Road tripping Atlantic Canada
A self-drive tour is the perfect way to explore Canada’s striking Atlantic Canadian provinces: Nova Scotia with its endless sweeping coastlines and rich heritage; Canada’s Foodie Island” - Prince Edward Island; New Brunswick which is home to the world’s highest tides and the place to sample myriad craft beers; and the rugged landscapes and friendly characters of Newfoundland and Labrador. These destinations can be easily combined in a memorable loop taking in some of the very best natural, historic and culinary experiences eastern Canada has to offer.
The beginning is a very good place to start, and many road trips to this region will begin in Halifax – the capital of Nova Scotia – for the simple reason that this gateway has the most flights, including some direct flights from the UK. Before launching out on a road trip it’s well worth spending a day or two exploring this city which effortlessly blends historic charm with a hip youthful vibe. Defined by its oceanfront location, Halifax features an attractive waterfront peppered with charming heritage buildings, fascinating museums, unique artisan shops and a lovely boardwalk area that’s ideal for taking in the fresh sea air and watching all the activity on the water.
You can also fly to St. John's – the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador – via Toronto or Montreal, and it’s a great airport to fly into with its small but perfectly formed terminal only a stone's throw from the downtown. And there are rumours of new direct flights from the UK and Ireland into St. John’s, so watch this space and fingers crossed you may be able to enjoy the beautifully short flight across the Atlantic.
Another gateway to Atlantic Canada is the road route from Quebec through New Brunswick. This is a beautiful trip and our itinerary “French Culture, lobsters and lighthouses” takes full advantage of this approach. You’ll fly into Montreal and drive through Quebec, crossing the border into the maritime province of New Brunswick at the city of Edmondston – which incidentally also borders Maine USA, before driving south through the province to the charming resort of St. Andrews-by-the-Sea. This lovely seaside town is a great starting point to your maritime adventure, as it’s a world renowned location for a whale-watching lifetime experience and has an abundance of delicious seafood restaurants.
How long in each destination?
Canadian Sky self-drive itineraries are tailormade to fit with your interests and your schedule, so you’ll need to have a think about what sort of activities, what experiences and which sights you want prioritise. Do you want to spend time hiking through the beautiful national parks? Are you keen to see much of the wildlife and birdlife that this region has to offer? Do you want to spend time in the cities, checking out the food scene, browsing the shops and discovering the history and culture of the region in their excellent museums and galleries? Do you have limited time but want to gain a real flavour of the region – visit a lighthouse, take a scenic coastal drive, go whale-watching and enjoy an evening of live music and craft beer. To help you decide, we’ve pulled together this handy guide of the highlights of Atlantic Canada.
The Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia
Each of province has at least one national park, and to help you narrow it down we’ve picked our favourites.
In Nova Scotia we’re suggesting the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, because here you will drive the famed Cabot Trail which is rated as one of the most scenic drives in Canada and one definitely not to be missed. Meander past lochs and glens, take in stunning sea views from wind-swept headlands and stop by sandy beaches, sleepy settlements and artisanal workshops enroute. You can also venture further inland into forests streaked with rivers and cascading waterfalls. Make your way up lofty granite plateaus boasting panoramic lookouts over wild areas home to bear, moose, and Canadian lynx. The stunning 7km Skyline Trail is especially recommended for its splendid sea views and unique wildlife encounters.
For Prince Edward Island it is easy – this tiny gem of a province is rightly proud of having its own national park. Known best for its wide, sandy beaches you can enjoy a lovely day by the seaside if you’re ready to relax. But you might prefer to explore the extensive walking trails and boardwalks to take in not just the beaches all the varied coastal terrain has to offer from sand dunes to saltwater marsh to Acadian forest.
On the Acadian shore of New Brunswick, discover Kouchibouguac National Park in New Brunswick, an awe-inspiring all-season destination. Named by the First Nations Mi'kmaq people after the Kouchibouguac (meaning “river of the long tides”) it is pronounced koochi-boog-wac, and was set up as a national park in 1969. It stretches along the Acadian Coastal Drive on New Brunswick’s east coast and is filled with salt marches, barrier islands, Acadian forest, sheltered lagoons, tidal rivers, freshwater systems, and 25 kilometres of shifting white sand dunes. Most visitors make a beeline for the canoeing, swimming in the warmest water in Canada, seal spotting, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and tobogganing, but there’s also 60 kilometres of bikeways (most of which are flat) and nine designated hiking trails. At night the park transforms into a dark-sky ocean paradise, described as one of the most magical astronomy parks in North America.
Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland and Labrador is part of the Long Range Mountains, stretching for over 1,805 square kilometres of Western Newfoundland, and is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site. It has a Lord of the Rings feel about it, with incredible scenery such as alpine plateau, coastal lowlands, glacial valleys, sheer cliffs, waterfalls, pristine lakes, and freshwater fjords - all of which create an eye-popping landscape. Don’t miss venturing through the billion-year-old Western Brook Pond Fjord on a two-hour interpretive cruise that takes in staggeringly huge waterfalls (including the 1,150-foot Pissing Mare Falls), the cliffside sculpture known as The Tin Man, and other fabled rock formations.
Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland and Labrador
History and our pick of the museums
In the capital of Prince Edward Island you will find St. Dunstan's Basilica, a must-see on your downtown stroll of this charming city. Surprisingly large and impressively gothic, this cathedral has stunning stained glass windows and a beautiful interior.
Now to the oldest known European settlement in North America and only known site established by Vikings in North America, which is found at the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula in Newfoundland and Labrador. L’Anse aux Meadows is a UNESCO World Heritage Site containing the excavated remains of a complete 11th-century Viking settlement, giving a fascinating glimpse into the Viking lifestyle.
Top of the must-visit list in Nova Scotia is the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, located on the waterfront in Halifax. Here you will understand more of the province and its relationship with the sea, through fascinating exhibits from the Titanic to the Halifax Explosion, from the Days of Sail to the Age of Steam, and from small craft boatbuilding to World War Convoys.
Step back in time and share the daily life of the Acadiens from 1770 to 1949 at the Village Historique Acadien in New Brunswick. This living museum is a historical site with over 60 historical buildings that brings you through centuries as you're greeted along the way by interpreters in period costumes recreating the lifestyle of their ancestors. A fascinating place to visit and create lasting memories.
Village Historique Acadien, New Brunswick
The Uniqueness of Atlantic Canada
Here we’ve picked the quirkiest most unique aspect of each of the provinces which are worth including to enjoy and understand this wonderful region.
For New Brunswick, it’s the food and drink scene topped off with a warm welcoming hospitality that makes the province such a lovely place to spend your holiday-time. Shediac is known as the Lobster Capital of the World, but no matter where you go in the province, you’ll be able to enjoy superb seafood such as lobster rolls (hotdog bun or roll, mayo or butter) and the seafood chowder (each restaurant has their own recipe). Fried clams, butter fried sea scallops, are also a real coastal road trip treat, as you’ll find them at all the seaside shacks and roadside diners. New Brunswick is now the second largest maple producer in Canada (third in the world), with a production of over four million kilograms of maple syrup per year, exported in 35 countries. If you want to experience New Brunswick culture, then tasting maple syrup is a must. To wash all of this down, you need to head to Fredericton - known as “The Craft Brewery Capital of Atlantic Canada’’ and you can treat yourself to a brew at one of the many innovative and inviting craft breweries. Canada’s oldest independent brewery, is located in the capital Saint John. Moosehead Breweries was founded in 1867 and is still privately owned and operated by the Oland family, in its sixth generation of ownership.
For Nova Scotia, it’s the lighthouses. You can’t tour Nova Scotia’s spectacular coastline without making a stop at some of its 160 historic lighthouses. These heritage sites remain an important testament to Nova Scotia’s proud maritime tradition and many are open to the public, sometimes providing guided tours that offer a deeper insight into the turbulent histories and inner workings of these shining beacons. Highlights include Sambro Lighthouse in Halifax (the oldest working lighthouse on the continent), Peggy’s Cove light station (the most photographed in the province) and the towering Louisbourg lighthouse in Cape Breton. If you’re heading South Shore, make your way along the Lighthouse Route which promises not only plenty of lovely lighthouses but sweeping ocean views, hiking trails and some memorable picnic spots as well.
For Newfoundland and Labrador, we’ve picked whale-watching and iceberg spotting. The best place for this is Twillingate, located on the edge of what is known as “Iceberg Alley” where 10,000 year old icebergs float serenely by in the sping and early summer. Here you can take the the Iceberg Quest Boat Tour, to cruise Iceberg Alley, spot humpback whales and watch the seabirds swoop along the coastline.
For Prince Edward Island, its unique draw is that here is the setting for the much beloved Anne of Green Gables book by L. M. Montgomery. There is a National Historic Site in the PEI National Park which is the real life home of Montgomery and provided the creative inspiration for the setting in her acclaimed novel. Be charmed by an encounter with Canada’s iconic redheaded sweetheart and relive the fictional orphan’s youthful adventures at the Island farmstead that inspired author Lucy Maud Montgomery.
Anne of Green Gables, Prince Edward Island
Suggested Self-Drive Itineraries