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Mainland Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, or both?

My husband and I are looking into taking a road trip to Nova Scotia and/or Cape Breton next summer. Since we'll have our own car, we'll have the flexibility to go wherever we want. We know it will involve a lot of time in the car, (not sure if we'll drive the whole way or take the CAT from Maine). We do want to travel at a somewhat leisurely pace and not see sights in passing on our way to the next hotel, if that makes sense.

We'll have 12 days for this vacation, including getting to CAN and back home. So that leaves probably 10 days, assuming we drive straight through from home and back in one day each way.

Do you think we'll have a good amount of time to see mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton or should we pick one or the other? If the answer is to pick just one, which would you pick and why, given the time frame we he ave?

If this matters, we're in our late 40s/early 50s, and we love shopping, strolling through cute towns, being near the water, seeing museums, getting to know local culture, finding great restaurants, and listening to great music. We're not into hiking or camping.

Posted by
2479 posts

It's been a couple of decades, but I thought all of NS was worth visiting, and I think 12 days is enough time to do that. Cape Breton is definitely the most scenic, but we also enjoyed the western end at the Bay of Fundy quite a bit.

Posted by
2454 posts

FWIW, it’s been many years since we have been but Cape Breton was a standout in my mind. The fortress of Louisbourg and the Cape Breton Trail are wonderful. We took the ferry from Bar Harbor which is a lot of fun and saves driving time since your time is limited. I would recommend it. There is a lot of driving involved so you will have to do some homework on distances and driving time. We seriously underestimated the amount of time it would take to get from point a to point b and used to joke afterwards that Nova Scotia was only an inch on the map. Halifax is worth a stop as is Peggy’s Cove. The website novascotia.com has good information for itineraries and things to see.

Posted by
5035 posts

I agree with the previous posts. The ferry will likely save you time, and you should be able to see a fair bit of both the main part of NS and Cape Breton if you do adequate advance research. But you really need to be mindful of distances, especially on the Cabot Trail.

Posted by
771 posts

We didn't spend any time in Cape Breton, preferring to focus on one major area at a time, and a couple of years ago, we spent about 3 weeks in Nova Scotia. There's a lot to see, and we are slow travelers--even if you're not, you can easily spend 10 days there. We took the ferry from St. John, New Brunswick, which was really easy. Annapolis Royal is interesting if you're into or fan of Champlain and the first European settlements in North America. The fort has been rebuilt but using the original plans and it's period-furnished. The unique electrical power generating station offers guided tours, unique because it's the only place in North America that produces electricity from the ebb and flow of the tides. Speaking of, definitely make time for Burntcoat Head Park and the Bay of Fundy. This place is really worth a full day, or two nights, which you will need to see both high and low tides, the highest being the highest tide in the world (about 53 feet above sea level). In low tide, you can explore and/or have dinner on the ocean floor. Watching the high tide come up is spectacular. Prospect Bay is on the way to Peggy's Cove. It's a picturesque little village, with lots of scenic cottages, wildflowers and sailboats. Of course, Peggy's Cove for the lighthouse is a must-do. Try to get there before noon; parking is a real beast. We stopped in about half a dozen other small villages on the coast, each unique and charming in its own way. Our pilgrimage of the trip was to Cole Harbor, Sidney Crosby's childhood home, but the post office changed all the house numbers on the street, so you couldn't find his actual house! Halifax is worth a good couple days. They have a very interesting immigration museum, and the Maritime museum houses Titanic artifacts (and the nearby cemetery the remains of some of the passengers), and there's an interesting sports heroes museum (mostly about Sid of course). The Public Gardens in Halifax are gorgeous. We were there for Canada Day, so we got the fireworks, and there was a Tattoo, but I don't know if that's an annual thing or not. Lunenburg is a wonderful little seaside town with beautiful views and great food, the best we had in all of NS. I'd say Lunenburg is a must-do; plan to spend a couple of days just wandering the streets and eating. Near there is Blue Rocks, again a tiny fishing town with beautiful views. Mahone Bay has got a lot of little neighborhoods with historic houses along the main street and churches in a row, making an interesting view of the steeples from the road. If you are interested in history, near Yarmouth is The Historical Acadian Village of Nova Scotia, which has videos, buildings and a period-costumed staff who explain and demonstrate both the commercial and domestic lives of the Acadians before they were forced to leave Canada. On the way out, if you haven't already seen it, I'd recommend you make time for Roosevelt Campobello International Park, a joint-US-Canadian venture. It is the Roosevelt's summer retreat, actually located in Canada, right across the border from Lubec, Maine. It's where the President was stricken with polio, and the site has the family "cottage" as well as a big visitor center, hiking trails and beaches. We also fit a bunch of other small towns and lighthouses into our time in Nova Scotia, and for the big shopping finish, hit the LL Bean store in Freeport on our way back to Portland for our return flight home. As I said, not being hikers or excessively enthusiastic "nature" buffs, we haven't been to Cape Breton yet, but I don't think you'd regret spending your entire 10 days in Nova Scotia.

