I’m swimming in the warm, clear waters of Nova Scotia’s Northumberland Strait, wondering when I last felt so relaxed, while on the road up ahead my husband pedals a bicycle, cresting a hill by the 1920’s log edifice of the Pictou Lodge Beachfront Resort. He grins, waves, and is off on adventure, as giddy and carefree as I am happy. We’re learning a road trip through these parts can have that effect on you.
It’s morning, day two of a spontaneous joyride through Nova Scotia’s northeastern coast, a region of artisans, pastoral landscapes, and stunning beaches with some of the warmest ocean waters in Canada, and I have the resort’s private sand beach to myself save for a family of four, including a little girl, who inches her way ever closer, bobbing blissfully in the sea. She splashes in and out, out and in, wanting to make friends.
“Mommy, I want to stay all day,” she cries, running back to shore.
You and me both, kid.
Since we hit the highway to explore the Sunrise Trail, meandering 300-plus kilometres from the New Brunswick border through to Cape Breton Island, we’ve tasted local wines and spirits, sampled surprisingly good mead at Hard Honey Inc. (still dreaming of the signature meadjito), posed for selfies in a field of lavender in full bloom at Seafoam Lavender Company and Gardens, and watched fishermen angle for striped bass as the sky glowed orange and crimson.
“People come here by accident and when they find it, they never leave,” says Jimmie LeFresne, who we meet our first morning in Tatamagouche, a bustling, artsy country village big on charm and colourful locally owned shops from Appleton Chocolates to Tatamagouche Brewing Co.
We find LeFresne, sipping tea in the Train Station Inn café, once the men’s waiting room in the station he bought when he was 18. He didn’t have a plan, he just didn’t want to see it torn down. “While all the rest of the kids in my Grade 12 class were buying cars, I bought a train station,” he jokes.
Eventually, he turned it into an inn, now celebrating its 32nd year, with 13 cabooses where guests stay. It also features a dining car, a lounge car, a gift shop and events, including live music.
The area’s appeal is easy for LeFresne. “In Nova Scotia, every coast is different. You’re on the Northumberland coast here and it’s totally different than any other coast. It has the warmest waters north of the Carolinas, lots of sandy beaches, and it has a lot for everyone, from empty nesters to families.”
Paradise for Foodies in Northern Nova Scotia
Daniel Curren, who opened Tatamagouche Ice Creamery in 2020, agrees.
“For anyone who has not been to the region, the North Shore is truly Nova Scotia’s hidden gem,” says Curren. “We have glorious, sandy beaches with bathwater warm waters that are backdropped by stunning views of the Cobequid Mountains. It’s also a foodie paradise: the first winery in Nova Scotia, craft beer and distillers, stands of sugar maples and endless fields of wild blueberries, some incredible and quaint restaurants, handmade chocolates, locally roasted coffee and now handmade ice cream — you name it, we’ve got it.”
Curren’s small-batch, ultra-premium ice cream shop on Tatamagouche’s Main Street is divine — and creative. Among the unique flavours are corn flakes, and buttered popcorn and pistachio. The shop even offers special flavour series for occasions such as Canada Day. It also had a special breakfast celebration with flavours like butter tart, cinnamon roll, rum raisin, and blueberry pancakes.
Road-trippers can start a culinary-themed journey off right, tucking into a melt-in-your-mouth maple brunch at Sugar Moon Farm’s log restaurant, on a working maple farm in Earltown. They offer special packages including the Canadian Maple Indulgence, an after-hours, owner-led sugar camp tour that includes tastings and a multi-course meal taken fireside.
After brunch, burn off some calories hiking onsite trails or strolling along the Butter Trail in Tatamagouche, checking out old railroad bridges and wildlife.
On our travels, we seek out shorelines, finding serenity and sand between our toes up and down the coast, dipping into the waters in provincial parks at Melmbery Beach, Caribou-Munroes, Rushtons Beach, and Blue Sea Beach.
Along the way, we find pottery, pewter, and wool shops, art galleries, ladies consignment stores, and the Seafoam Lavender Farm, popular for lavender picking in season and browsing the retail store.
