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Lonesome coastal beauty

Shore between Halifax, Cape Breton rugged, history-rich

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Nova Scotia -- with its beaches, quaint fishing villages and abundance of seafood -- draws two million visitors a year. But the Eastern Shore, a stunning, rugged stretch of shoreline between Halifax and Cape Breton, remains a lonesome paradise.

When we were there visiting my husband's uncle, he wanted us to try his corned beef, a Nova Scotian staple usually served with cabbage. We ate it cold, in front of the radiating heat from the cast-iron stove, crackling away in spite of the warm summer day outside. The meat is salty and fatty.

"It's good, Keith," said my husband, but "no, thanks," when offered more.

A huge wood pile by the kitchen door was growing by the day. Houses are heated with wood here, and Keith chopped his whole winter supply by himself.

Across the road lives another relative, an elderly woman who lacks running water. Pipes were installed 50 years ago, but never hooked up. Too modern, she claimed; the well and the outhouse worked just fine, and apparently still do.

Time has stopped on the Eastern Shore. Dwindling fish stocks and a modernized wood industry have depopulated an already sparsely inhabited area.

Every year, tourists come to see the UNESCO World Heritage site Lunenburg, the rocks and lighthouse at Peggy's Cove, or to play golf and listen to the fiddling in Cape Breton. But very few come to the Eastern Shore; the area generates only 1.4 per cent of the province's tourism income.

And yet, this coast boasts long sandy beaches -- including the longest in the province -- wildlife, fresh seafood and warm hospitality.

Taking Highway 7 from Halifax, the road meanders along the coast all the way up to the Canso Causeway and Cape Breton, a distance of about 400 kilometres that takes at least six hours by car, not including stops.

An interesting alternative would be to do it on bike or -- for the adventurous -- kayak. There is also a bus service, but this option would require both patience and flexibility.

After less than an hour of driving, you will reach the village of Musquodoboit Harbour. Stop for an ice cream at the railway museum in summer or a coffee at the Dobitt Bakehouse any time of the year.

The bakery is organic, makes the best brown bread in Canada (ask for Granny's Brown) and is situated in a strip mall just before the exit for Martinique Beach. We buy fair-trade coffee and hot-from-the-oven muffins for a beach picnic, but when we get to Martinique, there isn't even a crumb left.

Martinique's five kilometres of white sand make it the longest beach in Nova Scotia and, with its big waves, a mecca for surfers who come in hordes from Halifax on the weekends. But we're here on a weekday and find the beach virtually deserted, except for a lonely surfer and a couple walking their dog. There's a bird sanctuary behind the beach for migrating geese and ducks.

After a refreshing swim, we stop at the Tourist Trap, where the owner, a young woman, cooks up savoury dishes from local ingredients, sells handicrafts and runs a bed and breakfast. I buy a pair of earrings made by her friend, or maybe it's a cousin, because everyone seems related here.

"We serve breakfast all day," she says, as we study the menu. Voila, french toast made from homemade bread it is, and I don't regret it.

We continue to the Fisherman's Life Museum in Oyster Pond for a portion of local history. Charming ladies give us a tour of the old homestead where the fisherman Myers lived behind knitted lace curtains with his wife and 13 daughters.

"Myers?" says my husband. "Did they have a relative a few coves away, a doctor in West Jeddore?" And -- why not? -- we're visiting relatives again, even if their home is now a museum. When passing by the kitchen on our way out, we try not to stare at a sheet of steaming hot molasses cookies. We're lucky, and we get one for the road. Thick and moist, I find they're a better version of my childhood gingerbread cookies we had for Christmas in Sweden.

For more history, visit the Memory Lane Heritage Village just 10 minutes farther down the road. This is a living-history museum depicting rural Nova Scotia in the 1940s. We especially appreciate the gas station and the ice house where we get to feel the cold blocks through layers of sawdust, ice that was brought in last winter and still frozen.

Sheep and chicken wander freely around the property, and there's a cookhouse that serves baked beans and other local specialties. It smells sweet and homelike, and I regret that I am too full to eat again.

Just by the Heritage Village is where you find the exit for Clam Harbour Beach, another long stretch of sandy beach far out in the Atlantic Ocean. The fog can get thick and the water cold, but we're lucky.

It's sunny when we get there, and the water around 20 C. We like Martinique, but this is even better. We have the soft sand and the rolling ocean to ourselves -- not counting seagulls and piping plovers.

Although Highway 7 offers beautiful vistas of the coast, you should still make time for a detour now and then to explore the little coves where fishing hamlets once thrived.

