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Nova Scotia is so much more than I expected. It’s a delight to the senses, a city that speaks to the soul. I went there to learn about the wines, and came home with a wider appreciation of their dynamic and intriguing mix of heritage and culinary mastery. It’s such an easy trip to get there, you should definitely think about adding it to your “must travel to” list. I am glad I did.
Flying into Halifax to start my seven-day trip with seven other writers was easy. The airport is small and easy to navigate. With 15 minutes of claiming our baggage we were at the Radisson Suite Hotel . Located in the historic downtown section of Halifax, this was the perfect place to begin our journey. My executive suite overlooked the harbor and was close to shops, dining and cultural sights. It makes a wonderful base if you don’t like to move lodging every night as I did. Every place we visited in this trip was no more than 2 hours from the hotel.
Halifax is a college town, so there is an active nightlife and the pub-crawl group was having a great time. We were hosted for dinner at the Five Fisherman Restaurant & Grill – a quick safe walk from the hotel. Impressive menu featuring seafood. Local wines, and a unique mussel bar made this evening a real treat, however it is the heritage of this building that will quickly get your attention. The Five Fishermen Restaurant is housed in a building that was originally constructed as a schoolhouse in 1817. It’s changed hands several times, but at one point was a mortuary that housed victims from the Titanic and The epic Halifax Explosion. It is because of this history that locals and staff say the building exhibits some odd occurrences of a nether worldly sort. Ask anyone who has worked there and they’re sure to have a story or two. It’s fascinating to talk with the staff who are more than eager to share their experiences and help you choose some amazing foods and wines.
Up bright and early the next morning we hopped on a double decker bus to do some sightseeing. It gave us a good rounded view of the past, present and future of Halifax. We were able to visit the historic Citadel (a must see for history buffs) where Halifax’s historic role as a key naval station is commemorated with kilted Highlanders and booming noon-time guns (a daily ritual since the mid-19th century). We also toured the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (a must for the maritime buff) where we saw exhibits on everything from small craft boatbuilding, to colorful mastheads, World War Convoys, the Days of Sail to the Age of Steam, the Titanic (a real tear jerker) to the Halifax Explosion. If you’re looking to discover the stories, events and people that have come to define Nova Scotia and its relationship with the sea, this would be the place to do it.
Our afternoon activity was lunch at the amazing Sandbar Restaurant (located at the Tidal Bore Park) and a choice of either Tidal Bore Rafting or visiting the Glooscap Heritage Center. The Sandbar Restaurant looks like an unassuming diner, but let me tell you the food prepared by Chef Heidi was exceptional. The food was eclectic – everything from hamburgers to muscles to hot wings to over-the-top desserts. I cannot possible say enough good things about the service and food. Definitely dine here. After lunch half the group went Tidal Bore rafting, the adventure of a lifetime on the Shubenacadie River. Think white water rafting on steroids where participants jump into a rubber raft dressed in full foulf weather gear to see and feel the Bay of Fundy tides in action, home of the world's highest tides. It’s a rip roaring, high flying, rock and roll ride of your life. If you are an adrenalin junkie, this is THE activity for you. The other half of the group went to the Glooscap Heritage Center just a few miles down the road for a touching guided tour of the history and culture of the Mi'kmaq - the Aboriginal group of Nova Scotia. We were all impressed with the story and artifacts, and were literally stunned as we gazed at the 40-foot statue of Glooscap (the great Chief who looked and lived like an ordinary Indian except that he was twice as tall and twice as strong, and possessed great magic. He was never sick, never married, never grew old, and never died. He had a magic belt which gave him great power, and he used this power only for good.) By the end of our visit we understood how the Mi’kmaw has survived for many generations, and where the Mi’kmaw strive to be in the future. If you are into native cultures, this cultural center is worthy of you attention. It is both touching and inspirational.
