, take Shelah Allen’s lantern tour. The backyard of her entire life, Shelah tells juicy stories of historical tenants and buildings, has keys to the doors, and ends with a shocking tidbit that warms the soul.
Where to stay
The Mariner King Historic Inn
Comprising three colourful homes in the centre of Lunenburg, choose between well-appointed rooms in the Victorian-style house or the maritime-themed adjacent buildings.
Where to eat: Fleur de Sel
Chef Martin’s seasonal gourmet dishes use fresh seafood from down the street, vegetables from nearby farms and cocktails fuelled by the town’s blacksmith shop turned artisanal distillery.
2nd stop: East Kemptville
UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
188 kilometres/ 117 miles (2.5-hour drive) from Lunenburg
Comfortably rooted on the Tusket and Napier Rivers at the edge of the Tobeatic Wilderness Area, some 1,000 square kilometres (386 square miles) of protected lands, this is an ideal location for hiking in crisp air, pristine forest highlighted by changing leaves, and canoeing the lively waters running through it.
Where to stay and where to dine
Trout Point Lodge
It’s going to the cottage, but the “cottage” is a luxury eco-resort that sits beside a gurgling river, wooden boardwalks, and towering pine, spruce and birch trees. Crackling fireplaces in the common room set the ambiance before descending to the dining room for a gourmet dinner and the realization that there are other guests. The chef-owners create multi-course meals based on their garden’s production and available local produce.
3rd stop: Annapolis Royal
140 kilometres/ 87 miles (2-hour drive) from Trout Point Lodge
Book tomorrow’s whale watching cruise with Ocean Explorations in the Bay of Fundy, then head north to Annapolis Royal, one of the smallest towns in Canada with one of its earliest histories, and spend the afternoon exploring period buildings, museums, street plaques and historic sites. This is where Europeans encountered the Mi’kmaq tribes who would control the fur trade between themselves and the northern First Nations. Later, the town became a French administrative and military centre called Port Royal. When it was captured by the British and renamed after Queen Anne, it became the capital of Nova Scotia until Halifax was founded in 1749.
Next morning, time your hour’s colour drive down the Digby Neck peninsula to catch the 11:30 ferry over to Long Island. Ocean Explorations is just ahead on the left. Marine biologist and owner Tom Goodwin says his 2½-3-hour Zodiac whale watching cruises virtually always have sightings because he goes out further and stays out longer.
Now that your feet are wet, drive another 25 minutes up the road to see the “balancing rock”. Follow the boardwalk and gushy pathway through bog and wetlands, black spruce, larch and balsam fir, skunk cabbage, bunchberry and carnivorous sundew. A stairway at the end descends the cliffs to view the 6-metre (20-foot) basalt column. Part of its base sits on a stone pedestal while the rest hovers over St Marys Bay defying gravity.
Where to stay
Back in Annapolis Royal, The Queen Anne Inn is an elegant Victorian mansion with all the pomp but not the pageantry. The owners retain the era of period buildings and furnishings in a relaxed, homey atmosphere. The formal dining room is where their three-course breakfast is served, offering several homemade treats that do not disappoint.
4th stop: Wolfville
113 kilometres/ 70 miles (1.5-hour drive) from Annapolis Royal
Plan to arrive in this university town on a Friday so you can take the weekend winery bus tour. The English double-decker runs a fixed route stopping at participating wineries throughout Annapolis Valley. Guests choose when to hop off for tastings, tours and presentations timed to end as the bus comes around again.
Where to stay
Victoria’s Historic Inn
This refined Victorian mansion was built by an apple baron in the late 1800s. Period furnishings and original details are complimented with modern amenities, and gas fireplaces ensure that spacious rooms stay cosy.
Where to dine
Le Caveau at Domaine de Grand Pré
Cordon Bleu trained chef Jason Lynch will proudly pair his dishes with local wines if you let him. Request the chef’s tasting menu when making your reservation.
Last stop: Halifax
90 kilometres/ 56 miles (1-hour drive) from Wolfville
34 kilometres/ 21 miles (30-minute drive) to YHZ
Where to stay
The Prince George Hotel
The place to stay downtown, choose a room facing the harbour to view ship traffic or the Citadel for quiet nights. Take the indoor walkway to the waterfront in windy weather.
Where to dine
The Bicycle Thief
Bicycle Thief’s motto “North American food – Italian soul” is right on the mark. Fine dishes are augmented by the waterfront setting and friendly staff who know the menu, the wine list and how to pair them.