Posted by
3941 posts

We've done the Cabot Trail with just an overnight before - if you really want to get into hiking and maybe seeing Sydney/Fortress Louisbourg you may want to add - say - a day for hiking and a day for Louisbourg/Sydney. The Alexander Graham Bell museum is interesting.

I guess it depends on what you want to see/do.

A day on the South Shore is nice - Peggy's Cove, Lunenburg, Mahone Bay (two cute towns there!) - could be done in one full day - even as a day trip from Halifax, starting early. We have long evening hours here, and Peggy's Cove is really nice in the evening.

Annapolis Valley/Wolfville is gorgeous - a full day would probably suffice - but you can't really do it as a day trip from Hali - would be too long of a day, so two nights there would prob do ya.

If you're into fossils, check into Parrsboro, otherwise you can prob leave off that part of the province - though there are some nice hikes there.

Pack your bug spray because between the mosquitoes, deer flies and black flies, it gets bitey.

Three nights in Halifax (2 full days) is probably enough - again, depending. And depending on what part of summer, look into the Royal Nova Scotia Tattoo (early July, methinks - and now back after Covid shutdown) and usually early August is the Busker Festival.

Posted by
27 posts

Thank you, Mary! Would you recommend spending most of our time in Cape Breton? Halifax, Peggy's Cove, and Louisburg are on our list. I'll look into the Cabot Trail and the Cape Breton trail. I'll also look through noviascotia.com for other revommendations. Good suggestion to take the ferry from Bar Harbor. I tend to get seasick so I'm nervous about the ferry, but I'll look into getting medication if the time we'd save is significant.

I'm just learning about properly estimating the distance and time it will take from place to place. This trip may replace our planned anniversary trip to Ireland next summer (due to the chaos and cost of flying and renting a car these days). I'll keep in mind that traveling in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton are similar to Ireland.

Posted by
27 posts

Thank you, Wanderlust58! I appreciate you taking the the time to write such a detailed post! I'm torn between seeing more by going to both Cape Breton and mainland Nova Scotia or just choosing one to focus on. NS is a 9-10 hour drive from us, and Cape Breton is about a 12-13 hour drive. We could focus on one place this time around and somewhat easily do the other a different time. But will we?

We saw the Bay of Fundy at both high tide and low tide a few years ago on a trip to St. John and PEI. It was really cool.

Prospect Bay and Peggy's Cove are on our list of things we want to see (before noon, I'll keep that in mind).I'm adding your other suggestions to look into, as well. Thank you, again!

