World-class seafood, local markets and excellent ice cream, plus loads of family activities make Atlantic Canada's Maritimes provinces the ideal destination for a summer holiday.
Whether you’ve any prior knowledge or not, Atlantic Canada makes a fabulous foodie family holiday. Miles of coastline with sparklingly clear, cold water are home to lobsters, mussels, oysters, clams, scallops and, of course, fish. Prince Edward Island, with its rolling picturesque farmland, is a mass producer of potatoes and there are orchards and vineyards in Nova Scotia.
As well as eating, there are adventure sports to be tried, extraordinary natural phenomena to watch (such as the tidal bore wave in the Bay of Fundy) and wildlife to be spotted everywhere, from whales and bald eagles to tiny crabs and sea anemones. However, I should admit that we failed to spot a single moose (only the stuffed variety).
When to go
The ideal window for visiting is from June, when it’s sunny but still fairly chilly, through to the spectacular autumn in September-October. For whale-watching, July to October is a safe bet and, if icebergs are your thing, consult Iceberg Finder to get the latest locations before booking.
A six-hour flight makes this a doable journey with kids, and once you’ve picked up a hire car, the roads are wide and – compared to Europe – exhilaratingly empty. Even in August, it’s amazingly tranquil. Make a loop of the following destinations and you’ll cover a lot of ground.
Fly directly to Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, and prepare to be regaled with sunny enthusiasm about two tragedies that have had enormous impact on the town. Halifax is where the rescue boats for the Titanic raced back to in 1912, carrying both survivors and those less fortunate. Then, five years later, an enormous explosion ripped apart the harbour and killed thousands. Walk along the waterfront, stopping at the maritime museum - for Titantic and Halifax exhibits, of course - before picking up a tray of poutine (chips, cheese curds and gravy), a Canadian comfort food speciality, or homemade ice cream from the street kiosks nearby.
Stop at the Halifax Distilling Company to try some JD Shore spiced rum (children can come too). Julie Shore and Arla Johnson also own the PEI distillery where they make vodka with potatoes. A trip on the noisy but fun amphibious Harbour Hopper will give you an overview of both the harbour, historic buildings and the city’s immaculate hilltop fort.
Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market operates Tuesday to Sunday on the harbour front. You can try local cheese, wine and produce as well as baked goods. On Saturday mornings, visit the Historic Farmers’ Market, set in a splendid 200-year-old building in Brewery Square. Try the wild-fermented sauerkraut from Pickled Pink (@picklebrine), or small-batch baked goods from Gold Island Bakery.
From Halifax, head west for the rich farmland of Annapolis Valley and Grand-Pré UNESCO World Heritage Site. Historically this area was Acadian (French), so this is wine country. Visit Domaine de Grand Pré to both taste and eat. Pretty Wolfville, on the Minas Basin, is home to a lively and ultra-local farmers’ market, where you’ll find heirloom fruit and veg with names such as ‘peaches and cream’ corn, plus small-batch maple syrup and fresh blueberries. Each October this uni town plays host to Devour!, a film festival devoted to food.
Stop at Hall’s Harbour, a tiny fishing village, for lunch and a 30-minute tour of the Lobster Pound (well worth the group cost of £24). Not only will you see some enormous lobsters, you’ll learn the party trick of being able to tell males from females. Choose a lobster from the tanks in the shop (sold by weight at market price), take it round to the cookhouse and it will reappear at your table, complete with trimmings.
The three-hour ferry for New Brunswick leaves from Digby and lands you in historic Saint John, the only city on the Bay of Fundy. New Brunswick is Canada’s only officially bilingual province, so you’ll hear much more French spoken here. Head towards the Canadian border and you’ll fetch up in Saint Andrews By-the-Sea. Water Street, in the picturesque harbour, is lined with cafés and shops, and whale-watching tours out of the jetty.
Turn the other way out of Saint John and you’ll be driving towards Fundy National Park and Alma Village. In the latter, take time to join the queue at Kelly’s Bake Shop for a ‘world famous sticky bun’. An Octopus’ Garden Café is a quiet stop for a snack (good toasties) on the veranda at the back, while Tides Restaurant at the Parkland Village Inn serves good seafood (try the scallops) with a view over the bay.
Shediac on the Northumberland Strait coast calls itself the ‘lobster capital of the world’ and has a stonkingly large lobster statue to ram the message home. Head over to Pointe-du-Chêne, Wharf Road, to visit baby lobsters at the Homarus Eco Centre, or take a bonkers Lobster Tales trip with Shediac Bay Cruises. The kids will adore it and you will learn how to crack and eat a lobster properly (and if you think you know how, really, you don’t). Barbecued chicken is available for non-lobster eaters (£43 adults, £30 under-12s).