My nights lodging was in a box car. Yup, you heard me right, I stayed the night in “Box Car Jane” at the century old Train Station inn at Tatamagouche. The station was lovingly restored in the 1980s with train cars and furnishings reflecting its railway past, and continues to this day with new additions arriving all the time. The station itself and its spacious cabooses offer a unique Bed & Breakfast and dinner experience. Each one of our writers had a different car to stay in. What a treat. Each car featured a living room, kitchen, private bath, bedroom…and yea! wireless Internet. Dinner found us in the dining car ordering pre-dinner drinks (local wines & cocktails such as the “Pink Caboose”). Dinner was an amazing food & wine experience. This is truly the epitome of “The Romance of the Railroad.” Lodging rates are reasonable in the $150 range. Train buffs out there – this is YOUR stop.
Our next day was filled (yippee!) with the wines of Nova Scotia. As a reference point for you, Nova Scotia is a Peninsula located on Canada’s East Coat. It’s bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Fundy. The southern tip of Nova Scotia dips below the 45th parallel. There are six distinct growing regions. Protected valleys and hillsides in the South Shore, the Annapolis Valley, the Malagash Peninsula and Marble Mountain in Cape Breton are particularly well suited to growing cool climate grapes because they have a long fall, stretching into late October, allowing grapes to ripen slowly, increasing their flavor intensity.
First stop was Jost Vineyards, a 27-year old award-winning winery found along the picturesque Northumberland Strait, just off the Sunrise Trail in Nova Scotia. Owner Hans Christian Jost gave us a guided tour of the property and a private winetasting. How surprised I was at how rich and fruit forward the wines were. Hans Christian shared that growing exceptional grapes in Malagash is made possible by the warm waters of the Northumberland Strait. Jost makes an amazing selection of reds, whites, fruit wines, ice wines and specialty wines. While all of the selections were notable, my favorites included the 2007 reserve Marechal Foche (red- $19.99) featuring an earthy undertone of dark red fruits and the 2008 Whiskey Barrel Aged Ortega Ice Wine ($30) aged in Single Malt Whisky barrels from the Award-Winning Nova Scotia single malt whisky producer, Glenora Distillery of Cape Breton. You’ll have to drive a ways to find this place, but I guarantee it’s worth it.
On our way to our next winery we stopped at Sugar Moon Farm. This is an intriguing working sugar maple farm and pancake house. We had a hearty lunch of pancakes, baked beans and maple-spiced sausage; and an afternoon cocktail of a yummy Maple Martini before we took a tour of the “camp.” The camp is where the maple syrup is made and where we learned that 85% of the world’s maple syrup is made in Quebec, of which 90% of that is made in Nova Scotia.. All I can say is this looks like an awful lot of work. But as with most family owned businesses there is lots of love, dedication and excellent products that result from the hard work. This is a true artesian effort. Sugar Moon is a living museum of the craft of maple sugaring. They offer free tours of the working sugar camp and maple interpretive area, seasonal demonstrations, and maple samples. You’ll love visiting it in any season.
After Sugar Moon, we went to Domaine de Grand Pré Winery located in Wolfville in the beautiful Annapolis Valley for a private wine tasting and then on to dinner at their unforgettable Le Caveau Restaurant. After a short guided walk through the vineyards, we were treated to appetizers and wine in the tasting room. Standouts for me were the Champlain Brut ($29.50), a traditional méthode champenoise sparkling wine named after Samuel de Champlain who mapped Nova Scotia during the earliest French and Acadian settlement in what was then L’Acadie. It’s great as a starter served prior to a meal or alongside various appetizers such as local seafood. I also enjoyed the 2009 Castel; a rich, complex, full bodied dark wine showcasing dark fruit, herbs, and black pepper. It pairs well with grilled beef, game meats, caramelized onions and roasted root vegetables. A nice fall wine to be sure. Dinner at Le Caveau was wonderful. It’s an upcasual dining experience (fine dining without the fuss of dressing up). Chef Jason Lynch and his team focus on regional Nova Scotia product prepared with a global flair. An experienced service staff made the group feel welcome, appreciated and pampered. I was feeling rather international that night and ordered the Szechuan crusted Nova Scotia Sea Scallops on kimchi with caramel dust and sesame oil ($12) and the Crisp Martock Glen Pork Belly with Chinese spiced, stir fried local vegetables. The night ended with Warm Chocolate Boule served with a Castel and Raspberry sauce ($12). All in all a very decadent experience I can truly recommend to you.
