This section assumes you'll drive northeastward from Halifax toward Cape Breton.
Between Halifax and Sheet Harbour, the route plays hide-and-seek with the coast, touching coastal views periodically and then veering inland again. The most scenic areas are around wild, open-vista Ship Harbour and Spry Harbour, noted for its attractive older homes and the islands looming offshore.
At the Fisherman's Life Museum (tel. 902/889-2053) in Jeddore Oyster Pond, you'll get a glimpse of life on the Eastern Shore a century ago. The humble white-shingle-and-green-trim cottage was built by James Myers in the 1850s; early in this century it became the property of his youngest son, Ervin, who raised a dozen daughters here -- a popular stop for local boys, evidently -- and the home and grounds have been restored to look as they might have around 1900 or 1920. It's replete with hooked rugs and a reproduction pump organ, among other period touches. A walk through the house and barn and down to the fishing dock won't take much more than 20 minutes or so. The museum is open June through mid-October, daily, from 9am until 5pm. Admission is C$3.50 adults, C$2.50 seniors and children age 6 to 17, C$7.75 families. It's located on Route 7 and is well marked.
At the town of Lake Charlotte you can opt for a side road that weaves along the coast (look for signs for Clam Harbour). The road alternately follows wooded coves and passes through inland forests; about midway you'll see signs for a turn to Clam Harbour Beach Park, one of the best beaches on this coast. A long, broad crescent beach attracts sunbathers and swimmers from Halifax and beyond; it also helps that there's a boardwalk, clean sand, and toilets and changing rooms here, plus lifeguards supervising the action on summer weekends. Look for the picnicking area set amid a spruce grove on a bluff overlooking the beach. There's a funky sand castle competition here once a year (which is packed; I'd avoid it), so you know the sand is plentiful and good. There's no admission charge; gates close around 8pm. Continue on up the coast from the park and you'll reemerge on Route 7 in Ship Harbour.
Between Ship and Spry harbours is the town of Tangier, home to the great tour outfit Coastal Adventures (tel. 877/404-2774 or 902/772-2774), which specializes in kayak tours. It's run by Scott Cunningham, who literally wrote the book on Nova Scotia kayaking (he's the author of the definitive guide to paddling this coast). This well-run operation is situated on a beautiful island-dotted part of the coast, but it specializes in multiday trips throughout Atlantic Canada. You can write (P.O. Box 77, Tangier, NS B0J 3H0) or call for a brochure well in advance of your trip, or check the company's website at www.coastaladventures.com.
There's also a terrific little fish-smoking business just outside Tangier, J. Willie Krauch & Sons (tel. 800/758-4412 or 902/772-2188). The Krauch family (pronounced craw, not crotch, thank goodness) sells wood-smoked Atlantic salmon, mackerel, and eel in an unpretentious little store; they'll also give you a tour of the premises, if you like, where you can check out the old-style smoking process in action. Take some to go for a picnic. It's open until around 6pm daily.
Continuing northeast, Sheet Harbour is a pleasant little town of 800 or so souls, with a campground open May through September, a couple small grocery stores, two motels, and a visitor information center (tel. 902/885-2595), behind which is a short nature trail and boardwalk that descends along low, rocky cascades. Inland from Sheet Harbour on Route 374 you can find the Liscomb Game Sanctuary, a popular destination for the sort of hearty explorers who come equipped with their own maps, compasses, canoes, and fishing rods. (There are no services to speak of here for casual travelers.) Then, east of Sheet Harbour, you pass through the wee village of Ecum Secum, which has nothing to attract the tourist -- but is unusually gratifying to say out loud to friends after the journey.
Adjacent to the well-marked Liscombe Lodge and just over the main bridge is the Liscomb River Trail system. Trails follow the river both north and south of Route 7. The main hiking trail follows the river upstream for 5km (3 miles), crosses it on a suspension bridge, and then returns on the other side. The Mayflower Point Trail follows the river southward toward the coast, then loops back inland.
Continuing on Route 211 beyond historic Sherbrooke Village, you'll drive through a wonderful landscape of lakes, ocean inlets, and upland bogs and soon come to the scenic Country Harbour Ferry. The 12-car cable ferry crosses the broad river every half-hour, year-round, weather and river conditions permitting. The fare is C$5 per car, which includes driver and passengers. If the ferry isn't running, you'll have to turn right around and head back, so it's wise to check at the Canso or Sherbrooke visitor centers before detouring this way.
Farther along (you'll be on Rte. 316 after the ferry), you'll come to Tor Bay Provincial Park. It's 4km (2 1/2 miles) off the main road but well worth the detour on a sunny day. The park features three sandy crescent beaches backed by grassy dunes and small ponds that are slowly being taken over by bog and spruce forest. The short boardwalk loop is especially worth a walk.
Way out on the eastern tip of Nova Scotia's mainland is the end-of-the-world town of Canso (pop. 900), which is currently in the process of being assimilated by the bigger nearby village of Guysborough, but no matter. It's still a rough-edged fishing town and oil port, windswept and foggy. The main attraction here is the ruined fort at the Grassy Island National Historic Site (tel. 902/295-2069). A park-run boat takes you out to the island, which once housed a bustling community of fishermen and traders from New England, where a small interpretive center on the waterfront (open daily 10am to 6pm June to mid-September) features artifacts recovered from the island and boat schedules. A trail also links several historic sites within the island, which feels a bit melancholy. Admission to the island and park are by voluntary donation in a box; pay what you wish -- I recommend a few dollars per person.
If you're coming to Canso in summer, also watch out for the annual music festival held the first week of July to honor late Canadian folk musician Stan Rogers, who perished in an airline fire in Cincinnati in 1983 at the age of just 33. The Stan Rogers Folk Festival (tel. 888/554-7826; www.stanfest.com), also known in these parts as StanFest, focuses on the craft of songwriting. But big names do sometimes play here. Day passes start at C$33 per adult.
Route 16 between the intersection of Route 316 and Guysborough is an especially scenic drive. This road runs high and low along brawny hills, giving soaring views of Chedabucto Bay and grassy hills across the way. Also pleasant, although not quite as distinguished, is Route 344 from Guysborough to the Canso causeway. That road twists, turns, and drops through woodlands with some nice views of the strait. It might make you wish you were the owner of a large and powerful motorcycle.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.