The Canadian Maritimes aren’t usually thought of as a winter destination. But a growing number of tourism entrepreneurs, including wineries, outdoor outfitters and glamping destinations, are taking advantage of the region’s peerless landscapes and compact nature. So while the Bluenose may be in drydock, and many attractions closed for the season, travellers looking for a something different will find a more unique, and less touristy, East Coast experience – at low-season rates, to boot.
Halifax and area
Starting in Halifax, take a spin around the city’s answer to the skating rinks at Rockefeller Plaza in New York or Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. Installed in 2011 when Halifax played host to the Canada Games, the outdoor Emera Oval is now the largest refrigerated ice surface east of Quebec, and puts in double duty as a speed-skating oval. Skate rentals are available.
By night, check out the Fire and Ice Bar at The Bicycle Thief restaurant on the downtown waterfront. Halifax’s patio culture has made serious strides in recent years, and this waterfront favourite, known for high-end Italian fare, keeps it going into the darkest months of winter. Heaters and blankets – and warming beverages – are available on demand.
An hour north of the capital, Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley is developing a reputation as an idiosyncratic wine region thanks to a uniquely mineral-rich terroir, especially suited to bright, effervescent wines. This year’s Nova Scotia Icewine Festival will feature 10 wineries over two weekends in February. Hosted at Lightfoot & Wolfville Vineyards, one of the province’s newest wineries, the festival is just a few minutes from the university town of Wolfville. Plentiful inns, cottages, and bed-and-breakfasts are within a short drive – as well as Grand-Pré National Historic Site, a UNESCO world-heritage site.
Now turn southwest, toward Nova Scotia’s South Shore. With its skyscraping granite cliffs and storm-tossed waters, the region offers what might be the only East Coast resort that does winter better than summer. White Point Beach Resort dates to the 1920s, and is mostly a self-contained village, with nightly beach bonfires and live entertainment in the lodge. Accommodations include oceanfront cottages with wood-burning fireplaces.
But you don’t come to the South Shore and not get in the water, and winter is no different. White Point offers a unique experiential winter tourism opportunity: a two-night “getaway” where tourists become crew members on a real, operational lobster boat, captained by a local fisherman who serves as a guide. (You get to choose your own lobster to eat at day’s end, of course.)
For those less inclined to make manual labour part of their holiday, White Point is also a hub for the Maritimes’ booming surfing community. Winter, with the biggest surf, is the best time of year to catch a wave on the East Coast. For newcomers, White Point offers winter-surfing lessons on various dates from December to May. The area doesn’t get much snow, but there are plenty of opportunities for dramatic winter hiking on the nearby seaside cliffs.
Heading back into the province’s pastoral interior, stop at Windhorse Farm. Home to the longest-standing sustainable-forestry demonstration forest in Canada, it contains some of the last primeval woods in Nova Scotia – a perfect setting for the property’s 22 kilometres of trails, and a wood-fired sauna tucked into a grove of trees beside a frozen pond. Accommodations include a modern lodge and two historic farmhouses, but for a properly rustic winter experience, stay in one of the seven off-grid, wood-stove-heated cabins.
Continuing eastbound, Sugar Moon Farm is an 81-hectare maple farm in Nova Scotia’s Cobequid Hills, criss-crossed with ski and snowshoe trails. But it’s best known for its enormous log-cabin restaurant, where visitors can park themselves cheek-by-jowl on communal picnic tables and indulge in an all-day brunch of pancakes, sausages, biscuits, and maple syrup. There are also sugar-camp tours.
Now it’s time to choose which direction to point the car: toward the wilds of Cape Breton or to the underappreciated winter charms of New Brunswick? Both offer some of the region’s snowiest and most bracing winter experiences, so take your pick.
The Maritimes’ only Nordic spa, Usva Spa Nordik was opened this year by Moncton resident Geneviève Nolet, after almost three years of research travel to Iceland and Scandinavia. The $2.5-million project doesn’t spare much – with a hot and cold pool, a wood-burning sauna, a waterfall, an outdoor all-season fire pit, and a bistro lounge, it’s an ideal urban stop-off before venturing into New Brunswick’s more rustic environs.