Our lodging for the next two days – The Blomidon Inn - was just down the street. If you’ve been reading my stories, you’ll know I love B & B’s. I especially like the vibe of this family owned and run, award-winning, tastefully restored 19th Century Sea Captain’s Mansion. Each room is unique and the inn is surrounded by acres of gardens giving the feel of a Victorian English Manor House. They also have an exceptional gift shop – two stories of unbelievable treasures. I love that they have a fabulous in-house restaurant run by one of the sons Chef Sean Laceby and the other son Michael is the sommelier. I understand their wine cellar has over 7,000 bottles in it. We were treated to a special private dinner in the drawing room where the skills of Sean and Michael gave us a glimpse into the seriously magnificent foods and wines served here. Many of us enjoyed the Grilled Filet Mignon – a Maritime prime filet complimented by a Madagascar peppercorn sauce and maitre de hotel butter. Served with chef's vegetables and paired with a local Benjamin Bridge Taurus red wine, this was an exquisite experience.
Our next day was filled with fun and informative trips to the Howard Dill Pumpkin Farm, Foxhill Farm Cheese House, Hall’s Harbour Lobster Pound for a tour and lunch, a walk on the Bay of Fundy dykes near Wolfville, and a walk and taste in the Tangled Garden. The pumpkin farm tour was sort of a whim. Our guide was pointing out where the annual Pumpkin Regatta (fall related events are huge in Nova Scotia) is held each year, and the group in our van immediately wanted to see the home of the giant pumpkins. The regatta involves teams carving out gigantic 500 pound + pumpkins, decorating them, and then sailing in them across a local lake. The pumpkin farm grows over 50 different types of pumpkins (small, large and giant) , squash and gourds and has a small gift shop on site which has many different pumpkin souvenirs, seeds, books, pumpkin baked goods and preserves along with many other pumpkin items. We had a great time viewing all the large pumpkins waiting to be carved and immersing ourselves in this fun fall event.
The family-owned cheese house crafts over 20 varieties of cheese using milk from their own herd of Holstein cows. Their motto, “From seed, to grass, to milk, to cheese, to you” pretty much sums up their philosophy. This is a unique tasting experience. Expect lots of samples of artesian cheese and OMG gelato. The lobster pound tour is located in Hall's Harbour, one of the last authentic fishing villages surviving along the Fundy coast of Nova Scotia. It was fun and speaks directly to the heritage and culture of Nova Scotia. The views are incredible and the lunch was affordable, plentiful and delicious. Next up, a guided walk by Angela Chrisholm of Scott Walking Adventures on the Bay of Fundy dykes, was a stunning revelation. Most of us don’t get to see 100 billion tons of seawater flowing back and forth in front of them every day. But there we were watching and learning about the highest tides on the planet. What a rush. What a salute to the power of Mother Nature. The Tangled Garden visit was just the thing to end a day of special sights. Here herbs and fruit are transformed into artistic jewel-like jellies and tasty vinegars. We sampled (and purchased) herb jellies such as Raspberry Lavender and Garlic Rosemary, delicious jams, chutneys, mustards, vinegars, ice cream, and liqueurs. All are made using fresh herbs from their garden and fruit from the surrounding fertile Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia. Fresh herbs are picked daily from the garden from late spring to early winter. Fruit from local farms and orchards and wine from local wineries are used to make the jellies in small batches, six jars at a time. As I said, this was a spectacular ending to a wonderful day.
After a good night’s sleep at the Blomidon Inn, we departed for the 3,000 case Gaspereau Vineyards (a few minutes from the Inn, about an hour from Halifax) for a special tour and tasting with winemaker Gina Haverstock. Female winemakers are far and few between, so it was a pleasure to visit with this young, energetic and knowledgeable woman. The vineyards were once an apple orchard. Planted in 1996, the 35 acres of vineyards thrive on the south-facing slope, and under the careful supervision of the winemaker produce premium, award-winning wines that are fruit forward and aromatic. This is a beautiful spot to go winetasting. A favorite for me was silver medal 2008 L’Acadie Blanc (Dry- $15.99). A true glimpse into what Nova Scotia does well, this balanced wine had a fruity nose of pineapple and citrus. The sweet tropical fruit and gooseberry finish makes this wine a perfect complement to Nova Scotia scallops, shrimp kabobs and gazpacho soup. I also enjoyed their 2007 Pinot Noir (Dry - $19.99). Surprisingly, Pinot Noir has been growing in Nova Scotia at Al McIntyre’s Racca Vineyard near Canning, Nova Scotia since 2001 and is the source of grapes for Gaspereau Vineyards’ first Pinot Noir. Harvested in early November 2007, the grapes were hand-harvested and sorted, cold soaked prior to fermentation and cool-fermented. Malolactic fermentation followed. Aged in a combination of New Hungarian Oak, older French Oak and stainless steel, this wine shows the classic style Pinot Noir aromas and some smoky vanilla under tones. A light cherry hue with an elegant structure makes this classic cool climate Pinot Noir a winner.
