Road trip to Nova Scotia & PEI
‘Puffins and Muffins’ was the slogan for our 13 hour road trip to the North. The name originated from our goal to seek out the stocky birds and our car breakfasts of muffins along the trek. We took our long road trip up the East Coast from Rhode Island to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia in 2016. With the current exchange rate between the USD and CAD, there’s no better time to visit Canada!
West Quoddy Head
Our journey began in Rhode Island and our first leg took us to the halfway mark. Seven hours traveling north brought us all the way to Lubec, Maine. We arrived after dark and barely slept as we wanted to be up early to get out to West Quoddy Head which is the easternmost point in the United States….and home of the first sunrise in the continental US. We arrived a little before 5 am to wait in the dark as the first hints of light illuminated the famous red and white striped lighthouse.
The iconic lighthouse now operates with an automated light instead of a lighthouse keeper and it’s absolutely worth the trip. You feel at the edge of the world gazing off into the Atlantic. Few tourists make it out this early so you’ll have the park mostly to yourself. We didn’t stay long enough for the museum to open, but they reportedly also sell certificates so you can boast that you’ve been to the easternmost point. We kept it moving to stick to our travel schedule but made a quick stroll through the charming town of Lubec. They have a few smaller bed and breakfasts, gift shops, art galleries and restaurants. We popped into the Sunrise Cafe to grab some beverages to accompany our muffins!
The Bay of Fundy
Next we rambled up the coast of Maine and then continued onto New Brunswick. In New Brunswick, we drove through Fundy National Park which sits on Goose Bay, the northwestern branch of the Bay of Fundy. The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world which can rise and fall an incredible 50 feet in one twelve hour expanse. We made our first stop at the eastern entrance to Fundy National Park at Cape Enrage. There is a large reef that extends south from the Cape which causes the water to become turbulent when the reef is exposed at lower tides and the water is moving rapidly over the reef. It’s a pretty stop with a picturesque lighthouse (built in 1838) and a staircase to walk down to the water where you can literally see the water coming in from the rapidly moving tide. You won’t need to spend much time here unless you stop for lunch at the onsite restaurant, but the views from their towering cliffs are spectacular.
Our final New Brunswick stop was the famous Hopewell Rocks, also known as the Flowerpot Rocks. Located on the upper reaches of the Bay of Fundy. These sandstone formations have been geologically carved over time. At low tide, you can walk among the formations and explore tidal pools and coves and at high tide; they appear as tall islands topped by trees. The Canadians have named many of them based on their appearance (Lover’s Arch, Dinosaur Rock, ET, etc). They have well kept trails and it’s a super easy walk to get to the formations…a nice leg stretch on our journey! We skipped the tourist filled restaurant there and headed 10 minutes away to the Cinnamon Soul Cafe which had some terrific sandwiches. It will take about 4 hours to get from Quoddy Head to Hopewell Rocks without stops…but I would factor in 3 hours for all your photo stops. If you’ve followed our itinerary though, you were up at sunrise!
Prince Edward Island
Our final driving leg took us the last 3 hours to Prince Edward Island. You’ll take the Confederation Bridge, an 8 mile long expanse that spans the narrowest part of the Northumberland Strait, separating the island from the mainland. Prince Edward Island is Canada’s smallest province though the most densely populated. It only takes 3 hours to drive from tip to tip but it’s unspoiled scenery, rolling farmlands, and rocky red shores pack a punch over the 139 miles. Of course, PEI is well known to many of us through the eyes of Anne of Green Gables, the fictional spirited redheaded heroine of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic book. I confess I read all of her tales repeatedly as a child and her presence is definitely felt in many facets of PEI life.
After our long day of driving, we checked into The Great George Hotel in PEI’s capital of Charlottetown. It’s a boutique hotel made of 54 suites spread across 17 restored heritage buildings dating back to the mid 1840’s. Charlottetown itself is modern, safe, and charming…we used it as our base to explore PEI. You’ll definitely want to spend a few hours rambling through the cobblestone streets. Victoria Row (The Row) is lined with red brick buildings and in the summer, it’s closed to traffic so you can grab a table outside or head to a rooftop bar for views of the city. It’s known for being a culinary powerhouse and especially so for seafood.
