For curious travelers eager to get off the proverbial beaten path, Nova Scotia’s southern coast will check all your travel boxes. There are amazing restaurants with delectable seafood, historic inns with gorgeous perennial gardens, delightful little lighthouses, and stunning beaches perfect for swimming and walking. All located just a few short hours from Halifax, these adorable small towns are a memorable addition to any East Coast road trip. I had the opportunity to visit them during a recent press trip and I can’t wait to return and explore some more!
Digby is a seafood lover’s dream destination. Famous for having some of the biggest and best scallops in the world, Digby’s café scene promises to delight. Prices are affordable, servings are generous, and the nautical decor is charming. There’s excellent hiking nearby, especially around the coast and Prim Point Lighthouse (which overlooks the “Digby Gut”, the waterway which leads to the Bay of Fundy). Those craving a bit of indoor luxury and leisure will want to head to the Digby Pines Golf Resort and Spa. This historic property (which has hosted a long list of luminaries, including baseball superstar Babe Ruth, who golfed here) has sumptuous rooms, elegant public spaces, a superb spa, and swimming pool.
2. Gilberts Cove
Gilberts Cove is a tiny little community with a huge personality. Like so many spots in Nova Scotia, Gilberts Cove faced a bit of a crisis when its lighthouse was decommissioned. Lighthouses like this were once the hearts of their communities and a lifeline for fishermen. However, in an era of automation and improved technology, lighthouse keepers are no longer needed and, in truth, lighthouses themselves are all but redundant. However, Gilberts Cove residents weren’t going to give up on their lighthouse and the history it represents. The community banded together to repair, restore, and transform a lighthouse into a small museum, tearoom, and craft shop. Today, it’s billed as “The Greatest Little Lighthouse In Canada.”
Pro Tip: Bring along your spare change to buy homemade cookies from the tearoom. The staff will even warm them up for you!
3. Belliveaus Cove
In this sweet little fishing hamlet, you’ll find a lighthouse that dates back to 1889, a busy farmer’s market, and a pretty harbor with colorful boats, houses, and clotheslines. Perhaps the best thing of all about Belliveaus Cove is what everyone is doing at night! It is a hugely popular spot for pétanque! If you’ve enjoyed bocce ball, you’ll love pétanque. The objective is to softly throw your ball so it lands closer to the target than your opponent’s ball. To say that pétanque is something of an obsession in Belliveaus Cove is an understatement. I was fortunate enough on my visit to chat with some local men who kindly paused their game to explain the rules and share their love of the game. Listening to them chat at sunset, with the lighthouse and boats in the background, was a wonderful travel memory.
4. Church Point
Church Point is one of Nova Scotia’s smallest college towns. It’s home to Université Sainte-Anne, the province’s only Francophone university. Like most college towns, it has a laid-back vibe but it is very strict on one thing. Visitors who partake in the university’s French immersion program are forbidden from speaking English (don’t worry if you need some local assistance — everyone will quickly figure out that you’re not a visiting student)! Other must-visit spots include Église Sainte-Marie, which is both a church and a museum. It boasts the tallest wooden steeple in North America. Nearby, Le Petit Bois offers a series of hiking trails, ranging from short and easy walks to longer, moderate treks.
One of the largest and busiest fishing ports in the area, Meteghan is a good place to grab a seafood dinner. At the Seashore Restaurant, you’ll enjoy gorgeous views and dishes like fresh haddock covered in a creamy lobster sauce. However, it wasn’t the main courses that had me and my friends singing its praises. The desserts are great and we fell in love with a cinnamon bun cheesecake. I still swoon just thinking about it! The nearby Smuggler’s Cove Provincial Park offers gorgeous water views and a chance to explore a prohibition-era smuggler’s cave at low tide.
6. Cape Saint Mary’s
If you’re craving great views and even better beaches, Cape Saint Mary’s should be on your travel list. A lighthouse has been on this site since 1868 (though the structure you see today isn’t the original building). It’s an amazing place to watch the sunset and enjoy lovely views of both the water and the nearby village. A memorial to those lost at sea underscores the region’s emotional ties with the water. Nearby, Cape Saint Mary’s Beach, Mavillette Beach, and the Mavillette Beach Provincial Park offer good swimming by day in July and August and romantic walks by night.
