Nova Scotia always sounded alluring – remote, cold, and untouched. It looks close on the map, but at 14 hours away from CT we couldn’t spare our precious vacation time to go explore during our working years. Now with unlimited vacation days, it was time to pack up the Prius and hit the road.
We did minimal planning for this trip, only booking the first stay just across the border in Canada. We had no idea what we were in for and decided it would be best to get into Canada and ask the locals where to go. After randomly looking at towns just across the border, we found an Airbnb in St. Andrews. We knew nothing about the town, but at $44 USD a night, the price was right.
We got up early our first day and made a dash for the Canadian border. Road tripping is much easier when you have a co-driver. I took a nap, and woke up a few hours later near the border – thanks Mrs. CK! I expected the crossing to be quick and easy, but we got held up and questioned by the Canadians. “What are all the states you lived in since 18, what do you do for work, do you like Justin Bieber?” I told them I was in between work to avoid sounding suspicious, and they let us go after about 15 minutes. But an elderly couple passing through at the same time were not so lucky. They had all their luggage pulled and searched. I guess they’re afraid of Americans – especially old ones trying to sneak in for some free healthcare.
We rolled in with the mist to St Andrews, which turned out to be a sleepy tourist town. Walking down the main drag, we passed the typical overpriced seafood restaurants and pubs on the water. There were surprisingly few people on the streets for what we assume is the busy season, but all the people we passed were pleasant and happy to be enjoying the slow pace and unspoiled water views.
After doing some initial shopping in Canada, we quickly realized the cost of living is much cheaper back in the US. Gas was $1 CAD a liter which converted to $2.90/gallon USD vs the $2.10/gallon we had paid in the States. Many of the locals buy groceries across the border in Maine. And while I expected Canada would be a beer destination with great craft beers at reasonable prices, beer was expensive! Most of it being cheap lagers that sell for double what you pay in the States. And the craft beer quality and selection was not the best. You can take one case of beer per person across the border, and next time I’m bringing my own.
The decor at our Airbnb was an eclectic menagerie of old stuff, the house was wonky, and our accommodations reminded me more of a college dorm. The host was a music promoter and one of the bands playing at the local pub was also staying there. It wasn’t quite like home, but just like in college, we did get to meet lots of cool people. One of them was visiting from Nova Scotia for a chainsaw carving exposition. He recommended skipping Prince Edward Island for Cape Breton Island and its famed Cabot Trail. Another visitor, who was house hunting for a new home in hope of escaping the hustle and bustle of Ontario, recommended we also explore the Annapolis Valley and experience the massive tide changes at the Bay of Fundy.
We spent the rest of our time in St. Andrews booking our next stops, wandering the quiet streets, and admiring old homes built by sea captains. In one of the small shops, we did score some nice treats: aged blue cheese and burgundy ham – something I had not seen since being in France. Our host gave us a little history lesson about the French Acadians who first settled in Canada. When the British took over, many of the French were exiled and fled to Louisiana where Acadian food and culture became “Cajun” in America.
We also got something I had not seen before – Dulse, a locally harvested seaweed. Packed with nutrients, it tasted like fishy seawater. I was good with just a sample, but Mrs. CK ate the whole bag.
After our short stay in St. Andrews, we hit the road again. It was another long drive, but there was no traffic, the roads were not littered with trash, and the rest stops were all pristine. This made it easy to take in the scenery as we passed small bays and inlets working our way through New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. We stopped in Port Hawkesbury for some traditional French Acadian food, and to stock up on groceries before heading to our remote lakeside cottage. The food was simple and delicious – grilled haddock, Acadian fish cakes, and seafood chowder.
We once again arrived on a foggy day, but we could already tell our new place was pretty awesome. For $61 USD per night we had an entire cottage to ourselves with full bath, kitchen, and a small deck with an incredible view overlooking an inland sea called the Bras d’Or Lake. When we arrived, our host John was unloading fishing gear, and of course, I asked how the fishing was. “You should have been here a few weeks ago when I was pulling trout like this out of the lake,” he said gesturing with his arms to show how massive the trout were. He followed with, “I’m going tomorrow, we could go together, if you’d like.” He also offered to provide us with all the gear. We jumped at the chance to go fishing in Nova Scotia with a local.
The next day, we solidified plans with John to fish later in the afternoon. Then spent the morning driving around Isle Madame, and down to the small town of Arichat which was recommended to us for seafood. Cruising around the Island, we stopped in a small park, and like all the other ones we’ve seen, it was pristine. There are small islands everywhere just off the coast. And the water was incredible – I have never seen water so clear in the northeast.
Lobster was surprisingly expensive and only sold at the fish monger. It was the same with local snow crab. We did however manage to find some excellent fresh seafood on Isle Madame. The most typical dish was fresh haddock with turnips and carrots. For less than $10 USD we got a fantastic plate of it. Simply seasoned with fresh ingredients, it was a home cooked meal I could eat everyday, and intend to try and replicate at home.
We returned from the island tour to find John knocking at our door. “So you want to go fishin’?” Of course! We got ready and he explained that we would be “squid jigging,” something I have never done before. On the drive to our fishing spot, the conversation turned to the prices of local lobster and crab. He agreed it was high, and was a result of all the seafood being shipped out. The lobster mostly goes to markets in Asia, and the Red Lobster restaurant chain has a processing plant which takes in all the snow crab and ships it out to their restaurants. The locals mostly catch their own seafood.
It was our luck to have an experienced fisherman help us get some of our own seafood. John’s spot to catch squid was at a canal that connects the Bras d’Or Lake with the ocean. The squid are caught with a special type of oval lure that hangs down and has barbs pointing up from the bottom. You just drop it to the bottom, reel up a few cranks, then “jig it” up and down. If you do it right, a tempted squid will grab a hold of the lure with their tentacles. When you feel the weight of a squid, you reel in, maintaining constant pressure.
If a school of squid is passing through, John said he can catch hundreds in a night. This day, we only managed to catch one each. It was still exciting for me – the first squid I ever landed, and I was in for a surprise. Most species of cephalopod squirt ink to obscure themselves from predators. And I found out that a squid out of water can still squirt ink pretty damn far. This squid was not happy with me and was shooting ink 6 feet in the air. He did manage to ink me, but it was to no avail. We went back and John was kind enough to make that squid (along with some others he caught a day earlier) into what was by far the freshest and most incredible calamari we ever tasted.
After some calamari, John and his wife pulled out a bottle of wine they had also made themselves. Living in remote parts of Nova Scotia has made the locals very resourceful, and they shared more stories about hunting, fishing, and gardening with us. After the wine and calamari, they decided we should also be fed dinner and shared with us a real treat – Acadian moose meat pie. I had never seen a moose in person let alone eaten one, and it was delicious. The moose meat was tender and more flavorful than beef, but not gamey like venison, and the meat pie preparation was just incredible. Together with our hosts, we wined and dined as the sun set over Bras d’Or lake. I would not have traded that evening with such kind hosts, who opened their home and way of life to us, for any dinner that money can buy.
The next day, well rested and well fed, we set out to drive the Cabot Trail. Maybe after eating some moose, we would finally have a chance at seeing one for ourselves.