Anne of Green Gables
You could easily spend a week or more exploring the relaxing PEI, or even just Charlottetown, but we did a little over a day of highlights as Nova Scotia beckoned. However, we couldn’t miss a stop at Anne of Green Gables’s famed home. Located in Cavendish, PEI, Green Gables Heritage Place is visited by thousands of tourists each year who come to find the green gabled farmhouse and surrounding woodlands. There’s an Anne onsite marvelously in character who dutifully posed for a curtsy photo with my husband. From the farmhouse, we meandered along Prince Edward Island National Park Drive which encompasses the island’s rocky northern coastline. We drove the segment from Cavendish to North Rustico admiring the red towering cliffs along the sandy beaches. Everyone recommended Blue Mussell Cafe to dine in North Rustico and we would also highly recommend a stop there! They don’t take reservations but it’s a fine view of North Rustico Harbor to wait a bit for your table. Our other dining recommendation is the Point Prim Chowderhouse at sunset. This one definitely needs a reservation! They are located at the end of the road near the Point Prim Lighthouse, Canada’s oldest lighthouse, about a 45 minute drive from Charlottetown. They offer spectacular views of the tidal pools surrounding Point Prim and you can enjoy fresh seafood on their outdoor deck. We loved sipping a cocktail and watching the sun dip into the ocean. Our time in PEI was much too short. If able, I’d advise up to a week there in the summer as it is beautiful and filled with quintessential summer activities.
Burntcoat Head Park
We left Charlottetown and finally crossed in Nova Scotia! We traveled 3 hours from PEI to Burntcoat Head Park. This park boasts the highest tides in the world and it’s backed up by a Guinness World Record! It’s average tide is 47.5 feet with an extreme range of 53.6 feet. Twice daily, the Bay of Fundy fills and recedes 160 billion tons of water. We arrived here at low tide and explored the ocean floor and tidal pools taking many pictures of the area that would be flooded with 50 feet of water a mere 6 hours later. We would recommend that you see the Park at both low and high tide. After our low tide exploration, we drove to Avondale Sky Winery (about an hour away) to fill some of the gap. It was an enjoyable few hours with a little wine tasting, vineyard wandering and delicious lunch. On the way to the winery, we also popped into the Frieze and Roy General Store, which is Canada’s oldest continually run general store. Some interesting antiques to view but the lunch they had here at their small counter was pretty terrible. We rarely write bad reviews but the customer service and food was our worst experience of the year. We threw it out and were fortunately rewarded for this decision by having a great experience at the winery in an idyllic outdoor setting. As our 6 hours drew to a close, we headed back to the park and it was pretty amazing to see how rapidly the tide had covered the very ocean floor we’d explored hours earlier. We took some photos in the same spot as before and afters and the tide change is dramatic! To note, there are several locations in the area that offer river rafting on the tidal bore…this definitely looked intriguing but given our limited clothing for our week long trip and the mud covered photos we saw, we took a pass. Might be a fun adventure though!
Our next destination brought us further into Nova Scotia with a goal of driving the coast of Cape Breton along the Cabot Trail. We set up a base at Cabot Shores. I’ll confess this lodging choice was not a great one and we would not recommend it. We stumbled upon it on Airbnb and the adorable appearing yurts seemed unique. However, the reality was that they were MUCH smaller than they appeared in the photos, had a bit of a musty smell, and the lodging tried to overcharge for everything. A ‘free’ pitcher of warm tap water was provided, but they wouldn’t give ice, firewood, or refill the pitcher without charging you. The communal bathroom facilities were also pretty lackluster. Our main complaint though was that the yurt had no way to lock so we essentially repacked and locked our belongings in our trunk each day. In retrospect, instead of choosing one base accommodation, we would recommend a couple lodging options along Cape Breton so you aren’t backtracking each day as you meander along. While we didn’t stay at the Keltic Lodge at the Highlands, we did drive through on our way along the Cabot Trail and it looked well maintained with breathtaking views…we definitely thought about abandoning that yurt and making a move! There isn’t much to eat nearby but we did enjoy a little homey place called “Simply Pizza” which unsurprisingly served no frills pizza which was very good and much better than eating at the yurt.
