For anyone travelling to Nova Scotia, Halifax is definitely a must-do. As the provincial capital and the largest city in Atlantic Canada, the city offers plenty for visitors, from fine dining to historic sites and museums, not to mention a vibrant waterfront with modern hotels, restaurants and shops. But it’s well worth venturing a little farther afield to explore some of Nova Scotia’s smaller seaside towns as they can give you a deeper sense of what this province and its people are all about. Here are 4 of the best day trips from Halifax and why you should put them on your itinerary.
1. THE Most Popular Day Trip from Halifax: Peggy’s Cove
Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, it’s one of Canada’s most photogenic and famous Maritime destinations because of its beauty. And yes, you should go to Peggy’s Cove – because as lighthouses and small fishing villages go, it doesn’t get much prettier than this.
Despite its small size, the little village of Peggy’s Cove has adapted well to the steady influx of visitors and offers more than just views of its fishing boats and huts. The latest addition for 2021 is a brand new viewing platform that offers a safe, accessible vantage point for visitors to admire the lighthouse in any weather, and hopefully keep them away from the site’s notoriously dangerous rocks. But other than these improvements, the actual Cove hasn’t changed much in years (as witnessed by these photos taken 14 years apart).
Of course, with all those visitors, local artists and artisans have found an outlet in Peggy’s Cove for their work, and some of those cute little fishing shanties in the region have been repurposed as art galleries and specialty shops selling unique items you can only find here.
One of the most impressive works of art here is just off the road leading up to the lighthouse: a 100-foot long carved granite outcropping known as the William E. deGarthe Memorial Monument. Finnish artist deGarthe immigrated to Canada in 1926, and spent many years visiting Peggy’s Cove, eventually settling here in 1955. A marine painter by reputation, deGarthe turned his hand to sculpture at the age of 70, and this monumental tribute to Peggy’s Cove is the result. There are 32 figures carved into the granite, representing fishermen, their wives and children, St. Elmo (the patron saint of sailors) and the legendary ‘Peggy’ after whom the cove was named.
DeGarthe died in 1983 and didn’t get to complete all of his plans for the sculpture. But what he did finish, with the help of an assistant in his last few years, is impressive nonetheless, and free for all visitors to enjoy. And here’s a fun fact: the site is the smallest designated provincial park in Nova Scotia (and likely in all of Canada), thanks to the bequest of deGarthe’s widow, Agnes, who donated the monument and the land to the province.
The Legend of Peggy
You can’t visit Peggy’s Cove without being curious about its name, and like everything in the Maritimes, there’s a story that lies behind it. This one tells of a stormy night in 1848 when a German ship with sixty passengers on board shipwrecked on Halibut Rock just off Lighthouse Point. The only survivor, a young woman, managed to make it to shore by hanging onto a drifting piece of wreckage, but when she was rescued by locals, the only thing she could remember was that her name was Margaret.
A bachelor in the village offered Margaret a spare room in his home and soon began calling her ‘Peggy’. And as news of her story spread, people began to visit ‘Peggy at the cove’ to bring her gifts and household necessities. Eventually, Peggy married the bachelor and settled here with him, and the cove became known as Peggy’s Cove.
Of course, this story may just be a tall tale, like so many others told by Nova Scotia’s fishermen. The other more practical theory is that the place was named Peggy’s Cove by an early land surveyor because it is located at the entrance to St. Margaret’s Bay. It makes sense, I’ll agree, but where’s the romance in that?
TIP: Try to visit Peggy’s Cove on weekdays or during spring and fall (shoulder seasons) when there are fewer people. Better yet: check with the Port of Halifax cruise ship schedules and see when the big ships are arriving in Halifax harbour so you can time your visit to the Cove when the bus loads of sightseeing cruisers aren’t going to be there.
2. Mahone Bay: Pretty Streets and Pirate Tales
Mahone Bay is probably most well-known for its unique ‘skyline’ of 3 neighbouring churches situated along the shore of the Bay right alongside the highway. But there is more to this charming small town than just its scenic architecture. The main street is a colourful collection of boutiques, restaurants and inns, all of which are photogenic and worth exploring whether you have a craving for craft beers or want to do some shopping for local artwork.