South of Moncton lies the Fundy shore. A leisurely seaside drive takes visitors through Fundy National Park, which offers first-come, first-served winter camping spots, as well as yurts and otentiks (a cross between an A-frame and a prospector’s tent).
If it’s creature comforts you’re after, keep heading west. Situated within 75 hectares of woods on new Brunswick’s Kingston Peninsula, about 45 minutes from Saint John, Ridgeback Lodge feels a lot more remote than it is. Or in the words of owner Robert van de Straat, “It has the benefits of being in the middle of nowhere without actually being there.” That extends to the accommodations: geodesic glamping domes and log cabins that offer the woodsy appeal of camping with most of the amenities of a hotel, including electricity, king- and queen-sized beds, private wood-fired hot tubs, and kitchenettes. The “dream dome” was recently featured in a CNN story on the world’s “best bubble hotels.” Be forewarned: Getting away from it all is the point here, so there’s no Wi-Fi on the premises.
Now cut a diagonal route up to one of Canada’s most spectacular national parks. Kouchibouguac National Park is a magnet for more adventurous winter travellers. Its 15 kilometres of marked routes are suitable for fat-biking, skiing or snowshoeing, lined with warming huts and stocked with firewood. Ski trails are groomed from December to March, and several “rustic” shelters can be booked, each with a wood stove and firewood, for those willing to ski or snowshoe a few kilometres from the main trails. Diehard winter campers are encouraged to snowshoe into Petit-Large Campground and set up for themselves – free of charge. Rental facilities remain open for some gear.
Kouchibouguac is also roughly the dividing line between the province’s south and north. Besides being home to the cultural heart of the Acadian community, the province’s north has the best and most consistent snow, and its most unique outdoor experiences.
Founded by animal-health technician Diane LeClerc almost three decades ago, Sled Dog Adventures offers visitors guided dogsled journeys, from 45-minute jaunts to family-friendly afternoons and five-day, 80-kilometre treks, which can also include ice fishing and snowmobiling. Longer journeys are accompanied by home-cooked Acadian breakfasts. LeClerc’s 18-animal team is mostly descended from a single Husky owned by a racer in the famous Yukon Quest race, the 1,600-kilometre Alaska-to-Whitehorse sled-dog race.
Nearby Nepisiguit Adventures, owned by Samuel Daigle, offers guided snowshoeing treks. And, if you’re not claustrophobic, he also offers “winter workshops” where you can learn winter-survival skills, and spend the night in a self-made “snow cave” shelter.
Now head north to find Keppoch Mountain, a former downhill ski hill shuttered in 1997 and resurrected in 2010 as a non-profit hub for accessible adventuring. More than 50 kilometres of multiuse trails range from wheelchair accessible to double black diamond, including 10 kilometres groomed for fat-biking all the way to the mountain’s summit. Keppoch is also a 20-minute drive to Antigonish, a university town with a good selection of year-round dining and accommodations.
Now cross the Canso Causeway onto Cape Breton Island. Just over the causeway, the Celtic Shores Coastal Trail begins in the village of Port Hastings. A converted rails-to-trails, it runs nearly 100 kilometres through Inverness County – the storied Cape Breton of ceilidhs and kitchen parties. In good winter weather, the entire journey can be accomplished on ski. While quite a few tourist sites and accommodations shut down in the region, new accommodations are being opened for winter travellers.
From Inverness, cut across the island to Ski Tuonela, deep in the Cape Breton snow belt. Tuonela was discovered in the 1980s by backcountry skiing enthusiasts who decided to turn it into the region’s only Telemark Ski area. (Telemark is a Norwegian style of skiing, a cross between downhill and cross-country, and named for the region in Norway where it was invented.) Not far from the town of Baddeck, Tuonela offers back-country skiing – including a 122-metre vertical drop – log chalets and a sauna.