Prince Edward Island
Drive over the impressive eight-mile-long Confederation Bridge (or the ferry) to this idyllic island of rolling green hills and farmland. Charlottetown, the birthplace of the Canadian Federation, is the capital, with a pretty, well-preserved centre. The harbour has been revitalised and there are lots of good restaurants, bars and cafés.
Take a Taste the Town walking tour to orientate yourself and pick up tips on where to eat. My guide was thorough (knowledgeable Paul Kelley) and we whipped through Raspberry Point oyster tastings, drank Gahan blueberry ale and ate lobster tacos, mussels and hand-cut fries from the Chip Shack (Exerience PEI's Taste the Town, £32). The best coffee is to be found at The Kettle Black and you can’t leave the island without eating lots of Cow’s ice cream.
Where to eat
Dine at The Five Fishermen restaurant for some old-school Canadian charm. Originally an early 19th-century school, then a mortuary (Titanic again), this is now a neat looking venue with a more casual grill serving burgers (£8), fish & chips (£9) and haddock tacos with pico de gallo (£7) downstairs. Upstairs is a pricier restaurant – the seafood tagliatelle (£21) is hand-rolled and finished with lobster stock.
At the Domaine de Grand Pré Domaine de Grand Pré winery restaurant, Le Caveau, sit outside under the arbour by candlelight and enjoy chef Jason Lynch’s Eel Island & Cabot oysters with caper brine, local charcuterie and Martock Glen boar porchetta. With starters and small plates from £7, this is fantastic value for the calibre of the food. Brunch is available on Sundays.
In Saint Andrews, just outside town (overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay near the US border) the Rossmount Inn is run by chef Chris Aerni and his wife Graziella and is a haven of calm beauty. The daily changing menu is based around what’s locally available and what Aerni grows. Any dish made with heirloom tomatoes will be the best you ever ate, and the Bay of Fundy haddock with lemon butter, capers & chives is sublime. There isn’t a children’s menu, but they will adjust main dishes. With starters from £5.50 and mains from £11, this is spectacularly good value for precise dishes that extract maximum flavour from their ingredients.
Sims Corner is where to eat steak (from £23), or the ‘out of body experience’ lobster mac ’n’ cheese (£21). The menu has a fantastic list of ‘enhancers’, so add a crab leg, smoky gouda crust or bone marrow to anything, if you fancy.
Brakish! on the harbour serves big bowls of mussels for £9 (try blueberry beer and bacon) and has a convenient lawn with games where children can let off steam.
The Chowder House at Point Prim should be on your list for great views and top-notch food, including five types of chowder (from £5), island cheddar panini (£6) and lobster rolls (£9) to choose from. If you are heading home via the ferry, leave room for one final stop at Wood Islands Seafood and Take Out, where you can eat crabby patty while watching your vessel arrive. For more information visit tourismnewbrunswick.ca, novascotia.com and tourismpei.com.
Where to stay and how to get there
If you’re taking the ferry from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick, Digby Pines Golf Resort and Spa is a good place to stop with big rooms, a fantastic 1920s-style pool and views over the bay from the bar (rooms from £65). In Saint Andrews, stay at the fabulous Algonquin Resort (there’s a pool with water slide for the kids) which is old-school, comfy and chic all at once, with a great breakfast (from £108).
The Great George in Charlottetown, PEI, comprises several beautifully restored old buildings. Freshly baked chocolate chip cookies appear in the lobby, there are board games to play and guests gather for drinks each evening (from £128). Flights with Air Canada from London Heathrow to Halifax, Nova Scotia, begin from £399 return.
5 must-try family activities
Foraging for clams
Join Jim Conohan to learn how to forage clams and oysters from the Boughton River, PEI, at low tide, eating as you go (£55 adults, £15 children).
Fundy Tide Runners in Saint Andrews will kit you out in flotation suits, give you a wildlife briefing and speed out to the whale feeding grounds in a Zodiac. You are almost guaranteed to find whales – we saw minkes and finbacks (£37 adults, £27 children).
Walking on the sea bed
Hopewell Rocks has one of the planet’s highest tides (ranging from 10-14 metres). Ask guides for information and if you spot Kevin Snair he’ll show you flora and fauna as well as video clips of the tide rising (£6 adults, £4 children).
Tidal bore rafting
If you fancy bouncing around in an inflatable over the Shubenacadie River’s shallow, choppy waters and sliding around in mud, then I promise you will scream with laughter – but wear clothes and shoes you don’t love (£37 adults, £32 children).
Coastal kayaking is a great way to see wildlife and learn about the area. Fresh Air Adventure offers various packages – we took the four-hour option, perfect with a child (kids can go in double kayaks). A picnic and a sticky bun keep your energy up (£42 adults, £36 children).
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All recommendations have been reviewed and approved as of the 01 March 2017 and will be checked and updated anually. If you think there is any incorrect or out of date information in this guide please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.