And if you want to explore more of the area by car, there are several local drives that follow the ins and outs of the coastline, providing lovely views of the bay and beyond. (Locals recommend Indian Point Road.)
Mahone Bay: the Best Day Trip from Halifax for Fans of Oak Island
Fans of the TV series The Curse of Oak Island, will know Mahone Bay as the local town where treasure hunters Marty and Rick Lagina hang out when they are in the area filming their reality series. The show delves into the mystery surrounding a legendary buried treasure on Oak Island, and the search for it that has been going on for generations. That search has been taken up by the Lagina brothers who, while they have yet to find any significant treasure in the traditional sense, have managed to re-write the known history of the region with their discoveries to date on the island.
Mader’s Wharf pub in particular is a favourite hangout for the cast and crew, and if you go there in the warmer months you are likely to run into one or more of the show’s personalities. (Henk and I ended up closing the night out with Tony Sampson, a diver who has been called in to help the Oak Island crew on occasion, and who also runs Salty Dog Sea Tours out of the Oak Island Resort and Conference Centre.)
TIP: Visitors who are obsessed with the Curse of Oak Island can also book tours of the island (which is privately-owned, largely by the Laginas). These tours were suspended during Covid, but check the website to see when they will resume.
Spanish Coins and Rum-Runners
Like any small town, the real appeal of visiting Mahone Bay lies in meeting the residents, as many are descended from the town’s founding families. We met Nancy when we were enjoying a glass of wine at the Kitch’Inn, a boutique inn and restaurant in town, and like so many Nova Scotians, Nancy had a story or two to tell about the town, her family, including a possible link to the Oak Island Treasure.
It turns out that Nancy’s family name is Mader, a name that is synonymous with Mahone Bay’s history, because in the late 1800s, Nancy’s great-grandfather, Charles Mader, operated a mercantile store here on Main Street (today it is the Mader’s Wharf pub).
Mader sold everything in his store from household goods to hardware, and families from around the area would visit to pick up their essentials. One story that the elder Mader told was of a local family, the Vaughan’s, who didn’t have much money and so used to barter for goods at his mercantile store…until one day they came in with “strange Spanish coins” to trade. Shortly thereafter the whole family moved to Boston. Perhaps it was part of the Oak Island treasure handed down that helped pay for that expensive move, or maybe it was some other pirate loot that the Vaughan’s had discovered, but no explanation was ever offered.
It turns out that Mader also had his own secret side hustle that augmented his mercantile business – because when he wasn’t operating the store he was rum-running. His stash of contraband rum was stored underground on a nearby island where apparently if you walked on the grass, you could hear the wooden crates creaking underfoot. So it turns out that the Mader family has its own story of ‘buried treasure’, which has also become part of Mahone Bay’s local lore.
TIP: There’s actually a Rum Runners Trail that runs from Halifax to Lunenburg through Mahone Bay, that is a converted rail line and perfect if you want to hike or cycle part of this part of Nova Scotia.
3. Blue Rocks: A Hidden Gem of a Day Trip from Halifax
A far cry from the tour bus destination that is Peggy’s Cove, but only 20 minutes from Mahone Bay, is the tiny village of Blue Rocks, a quiet jewel of a fishing village that has its own picturesque appeal, but minus all of the souvenir shops.
Named for the blue slate rocks found all around this area, Blue Rocks proper is really only a small collection of fishing boats and shanties in a tiny harbour. It’s a perfect spot for artists and photographers, many of whom come here to capture the beauty of the place, or for daytrippers who want to get closer to nature along Nova Scotia’s South coast.
