Southern Nova Scotia

By Robert F. Darden

On Ragged Island and With Endless Breezes

Pictured: The Dory Shop in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, is a working museum where you can watch as boats are being constructed. / Photo by Mary Landon Darden

If you have a map of Nova Scotia, Canada’s easternmost Maritime Province, find the busy port city of Yarmouth on the southwestern tip of the island. Now, with your finger, follow the island’s jagged, Norway-like coastline south around the tip of Nova Scotia, then “up” the coast, passing villages with evocative names like Pubnico, Shag Harbour, Shelburne and, finally, tiny Lockeport.

Across the fjord from Lockeport is the undeveloped peninsula of Ragged Island — our beautiful home for a week in near-solitude and peace. Mary chose a HomeAway cottage with panoramic windows facing the water, complete with its own private, rock-strewn beach. We loaded up on supplies in a farmers market about an hour outside our destination and finished up with the essentials — Canadian milk and butter, beer from the licensed shop, lamb chops and Prince Edward Island potatoes — in Shelburne, about 30 minutes away.

Each day took on a dreamy sameness. Virtually no internet (a common “problem” on the south coast), no TV, no air conditioning. We slept with the windows open, embracing the constant sea breeze, applauding the sunsets, reading and catching up on each other’s lives. Such cottages dot Ragged Island’s western coast, or so we’re told because virtually none of them are visible from the gravel roads. We explored the coastline and found several marvelous hidden beaches. Because of Canada’s uncommonly high tides, our lives, for the first time, were governed by tidal forces. At dusk, we waited for the return of a doe and her fawn, who grazed outside our window for nearly a half-hour, ignoring the small gray rabbits and occasional chipmunk darting among their feet.

These are not swimming beaches. Even several miles into these fjords from the North Atlantic, the water is too cold to sustain long dips. But we were perfectly content to walk along the water’s edge, watching for fossils, letting the cool and steady sea breezes wash away the remnants of the Texas summer sun.

We made a return day trip to nearby Shelburne, a small town so well-preserved that it has served as a movie set for films like the remake of “The Scarlet Letter” with Demi Moore. First stop was the weekly farmers market. We shopped to the music of a quartet of musicians playing old Arcadian fiddle tunes and toe-tapping English slip jigs and reels and were rewarded with a homemade rhubarb pie so sweet we doused a piece with fresh cream each night before retiring.

Shelburne is a jewel. During the American Revolution, 400 pro-British families relocated here and built a bustling port and shipbuilding center. The dozens upon dozens of two-story homes and businesses are both brightly painted and well-maintained, framed by massive beds of blue hydrangea and yellow roses. History is around every corner here. Even some of the restaurants are set in historic homes, most notably the award-winning Charlotte Lane Cafe. Chef Roland Glauser has repeatedly won the province’s “Best Small Restaurant” award, and the cafe lived up to its reputation. Mary had the best chowder of our extended stay (the charming waitstaff revealed the secret — slivers of sweet potato), and I loved the eggs Benedict on a bed of pureed local potatoes.

The town has a trio of small museums nestled along its long harbor. A 10-dollar (Canadian) ticket gives you admission into all three, and it is worth the price. The Nairn House hosts the Shelburne County Museum with its expansive display on baseball’s long history in Nova Scotia. The Dory Shop is a working museum, as befitting Shelburne’s continued reliance on the sea. A pleasant, knowledgeable docent walked us through the construction and history of the sturdy little fishing boat even as a workman hammered away on an in-progress dory upstairs. Our favorite was the Ross-Thomson House where a costumed docent energetically explained the commerce and business of merchants in early Shelburne by using artifacts from the era.

But really, virtually every building in the small, walkable town has historical connotations. The architecture includes Greek Revival, Second Empire and Dutch Colonial, the graveyard is appropriately stark and a little spooky (in an Ichabod Crane sort of way at dusk) and the Canadians, as always, were incredibly generous, genial and self-effacing.

Our last stop was the nearby Black Loyalist Heritage Centre, a 5-mile drive to tiny Birchtown. This is a beautiful, if sobering, complex built over the ruins of the first settlers, former enslaved people from the soon-to-be United States who fought on the side of the British in exchange for the one thing they could not have in the U.S. — freedom. After the Revolution and facing severe persecution, British forces brought thousands of Black Loyalists here, where they built a thriving community at Shelburne’s doorstep. Many eventually left because of the winters and helped co-found a colony in Africa.