Pro Tip: Bundle up to watch the sunset at the lighthouse. Some serious winds whip through here!
It might be cheating a bit to include Yarmouth on this list as it really isn’t a small town anymore, but it certainly has plenty of small-town charm. The colorful historic homes reflect the kind of stately, ostentatious elegance that was expected of well-to-do ship captains once upon a time. Frost Park, overlooking the water, is filled with flowers and pretty places to sit and watch the world go by. Come Saturday mornings, the farmer’s market is a delightful spot to stock up on berries, cider, and homemade soap, all while listening to some local music. At nearby Cape Forchu, you can climb 75 feet to the top of the lighthouse tower and take in the magnificent views.
Pro Tip: Plan on grabbing lunch at Cape Forchu. The little lunch counter has excellent lobster rolls.
8. West Pubnico And Lower West Pubnico
These side-by-side communities are filled with history and culture. In West Pubnico, the Musee des Acadiens des Pubnicos is a center of genealogical excellence and brings the everyday life of the d’Entremont and d’Eon families to life. Be sure to check out their small garden behind the museum. It’s filled with vegetables, fruits, and herbs that the Acadians used for food, medicine, and toiletries.
Down the road in Lower West Pubnico is Le Village Historique Acadien. Sitting on a 17-acre site overlooking the harbor, this living history museum showcases life in an Acadian village in the 1900s. The cooking demonstrations are especially interesting and if you’re offered a thick molasses cookie, go for it!
Among these wonderful museums is a new attraction that is worthy of a little buzz all on its own. The Boatskeg Distilling Company has turned an old boatyard into a modern craft spirit distillery and their salted caramel vodka sells out regularly.
9. Shag Harbour
This wee little spot offers something you won’t see in most travel destinations. It’s home to a UFO museum! The Shag Harbour Incident Interpretive Centre tells the story of a mysterious day in 1967 when an unknown flying object crashed into the ocean. While a comprehensive search was immediately launched (as witnesses feared that an airplane might have gone down), no trace of the enigmatic vessel was ever found. Was it a rogue military operation or visitors from another realm? Who can say? It’s well worth dropping in for a visit to learn more about the story.
10. Clark’s Harbour
Clark’s Harbour has the distinction of being the southernmost town in Nova Scotia. Located on Cape Sable Island (not to be confused with Nova Scotia’s similarly named Sable Island, which is famous for its wild horses), Clark’s Harbour is the gateway to the island’s many attractions and gorgeous beaches. One of the most memorable beaches is known as “The Hawk”. As you walk along the shore, you’ll see hundreds of fossilized tree stumps preserved in the seawater. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Pro Tip: Make reservations now to dine at the Salt Banker, Clark’s Harbour’s first year-round restaurant in nearly twenty years. Nicole Hopkins, a beloved local chef, will be offering plenty of seafood, pasta, her own spin on chicken and waffles, and even homemade ice cream.
Shelburne isn’t just adorable. It’s drop-dead gorgeous! With buildings dating to the 1700s and 1800s, the community’s heritage is beautifully preserved on every street. This was the setting for the movie, The Scarlet Letter, and the production was a real boost in the area’s preservation efforts. The Cooper’s Inn is a beautiful boutique bed and breakfast, with a gorgeous garden where you can join owner Amanda for a glass of wine during happy hour and feast on an outstanding breakfast menu filled with delicious homemade goodies. Just a short walk down the road is the Dory Shop Museum, which preserves the history of the Shelburne Dory, an indispensable small fishing boat. You can even watch a shipbuilder at work while you’re there! At the Shelburne County Museum, there are plenty of interesting exhibits, as well as an excellent little gift shop that offers whirligigs (whimsical painted carvings for your garden that feature moving ‘wings’ and other parts).
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