After the tasting we departed for the quaint seaside town of Lunenburg. First stop was the Ironworks Distillery and tasting room. Ironworks is a micro-distillery located in the old port of Lunenburg on Nova Scotia's historic South Shore. The Ironworks name comes from the 1893 heritage building they call home: a marine blacksmith's shop that once produced ironworks for the shipbuilding trade. They produce Vodka (from apples), Brandy, Rum and fancy liqueurs. Co-owner Lynne MacKay told us, “The whole reason for doing this is to make something special and unique, with our personal stamp on it, that we hope other people will enjoy.” Distilling by hand in small batches, Ironworks uses only natural ingredients, as fresh and as local as possible, showcasing the remarkable produce of the Annapolis Valley. It’s always fun and inspiring to meet such passionate owners. I definitely recommend this as a must-do. Be sure and try the Apple Vodka, the Wild Blueberry and Cranberry Liqueurs, and the Apple Brandy.
Next stop was the fabulous Salt Shaker Deli. Not so much a deli really as an eclectic mix of wonderful flavors and cuisine. This place was packed and for good reason! Our group loved the Smoked Seafood Chowder ($10), the Lobster Roll - Nova Scotia Lobster with tarragon mayo and fresh celery and greens on toasted brioche ($15), the Pad Thai - red curry noodles, finished with peanuts and sprouts ($13.50) , and the fun and tasty Pint & a Pound -a pint of Propeller Draught and a Pound of Indian Point Mussels (10).
After lunch we went for a tour of the town compliments of Trot in Time Buggy Tour. What fun it was to tour the town in an old fashioned horse drawn buggy ($20). The 35-minute tour leaves from the waterfront, goes up to the top of the beautiful historic l town and down again via a different route. The town of Lunenburg has more than three hundred historic homes dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The churches are some of the oldest in North America. This breathtaking tour is well-worth your time. I love the fact that they care very much for the horses. The drivers are experienced handlers and each works with a horse specifically matched with them. Shifts are scheduled in a way that allows the horses to work only five days a week for four and one half hours per day. Be sure and schedule this activity, and then step right off next door to the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic. While at the Museum, you’ll experience life in a fishing community and discover, up close, life at sea. Have fun exploring the magnificent aquarium and wharf-side vessels, viewing a dedicated section to the historic Bluenose schooner, and learn how to properly clean scallops. You can also take a boat ride or make your way to the Ice House Theatre, where films are shown throughout the day. Solid family or adult fun.
We stayed the evening at the chic Lunenburg Arms Hotel & Spa. Centrally located in downtown Lunenburg, this historic hotel offers elegantly comfortable rooms with a charming maritime theme. My room overlooked the harbor and was serene, spacious and stylish. Room rates run from about $129 - $299, which is more than worth it. Downstairs their Spa at Nienty4 was a treat for the senses. A full service Aveda spa they offer all the traditional spa services plus a hair and nail salon and aqua therapy…and they even send you home with fabulous samples. I can definitely recommend this spa for all its services – but for sure don’t miss the facial. Dinner was just around the corner at the Trattoria della nona where we enjoyed authentic upcasual Italian cuisine and an amazing wine list. Our group ordered the minestrone soup, wood fired pizzas, homemade pastas, and slow roasted lamb. Everything –including the exceptional service made us smile. I think you’ll enjoy this place for its fine food, beautiful ambiance, affordable prices, and convenient downtown location. Who knew such a small town could hold so many wonderful activities, chic lodging and culinary delights??