We ended the day back in Shelburne with fried clams dockside at the old shipyard in the picturesque Sea Dog Restaurant, mulling over the day’s events, watching another sunset across the water.

Our final excursion from Ragged Island took us 10 minutes up the peninsula to tiny Lockeport, another fjord-side treasure with one of Canada’s largest honey-sand beaches. The beach (which was featured for years on various Canadian paper bills) was glorious and virtually empty, stretching 2 miles and culminating across the street from what is probably the luckiest high school in North America — Lockeport Regional High School, home of the fighting Greenwave. We strolled along under robin’s-egg blue skies until we reached the Crescent Beach Tourist Information Centre where our delightful host, Greg, (“I’ve left Lockeport five times — and always returned.”) was a fount of helpful information. In the Centre is a table operated by a couple of young women featuring painted seashells. The shells are free for the taking — all the artists ask is that you take a picture of the shell somewhere in your hometown and send the photo to their Lockeport website. How could we refuse?

Lockeport is tiny. One store (the Town Market, which features fresh seafood, decadent home-baked goodies and a full-time butcher), one pharmacy and one restaurant (the White Gull, right on the harbor). On the docks, we saw a sign telling sailors wanting to dock there to pay the dockage fee to the bartender at the White Gull. Elsewhere, the village is packed with more of the colorful Second Empire homes, most notably the vivid green Locke Homestead, which looks like the House of Green Gables on Prince Edward Island should look!

Because this was an anniversary trip, we eventually left Ragged Island and drove the 2 1/2 hours along the scenic Highway 103 to our old haunt, Lunenburg, which we’ve written about before in these pages. Not much has changed in this achingly beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site, where the spectacularly colored homes, businesses, pubs and restaurants cascade down a steep hill to one of North America’s most photographed bays, flanked by more tree-covered hills and bluffs and an uncommonly beautiful golf course.

Actually, a couple of things were different this time. First, early August meant that the town is absolutely awash in tourists, many more than we’d experienced on previous visits. And second, my old knees no longer enabled me to traipse indefinitely up and down those hills among Lunenburg’s array of intriguing destinations. It also meant long waits at favorite harbor-side restaurants.

No matter. What meals we didn’t eat in our comfy HomeAway cottage we ate at the award-winning Knot Pub, just a couple of minutes away. The Knot Pub has all the trappings of a great English country pub, including specialty local beer and stunningly fresh food. We invariably ordered a pound or two of the mussels steamed in beer and feasted on the different fresh seafood offerings.

On our anniversary date, Mary and I booked passage with Captain Bill’s Lunenburg Ocean Adventures. The good captain and his one-person crew unerringly took us past frolicking dolphins and whales out into the heaving North Atlantic where we stopped above what was apparently a large school of both mackerel and cod. Mary caught the day’s biggest prize, a 10-pound codfish, which the first mate fileted on the spot and we ate that night in our HomeAway kitchen, grilled in rich Canadian butter. Best piece of fish I’ve ever eaten in my life. Period.

To escape the crush of tourists and steep hills, we fled one day to nearby Mahone Bay, just 10 minutes from our cottage. It’s probably best known as the departure point for trips to the mysterious Oak Island, the site of the popular treasure-obsessed reality TV show “The Curse of Oak Island.”

But Mahone Bay is vintage Nova Scotia, with exceedingly well-curated shops and galleries, sprinkled with bakeries, darling restaurants, bookstores, brewpubs and coffee shops, all within a couple of minutes of the picturesque bay. And, even better for my knees, all at sea level on flat sidewalks. A day hardly seemed enough time to explore this pastoral village, and we envied the folks kayaking in the brilliant blue waters amid a blizzard of white sailboat sails.

Leaving Lunenburg for the Halifax airport on our final day, we passed another spot we’d earmarked for a future visit, the colorful seaport of Chester. On Highway 103 we saw a sign advertising the well-regarded Chester Playhouse. Its motto? “A World-Class Theatre Experience with Home-Made Cookies.”

And that seemed to us to sum up Nova Scotia pretty well indeed…

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