Over the past few weeks, we’ve had a chance to revisit some old haunts in Nova Scotia such as Mahone Bay and Lunenburg. That’s reminded me of walks past in different places along the South Shore. Since I’m writing this on a rainy autumn day, it’s as good a time as any describe some of our favourite places for a walk.
We first visited Mahone Bay nearly 30 years ago. Back then, it wasn’t quite as touristy as it is now. There were a few nice little B&Bs, and a few shops. The draw was the view, both of the harbour and the bay, and also of the iconic row of 3 churches that sit side by side along the shore at the top of the inlet.
Since then, we’ve visited the town many times, and twice have stayed in vacation properties there. Those visits have given us lots of opportunities to wander about the town, taking in more than just the waterfront. On one of those visits, we were out for a stroll after dinner along the quiet back streets of the town, and nearly jumped out of our skins when we came upon a deer which was contentedly munching flowers in someone’s garden.
It’s that kind of town. If you visit on a sunny summer Sunday in mid-afternoon, you’ll think the place is busy all the time and crowded with tourists. But wait a bit past dinner time, or visit mid-week, and you’ll find that once the city tourists are gone, the little town’s charms are all the more evident and available as you poke about the shops and restaurants. A leisurely 30 minutes will pretty much cover the town, and it will be a relaxing way to get to know the place.
Lunenburg is most famous as the home of the Bluenose, the iconic schooner that graces a Canadian dime. Today, the Bluenose II is often in port, and you can tour the boat and even book a sailing cruise on her.
More than that, however, is the year-round town – the shops and services that the surrounding area depend on outside the tourist season. Because of that, we’ve visited many times. We love to wander up and down the steep streets that rise behind the harbour. You can spend an hour or so doing that and getting in a workout, and there’s also a lovely little walking trail that circles the town. That walking trail, by the way, also offers a way to walk Mahone Bay (about 10km), if you’re up for a longer hike.
Hirtles Beach and the Gaff Point Trail
Another favourite that we discovered more than 10 years ago is the Gaff Point Trail. It’s a short drive out of Lunenburg, south east towards Kingsburg. The Trail starts at the parking lot for Hirtles Beach, another favourite spot for splashing in the waves, and follows the Beach towards Gaff Point itself.
There, it loops around the tip of the point through forest and along the rocky shore, and provides fabulous views up and down the shore along with many spots where you can sit and just watch the waves and seabirds. We usually take a picnic when we go, and spend some time chilling. It’s about a 7.5km walk there and back so give yourself at least 2 hours, and if the weather is nice it’s great to kick off your shoes and splash along the water’s edge as you finish the hike. A pro tip is to do the walk at low tide so you can walk on the firm sand rather than along the rocky berm at the top of the beach.
Over our various trips to Nova Scotia, we had always skipped Peggy’s Cove. My parent’s had dragged me there as a reluctant 8 year old back in the early 70’s, and ever since I had written it off as overly-touristed and out of date. That changed on our most recent trip. It was just my wife and I, and without our own child (now 18!) in tow, and at an off-season time of the year, it seemed like a good time to visit and see what the fuss was about.
I have to confess I didn’t know what to expect, but choosing a sunny October day was wise, because it’s lovely to sit on the rocks near the famous lighthouse and listen to the sea and bask in the sun. The little town itself is quaint, if conscious of its touristy charms, and even though you’ve probably taken a million selfies it’s still fun to grab one here.
Over the years, we’ve been to Chester a few times and I have to admit that I could never quite warm to it. It’s a bit of an anomaly for the South Shore – it’s a touristy place but also a place with a lot of wealth. The annual Chester Regatta is a famous tradition, and it’s attracted sailors for generations. Many of them have the money needed to go with large yachts, so many of the homes in Chester reflect that. It feels a little like Cape Cod in the summer.
This year, visiting on a misty damp October day, it felt quite different. There’s a bit of a melancholy air to a resort town out of season. Many of the houses are closed up for the winter, and the town’s year-round residents can get together in peace. Walking up and down its quiet streets, we realized that it’s actually a lovely little place. The trick, it would seem, is to come off-season.
There are some little parks and shops downtown, and the harbour area is atmospheric as well. We brought a picnic and ate it in the wet, and that made it that much more savoury, staring over the water and listening to the gulls. I have to take back what I said about Chester in the past – it’s not the snooty place I thought it was.