Nova Scotia is more than just a pretty picture. Apparently humdrum on the surface, it resists characterization at every turn -- and turns out to be friendly as all get-out. Sure, upon entry it feels much more cultured and British than wild, a better place to buy a wool sweater and shoot a round of golf than to actually get your feet wet. But then you stumble upon the blustery, boggy uplands and crags of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, and hear the wild strains of some local Celtic band's fiddling emanating from a tiny pub, and you start to realize that people here are both tougher than you thought and full of spunk -- closer to Newfies, maybe, then Brits.

Yes, this is a place of rolling hills and cultivated farms, especially near the Northumberland Straits on the northern shore -- but it's also got a vibrant, edgy arts and entertainment scene in Halifax, a city possessing more intriguing street life than plenty of cities three times its size. The place has been called a "San Francisco in miniature" (though it's really more like a small Boston).

This is a province that has truly earned its name -- "Nova Scotia" is just grammar-school Latin for "New Scotland" -- with Highland Games, kilts, and more than a touch of brogue. Yet it also possesses rich little enclaves of Acadian culture, both on the far shore of Cape Breton and along the southwestern coast between Digby and Yarmouth. (Want to see a really huge wooden church in the unlikeliest of places? It's here.)

But this province is also a good vacation for the sort of traveler who's not yet ready to tackle Nepal. You can do low-key Sunday drives here 7 days a week without a traffic jam. The scene changes almost kaleidoscopically as you wind along Nova Scotia's roads: from dense forests to bucolic farmlands, from ragged coastline cliffs to melancholy bogs, from historic villages with tall ships lazing about at port to dynamic little downtowns serving up everything from fish and chips and a pint to the occasional gourmet eatery. Pretty much the only terrain Nova Scotia doesn't offer is, well, desert.

In fact, the province is twice blessed. Many of the best parts are compact enough that you needn't spend all your time in a car -- thanks, Halifax and the South Shore. Yet it has less than a million residents (and one in three live in Halifax), making most of it empty enough to provide lots of space when you're seeking a clear head and a nearly private beach. Even in the most thickly populated sections, it's still possible to feel a sense of remoteness here, of being surrounded by a big ocean and long, profound history.

More than once while traveling through the back roads of Nova Scotia, I've had the sense I was traveling through the New England of 60 or 70 years ago -- the one that captivated writers and painters long before anyone referred to tourism as an "industry." I still get that sense here, sometimes -- a sense of peace, quiet, and mannered culture. It's not gone, not yet, and with a little exploring you can find it, too.

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