The old homesteads are spread out in the rolling hills surrounding the bays, and white, wooden churches look like sprinkles against all the green. Many churches are closed today, with the old, boxlike houses wrapped in vinyl for protection against the salt spray or left to fend for themselves after their inhabitants put up trailers closer to the main road. With their white painted shingles peeling, these old houses are reminiscent of earlier times, when the seaway was the closest way and you took your dory to the next village.

A visit to folk artist Barry Colpitts in Tangier is a must. His wooden carvings have religious or Maritime motifs and are painted in bright colours. Colpitts' work is sought after by private collectors in Canada and the U.S., and he has several clips on YouTube.

He is patient with us, presents us to his oxen, those who drag the logs for his carvings from the woods behind his house, and he shows us his studio. We comment upon the thick, shiny paint.

"Boat paint," he explains, "full of chemicals." He shows us how he paints with his hands through holes in the wall, to get away from the fumes. I buy a little seagull with a bright pink tongue, and we're off again.

Tangier, like most communities here, consists of small houses spread out along the road and in the coves, and lacks an evident centre. Once upon a time, these communities had a store, a school, a post office and other services. But today, people get in their cars and on the highway to get milk.

Shoal Bay in Tangier is the home of Coastal Adventures, a small family business that rents kayaks, specializes in guided tours and is also a bed and breakfast. The owner, Scott Cunningham, has kayaked his way around Nova Scotia and has written a book about his adventures.

Kayaking is no doubt the best way to explore this rugged shoreline and its beauty. Book a day trip or one of the longer ones with a guide, or take off on your own. We paddle for a whole day without encountering a trace of civilization and swim and eat our picnic on a small island with white sand.

A bald eagle circles high above and we see huge colonies of loons, cormorants and blue herons. When we later come by a noisy group of seals hauled out on some rocks, we're reminded of a trip to the Galapagos, but without the cruise ships and hordes of tourists.

Apart from the occasional fishing boat, there are hardly any motorboats on the Eastern Shore, hardly any boats at all actually, and this becomes an almost spiritual experience -- if it wasn't for our blisters the day after.

The provincial park of Taylor Head is our next stop. The walking trails here climb high above the ocean and although we're still somewhat awestruck by nature from our kayaking, the views impress us.

Bring a picnic from Willy Krauch's smokehouse in Tangier, a family business with Danish ancestry. Even with my Scandinavian upbringing, I never had better smoked salmon in my life. My husband prefers the cold smoked; I love the hot smoked with lemon pepper. But it all tastes divine up there, halfway to heaven.

In the small village of Marie Joseph, we're finally hit by the famous fog, and fishing boats docked by the road appear as ghosts in the milky white. We search for a side road down to the water.

"Just a dirt road," says my husband, who remembers a childhood excursion to a rocky beach.

We find it, eventually, and drive slowly down the bumpy gravel path. The last part is under water and we park the car and walk. But it's worth the effort: It's us, the sky and the ocean.

We take off our shoes and step out on the baseball-size rocks, worn round and smooth from the eternal rolls of the Atlantic. The rhythmic sound of the waves hitting the rocks is soothing, almost hypnotizing, and we sit down, trying to take in this naked beauty.

I think I want to stay here forever -- until we're reminded that, however smooth they are, they're still rocks. And we stumble back to the car with sore bottoms.

We end our trip in Sherbrooke Village, a restored part of an old gold-mining town and Nova Scotia's largest museum with around 80 houses, including an active blacksmith's workshop, a wood-turner shop and a pottery studio.

This is an older Nova Scotia than the one we saw in the Heritage Village, as it presents Sherbrooke at the time of the gold rush in the 1860s. At the museum restaurant, the Tea Room, I finally get to have my baked beans, served with the traditional brown bread.

It's almost time to leave, but how can we visit the Eastern Shore without experiencing the lobster? We walk through the aisles at Foodland supermarket in Sheet Harbour, shelf after shelf filled with chips, pop and fast food.

"Lobster?" says a lady with the Foodland logo on her jacket. "Do you mean canned?"

Whole jet planes are loaded with them; I can buy lobster from the Eastern Shore in Stockholm, but not here. We have to go down to the dock and get our lobster directly from the fishermen. On the bright side, we pay $5 a pound and they don't get any fresher. There's a scratching and clicking noise coming from the cardboard box as we take them back to the car, and I decide it's my husband who will have to drop them into the boiling water.

The lobster boats have big number signs; the fishing is strictly regulated, with no poaching allowed. These creatures have become a culinary luxury, and the Canadian export is worth about $1 billion per year.

Back when my husband's uncle was a boy, however, schoolchildren from well-off families would get ham in their lunch sandwich. The poor Nova Scotians on the Eastern Shore had to make do with lobster.

-- Postmedia News

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2013 A1

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