In any given year, 700,000 or so visitors will descend on the tiny Nova Scotia community of Peggy’s Cove, which is home to fewer than 40 year-round residents. Why is such a huge crowd going to such a tiny village? The main draw is the iconic Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse, also known as Peggy’s Point Lighthouse. The red and white building, which is more than 100 years old, is easily the most famous of Nova Scotia’s 160 lighthouses. In fact, I’d argue that it’s easily the most famous in all of Canada! However, admiring the handsome structure is just the beginning of the Cove’s charms.
Peggy’s Cove is located where St. Margaret’s Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, less than an hour southwest of downtown Halifax. Further down the road past Peggy’s Cove are some of Nova Scotia’s most photogenic towns: Chester, Mahone Bay, and Lunenburg. If you’re looking for a Halifax day trip, you couldn’t ask for a prettier route.
You can avoid the crowds if you visit before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. (when you’re unlikely to encounter tour buses). Spring and autumn are much less busy than the summer season. The Peggy’s Cove viewing deck is open year-round but a winter visit requires hearty travelers, as the damp, chilly weather isn’t for everyone. That said, don’t discount the value of visiting Peggy’s Cove on an overcast day. Cloudy, misty conditions often make for the most atmospheric photos and memorable visits.
1. Exploring Has Never Been Easier
In 2021, a new public viewing deck opened at Peggy’s Cove, as well as new wheelchair-accessible walkways, public washrooms, and other infrastructure improvements. This brought a long overdue improvement in the site’s accessibility. While there were some initial concerns about what the viewing deck would look like (Would it distract from the area’s natural beauty? Would it block many of the area’s quintessential views?) the finished product has been a hit. It’s been sensitively designed to complement the local scenery and reflect the area’s nautical heritage.
In addition to making the area more accessible, the new improvements also hope to make the area safer. Exploring the rocks around Peggy’s Cove is dangerous business. Polished smooth by the sea, the large granite boulders look innocuous enough but are wildly slippery when wet. Rogue waves can and do sweep visitors into the water (even on calm, sunny days), often with deadly results. Visitors are urged to stay far away from the black, wet rocks and get their amazing photos from the viewing deck instead.
2. There’s Nature Beyond The Shore
While the lighthouse is understandably the main draw, Peggy’s Cove is every bit as lovely as its namesake beacon. I spoke with Sean Buckland from Ambassatours of Halifax and he said a trip to the area was about “more than scenic views; It’s a community.”
One of the nicest ways to appreciate the area is to enjoy a hike through the Peggy’s Cove Preservation Area. Those photogenic boulders you see scattered along the shoreline are courtesy of glacier activity on the land thousands of years ago. The result is a series of hiking paths that offer incredible views and unique topography. Given the number of visitors who pass through the community each year, hikers are asked to stick to existing trails. Otherwise, the surrounding ecosystem would be devastated by the many walkers who explore the area. Some tour packages in the area include hiking time.
Another route well worth checking out is the nearby Polly’s Cove Trail (yep, there’s a Peggy’s Cove and a Polly’s Cove!) This 2.5-mile loop brings hikers across moderately-difficult terrain, passing by old war bunkers, wildflowers, and intriguing rock formations — including one called “Balancing Cube” — to reach the shore. It’s a remarkably scenic route and pleasantly free of crowds.
3. A Historic Church Welcomes Visitors
Another Peggy’s Cove must-do activity is a visit to St. John’s Anglican Church. The only house of worship in the community, the wood-constructed St. John’s dates to 1893 and is built in the Carpenter-Gothic style. From May to October, the church is usually open for visitors and volunteers are on hand to chat about the building’s history, including the interior murals painted by William deGarthe. All visitors are invited to join worship services on Sunday mornings.
4. All Artists Are Warmly Welcomed
While Peggy’s Cove is a working fishing village, it’s also a haven for artists. Sculptor and painter William deGarthe was a long-time Peggy’s Cove resident (and created the church’s murals, as noted above). His former home is now a gallery and is open from May to October. At the nearby William E. deGarthe Provincial Park, visitors can view what is arguably his finest work. A carved granite outcropping features 32 fishermen, their families, figures of local folklore, and St. Elmo — the patron saint of sailors. This moving piece is deGarthe’s tribute to Nova Scotian fishermen.
Each summer, in early- to mid-July, the region celebrates the Peggy’s Cove Area Festival of the Arts. Participating communities include Prospect Bay, Shad Bay, Head Harbour, Hubbards Cove, and Mahone Bay. The lineup of events includes studio tours, receptions with live music, and artists working in plein air at Peggy’s Cove.
Finally, it’s worth keeping an eye on the events happening at the Sou’Wester gift and restaurant company all year-round. In addition to being Peggy’s Cove’s most prominent eatery and souvenir shop, the venue also occasionally hosts live music events.
5. You Can Visit The ‘Museum Without Walls’
The Coastal Heritage Trail bills itself as the “Museum Without Walls” and offers a self-guided tour of the entire Peggy’s Cove Coastal Region, with interpretive panels to illuminate significant historic and cultural events. Some of the recurring themes are shipwrecks, lighthouses, churches, fishing villages, and settlers. If you’d like to take a step away from mainstream tourism and enjoy a more local sense of adventure, this is the place to start.
If your route around the area takes you by the White Sails Bakery & Deli, be sure to pop in. Christain Allain of Discover Halifax, who spent 2 years working in and around St. Margaret’s Bay, highly recommends White Sails and is one of his favorite stops.
6. Consider A Detour To The SS Atlantic Heritage Site
A short drive from Peggy’s Cove (and part of the Coastal Heritage Trail), the SS Atlantic Heritage Park serves as a memorial to those who died in the sinking of the SS Atlantic off the shores of Mars Head, near Peggy’s Cove, on April 1, 1873. At the time, it was the worst single-vessel marine disaster off the Canadian coast until the sinking of a fellow White Star Line vessel, the Titanic. An estimated 550 people died in the disaster, but the final count would have been far worse if not for the heroic efforts of local fishermen, who mounted a rescue effort and saved more than 400 people.
A small museum tells the story of a heroic rescue effort and commemorates those who died at sea. Artifacts include a porthole, a crewman’s cap, a working clock, the White Star Line flag, and newspaper reports about the catastrophe. The museum’s gift shop is a good source of tartan products, as the building holds the original loom on which the first Nova Scotia tartan was woven.
7. Observe A Special Memorial
On September 2, 1998, tragedy struck the area when Swissair Flight 111 crashed into the ocean at the entrance to St. Margaret’s Bay. Residents of Peggy’s Cove, Bayswater, and several other communities instantly rallied, immediately launching fishing boats and racing to the scene to help in any way that they could. Sadly, all 229 people on board had perished and the rescue effort immediately pivoted to that of recovery. The Swissair Memorial Site is a short walk from Peggy’s Cove and a poignant reminder of the lives lost and the community’s response.
Pro Tip: What’s In A Name
The village of Peggy’s Cove is most likely named after St. Margaret’s Bay (which in turn was named by Samuel de Champlain in honor of his mother). However, there’s an alternative explanation that’s often repeated, that of commemorating the life of a young girl (or sometimes a young woman, depending on who you speak to) who was the sole survivor of a shipwreck in the area. In either case, you will likely see the name written both with and without an apostrophe. Technically, Peggy’s Cove is not among the four place names in Nova Scotia that officially have apostrophes in their name — but the tourism board still uses it and thus I do as well! You can read more about Nova Scotia’s obsession with apostrophes here.
Beautiful Nova Scotia is just waiting to be explored: