Liz Gill discovers that the sea dominates life in this Province of Atlantic Canada
Terry the clam digger respects clams and after an hour working alongside him searching for the buried molluscs I respect Terry. For this is seriously hard work. First you have to spot the tiny telltale hole, then you have to drive your clam hack, a short-handled bent fork, down into the sand and pull hard. With a bit of luck this will unearth some but you can only keep ones over a certain size: borderline cases have to be measured through a hoop on your bucket.
Terry who has been doing this since he was 11 and is now 55 can collect thousands in the few hours that the tide’s out in Nova Scotia’s vast Bay of Fundy. I’ve managed to find maybe a couple of dozen. But as we steam and then sample what we’ve caught while Terry serenades us with clam themed songs, I realise that what I have discovered is yet another example of how almost everything in this Canadian maritime province is to do with the sea. Nowhere is further than about 40 miles from the ocean: it has shaped its geography, history and culture. It has provided livelihoods (legal and illegal), recreations, joys and sorrows.
This is where the victims of the Titanic were brought to be buried, where the SS Atlantic sank in 1873 with the loss of over 500 lives, where there are at least 10,000 ship wrecks around the coast and where 150 lighthouses were built over the years to try to prevent more. It’s where hopeful immigrants to a new country arrived and from where the North Atlantic convoys set off during World War II to keep the old country alive: Churchill called them Britain’s lifeline.
For a relatively young place it has packed a lot in and its capital Halifax is a good place to start. Now a bright little city with smart shops and restaurants, a theatre, a casino and a symphony orchestra, it also claims more pubs and clubs per capita than almost anywhere else in Canada. The Split Crow, where the British navy used to press gang locals, The Lower Deck and the Old Triangle are all lively places offering fiddle and other music and reasonable priced eats. The Dome nightclub is a good after-dark place as is the newly-opened Taboo which offers private rooms, cocktails and canapes.
The city though has also seen more than its fair share of the dark side of life. It was in the harbour here, the second largest natural one in the world, that two ships, one of them loaded with 30,000 tons of TNT, collided in 1917 leading to the biggest explosion ever before the atom bomb and the deaths of 1700 people.
The story is told in the excellent Maritime Museum as, of course, is that of the Titanic and there are special events this year to mark the centenary of the tragedy including tours, talks, a evening of music from the era and menus from the ship’s dining room, and a specially written play about the only black family onboard.
Over 100 of the victims are buried in Fairview Cemetery where we pay a poignant visit to the lines of graves. One grave, that of 23 year-old Joseph Dawson, is covered with flowers and other tributes. “He’s the nearest person to the Leonardo DiCaprio character in the film,” our guide Mark tells us. “He’s getting more attention from teenage girls in death than he probably ever got in life.”
It’s raining when we visit the graves which seems fitting but as they say in Nova Scotia “if you don’t like the weather, just wait ten minutes.” So by the time we get to the picturesque Peggy’s Cove with its iconic lighthouse, one of the most photographed in North America, it’s blazing sunshine though bad days can bring 60ft waves to crash against it.
Another time we huddle together on a windy cliff top to hear about rum running in the hidden coves below: during Prohibition fishermen who would normally make $40 a month could make ten times that bringing in liquor for Al Capone. A couple of hours later we’re basking in the warmth on a beautiful but deserted sandy beach in the Kejimkujik coastal park – 50 visitors would be regarded as a crowd – like the seals we can see on the nearby rocks.
On our last day but one we creep through ghostly mist on the ferry to Brier Island but next morning wake to dazzling light for our whale watching expedition. We sail from the island harbour about eight miles out to sea to the point where the shallows give way to a 1,000ft depth. From June to September the waters of the Bay of Fundy attract 15 species of whale who come to mate, play and feed on the plankton in the world’s highest tides so you’re almost guaranteed to see some – and we did.
For me it was the highlight of the trip: there’s something simply awe-inspiring about seeing the great curve of a 70 ft finback emerge from the water or the flip of a massive humpback tail barely 20 yards away. Apparently the underside of a tail is as individual as a face so although to an outsider one whale looks pretty much like another, to the guides on the
boat they’re old friends with names and histories.
The sea provides plenty of other sporting activities including fishing, kayaking, sailing and surfing but wimps should remember that this is the Atlantic and the water is cold. At the White Point Beach resort on the South Shore where we stayed one night, I could only manage a brief paddle before numbness set in (I would have needed a wet suit for anything further) and I waded out for a sunset cocktail and a plate of mussels cooked on an open fire on the beach.
All that cold water produces wonderful fish and sea food. As well as the mussels and clams, we dined on halibut, scallops, shrimps, chowder and, of course, lobster, all at reasonable prices. Chez Christophe in the French-speaking Acadian region offers homely grub for around £10 a head, the Olde Fish Factory in Lunenberg – it does meat as well as fish – might set you back around £22 a head without wine and if you want to push the boat out Fleur de Sel in the same town has been voted one of the best in the country. Expect to shell out around £45, more with wine. For the cash-strapped though, MacDonalds do a five dollar MacLobster sandwich in the summer season.
If you fancy a fullsize one you can pick your own at the Lobster Pound restaurant in the quaint fishing village of Hall’s Harbour: sizes range from small to jumbo for around £8 a lb. While it’s being cooked you can hear all about the species from old salts like Lowell who’s worked there for years. He puts a live one to sleep by rubbing its back and makes everyone jump by making us think he’s lost a finger to one of those claws. Which can happen. Respect,lobsters!
Canadian Affair offers a self-drive package from £849 per person based on double occupancy. Price includes flights, car hire and 7 nights accommodation in 3 or 4 star hotels or resorts. Tel 020 7616 9184
More info including Titanic events www.novascotia.com and uk.canada.travel
Maritime Museum adults £5.50, children £3 www.maritime.museum.gov.ns
Clam digging www.fundyadventures.com £42 a session
www.novascotiawhalewatching.ca adults £31 children £16 a trip
Article and last two images copyright Liz Gill – First two images copyright Nova Scotia Tourism