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Close to nature

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Canada's Atlantic provinces offer miles of unspoiled shoreline and countryside as well as a rich cultural heritage, says local resident David Orkin


Long before the arrival of European settlers, the most widespread of the indigenous peoples of the Atlantic Canada region were the Mi'kmaq (sometimes written as Mi'kmaw). Few people realise that these Aboriginals actually pre-date Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. Their hero was Glooscap, the first human, a mythological creature created out of a bolt of lightning in the sand. He embodied hope and wisdom and had magical powers to shape the environment. At Glooscap Heritage Centre and Mi'kmaw Museum in Nova Scotia, you can't miss him; there's a 40-foot statue of him outside. The centre showcases 10,000-year-old Aboriginal tools and artefacts and is an excellent introduction to all things Mi'kmaq, not least workshops in basket-making, drumming, storytelling and quillwork.

 

Until long after the Europeans constructed roads, this sparsely populated region's 'highways' were its intricate network of rivers and lakes. The Mi'kmaq were just as at home on the water – typically in handcrafted canoes made from birch bark – as on land. And so I can only assume that the Mi'kmaq would have ridden the famous tidal bore in the Bay of Fundy, although probably more through necessity than for fun.

 

Fast forward 10,000 years or so. It's early June, and I am one of six in a motorised, inflatable rubber craft, drifting lazily along the Shubenacadie River, enjoying the calm. It might be hot out – summer temperatures in Nova Scotia are often in the high 20s Celsius (over 80 Fahrenheit) - but when I dip my hand in the water, it seems icy. Brady, our guide, points out a pair of bald eagles regarding us with disinterest from their perch high on a tree atop the chocolate mousse-like riverbank.

 

riding the waves

 

The Bay of Fundy, the body of water between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, sees the world's highest recorded tides. Twice daily, one hundred billion tonnes of seawater flows into the funnel-shaped bay. A large amount of that water diverts into Cobequid Bay, also funnel-shaped. The Shubenacadie is the major river emptying into the narrow end of the funnel. The immense force and volume of the incoming tide not only halts the Shubenacadie's flow but reverses it, sending ripples several miles back up-river. This is the tidal bore – and I am heading out to ride the waves. My fellow shipmates are a family comprising an eight-year-old, mother and grandfather; a couple in their late 70s; and Brady, our guide. He tells us that, unlike in white-water rafting, we won't be using paddles; all we have to do is 'hold on tight and enjoy the fun'. The height of the tidal bore varies according to the phases of the moon, with the biggest waves coinciding with full moon dates, although he says that we're a few days off 'the big stuff'.

 

After the gentle, almost soporific start on the water, Brady guides the Zodiac away from the bank and all eyes focus up-river as we wait nervously for the first wave. There it is – a white line of foam, the width of the river, bearing down on us.

 

I brace myself and grip one of the raft's handles with white-knuckle strength. Within moments, the previously tranquil waters are docile no more. The raft is raised up, then seems to plunge vertically as cold water soaks us from all directions.

 

The roar of the water mingles with screams of fright (or delight). This is the start of an aquatic rodeo, a very watery theme park ride. For every moment of calm, we know that in a second or two we'll we squealing and clinging on for dear life as we get another icy drenching.

 

Afterwards, we're all buzzing at how good the experience has been. My septuagenarian raft-mates say they haven't screamed so much since they were kids.

 

Nova Scotia is one of the four provinces that make up Atlantic Canada. The others are New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland & Labrador. Strangely, many visitors to Canada unknowingly by-pass or fly over the area en route to Montréal, Toronto and points west.

 

With the exception of a small handful of surprisingly vibrant cities, Atlantic Canada is sparsely populated and unspoiled. Much of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and in particular, Prince Edward Island (home of Anne of Green Gables) has a relaxing, stress-free feel, all quiet roads, pretty churches, picturesque bridges, fruit orchards and farmland. Despite the dense forest cover and predominantly rugged coastline, there are lovely sandy beaches and photogenic fishing villages. The quiet lifestyle could be Britain, 60 years ago.

 

Consider adding into any holiday a few days of cycling or sea-kayaking. Go wine-tasting, look for whales, have a round or two of golf (many courses are both scenic and challenging), head out to sea on a lobster boat or visit one of the many 'historic living village' museums. And if tidal-bore rafting has got the adrenaline flowing, consider zooming between treetops, suspended on a zipline.

