Most summertime road-trippers in Nova Scotia find themselves travelling a few well-worn paths. Head south out of Halifax and you’ll soon hit the bucolic South Shore, full of colourful, historic port towns and picturesque harbours. Venture west for the verdant Annapolis Valley and its abundant wineries. Or journey north, to Cape Breton, for golfing, the highlands and a unique mingling of Celtic, Mi’kmaq and Acadian cultures.
But there’s one road less travelled, which in the past few years has begun coming into its own: the unsung Eastern Shore, an exciting outdoors destinations offering some of the Maritimes’ most sublime landscapes, with camping, kayaking and whitewater rafting.
The adventures begin before you’ve even left the Halifax metropolitan area, at Lawrencetown and Martinique Beaches, just 30 and 45 minutes from the city, respectively. Martinique is the place to beat the crowds, with its four kilometres of gently sloping white sand and reliably excellent surf. Novices can take lessons at the Halifax Surf School, and on weekends grab some after-surf nosh from one of the food trucks that cluster in the parking lot.
Meander along Highway 7 for another hour or so – past blink-and-you’ll-miss-them villages and postcard-placid coves – and arrive at Tangier Grand Lake Wilderness Area. This is a paddler’s paradise: 16,000 protected hectares of rivers, lakes and backwoods campsites, connected by portages. The excursion isn’t for novices, though – the country is wild, the portages are challenging and the paddling can get intense.
Starting out at Tangier Grand Lake, make your way to the ocean along the system of waterways, ending with a kilometre of whitewater where the Tangier River empties into the Atlantic. You may need a rugged vehicle for the backwoods roads, and consult Canoe Kayak Nova Scotia for information including route maps, portages and where to put in your craft.
For paddlers looking for a more leisurely and accessible paddle, the Musquodoboit River is a gentler yet still stunning voyage through 80 kilometres of farms and forests. Access points and campsites are abundant, and the lower river contains more in the way of whitewater action and falls for the adventurous.
When you get to the ocean, you’ll find the Eastern Shore’s greatest gem, and one of its newest attractions: the 100 Wild Islands. An enormous archipelago that spans much of the province’s eastern coast, some of the islands were acquired and are protected by the Nova Scotia Nature Trust.
This vast, designated wilderness area is open to the public to explore – although guides are recommended – with a shore patrolled by pilot whales, and a diverse landscape of freshwater lakes, salt marshes, rocky headlands, sheer cliffs and almost-tropical white-sand beaches. The islands even contain snatches of the only boreal rainforest in North America outside of the continent’s west coast.
Experienced sea kayakers can access the islands, wending their way from one to the next, and to hidden inlets, coves and beaches. The wildlife is plentiful, from porpoises to giant jellyfish to an abundant variety of bird species. Less-experienced boaters can get there via organized tours. Murphy’s Camping on the Ocean offers a variety of tours until mid-October, and operates a drop-on, drop-off service that will bring groups out for overnight camping. Great Earth Expeditions also offers a Wild Islands Camping Adventure, an overnight package that sees campers sailing to one of the islands. You’ll forage for wild foods, snorkel in the pristine waters, have a beachside seafood boil and enjoy a communal campfire under some of the clearest night skies in North America.
Near the eastern extent of the islands is Taylors Head, a rugged finger of land that extends six kilometres into the ocean, full of hiking trails and hidden beaches – and you may just spot some seals among the rocky outcroppings.
If you’ve made it this far, you haven’t even left Halifax County, though you might feel far out in the wilds. Stay on the 7 and pass into Guysborough, Nova Scotia’s second-least populated county, with a mere 7,600 people spread over 4,000 square kilometres, most living in the rustic villages lining the coast. The road doesn’t exactly open up here; Highway 7’s coast-hugging route doesn’t lend itself to full-throttle straightaways. But the dramatic scenery provides more than enough diversion.
There’s also more accommodation for the camping-weary: Seawind Landing Country Inn, a secluded property on a 20-acre peninsula, makes for panoramic ocean views from any of its 13 guest rooms. It’s a perfect jumping-off point for the Bonnet Lake Barrens Wilderness Area, a vast landscape of granite barrens and coastal forest, lined with crescent-shaped beaches and hiking trails along historic footpaths that once joined tiny coastal towns. It’s a bit chillier and foggier up here, though – a true New Scotland landscape.
Further along, DesBarres Manor Inn is probably the top pick in the county’s largest – though still-tiny – namesake town, Guysborough. The 10-room, Georgian-era inn is situated at the centre of a 2.4-hectare garden, and packs in the amenities, including a fireside-dining lounge specializing in locally procured foods.
Not far past the border between Halifax and Guysborough counties is Liscombe Lodge and Resort, boasting a variety of accommodations, from luxe to (relatively) rustic. Its 17 riverside chalets come fully appointed, complete with wood stoves, and some of the area’s abundant hiking trails beat a path almost to their doorstep. The area offers another great river-paddling experience on the Liscomb River. Like the Musquodoboit, it’s a more accessible and gentler voyage than the more intense backcountry experience in Tangier-Grand Lake.
Keep heading to the very tip of the province’s mainland to reach Canso, where the last weekend in July sees the Stan Rogers Folk Festival bring a peerless lineup of folk, blues and bluegrass acts. As with the rest of the coast, the area is blessed with plenty of trails and beaches, including Black Duck Cove, where you can find some of the warmest waters on the East Coast (“warm” being a relative term, of course).
Those interested in food and drink will find less on the Eastern Shore than they will in Nova Scotia’s better-known tourist destinations, though the region still has some gems. Try Rare Bird Craft Beer in Guysborough, or the chef-driven menu at DesBarres Manor Inn. But for the most part, that’s not what the Eastern Shore is all about. Emptier, wilder and a little more raw than the rest of the province, this unique and underappreciated corner of Atlantic Canada is best enjoyed outside.