Exploring the Oyster Coast
We meet Charles Purdy when we pull into Bay Enterprises, selling oysters and quahogs in Malagash. Purdy grew up here. His ancestors have called the region home since 1783. Oyster farming, he says, stretching his arm towards the ever-present shoreline, began right here in Canada, before Confederation.
What draws people here? “It’s always been the scenery, the water,” he muses. “I like it. It’s a little out of the way. It’s quieter, laid back, and it has a lot of things to do.”
Just minutes down the road in Malagash, we call into Jost Vineyards, Nova Scotia’s largest and longest operating winery, a pioneer of the province’s wine industry. With many vintages to tempt, Jost Tidal Bay, showcasing the area’s distinct terroir, is a particularly good bet. Plan to do a wine tasting in the boutique (we tucked several bottles into our bag), dine at the on-site Seagrape Café, and hike in the vineyard, where picnic tables invite guests to relax.
Another cool find, maybe an hour and a half down the road, in Arisaig, towards Antigonish, is Steinhart Distillery, where visitors sit on a hillside overlooking the fishing boats at Arisaig Harbour, sipping a craft cocktail and dining al fresco on patio take-out that’s heavy on German favourites like schnitzel and spatzle. Guests can even stay in oceanview chalets. Owner Thomas Steinhart draws on a 300-year-old German family tradition in making his award-winning gin and vodkas. Guests can go behind the scenes and take part in a weekend “GINstitute By The Sea” experience.
Unique Stays in Northumberland
Overnight accommodations include gems like the luxurious, five-star Fox Harb’r Resort in Wallace, a dream realized by the late Ron Joyce, co-founder of Tim Horton’s, businessman, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and Tatamagouche native. Fox Harb’r wows with vineyards to the sea, stables, golf on a championship course, and packages like the Ocean Spa Escape, a coastal wellness getaway replete with seaside yoga, spa treatments, fine dining, and curated skin-care products.
Or perhaps you’ll escape via public passenger ferry to Pictou Island Yurts, located in an off-grid community where families use solar and wind energy to power their homes. The yurts offer a secluded getaway for groups, who feel they’ve travelled far, but never left Nova Scotia, say owners AJ and Paula Law.
“There’s something special about the trip over the Northumberland to a coastal island that washes away the stress and worries of everyday life,” AJ Law says. “The appeal of an island adventure topped with the quietness is an unparalleled experience. It’s as if life just slows down. There are days on the beach that are simply euphoric — picture perfect, long sandbars to stroll, warm ocean water, and soft sand underfoot. At night the darkness allows you to view the most amazing starry skies. And if the fireflies are out and about in our fields, it’s as if that same starry sky fell down around you. It’s just magical.”
We spend the night at Pictou Lodge Resort, enchanted by its enviable position on the sandy shores of the Northumberland Strait. The property grew up around the old log-style lodge. The mix of accommodations runs from drive-up motel rooms to oceanview suites on a bluff overlooking the water.
A feeling of peace permeates the property, some 80 acres, where guests walk the sandy beach, try a canoe or stand-up paddleboard on the pond, take out bikes, play lawn games, swim in the saltwater pool, enjoy evening bonfires, and order from the oceanside restaurant (do try the lavender cheesecake). Each meal starts with a fresh buttermilk biscuit with molasses butter, one of the simplest recipes, but one of the most sought-after items.
The lodge is minutes from the waterside town of Pictou, home to gorgeous stone architecture, cute shops, and much history, including the Ship Hector, a full-size replica of the vessel that brought Scottish settlers to Nova Scotia, and the McCulloch House Museum, where one can research Scottish pioneer families who settled the area.
New this year at Pictou Lodge, guests can angle for striped bass right from the Northumberland Strait with guide Sean Townsend, who brings all the gear as part of the Sundown Fishing Package. You don’t need a license, you can keep your catch, and you can fish from the beach (it’s best at sun-up or sundown when fish are most plentiful). It’s an experience that satisfies everyone from an eight-year-old novice to avid fishermen.
Note: Vacay.ca is partnering with Tourism Nova Scotia on a series of articles featuring journeys to enjoy in the province in 2020 and 2021. Check our previous articles on road trips across the province and exploring the South Shore.