Posted by
6619 posts

With ten full days you really have time to visit both mainland NS and Cape Breton Island. Unless you want to camp and hike, the Cabot Trail should take two days. Here's a place we stayed years ago in a beautiful setting, maybe worth an extra day as a base for the north end of Cape Breton. Louisbourg could be the focus of another day, Baddeck and the Bras d'Or Lakes another. There's lots to see on the mainland, especially Halifax. Peggy's Cove is nice but just one of many beautiful harbors with lighthouses along the Atlantic coast. I didn't see the tides the previous poster described but I wish I had.

We took the now-defunct ferry between Portland and Yarmouth, which saved a lot of driving and some time. I love boat rides, but keep in mind that the boat is much slower than driving. The distance it saves may be worth the time it takes, or may not.

Posted by
2454 posts

We were living in MA (north of Worcester) at the time of this trip and drove for 6 hours to Bar Harbor where we spent the night. That was a long drive. We took route one from Freeport which is our preferred route to Bar Harbor as it is really scenic. You’re going to do it in 9 hours? Yikes! The next morning we took the ferry to Yarmouth and then drove to Lunenburg where we spent the night. The ferry is a fun and interesting experience seeing how you load your vehicle on board. We saw whales on the trip over. We had a wonderful breakfast buffet going over and dinner coming back. I don’t know if they still have meals on the new ferry. I get very seasick as well and was tempted to jump overboard on the ferry trip to Yarmouth despite having taken Dramamine. What saved me on the trip back was the scopolamine patch which I could buy over the counter in Canada. I highly recommend getting a prescription for the patch. The new ferry (CAT) is supposed to be a far more comfortable, stable ride than the older ferry we took so maybe the seasickness won’t be bad if you get the patch. We visited Peggy’s Cove. That does not require much time. We spent half a day in Halifax and went to the citadel. There is also the Blue Nose to visit and perhaps take a sail on. We spent most of our time in Cape Breton. We spent a couple of nights in Baddeck and visited the Alexander Graham Bell museum and Louisbourg where we spent a full day. If they are still selling the loaves of bread at Louisbourg, you should try it. Back in the day, the soldiers at the fort got one loaf a day. After eating it, I could understand how that one loaf and some beer could sustain them as it is quite hearty. The Bras d’Or (golden arm) in Baddeck lived up to its name at sunset when we were there. We drove the Cabot Trail which is quite beautiful along the coast. It is something like Big Sur. We then drove down the Bay of Fundy side of Nova Scotia and visited Fort Anne and Port Royal. Driving in Nova Scotia is easy and the same as driving in the US. It is nothing like Ireland with all the narrow roads and driving on the opposite side. We had some long days on the road in Nova Scotia which was poor planning on my side all those years ago. I hope you get to Ireland at some point.

Posted by
27 posts

Thank you, Nicole. We're planning this trip for the end of July next summer. We're not hikers (or campers), but we love taking scenic drives, walking through cute towns to shop, finding great restaurants, being near the water, getting to know local culture, and seeing an occasional museum. We'd like to see Louisburg (maybe Sydney, too - just need to up on things to do there), and maybe the Alexander Graham Bell museum.

Peggy's Cove, Lunenburg, and Mahone Bay are all on our lists of places to visit. I'll read up on Annapolis Valley and Wolfville.

Posted by
27 posts

Thank you, Dick. We're not hikers or campers, so I'll keep in mind that 2 days is sufficient for driving the Cabot Trail. We were in New Brunswick a few years ago and we went to the Hopewell Rocks to see the tides. It was a fun thing to see but we may skip seeing the tides this time around.

We considered taking the CAT from Bar Harbor to Yarmouth, but I've read too many negative reviews about sea sickness, rough waters, and it not being much of a time saver. We've decided to drive.

Posted by
27 posts

Thank you, Mary! I know, I'm not crazy about driving 9+ hours to Halifax in one day, but my husband thinks it will be fine. As a side note, we're driving 9-10 hours to Toronto this summer, and my husband considers it a test so to speak, to see how doable it really is. He may change his mind about driving to Halifax in a day after that. We'll see!

