I enjoy planning a vacation almost as much as being on one. You start with a blank page and ultimately arrive at a milestone where you have all airfare, accommodation and top attractions identified. You research so much about the cities, tourist do’s and don’ts, and outdoor activities that you feel you could be an honorary ambassador for that location.
For the last decade we have taken our vacations abroad (England, Iceland, New Zealand, Italy, Hawaii) but in 2019 we became tourists in our own country. In June we touched the Pacific Ocean and in August we touched the Atlantic after we spent two weeks in Atlantic Canada. It was pretty special to get to Eastern Canada but it wasn’t done without hours of research and a bit of luck.
Here are some takeaways of our trip and pointers to help others if they are struggling to see these provinces.
Why does Atlantic Canada require a blog post? It’s within our own country so what’s so difficult? Two weeks is a good length of time to work with but the challenge was getting to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. Travel blogs, Tripadvisor posts and YouTube videos rarely covered all four provinces in a single trip and fewer did it in a fortnight.
This was an ambitious plan and not one that was commonly recommended.
Two weeks for the Maritimes (NS, NB and PEI) is manageable but would still require sacrificing sights. Adding in NL without backtracking was a logistical challenge and one I relished.
For reference here is where we were each day:
- Day 1: Halifax, NS
- Day 2: Halifax, NS
- Day 3: Moncton, NB
- Day 4: Moncton, NB
- Day 5: Kensington, PEI
- Day 6: Kensington, PEI
- Day 7: Port Hawksbury, NS
- Day 8: Chéticamp, NS
- Day 9: North Sydney, NS
- Day 10: Bonne Bay Pond, NL
- Day 11: Bonne Bay Pond, NL
- Day 12: St. John’s, NL
- Day 13: St. John’s, NL
- Day 14: St. John’s, NL
I will back up and explain how that came to be.
A perk of traveling within your own country should be direct flights, but that isn’t always a guarantee. Most provinces East of Quebec should have a direct flight from Edmonton but they don’t fly on a daily basis and the days they do fly direct may not line up with our preferred vacation length. Adding in a second airport complicated matters further.
In order to accommodate NL we needed to travel one way and avoid backtracking to our point of origin. This needed all the tools I use for flight research: Hipmunk, Google Flights and Kayak. A pattern emerged with flights to Halifax falling on Monday, Friday, Saturday and return flights from St. John’s being Wednesday, Thursday or Saturday.
From here it was as easy as putting this in to Google Sheets to visualize the key metrics: dates, trip length and cost.
Lesson #1: Airfare within Canada is still expensive. Flights from YEG -> YHZ and YYT -> YEG was cheaper than flying to Italy (only by $200) and more expensive than Maui.
I am a strong advocate of shoulder season travel but the slightly smaller crowds and cheaper costs are offset with cooler weather. If we were going to see what Canada has to offer then we would do it in summer months with nice weather, even if it meant doing so at a premium cost.
Halifax to St. John’s
With our travel dates set the next task was to figure out how to get from A to B and what would we see along the way. I wish I was the kind of person who could show up somewhere with nothing booked or planned and let the adventure happen but even writing that sentence out stressed me out.
Accommodation in summer is a premium on places like Edward Island and Cape Breton, car rentals needed to be arranged and ferries (with exact date and times) were required. I booked airfare five months in advance and accommodation, car rental and ferries four months out. This may not be everyone’s experience but I’m a keener on planning and didn’t want to leave any loose ends if it could be helped.
With a starting point and end point figured Jenna and I went in to research overdrive to learn everything we could about provinces, cities and what to see on the road. We spent a month researching, plotting our itinerary before we finalized our two weeks in Atlantic Canada. Some amusing comments offered to us were: New Brunswick is called “No Funswick” and has a higher speed limit to get people out of the province and when in Cheticamp eat lobster and do lobster fun things.
New Found Land
Before the itinerary could truly take shape we had to know how much time was spent in the Maritimes and in NL and the most important part: how and where would we arrive in NL.
Lesson #2: A coworker from New Brunswick corrected me in how I referred to NS, NB, PEI and NL as The Maritimes. He didn’t specify who was more offended by that classification but urged me to refer to all four provinces as Atlantic Canada. This is probably on the same level as calling Scotland “England” or including Ireland in “Great Britain” (graphical help).
