A backdrop of unspoiled, rugged landscapes. A sound track of sea shanties accompanied by fiddles and squeezeboxes. And a lunch of just-caught cod (washed down with a local microbrew) and a foraged blueberry pie. Nowhere do Canada’s wild nature, living culture and fresh cuisine converge more authentically than on the Atlantic Coast in the four provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) and Nova Scotia.
Some of this 43,000-kilometre coast’s magic is in serendipity: you might spot a breaching whale as you walk along Cape Spear, Canada’s most easterly point, or a rainbow beaming out of a misty harbour along Nova Scotia’s iconic Lighthouse Trail. But that doesn’t mean you can’t plan ahead. Here are some of the experiences and places that are sure to wow you.
1. Colourful harbour cities
Wander the streets of St. John’s in Newfoundland and Labrador and be captivated by the picturesque rocky harbour. Music that rings a little bit Celtic and a little bit sailor flows out of lively George Street pubs. The rows of colourful wooden houses seem straight out of a storybook. The best way to take all the joy in? Hike the loop around Signal Hill and The Battery (a small neighborhood where houses appear to hang off the rock face) and then visit the Quidi Vidi fishing village and local brewery.
In the vast harbour of Halifax in Nova Scotia, the old and new give each other character. Active and historical naval vessels jostle alongside the twinkling Stubborn Goat Beer Garden, where every brew is proudly Nova Scotian. The centuries-old Seaport District is home to the oldest continuously running farmers’ market in North America as well as quaint cafes, new-gen artisans and niche galleries. Take a harbour tour, passing islands and the odd seal. Then walk to the top of the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site, the storied fortress that still overlooks the city. And no trip to Halifax is complete until you’ve tasted a local lobster roll.
2. Fresh and foraged cuisine
In these seafaring parts, if your seafood wasn’t caught that morning by a local fisherman, it probably won’t end up on your plate. Restaurants such as The Merchant Tavern and Mallard Cottage in St. John’s, Halifax’s Bar Kismet and P.E.I.’s Inn at Bay Fortune (open May to October 2022) specialise in local shellfish as well as wild meats and poultry, foraged berries and produce pulled from local soil – and each regularly makes it onto lists of Canada’s best.
P.E.I. is even known as ‘Canada’s Food Island’. A culinary trail tracks across the small island via fisheries, restaurants, markets and farms. Pick up lobsters, oysters, mussels, scallops, potatoes, small-batch breads and artisanal chocolates as you drive past rolling green hills and break for picnics on red sand beaches.
3. Icebergs, puffins and whales
Every year in late spring, ice that melts from Greenland floats south to the Newfoundland and Labrador coast, giving the region the nickname “Iceberg Alley”. Iceberg-watching hotspots like Battle Harbour, Cape Spear near St. John's and Bonavista are easy to drive to. Pull over and be still for a while, gazing at the wonder of 10,000-year-old glacial giants, in colours from snow-white to deep aquamarine, floating by like moving mountains.
This time of year is also when you can spy puffins as they breed in coastal colonies and whales that have returned for a feed of capelin and krill (the world’s largest population of humpback whales migrates here). One of the best places to witness all of this wildlife is on Bonavista, a windswept peninsula whimsical enough to have been cast as Neverland in Disney’s upcoming film Peter Pan & Wendy.
4. Rich Indigenous culture
The art, music, traditional medicines, spiritual ceremonies and written and oral legends of Indigenous Peoples in Atlantic Canada date back thousands of years and remain vibrantly alive.
At the Elsipogtog Mi’kmaq Cultural Center in New Brunswick, local Elders will guide you in basket weaving and perform a smudging ceremony with smoke of sage and sweetgrass inside a community teepee.
On a Mi’kmaq Medicine Walk in Membertou, Cape Breton Island, you can hike along a wooded trail with a local Mi’kmaq guide, learning how plants such as fiddlehead ferns and cedar have healed for generations immemorial. Taste the local luskinikn bread and try your hand at making a dreamcatcher.
The Torngat Mountains National Park in Labrador is a pristine wilderness inhabited by Inuit people who live off the land. There are no roads, signs or campgrounds (you will even need a bear guard). The base camp accommodation offers a view of mountains that look like rock waves rising from the ground and the chance to come close to a culture you’ll find nowhere else on earth.
5. The world’s highest tide
The tides in the Bay of Fundy, a craggy coast that stretches between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, are the highest in the world. They are so dramatic that throughout the day they will dry out entire wharves and push the shoreline back nearly five kilometres. One of the best places to witness the phenomenon is at Hopewell Rocks – you’ll see the water crashing against the cliffs and then just hours later, you’ll be walking on the ocean floor among the towering rock formations that are left fully exposed.
6. A stay at the edge of the world
The Fogo Island Inn is a destination in itself. On a tiny, strikingly beautiful island off the coast of Newfoundland described as "one of the four corners of the earth", its futuristic, boxy form sits on stilts above a barren rock face in front of the ocean. The Inn’s looks are influenced by Scandinavian coastal charm but almost everything else here is hyper local. Almost 80 per cent of the menu is crafted with food sourced from the island. Local artisans made the furniture and the quilts on beds. Art-making and crafts are woven into the social fabric of this remote place, where islanders traditionally had to make much for themselves. If a creative retreat is your speed, the inn runs workshops (available intermittently) in which you can create handcrafts with local makers.
It’s said Fogo Island has seven seasons; the one you’re in dictates whether you watch towering icebergs while you soak in a rooftop hot tub, get cosy by a fire, snowmobile or snowshoe.
7. Epic road trips
The Cabot Trail is a nearly 300-kilometre loop around Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, that hugs the jagged coastline. You’ll drive past mountains, beaches and waterfalls and through communities with strong Mi’kmaq and Gaelic roots (many signs are in both languages).
The Lighthouse Trail along the southern coast of Nova Scotia takes you through archetypal fishing villages that you can’t help but share to your Instagram grid. You’ll want to spend a bit more time in the town of Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with brightly painted wooden buildings.
Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on Newfoundland’s west coast, is a dramatic mountain range famous for its deep inland fjords and sloping tablelands. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can see the earth’s mantle (the thick layer of rock below the crust) exposed. You can spend days winding along its scenic roads or hiking even more scenic trails but one of the most iconic spots – the dramatic Western Brook Pond fjord – is best seen on a boat tour.
For the ultimate adventure, you can do an Atlantic road trip across all four provinces. The route in a nutshell? Start in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, and cross the nearly 13-kilometre-long Confederation Bridge to P.E.I., taking a ferry from P.E.I. to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The ferry from Cape Breton Island takes you to the southwest coast of the island of Newfoundland. You can drive across this island and catch a ferry from the east coast, just outside of St. John’s, back to Cape Breton. Finally, drive down to Halifax and then on to the southern coast of Nova Scotia. Put aside at least three weeks for this journey – it’s worth it.