Nova Scotia's stunning waters

Jo Fulwood
History is juxtaposed with a variety of modern-day architecture on the Halifax harbour front. Picture: Jo Fulwood

It's supposed to be summer in Nova Scotia but an icy wind blowing straight off the North Atlantic Ocean cuts its way through our tour group as we huddle together in a wild blueberry field.

My summer clothes haven't made their way out of my suitcase yet, and I've realised much too late that summer in eastern Canada can, at best, be compared to a West Australian autumn day.

With maximum temperatures sometimes only as high as 18C, we are grateful when the sun peeks through the clouds to warm our faces.

But it's these cooler summer weather conditions, plus the metres of rain and snow these eastern Canadian provinces receive each year, that make this countryside so spectacular.

There are miles and miles of lush green fields, extending as far as we can see out of our tour bus window.

By the side of the road, pink and purple wild lupins frame the dark red soils which are so productive for farmers in this region.

I'm here in Nova Scotia on a Nuffield agricultural tour, talking to innovative farmers who are part of a world-class food- producing region.

Farmer's markets, fresh-food stalls and an abundance of maple syrup are everywhere. Locals pride themselves on having access to the freshest and tastiest food in the world.

Nova Scotia's capital, Halifax, is a small but picturesque city surrounding the Halifax Harbour and Bedford Basin. Life here is all about water - fishing, boating and ocean transport.

As the largest transportation and economic hub east of Quebec, Halifax is a city that grew out of centuries of maritime activity, culminating with the arrival of British military officer Edward Cornwallis.

Lieutenant General Cornwallis was sent to the colony in 1749 to secure the harbour from the French, who had already settled in the region.

Halifax boasts one of the world's largest ice-free harbours, and here in the Maritime provinces life revolves around the stunning waterways and harbour boardwalks.

It's an area not short on historical tragedy, something of which Nova Scotians appear to be strangely proud.

One of Canada's biggest maritime disasters occurred here in December 1917, when the French munitions ship SS Mont-Blanc collided with the Belgian relief vessel SS Imo in the narrow straight between upper Halifax Harbour and Bedford Basin.

Our tour guide Petra Comeau describes the devastation that resulted from the blast, with the collision killing 2000 people and injuring a further 9000. Further, a tsunami from the explosion flattened large sections of the Halifax town site.

According to Petra's colourful commentary, the disaster was the largest man-made explosion before the bombing of Hiroshima.

These days, the City Hall's public clock remains set at 9.06am in remembrance of the lives lost at that exact moment back on December 6, 1917.

Nova Scotians also remember the role their forefathers played in the Titanic disaster, when the "unsinkable" ship struck an iceberg east of Newfoundland in April 1912.

The Halifax-based ship Mackay- Bennett, equipped with coffins, embalming fluid and a priest, was sent to assist in the rescue and recovery efforts.

As we tour through the quaint inner-city areas, Petra points out a restaurant which was transformed into a morgue during the disaster to house the bodies of first-class passengers aboard the ill-fated ship. The final home of the bodies of those travelling in second and third class is not as clear but according to Petra, the "bag and tag" method now used in morgues around the world began here to deal with the influx of unidentified bodies from the Titanic.

Today more than 200 Titanic graves remain in Halifax's cemeteries, many still unidentified.

Heading down to the tiny and picturesque but windswept fishing village of Peggy's Cove, we are confronted by reminders of yet another disaster that has given Nova Scotia international recognition.

The Swiss Air 1-11 crash which occurred just 16 years ago off the coast of this village killed all 229 passengers and crew. From disaster rose international friendships between residents of Peggy's Cove and families who lost loved ones, Petra says.

But Nova Scotia isn't all historical tragedies. It's also renowned for its seafood, and so lobster, oysters and mussels are a cheap mainstay on restaurant menus across the province.

Shopping, nightlife and museums are also easy to find in Halifax.

And so, even though my days are supposed to be fully scheduled as part of the pre-booked tour, I manage to steal away for several hours to wander through the shops and eateries on Spring Garden Road in the centre of the city. It's a bustling but compact area with a number of unusual gift shops.

By all accounts, prices seem to be on par with Australian shopping, and with the Canadian dollar almost at parity with the Aussie dollar, shopping and eating here costs almost the same.

At the north-western edge of the Nova Scotia peninsula, we make our way across the imposing Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island, affectionately known to locals as the million-acre farm.

Connecting the island to the mainland, the bridge lays claim to being the longest over iced water in the world. Driving across the rough Atlantic waters isn't for the faint hearted, and I find myself having to look straight ahead to stop the panic rising in my chest.

But we make the trip unscathed, and I realise very quickly the beauty of Prince Edward Island has been worth the stress of the journey.

This island is known to many around the world as home to Anne of Green Gables. The fictional character was "born" in the north of the island to author Lucy Maud Montgomery, and thousands of visitors flock here every year just to see the place that has fed the imagination of young girls in particular for generations.

Green Gables epitomises all that is Prince Edward Island - gardens, fields, bridges, woods and ice-cream. A tourist dream.

Prince Edward Island was also the birthplace of Confederation, with the official negotiations to unite the provinces of Canada as one nation beginning here 150 years ago.

Though a much lesser claim to fame, the island is also know for its potatoes, and potato farming contributes over $1 billion to its economy. It is the largest potato- producing province in Canada and, as evidence of its importance to this island, even the breakfasts are served with potatoes.

Just like Nova Scotia, the landscape on the island is stunning, and late spring and summer is the best time to visit. In winter, daytime temperatures can fall below -10C.

During these long winters, much of the commercial centre closes down with the island covered in almost 3m of snow. Businesses here have to make most of their profits in the summer months.

Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island, is a thriving city on the eastern end of the island. Although it took me a day to find good coffee, my walks around the beautiful city made up for it, and the locals were thrilled to hear an Australian accent.

Charlottetown is an interesting mix of historic buildings, wide streets, industrial architecture and gentrified harbour areas.

Though small, it boasts quaint shopping areas, and Victoria Row is home to modern cafes, gift stores and quirky art galleries.

Guided walking tours are a great way to discover the stories behind the historic buildings.

In fact, if I had more time up my sleeve, the best way to see this little island would be on a bike, not a bus.

Our group was lucky enough to visit the Prince Edward Island Governor's mansion, which is reminiscent of Tara from Gone with the Wind. Overlooking Charlottetown Harbour, it has gardens to rival any I have seen.

Agriculture may have been the reason I was drawn to the green gem of the Maritime provinces of eastern Canada but there are a host of other reasons to visit this cold but delightful piece of paradise.

Just don't forget to pack warm clothes, regardless of what the brochures tell you.