Leisurely Drive Across Beautiful Nova Scotia, with a Visit to Pictou, 'Birthplace of New Scotland'
Updated: Feb 21, 2022
While traveling to Newfoundland for an early October hunting expedition, I was fortunate to be able to make an overnight stop in Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s most picturesque provinces, a jewel of northeastern North America. When traveling to Newfoundland by overland vehicle from the United States (versus flying), you cross from Maine into New Brunswick and usually transit uncrowded highways all the way to the ferry landing at North Sydney on Cape Breton Island.
Fortunately, the overnight ferry doesn’t depart until nearly midnight so, if you time things well, you can build in some sightseeing before you arrive for your crossing.
I stayed in Truro, Nova Scotia, at the Willow Bend Motel, an affordable, clean quiet place. My plan was to experience the “Tidal Bore” in the morning – a tidal bore being a rollicking, tumbling wavefront that moves upstream in a river, announcing the arrival of an incoming tide. Canada’s Bay of Fundy is home to the highest tides on Earth and the Salmon River, which runs through Truro, has some of best and most easily accessed tidal bore viewing available. Plus, a new interpretive center was open just a couple of miles from my motel.
I checked the tide charts and expected to see some action but, alas, it was pretty much a tidal bust – albeit still a gorgeous spot to look at the river. Next, I needed to choose between heading south toward more bustling Halifax or north toward the Northumberland Shore where Prince Edward Island could be seen across the strait. There, I could visit the historic town of Pictou, Nova Scotia, before mostly following the coastline toward Antigonish and onto Cape Breton Island.
Pictou is known as the "Birthplace of New Scotland" – the spot where the first Scottish immigrants landed in 1773 after making an incredibly difficult crossing aboard a vessel named the Hector, a ship often referred to as “Canada’s Mayflower.”
Pictou is a small town, population 3,186 in the 2016 census. Like many coastal towns, it’s somewhat built along a hillside feeding down to the water. The downtown area is also small with architecture and a vibe reflective of relaxed living and Old-World charm centered on the ways of the water. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic interferes with everything and it had impacted the town. Some businesses were closed. Those that were open were grateful for the scant tourists in October, especially since it was the tail end of the season. Many attractions are only open from May until mid-October.
I spent the brunt of my time visiting the Hector Heritage Quay, one of Nova Scotia's major cultural tourist attractions. It’s collection of colorful buildings. The huge ship in dry-dock just behind them certainly makes the place a standout along the compact waterfront. The ship there is a full-sized replica of the original Hector. Sadly, the ship itself was unavailable to tour. The replica was built over a 10-year period beginning in 1990 and actually launched and sailed in 2000. Ensuing years, though, have deteriorated its condition. A major restoration project is underway.
Even though I couldn’t tour the ship, the three-story museum had excellent exhibits explaining the tumultuous, nearly 11-week voyage and life’s challenges aboard the ship. These early Scottish settlers were wooed – like many earnest immigrants – with visions of bountiful lands and a new, freer way of living. It’s true that the land did offer incredible resources but getting a toehold in that new land required sacrifice and hardship. It’s all described in detail in the museum, which also has an excellent movie about the voyage and the building of the replica ship. The tartans of the various Scottish clans represented in the immigration are depicted above the museum’s reception center and small gift shop.
The Hector and the Heritage Quay buildings now belong to the Ship Hector Society, a group of business people and volunteers committed to ensuring the site remains vibrant and successful. The society’s board has begun the colossal task of restoring the Ship Hector to its fully rigged and operational glory in time for the 250th anniversary of the landing of those first 189 passengers in 2023. A Highland Homecoming, a celebration of the strong Scottish spirit, takes place on site every September.
This was a fascinating place to visit. Early immigrants from the British Isles made incredible cultural, political, intellectual, and industrial contributions to Canada, especially in the maritime provinces. Particularly refreshing, to me anyway, is how these cultural influences have endured in places like Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
The Hector Heritage Quay and Ship Hector are located on the Pictou waterfront at 33 Caladh Avenue. The phone number is 902-485-4371. To get there, travel the Trans Canada Highway 104, and take exit 22 to TCH 106. Pictou is 17 km from that exit. Halifax International Airport is approximately 150 km from Pictou.
Pictou is also home to the Northumberland Fisheries Museum. It seeks to preserve the rich sea heritage and culture along the Northumberland Strait. Also located on the Pictou waterfront, it includes a lobster touch tank, an authentic fisherman's bunkhouse, some 2,500 historical artifacts, a cannery display, boat models, displays, fishing videos and more. Maybe next time I’ll get to see it.
I did have the opportunity to enjoy a delightful lunch in Pictou at Harbour House Ales and Spirits at 41 Coleraine St, just down the street from the Heritage Quay building. The region is renowned for its incredible mussels, mostly farmed in the salty, cold water around Nova Scotia and PEI. So, of course I ordered the mussels – which came with superb crusty garlic bread for sopping up the flavorful broth – and a bowl of seafood chowder, which was elegant and delicious, loaded with lobster, scallops, haddock and other delights. The meal was a fitting farewell to this cool little town. From there, it was back to a country byway that mostly followed the coastline toward Cape Breton. I stopped briefly at the small, reconstructed Arisaig Lighthouse. The views across the strait are stunning.
If you get a chance to visit Nova Scotia, check it out. Happy rambling!