There are three Maritime Provinces in Canada: New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. They are on the Atlantic Ocean on the east side of the country. These three provinces along with Newfoundland form the region known as Atlantic Canada.
A road trip through the Maritime Provinces is a wonderful adventure and a great one to do with kids. That’s because there’s lots of variation and you can easily visit the three provinces in 10 days. Throw in a couple of ferry rides between provinces and you won’t spend much time stuffed in a car.
You can stay in some of Canada’s historic lodges, quaint B&Bs, or tent in the region’s many parks. And the food! Lobster fests, buttermilk biscuits, clam chowder, dulse, molasses cake, ‘real’ blueberries, all simply the best.
Here is my itinerary for a road trip through the Maritimes and on to Newfoundland & Labrador.
Maritimes means “of the sea” so fishing is obviously important. And who hasn’t heard about PEI potatoes? The Maritimes also seems to ‘grow’ artisans. You learn a lot about the history of Canada travelling through the Maritimes, just stumbling upon it because it’s everywhere.
I lived in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley for a time during my youth and every summer my family would camp at Ingonish Beach in Cape Breton, Cavendish Beach in PEI or along the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick. My maternal grandmother had a house overlooking the ocean on the South Shore of Nova Scotia and I spent endless hours climbing the rocks by the ocean there. My father was from New Brunswick—he was part of a big family—so we travelled the province visiting his clan. We moved from the Maritimes when I was 13 and I have been back many times but always as a visitor.
If I were taking a road trip through the Maritimes this summer, this would be my route. There’s lots more to see, that’s for sure, but these are my favourite places. You’ll need a map to find the way.
Getting to the Maritimes border
When my kids were young and we were living in Ottawa it took us forever to get on the road the first day. So we usually went only as far as Rivière-de-Loup in Quebec before stopping at a campground. It also took us forever to put up the tent the first night but things got better after that.
If you haven’t been to Quebec City, consider stopping for at least a night before going on to the Maritimes. Old Quebec is historic, the setting is awesome and patio dining there can be memorable.
New Brunswick is the only Canadian province that is officially bilingual. Most of the French are Acadian and many of the English are descendants of Loyalists who fled the United States during the American Revolution. So it’s an interesting place.
Travelling from Quebec or Ontario along the Trans Canada Highway (Hwy 2), you’ll start your trip in the Maritimes at Edmundston, New Brunswick. The drive from there down the St John River Valley is surprisingly beautiful, particularly when the light is good.
Everyone wants to drive across the world’s longest covered bridge at least once and the exit you take is a little past Woodstock. The Hartland Bridge, which goes from Somerville to Hartland across the St John River, is 391 m (1282 ft.) long.
You leave Hwy 2 and go south to Passamaquoddy Bay on the Bay of Fundy to one of the oldest and loveliest towns in the Maritimes, St Andrews by-the-sea. It’s very much a New England town, filled with historic homes, some brought over by American settlers after the American Revolution in 1783.
St Andrews was Canada’s first seaside resort and a grand one at that. There are lots of places to stay, including the historic Algonquin Resort, and interesting restaurants and shops.
The Bay of Fundy is famous for its tides and for the Humpback, Minke, Finback, and Right whales that make a home there in the summer. If you have time, take a ferry from Blacks Harbour to Grand Manan Island where life is quaint, boat tours are easy to arrange, and sunsets are amazing.
We usually spend a night or two camping at Fundy National Park. It’s near the village of Alma on Hwy 114. There are two activities we always do in the Park. One is to swim in the heated saltwater pool located off Point Wolfe Road. The other is to take the Moose Horn hike. We first took this 2 hour hike when the kids were young and although it had its tough moments it was a great adventure for we got to cross a river (I think three times), climb rocks using steel steps, and splash around in an unspoiled swimming hole. It rates high on our list of memorable family experiences.
