Amherst is known chiefly by travelers for the busy, bustling information center staffed by provincial tourism officials just off the Trans-Canada Highway. Yet it's also a lovely small town, perched on a low hill at the edge of the sweeping Amherst Marsh, which demarcates the border between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. It's worth slowing and taking a detour through town just to appreciate the historic streetscapes here. You might even be surprised enough to linger an hour or 2.
Pugwash & Tatamagouche
If you're in the planning phase of your trip, note that it takes roughly 2 hours to drive from Amherst to New Glasgow whether you take the Trans-Canada Highway (which dips southward through Truro) or Route 6 along the northern shore. If speed is your chief objective, take the Trans-Canada; there's nothing to slow you and the driving is typically steady and fast. But you'll also notice your eyes glazing over and find yourself twirling the radio dials and singing to yourself for entertainment. And you'll pay a C$4 toll.
Route 6 has far more visual interest, and you'll still move speedily among sprawling farms, fields of wheat and corn, blue ocean inlets, and green coastal marshes. Look sharp and you can even spot the wide Northumberland Straits dotted with sails, with Prince Edward Island right over there across the way. The landscape changes frequently enough to prevent it from ever growing repetitious. As I mentioned, both routes require about the same amount of time -- assuming you don't stop. But, when traveling on Route 6, you probably will be encouraged to stop and walk on beaches, order up french fries with vinegar, or shop at one of the crafts stores in the middle of nowhere. If you take Route 6, you'll also pass through Pugwash and Tatamagouche.
Pictou was established as part of a development scheme hatched by speculators from Philadelphia in 1760. Under the terms of their land grant, they needed to place some 250 settlers at the harbor. That was a problem: Few Philadelphians wanted to live there. So the company sent a ship called the Hector to Scotland in 1773 to drum up a few hundred desperately impoverished souls who might be amenable to starting their lives over again in North America.
They were. The ship returned with some 200 passengers, mostly Gaelic-speaking Highlanders. The stormy voyage was brutal, and the passengers nearly starved, but they made it -- disembarking in high style, wearing tartans and victoriously playing bagpipes. Now, really: Isn't that the way a town should be settled?
The town is still genuinely Scottish enough that you might find haggis slipped into a meal if you're not paying attention. One time you're sure to see that squeamish treat is during the annual anniversary of the settlers' arrival, celebrated in mid-August each year at Pictou's 5-day Hector Festival (tel. 800/353-5338 or 902/485-8848). Members of the clans wear kilts and dine out in high style in memory of their ancestors; the rest of us listen to storytellers, take in the re-enacted landing (bagpipes and all) and a reconstructed settlement, and dance to talented ceilidh fiddlers. Ticket prices vary per event, usually no more than C$18. Many events are free.
Antigonish can trace its European roots back to the 1650s (the French came first; the British later), and today the town of 4,000-plus residents is still the local market town, with a bustling main street and St. Francis Xavier University, which was founded in 1853. For rural Nova Scotia, the town has a relatively busy commercial center; be prepared for some traffic midsummer. This is a good spot to stock up on groceries or grab a bite for lunch. There are several cafes on Main Street and a shop or two worth browsing.
For a mild outdoor adventure, drive about 8 to 9km (5 or 6 miles) northeast of town on Route 337 (past the hospital) and look for the Fairmont Ridge Trail. Here you'll find a half-dozen gentle hiking loops, ranging from 3 to 11km (2-7 miles) in length, that take you through hayfields and past babbling brooks into ravines and forests of old-growth trees. There are many junctions and intersections on the trail, but trail maps are posted on the trail. Eagles and even bears have reportedly been sighted in these woods; check with the tourist office about current conditions on the trail if you're serious about hiking it.
The Name Game -- The origins of the name Antigonish -- correctly pronounced, it sounds more like "ahn-tee-gun-ish" than "anti-goanish," "anti-matter," "anti-aircraft fire" -- has created a little contention among linguists with the time on their hands to research the matter. In the original native tongue, it meant either "five-forked rivers of fish" or (I'm not making this up) "the place where branches get torn off by bears gathering beech nuts to eat." There's no real consensus. But that's alright; I like both versions just fine.
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.