Before we set out for the Cabot Trail in earnest, we aimed to fulfill our mission of seeing puffins. We opted for the Bird Island Puffin Tour. This tour runs from May to mid September. Puffins are migratory sea birds and spend the majority of the year at sea feeding. In the spring and summer, they gather in colonies on the coasts of the North Atlantic to breed. During this time, their beaks turn a flashy orange color which is great for your puffin pics! However, many companies we researched stopped their tours at the end of August…we should have payed a little closer attention to that. We visited in early September, but by that time, the puffins had mostly moved on. There were only 2 mating pairs left which fortunately we did see from a distance. In the peak season though, hundreds of birds fill the island. This short tour (about an hour and a half) was still worthwhile though at $50.
Our next endeavor was the Cabot Trail. This is a 185 mile loop around the northern tip of Nova Scotia. The western and eastern portions have scenic views of the rocky coastline and ocean. The northern section passes through Cape Breton Highlands National Park with the famed Skyline Trail. Finally, the Southern section passes through the Margaree River valley and Bras d’Or Lake. It’s a gorgeous drive and you could do it in one day though as I mentioned above, a lodging stop along the way would likely be better. Though there are numerous hikes along the route, if you are going to do only one, I’d go for the Skyline Trail. This is a relatively easy 2 hour hike on French Mountain and at the halfway point of the trail, there are viewing platforms that afford sweeping views of the famous Cabot Trail roadway and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Moose sighting are common and we spied a sleeping moose at a close distance. Who knew moose slept lying down? We also tried our luck whale watching with Dixon’s Zodiac Seafari where you board a smaller 12 passenger zodiac and whip along the shores of Cape Breton. We spotted 2 minke whales at a distance but it was still exhilarating zipping along the coast on a sun filled day.
Our final leg of our whirlwind Nova Scotia tour was Halifax. Halifax combines historic charm with plenty of modern flourishes. It’s a harbor front city that I think is best explored on foot as you can wander the streets and harborfront stumbling upon numerous and shops. The dining scene is plentiful. We tried our luck at the Bicycle Thief with an amazing patio steps from the water with delicious food they describe as “North American food with Italian soul.” We also had a nightcap at the livelier Split Crow Pub, Nova Scotia’s Original Tavern with some great live music. Besides enjoying some great dining and browsing the harborfront, we also hiked up to the Halifax Citadel set on a prominent hill overlooking the city. It consists of a series of forts that protected the harbor and the views are worth a quick stop.
Our farewell to Nova Scotia was at the famous Peggy’s Cove, a quaint fishing village located approximately an hour from Halifax. This very small village houses the famous Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse which may be the most photographed lighthouse in all of Canada. Many artists call this cove home and there are various local galleries and giftshops. It does get a little crowded on a summer day, so I’d arrive early to escape the tour buses and enjoy the peaceful views of the lighthouse and the mighty Atlantic. On your way to or from Peggy’s Cove, I’d advise a cookie stop at the White Sails Bakery!
This weeklong trip involved our usual bustle from location to location and we did get a preview of stunning PEI and Nova Scotia. Though, this trip might be a better place to hunker down for a few days in one spot and just soak in the abundant views and relax!
This trip was decidedly one of our more frugal trips. No pricey airfare, no luxurious accommodations and with the exchange rate, our dining was a pretty great bargain as well. If we had to do it again, we’d splurge for the Keltic Lodge or another place with gorgeous views along Cape Breton!
The CAT ferry operates between Bar Harbor, Maine and Nova Scotia. I think the drive is spectacular but you only need one way to experience it. It might be nice to take the ferry back home to shave a little time off your drive.
Open Rhode Insider Tips
- Instead of picking lodging at the start of the Cabot Trail, we advise a slower pace along the trail and choosing an accommodating or two as you go. We could have avoided a lot of backtracking and done more hiking instead.
- Get to Peggy’s Cove early to beat the crowds. The small village splendor isn’t as majestic when a tour bus rolls up.
- Do make a stop at West Quoddy if you are driving up from the States; that first sunrise is pretty magical!