There are 100 km of trails in the Park, ranging from easy to strenuous, so something for everyone. There are lots of mosquitoes in the forested sections so be prepared.
What is particularly interesting about the Bay of Fundy is the difference in the height of the water when the tides are low and high. The water can rise as high as 16 meters, which is the height of a four-story building. Hopewell Rocks is probably the best place to see this. At low tide you can walk out on the ocean floor and wander around reddish rock formations that have trees perched on top. If you return a few hours later these same formations are surrounded by water because the high tide has filled the Bay.
When you walk down to the beach, you pass a big ‘Danger’ sign with two clocks. One clock gives you the current time and the other the time you should leave the beach so as not to be stranded when the tide comes in. You can check the tide tables online. There is an excellent Interpretive Centre at the site.
From here it’s just a two-hour drive to Cape Jourimain where you take the bridge to Prince Edward Island.
Prince Edward Island
PEI, Canada’s smallest Province, is located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It’s known for its sand beaches, red soil, and flattish landscape with rolling hills that is perfect for bike riding. It carries the honour of being the “birthplace of Confederation”.
The Confederation Bridge joins the provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. It’s 12.9 km (8 mile) long—the longest bridge in the world—and it takes about 10 minutes to cross it. It took four years to build the bridge and it is considered to be a top Canadian engineering achievement.
You don’t pay a toll going to PEI, either by bridge or by ferry, only when you leave. When you cross the bridge you’re in the southwestern region of the province.
The island is so small that you could easily cross it in a day but this is where you’ll find the best beaches in the Maritimes, where the water is not too cold for swimming, so consider staying for at least a couple of days. We usually stay at Cavendish Campground in PEI National Park or at a nearby private one. There are also cabins, B&Bs and motels around Cavendish.
Kids have lots of fun here just playing in the sand (and when they get a little older, burying their sibling in the sand) and jumping off the sand dunes. There are many walking trails. One day we enjoyed a delectable lunch at Dalvay-by-the-sea that is in the east end of the park; it’s a summer resort hotel that was built in 1895 by a Scottish-American oil tycoon.
If you need a break from the beach then go shopping. Two places I always visit are The Dunes Studio Gallery and the New London Village Pottery. And you really should partake in a traditional Island lobster supper (take your camera).
Anne of Green Gables
When I was very young I read every one of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books about Anne and so the first time I visited the Green Gables homestead I was totally enchanted. This is a must-see for all Anne fans. I later took my children to the musical Anne of Green Gables at the Charlottetown festival, a production enjoyed by all.
The ferry from PEI leaves from Wood Islands, in the southeastern part of the province, and lands in Caribou, Nova Scotia. It operates from May to mid-December. The trip takes 75 minutes and there are frequent crossings.
There is so much to see in Nova Scotia that I can hardly believe it is the second smallest province in the country. Let’s start in its capital city, Halifax.
I would start at the boardwalk, buy an ice cream, watch the buskers, take a boat cruise in the harbor (or ride the ferry to Dartmouth and back). Then I’d visit the historic Farmers’ Market in Brewery Square for the atmosphere.
Walk up one of the VERY steep streets
Halifax is one of the world’s largest natural harbors and to appreciate it you need to view it from above. While you’re up there, go have a look at the Citadel.
Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21
Over 1.5 million immigrants, war brides, displaced people, evacuee children, and Canadian military personnel passed through this famous building between 1928 and 1971. They have done an exceptional job in telling their stories.
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia
The gallery showcases the visual arts of Atlantic Canada with exhibits that celebrate life by the sea. There is a good selection of works of well-known Atlantic artists including folk artist Maud Lewis.
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
The maritime history of Nova Scotia is compelling such as the Halifax Explosion that killed 2000 and injured 9000 more and the sinking of the Titanic.