Taking a ferry to Newfoundland was the obvious answer. Dropping the vehicle off on Nova Scotia, flying over, renting another vehicle and carrying on was too complex. Plus, we have never had a lengthy trip on a boat before and how bad can it be (spoiler: I was fine with the idea until Jenna pointed out the “evacuated” sign in our room that would be placed on the exterior of the door in the event something befell our vessel and we needed to leave).
The primary reason for going to Newfoundland was Gros Morne. I am not sure where I first heard those two words but when I saw images from Gros Morne I knew it had to be a part of our trip.
There are few inanimate objects I love more than hot dogs but fjords are a strong contender.
Gros Morne looked like something you would see in Norway or New Zealand and it immediately became a priority. Unfortunately it’s on the other end of the Newfoundland, about 700KM from St. John’s, but that’s Future Sean’s problem and he won’t mind driving all day having seen Gros Morne National Park.
Thankfully Marine Atlantic offers destinations in two ports, one close to St. John’s (130KM away) and the other on the western area, roughly 300KM from Gros Morne. With the ability to see Gros Morne and St. John’s locked in the 7 hour ferry ride was booked and I was able to map out the nine days leading up to the overnight ride.
What’s in a Maritime?
Prior to researching anything on the trip what did I know about the Maritimes? Peggy’s Cove, Bay of Fundy, Halifax, Cabot Trail and seafood. And that helped sort out the trip more than anything else. With a nine day window to get from Halifax (NS), stop in two other provinces before returning to North Sydney (NS) the plan fell together quite quickly.
There were a few key questions I looked for and the answers varied. I will add in my experience and muddy the waters further, but here were the biggest questions I had while planning:
How much time do you need in Prince Edward Island?
Two days at a minimum, three may be perfect. Our trip through Charlottetown was a wash due to the Gold Cup Parade and 5KM run at Victoria Park. We felt Charlottetown got the raw end of the deal here as we saw gridlock and turned around to find calmer roads out of town.
Crossing over on the Confederation Bridge we headed west (West Point Lighthouse) then north to L.M. Montgomery (aka Green Gables) for our first day. Our second day was spent exploring the beaches along the Cavendish area (Thunder Cove Beach, PEI National Park) and having a lobster dinner in New Glasgow.
If we had a proper third day I would have liked to explore the eastern reaches of the island. Thankfully we had some spare time and were able to go to Prim Point and have a lunch at Northumerland Provincial Park so the absence of Charlottetown wasn’t felt too badly but a few more hours would have been appreciated.
Length of time on the Cabot Trail?
I read reviews of anywhere from 8 hours to three days to drive the Cabot Trail. We drove clockwise and had two nights in Cheticamp but didn’t drive the majority of the trail until our second day where we drove, hiked, explored and had lunch during an 8 hour span.
We left our Airbnb at 9AM, hiked the Skyline Trail, Bog Trail, MacIntosh Brook, Green Cove and Middle Head. After all that we arrived in Florence at 5PM. I was feeling a bit weary by the end of the day but it was likely due to rain and following a caravan of vehicles out along the highway for the final hours.
Cabot Trail is a beautiful drive but not dangerous in anyway. Our experience from the South Island in New Zealand, Westfjords in Iceland or Hana Highway and West Maui Loop in Maui prepared us and made the Cabot Trail a breeze to handle.
I am not sure how anyone can spend three days on the Cabot Trail. We skipped over Meat Cove due to driving distance off of the Cabot Trail (~ 30KM). Not an impossible distance but a bit of a challenge to squeeze in on a full day.
Which side for viewing Bay of Fundy?
My research recommended going to the New Brunswick side and that’s what I will pass along. Although don’t do what we did and drive from Moncton to Bay of Fundy National Park (100KM) and then go another 80KM for the Hopewell Rocks. We needlessly drove for too long when Moncton to Hopewell Rocks is a simple 40KM drive. This was a big oops.
Although I would recommend time in Bay of Fundy National Park. We didn’t have an opportunity to hike any trails but it was gorgeous and even though we made a 150KM detour it was hard to be upset in there.
High tide of low tide for Hopewell Rocks?