Our last day found us packed up and ready for a few more sights before we hopped on the plane for home. We departed Lunenburg for Mahone Bay – a picture postcard perfect maritime town and my personal small town pick of the trip. This was sort of my ahhh and aha moment all wrapped into one. This town has a special vibe. Not sure if it was the beauty of the bay, the easy strolling streets, the amazing 19th century architecture, the many quaint retail shops and markets, or the all-out craziness of the annual Scarecrow festival. I do know the locals love it here, so it’s not just for tourists. We were treated to a walking tour of the town and then a private tour of the famous Amos Pewter store which designs and handcrafts pewter gifts and keepsakes in an open studio. The artisans began making pewter gifts and keepsakes in 1974 in the vacant boat building shop (circa 1880) that houses the workshop today. We watched designers and craftspeople demonstrate the skills and techniques that have been used by pewter makers for decades. Amos Pewter has won awards for excellence in craftsmanship and design from the Nova Scotia Designer Craft Council. The skilled staff knows the value of quality craftsmanship producing amazing pieces from jewelry to cutlery to ornaments. Yes, I walked away with my share of some very special treasures – of course from the jewelry section. . My next trip to Nova Scotia, I’ll definitely be staying her for some quality “me” time.
Our final luncheon – a Treasure Picnic -was held a few minutes away at the lovely Atlantica Hotel & Marina Oak Island resort. Can I just paint you a picture of warm blue skies, brightly painted Adirondack chairs set around an open pit fire, situated mere steps from the Mahone Bay overlooking legendary Oak Island (reputed to have pirate treasure buried on it). We were greeted by Executive Chef Daniel Orovec and taken to an hors d’oeuvres buffet of steamed Indian Point Mussels and our choice of local wines, pumpkin martinis, or beer. Let me tell you, two pumpkin martinis later, life never looked better. Lunch followed a short grilling class on planked salmon. Local wines were served with the gourmet lunch. I wanted to ask for another martini, but that’s another story for another time. Dessert was a fun and tasty s’mores treat cooked on the open fire pit. I like to think of this experience as a one of the best campouts I’ve been to in a long long time. You should think about staying in one of their 105 guestrooms with ocean views and balconies, one of the 13 oceanfront chalets, or truly indulge by renting one of their seaside villas. Hotel's amenities including mini-golf, tennis courts, indoor and outdoor pools, fitness facility and more. You will be sure to find the exact activity and level of relaxation you are looking for at this cool resort.
Our final stop of the trip holds the claim of being one of the most photographed places in Nova Scotia, a gorgeous historic lighthouse set amongst giant rocks washed smooth by rough waves, known as Peggy’s Cove. About 750,000 people visit Peggy’s Cove a year. According to legend, Peggy's Cove was named after the only survivor of a schooner that ran aground and sank in 1800... a woman named Margaret. Locals called her "Peggy" and her home came to be known as Peggy's Cove. The original lighthouse was built in 1868. Peggy's Cove, a picturesque fishing village, is one of most popular stops in Atlantic Canada. Set on rocky shores, the lighthouse, restaurant at Peggy's Cove are a photographer's paradise. We arrived on a bright sunny day, the winds were mild, but we could certainly see how this 360 degree view spot could turn in a raging inferno of waves smashing over the lighthouse during rough weather. For a great view of what this tourist spot is all about visit the Peggy’s Cove web cam.
I’d like to thank Randy Brooks, Manager of Media Relations and Pamela Wamback, Editorial Media Relations for Nova Scotia Tourism, Culture and Heritage, and Christine White, Director of Communications and Events for the Winery Association of Nova Scotia for hosting me and my fellow International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association members on this trip. Each one of these special people brought to the tour a special talent and gift in explaining the treasures of this phenomenal place.
I hope to be invited back several more times as I am sure I’ve just scratched the surface of what Nova Scotia has to offer. The wines, the culinary scene, the activities were magnificent. I love this place. I know you will too. See it in the fall when the leaves are turning, the temps are mild, the local harvest festivals are in full swing. This place, these people, this experience gets my best five-star Food, Wine & Shopping Diva rating.