Visitors to Nova Scotia should spend a little time poring over a map (and this travel guide) before leaving home. It's a good idea to narrow down your options, because numerous loops, circuits, and side-trips are possible here -- and the permutations only multiply once you factor in various ferry links to the United States, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. You don't want to spread yourself too thin. So figuring out where to go -- and how to get there -- is the hardest work you'll need to do in a place that is quite easy to travel around once you've arrived there. The only travelers who complain about Nova Scotia are those who tried to see it all at once, in a week. That sort of approach could leave you strung out and tired. Instead, prioritize your interests and decide accordingly. Looking for picture-perfect scenes of coastal villages? Focus mostly on the South Shore, specifically the holy trinity of Chester, Lunenburg, and Mahone Bay. Drawn to hiking amid dramatic, rocky coastal vistas? Allow plenty of time for Cape Breton Island. Looking for more pastoral ocean scenery? Head for the Fundy Coast. Want to spend a quiet day canoeing? Build your trip around Kejimkujik National Park. Dying for some gourmet dining and urban buzz? Factor in a couple days in Halifax. Above all, schedule time for simply doing not much of anything. Strolling or biking in quiet lanes; picnicking on a beach; and watching the tides from docks, boat decks, and hotel porches are the best ways I know to let Nova Scotia's charms sink in at their own unhurried pace.
Every traveler to Nova Scotia should get a copy of the massive (400-plus-page) official tourism guide. It's comprehensive, colorful, well-organized, and free, listing most hotels, campgrounds, and attractions within the province, plus brief descriptions and current prices. (Restaurants are given only limited coverage, however; investigate those using this book and your own nose for eats.)
The tome, called the Nova Scotia Doers' & Dreamers' Guide, becomes available each year around March. Contact the province by phone (tel. 800/565-0000 or 902/424-5000), mail (Nova Scotia Department of Tourism, Culture, and Heritage, P.O. Box 456, Halifax, NS B3J 2R5), or Internet (www.novascotia.com). You can wait until you arrive in the province to obtain the visitor's guide, of course. But then you won't be able to do much advance planning.
The provincial government administers about a dozen official Visitor Information Centres (known as "VICs") throughout the province, as well as in Portland and Bar Harbor, Maine. These mostly seasonal centers are amply stocked with brochures and tended by knowledgeable staffers. In addition, virtually every town of any note has a local tourist information center filled with racks of brochures covering the entire province, staffed with local people who know the area. You won't ever be short of information. Also be sure to request the province's excellent free road map, which will begin to give you a sense of how few roads there actually are here. (What the map doesn't convey is how big the province is. Driving takes time here.)
In general, the local and provincial visitor information centers are run with cordiality and brisk efficiency. I have yet to come across a single one that wasn't remarkably helpful, although the press of crowds can sometimes require a few minutes' wait to get individual attention at the more popular gateways, such as Amherst (outside Halifax) or Port Hastings (entering Cape Breton Island).
For general questions about travel in the province, call Nova Scotia's information hot line at tel. 800/565-0000 (North America) or 902/424-5000 (outside North America).
By Car & Ferry -- Most travelers reach Nova Scotia overland by car from New Brunswick. Plan on at least a 4-hour drive from the U.S. border at Calais, Maine, to Amherst (at the New Brunswick-Nova Scotia border). Incorporating ferries into your itinerary can reduce time behind the wheel if you catch the ferry across the Bay of Fundy, which works as long as that is where you are going.
To shorten the long drive around the Bay of Fundy, a 3-hour ferry (also operated by Bay Ferries) known as the Princess of Acadia links Saint John, New Brunswick, with Digby, Nova Scotia. Remarkably, this ferry sails daily year-round, with two sailings per day during peak travel periods. In 2011, the peak season one-way fare (Jun-Oct) was C$41 for adults, C$26 for children age 6 to 13, C$5 per child under age 6, and C$31 for students and seniors. Your car itself costs an additional C$82 (more for motor homes, trucks, vans, and buses), plus a C$20 fuel surcharge. Fares are a bit cheaper outside the peak travel months, and if you walk on and return within 30 days, there are also discounts available on the round-trip. Note that AAA and CAA members receive C$10 discounts on the automobile portion of the fare. Fares are a bit cheaper outside the peak travel months. If you walk on and return within 30 days, there are discounts available on the round-trip. Complete up-to-the-minute schedules and fares for the Princess of Acadia can be found at www.nfl-bay.com or by calling tel. 877/762-7245.
For those traveling farther afield, ferries also connect Prince Edward Island to Caribou, Nova Scotia (see Chapter 6 for more detailed information), and Newfoundland to North Sydney, Nova Scotia.
Also note that you can view the latest updated highway conditions around the province of Nova Scotia by logging onto the province's transportation website at http://511.gov.ns.ca/map. This map shows both road construction projects and unusual weather conditions affecting traffic flow.
By Plane -- Halifax is the air hub of the Atlantic Provinces. Air Canada (tel. 888/247-2262; www.aircanada.com) provides daily direct service from New York and Boston using its commuter partner Jazz (www.flyjazz.ca), which also flies directly to Sydney, Charlottetown, Saint John, and St. John's, as well as several more remote destinations in eastern Canada. But other contenders are jumping into the fray, as well: Continental (tel. 800/231-0856; www.continental.com) flies direct from Newark to Halifax several times daily in summer, for one. American Airlines' American Eagle (tel. 800/433-7300; www.aa.com) commuter service flies small planes from New York's LaGuardia Airport back and forth to Halifax. If you're coming from anywhere other than New York, however, you will probably need to connect in Montréal or Toronto, which can turn into a half-day excursion or more.
By Train -- VIA Rail (tel. 888/842-7245; www.viarail.ca) offers train service 6 days a week on the Ocean run between Halifax and Montréal; the entire trip takes between 18 and 21 hours depending on direction, with a basic summertime fare of about C$250 each way, not counting sleeping accommodations (which can add considerably to the cost). Discounts for those buying at least 1 week in advance are sometimes possible.
As I said, sleeping berths and private cabins are available at extra cost -- the cheapest bed, in a double-bunked cabin, is about twice the cost of the no-bed fare -- and VIA has created an even higher class of service (summer-only) known as the Sleeper Touring class aboard the Ocean. This class offers all-inclusive meals, sleeping accommodations, exclusive access to lounges and a panoramic car, and continuing presentations from an onboard educator about Maritime Province culture and history.
The Ocean runs daily (except Tuesdays) each direction year-round, with standard overnight sleeper-cabin service; the Easterly option is available from mid-June through mid-October. Check the VIA Rail website for updates on routes, schedules, and online booking.
Year-Round Tourist Info? Yes!
Coming to Nova Scotia off season? Fear not. Halifax's two VICs, one located at the airport and one situated downtown on the waterfront's Sackville Wharf on Lower Water Street, are both open all year round. There's also a year-round VIC located in the town of Amherst, at the westernmost entry point to the province (in other words, on the main road coming from New Brunswick). Cape Breton visitors will be cheered to know that the VIC guarding the island's entrance (it's just across the bridge from the mainland) in Port Hastings is open 8 months out of the year, closing only from New Year's through May 1st. If you're arriving via the CAT ferry to Yarmouth, note that the city's VIC is only open from June through mid-October -- similar to the ferry's seasonal running schedule.