This is a personal preference but having been there for high tide, waiting a few hours for low tide to arrive, we enjoyed low tide a thousand times more. Kayaking along the rocks in high tide would have been great but the onsite tour company was booked days in advance so this didn’t work with one of the few times we wanted to be spontaneous. Walking along the ocean floor and seeing how high the water rose was an amazing experience but it didn’t require an entire afternoon to see high tide and low tide.
Were we to revise our itinerary this would be the first adjustment. We would spend the morning in Bay of Fundy National Park and then an hour at Hopewell Rocks before returning to Moncton. Of course this is only possible if tide tables are in your favor.
Unfortunately Moncton failed to impress us and if we needed to make further adjustments to the itinerary we would consider driving from Halifax to Hopewell Rocks for low tide viewing, overnight in Moncton, and then leave the next day. Sorry Moncton, we may not have met each other when we were at our best but two nights here was was one too many.
Stay where you’re to ’til I comes where you’re at
A common question we received after our trip was if we were screeched in while in St. John’s. Simply put, no. The bars on George Street were numerous and some had signs to sign up for a ‘screeched in’ ceremony in the evening and the premeditation of it all was a bit off putting. We are also not night owls so going out for getting screeched in wasn’t for us.
Atlantic Canada is as beautiful as you would expect, and in some areas it was even more breathtaking than I was prepared for. As a landlocked kid from the Prairies I never tired of seeing a shoreline, harbors and having an opportunity to walk near either (Halifax, St. John’s). Each province was unique in their own way and it was a treat to see the subtle changes as we drove. However, there are a few highlights were calling out:
- Prince Edward Island was stunning and looked better in person. The red beaches against the water never got tiresome. The province is idyllic and has charm at every corner.
- The winner for extreme beauty was Newfoundland. We came off the ferry in Port aux Basques under rain clouds but as we drove the silhouettes of rugged terrain appeared and my first landscape inspired curse was uttered. The clouds eventually left and I was left in awe for the remainder of our drive. Lakes, ponds, trees, exposed rocks, fjords, the province was packed!
The summer of 2019 in Edmonton was a bit of a disappointment. If it wasn’t raining it was cold. We timed our trip perfectly and had wonderful weather and even with diligent application of sunscreen we came back with a tan. Yet, if we were a few weeks later in our trip we would have experienced Hurricane Dorian and could have had a different experience entirely.
Prior to our trip we bought a Parks Canada Discovery Pass and this $109CAD well spent. We used this in every province and visited a total of nine National Historic Sites and National Parks, the majority of which would have required admission. I would recommend a Discovery Pass for any visitors that plan on spending more than a few days in Atlantic Canada. I would also urge visitors to photograph their Pass and refer to it on your phone as proof of purchase for times you walk in to a site (ie: Citadel Hill in Halifax, Green Gables in PEI).
We didn’t give New Brunswick a chance to wow us, we came for Bay of Fundy and moved on. Our time in Moncton was a bit underwhelming and we felt a different vibe there than any other location we were in. This isn’t Moncton’s fault but it was our least favorite time on the trip.
I mentioned Gros Morne above and the single most important sight I wanted to see was not visible due to clouds. Western Brook Pond may look stunning with rock walls, waterfalls and pristine water but we saw nothing.
We made lemonade and persevered, seeing sights (in the rain), did hikes and enjoyed the National Park despite the weather.
In 2014 we visited Milford Sound (New Zealand) and had perfect blue cloudless skies. This area is the wettest part of New Zealand, averages rain every day out of two and we had a perfect day. Perhaps this is a bit of weather karma but I’m not complaining.
Until Next Time
Given the opportunity to return to Atlantic Canada what would we do? Priority one would be give more time to Nova Scotia. We had five nights in the province but it could easily have had a dozen. Halifax was lovely and we barely scratched the surface. We sacrificed this province significantly to make the trip work and the province felt worthy of more time.
New Brunswick may be good to see more of and change my opinion of it, but given the choice of where I would spend more time the answer would be Nova Scotia.
While a little harder to manage more time in Newfoundland would be a must. There were remote areas off of the Trans Canada we didn’t reach and with such a rugged coastline we could drop in to coves, inlets and bays for a week and never tire of them.
Worth a Thousand Words
Now that you’ve read a few thousand words feel free to look at the photos from the trip that have been added to my personal gallery.