In fact, if you want to get out on the water to explore more of the sheltered islets of Blue Rocks, Pleasant Paddling outfitters provides kayaks for rent as well as guided tours. Their website even boasts “more islands per paddle stroke than anywhere”. As this description suggests, Blue Rocks’ appeal lies in its natural surroundings, not its amenities. So don’t expect to find restaurants or bars when you come here. Instead, there are mostly homes and cottages for people who love the scent and sound of the sea.
At best you’ll find a quirky art shack selling hand-carved buoys, a funky lighthouse inn, or an unattended roadside kiosk selling trinkets that operates on a pick-and-pay honour system.
What Blue Rocks does offer, however, is a peaceful, quiet escape away from it all. And if you’re lucky you might even catch a glimpse of the Bluenose II as it sails on by out of nearby Lunenburg.
4. Lunenburg: More than Meets the [Colourful] Eye
Like Peggy’s Cove, Lunenburg attracts thousands of visitors every year, and it’s no wonder: this rainbow-coloured town looks like someone emptied a box of crayons and decided to use every one to decorate the town’s historic buildings and shops. And then when they were done that, they parked one of Canada’s most iconic tall ships, the Bluenose II, right out front in the harbour.
All this means that Lunenburg is definitely one of the most popular day trips from Halifax, as well as one of the most-photographed towns in the province. Take a stroll on some of the streets on the hill behind the harbour and you’ll see every imaginable architectural style in its buildings: Victorian, Edwardian, Cape Cod-style, Gothic Revival, Queen Anne Revival and a local building style that extends the Scottish 5-sized dormer into an overhang above the front entrance know as the ‘Lunenburg Bump”.
Art Gallery lovers should check out Lincoln Street in particular, where you will find everything from the sublime to the ridiculous in terms of artwork, and a sense of humour in some of the pieces as well.
Remember to look up in Luneburg, too, as there are fun ‘fish shingles’ hung on the streets, like this comical one that I loved because it’s one of those flat fish with both eyes on the top of its head!
The Colours Are New
With all of this, it’s no wonder that Lunenburg has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But why it has that status has everything to do with the town’s layout, and nothing to do with its colourful houses. The town earned its UNESCO status because it is the best surviving example of a planned British colonial settlement in North America, with its rectangular grid of streets that has remained unchanged since 1753. And those Crayola colours? They’re actually quite new.
Up until the late 1990s, Lunenburg’s wooden houses were primarily white clapboard with black trim. It was only in 2007, after the new owners of the Mariner’s Inn decided to paint their hotel a vibrant colour that neighbours decided to pick up on the idea. The rest of the town followed suit, and today you would be lucky to find the exact same colour twice on the same street.
Speaking of Black and White….
Today there aren’t many buildings that still retain that traditional black and white colour scheme, but an excellent example can be found at one of the most famous churches in town, St. Johns Anglican Church. This church itself is famous for two reasons, the first being that it is the second-oldest Anglican church in Canada, built in the Gothic style in 1754. The second is that it is an amazing example of resilience and restoration, as almost two-thirds of the church was destroyed in a catastrophic fire in 2001 and the town rallied to complete its meticulous reconstruction in under four years.
…and Blue as in Bluenose
No visit to Lunenburg is complete without seeing the Bluenose II. In fact, you can’t go anywhere in town without seeing it – either in models and souvenirs at the official Bluenose store on the wharf, or at the wharf itself when the ship is in harbour. You might even get lucky, and catch a view of it under full sail when the ship is at its majestic best.
Like it’s predecessor, the original Bluenose that became known as the Queen of the North Atlantic for its racing prowess and undefeated reputation, this tall beauty has become Nova Scotia’s sailing ambassador and a symbol of the province’s heritage and history. I mean, the original Bluenose is on our Canadian dime, so it doesn’t get much bigger than that.
A Day Trip
These day trips from Halifax are obviously just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring what Nova Scotia has to offer. But it’s a good start. Because whether you take home images of iconic lighthouses and historic sailing ships, a bit of bric-a-brac from a local artisan, or a pirate story that has been passed down for generations, getting to see more of this province and meeting its people is the best way to understand what makes this place special.
Even if you do it one day trip at at time.