There are many fantastic restaurants in Halifax. A tradition for me is dinner at McKelvie’s, either Cajun salmon or crunchy haddock. At the top of my daughter’s list would probably be one of the city’s many pubs. Halifax is a university town: Dalhousie University, Mount Saint Vincent University, Saint Mary’s University, University of King’s College. Which came first, the students or the pubs?
The Lighthouse Route follows the South Shore along Hwy 3, from Halifax to Yarmouth. It’s a winding road—you’ll probably feel dizzy at the end—past 20 lighthouses and charming fishing villages. This to me is the ‘real’ Maritimes, where the highly unpredictable waves of the Atlantic Ocean crash on the rocky shores.
This quaint fishing village, 43 km southwest of Halifax, is one of the province’s most photographed places. It’s rather austere: primarily a lighthouse on a rocky terrain. The CAUTION sign warning visitors about the potentially dangerous surf and the slippery rocks is a little foreboding. Still, it’s a perfect place to climb rocks (not too close to the water!) and just appreciate the setting.
Swissair Flight 111 Memorial
This is a memorial to commemorate the 229 people who died when their aircraft crashed into St. Margarets Bay in 1998. There are two memorials in the area and one is at Whalesback, 1 km northwest of Peggy’s Cove.
How can you drive through one of the most picturesque maritime towns, described as being “nestled where the Mush-a-Mush and Maggie rivers empty”, without stopping? Three churches are the dominant feature in photos of the place.
Old town Lunenburg is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a good place to spend the night for there are lots of places to sleep, eat and shop. Lunenburg has a long and proud seafaring history. It’s the birthplace of the Bluenose schooner that won the International Fisherman’s Trophy for 17 years straight and is now home to the Bluenose II.
They say that if you’ve never been to sea then the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic is the place to start. The museum celebrates the fishing heritage of Atlantic Canada from shipbuilding to rum-running to fish filleting. Kids especially love the aquariums filled with native fish and marine creatures. The museum is housed in the red buildings at the Lunenburg waterfront.
We always make a stop in Chester, often bringing along a picnic lunch. We just walk the streets, looking at the Yacht Club and at the houses and cottages, for this is one of the wealthiest communities in Nova Scotia. It’s intimate and exclusive and very New England. Once we stayed for dinner and took in a play at the Chester Playhouse. Chester is well known for its annual summer sailing regatta that takes place the second week of August.
Beaches around Lunenburg
As a child I spent many summers climbing the rocks at Hunts Point where my grandmother lived, which is a charming fishing village with a little beach. Our favorite place to go swimming was Summerville beach because it’s not only picturesque but has the warmest water in the area (or so it is said).
Port Royal National Historic Site
I would now go across the province to the Fundy Shore (although I always stop in Middleton in the Annapolis Valley to have a look at the house where I once lived). Here at Annapolis Royal you’ll find the reconstructed Habitation, which was one of the earliest European settlements in North America. It’s interesting to learn how Samuel de Champlain and his men, in 1605, established a fur trading post with the Mi’kmaq and survived the harsh conditions. You also learn about North America’s first European social club, the Order of Good Cheer.
The Princes of Acadia ferry takes you across the Bay of Fundy from Digby, Nova Scotia to Saint John, New Brunswick. The voyage takes three hours and I usually book it in advance. Digby is in the Annapolis Basin and known as the scallop capital of the world. In NB, consider visiting the Saint John City Market, a lively place with a great display of produce and seafood, before starting the drive home.
You can either head north, back the way you came, or take the short drive west to St. Stephen, NB and from there cross into Calais, Maine.
Cape Breton Island
Cape Breton is one of my favourite places in Canada but including it within a 10-day itinerary of all the Maritimes would be too rushed. So add on a few days and go there too. Or make it a trip in itself. If you’re planning to drive up the west coast of Newfoundland think about seeing Cape Breton before catching the ferry from Sydney.
Road trip itinerary: Maritimes and Newfoundland
Road trip around Cape Breton Island, Canada
A special place called Newfoundland
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By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013