 

natural wonders

 

Lovers of the wilderness should head for Newfoundland & Labrador. Bigger than the other three provinces combined, this region comprises the island of Newfoundland (known as 'The Rock') and the much larger Labrador Peninsula, much of which is best suited to hard-core exploration and hiking. Natural wonders abound, for example, the fjords of Gros Morne National Park. The rocky, often barren wilderness contrasts with the lively bars of the capital, St John's, and the pretty coastal communities of the Bonavista peninsula. It's a must for those interested in seabirds.

 

Outside the cities, public transport is extremely limited, but so is traffic. A rental car is the best way to get around. Stay in B&Bs rather than impersonal motels or chain hotels. Often oozing character, many are beautifully renovated historic buildings, hitting the right balance between Olde Worlde-charm and plenty of mod cons and serving up breakfasts for both the gourmand and gourmet, from fried eggs and Canadian bacon to pancakes dripping with maple syrup.

 

seafood sensation

 

The entire region is renowned for its seafood, particularly shellfish and, of course, lobster. Digby in Nova Scotia is famous for its scallops, while Prince Edward Island is known for its Malpeque oysters. Fresh mussels and clams are ubiquitous and the less adventurous won't go wrong with straightforward fish and chips. Wash it down with a glass of locally-produced wine, or fruit wine. Beer aficionados should note that the region has an ever-increasing number of small, independent breweries. Ingredients in the latest offering from Newfoundland's Quidi Vidi, for example, include water 'harvested' from icebergs that drift just off the province's coast.

 

It is not only the Mi'kmaq who have left their cultural footprint in the region. Six centuries before French and British settlement, the Vikings landed in northern Newfoundland. The displays and reconstructed Norse buildings at the atmospheric L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site are worth seeing.

 

Celtic heritage is still strong, particularly in terms of its music. Look out for ceilidhs in parts of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island and the bars of St John's, Newfoundland.

 

Those wanting to learn about the Acadians (the first French settlers in the region named it Acadie) can visit the Acadian Museum of Prince Edward Island, near Summerside, or better still the 'living history village' museums: Village Historique Acadien near Caraquet in New Brunswick's north east, and the excellent Le Pays de la Sagouine near Moncton; and in Pubnico in southwest Nova Scotia. These historical reconstructions provide an insight into life in the late 18th century; one more layer in the complex history of this peaceful and fascinating corner of Canada.

 

Five unmissable experiences

 

Whisky-tasting
Enjoy a tour – and a tasting – at the only Canadian whisky distillery east of Ontario, Glenora Distillery, in Glenville, Nova Scotia; glenoradistillery.com.

 

A night at the theatre
See Anne and Gilbert, the hit musical based on Lucy Maud Montgomery's fictional Prince Edward Islanders, in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island; anneandgilbert.com.

 

Iceberg-spotting
The coast of northern and eastern Newfoundland is said to be the best place in the world to view icebergs. Spot from the shore or take an organised boat tour. The height of iceberg-viewing season is mid-April to early June.

 

Paddle power
Travel as the Mi'kmaq did and hire a canoe or kayak by the hour to explore the rivers and lakes of Kejimkujik National Park in southwest Nova Scotia; pc.gc.ca

 

Bear encounter
A 14-metre tower has been built in the forest at Acadieville, New Brunswick, to allow safe viewing of a family of black bears; bearsafari.com.

WAY TO GO

Frontier Canada has a wide range of Atlantic Canada itineraries such as whale watching, iceberg-viewing and sampling seafood (Tel: 020 8776 8709 / frontier-canada.co.uk).

 

The Independent Traveller (Tel: 01509 618800 / itiscanada.co.uk) specialises in the Atlantic coast as does My Canada Trips, which offers tailor-made holidays (Tel: 0800 021 7732 / mycanadatrips.co.uk).

 

Canadian Affair offers a seven-night city break in Halifax from £779 per person (Tel: 020 7616 9184 / canadianaffair.com). Or Windows on the Wild can tailor make a trip to Atlantic Canada, including kayaking on the New Brunswick Coast and biking and hiking in Newfoundland (Tel: 020 8742 1556 / windowsonthewild.com).

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