I'll look into the patch but we'll skip the CAT ferry trip. I'll even do some of the driving since it's no different than driving here in the US. Driving in Ireland was nerve racking for me but it didn't phase my husband. Nothing gets to him. 😂 We'll get back there sometime, just maybe not next summer. Thank you again!

Posted by
6619 posts

I don't know where you're starting from, but it will take a long time to get from, say, Boston to Nova Scotia. Rather than US 1, I'd suggest the Maine Turnpike to Augusta, then route 3 west to Belfast, then pick up 1 through the rest of Maine. The route through Augusta will be less scenic but probably much faster, avoiding the most crowded parts of 1 as it winds up the coast.

Posted by
2454 posts

Dick is right. Route One will be slower especially through Wiscasset (bumper to bumper through this beautiful town) and Camden (traffic lights). We have done the route he suggests. Once. It is quicker but boring as heck. Choose your poison.

Posted by
205 posts

Nova Scotia gal here! So happy to hear you're planning on visiting my beautiful home province; it doesn't get the attention it deserves very often!

Having spent my entire life here I would absolutely, without a doubt see both the mainland and Cape Breton with 10 days. With 10 days I'd say the split should lie somewhere around 3 days for Cape Breton, 3 days in Halifax, and the other 4 I would spend in B&Bs or hotels in smaller areas of the province, possibly 2 nights at White Point Beach Resort or Quarterdeck Resort (use as a base for Mahone Bay and Lunenburg, the lighthouse route, Carter's Beach too), and 2 nights in the Valley exploring the tiny roadside shops and restaurants.

In Cape Breton, Sydney definitely deserves at least a few hours. Lunch at Governor's followed by a stroll on the waterfront and the world's largest fiddle is a great way to spend a few hours. Even better if you're there for dinner with some music.

Peggy's Cove outside of Halifax is a must-do. Please watch the signs and stay off the black rocks. In the city center, the Public Gardens make for a nice stroll, as does the downtown area, especially the Waterfront. There are many fantastic restaurants in that area- Ristorante a Mano and The Bicycle Thief are top notch food with the friendly atmosphere you'd expect from Haligonians.

I could go on and on, but I hope you have a wonderful trip!

Posted by
27 posts

Thank you, Duck and Mary. We'll be coming from southern Maine. Google Maps lists 95, 395, 295, and route 1A through Bar Harbor. I'll compare that with other routes.

Posted by
27 posts

Thank you, theplanningqueen! To be honest, this trip is most likely replacing our planned anniversary trip to Ireland. I was bummed when we began talking about postponing that trip, but we're excited to save some $ and not have to deal with the high cost of renting a car or dealing with the chaos of airlines, cancelled or delayed flights, etc.

We've always planned on going to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton someday since it's close to home (well, an 11 hour drive, but definitely doable). Now, we get to visit sooner and we're excited!

We've been working on our itinerary, and we're going to drive to Halifax for a couple of days (to see the city's waterfront, Peggy's Cove, Mahone Bay, and Lunenburg). Then we'll head north to Baddeck. We'll take a day trip east to Louisberg to visit the fortress and then back to Baddeck for 2-3 days (?). We've heard about Governor's Pub in Sydney. Can that be done on our day trip to Louisburg?

We'll then make our way counter clockwise through Ingonish, Cheticamp, Inverness, and Mabou. We don't have anything actually planned in these towns yet. Just explore, shop, get to know local culture, listen to lots of music hopefully, and take lots of pictures.

After Cape Breton, my husband wants to drive back to Halifax for 2 more days to explore the waterfront and downtown area (the Citadel, public gardens, the boardwalk at the waterfront), and maybe a museum. The Bicycle Thief is in my list - I've heard great things about it! I'll also look into your other recommendation. We don't have plans to drive further south than Lunenburg, but we can think about that.

Thank you again for your recommendations!