Island hopping in the North Atlantic
72 Hours: Nova Scotia
My bartering skills need work. Hungry and in search of fresh seafood at the farmer’s market, I sidestep locals blocking my beeline to the solitary oyster stand. Splayed out in front are seven mammoth slurpers of the Ruisseau variety. Countless foam coolers offer the promise of more, but the woman behind the stand brings sad news: the baker’s half-dozen of bivalves will have to do. That’s all she has left. A brief exchange of words and cash and I’ve emptied Mrs. D’Eon of her unsold stock. Hell, I even agreed on three pounds of fresh halibut as a form of consolation — at full pop. I begin to trundle off, disappointed and craving more of the renowned Ruisseaus, when it happens: Nolan D’Eon, the man behind Eel Lake Oyster Farm, is apparently en route with a huge shipment of more oysters than I could hope to shuck. I blurt “gimme twenty” from behind a smile, newly-minted (molded?) plastic Canadian dollars flying from my pocket. If this were Seattle or Hong Kong I’d swear it was a setup, but in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, victory is mine.
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Going Back to Hali
If you buy what license plates purport, Nova Scotia is Canada’s Ocean Playground. Surrounded by the Bay of Fundy, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulfs of both Maine and St. Lawrence, the place’s nickname is pretty damned accurate; the coast is never more than 42 miles away. Halifax serves as the capital and doubles as our port of entry. It’s arguably one of Canada’s prettiest cities, built around a harbor and boardwalk that are always humming with activity. It wouldn’t take much of an argument to keep us in Hali, but the allure of a PCH-style cruise down to the province’s southwestern tip couldn’t be ignored — we had a boat to catch.
There was a time when much of New York’s quintessential bagel topping was imported from Nova Scotia. While it is now labelled as Nova Lox, Atlantic Canada’s version of the sublimely cold-smoked salmon is no less spectacular. Lucky for you, we found a couple great places that deliver.
J. Willy Krauch and Sons preps and sells a solid selection of smoked seafood of all kinds. Mackerel, herring, trout and of course salmon can all be ordered with ease. We recommend grabbing the whole side fillet of cold-smoked salmon to keep things fresh during shipping and so you can practice your knife skills.
St. Mary’s River Smokehouses packages its products in Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia and boasts a delectable little treat they call Royal Nova. Hand selected fillets are cold-smoked and trimmed multiple times to yield only the most uniform loins. Even the pellicle is removed to ensure the most tender and flavorful fillets.
Hop on either the 101 or the 103 out of YHZ (Halifax International Airport) and either coastal highway will spoil you with tidal scenery as both wind, wane and eventually meet in the town of Yarmouth. The Atlantic route leads to lighthouses and fights amongst the knee socks and sandals crowd for photo ops at Peggy’s Cove, Lunenburg and Mahone Bay. Head the other way, along the bay, and mealtime stops in Wolfville and Annapolis Royal will score you some delectable cuisine. This time around, we bombed the bay and kept it planted until 101 met 103.
Beer, Bivalves and Crustaceans
A small picturesque fishing port on the southwestern shores of Nova Scotia, Yarmouth played home base for our stay and served as our cast-off point for our island adventure. The town itself is almost Rockwellian, dotted by signature Cape Cod style homes and cottages, small white, wooden churches strewn here and there. Main Street is broken up by a crosswalk every hundred feet or so, but that doesn’t stop the locals from darting across wherever they like. There are exactly two bars. They sit across the road, making things simple should one get kicked out of one’s first choice; both have a great selection of craft taps.
Yarmouth also finds itself smack dab in the middle of the world’s largest lobster fishing grounds. So plentiful are their stocks that a constantly rolling season is on steady parade. I gorge myself on a two-pounder at a beach-front fishery that bolsters its business with a small restaurant operation. Formal dining this is not. The placemats have diagrams and instructions on how to find and eat all of the sweet meat and if you want it, you bring your own hooch. The plates are paper, the utensils are plastic and my bib makes me feel like an eight year-old — this is living. On better weather days the dining room is the beach itself, but its cool and drizzly so we hide out in a six-table hut. Our night ends at the larger of the two bars and slightly early: tomorrow we set sail.
Shipwrecks and Sheep
Our final day saw us skipping through the Tusket Islands, quickly passing intriguingly named land masses like Haymaker, Murder and Turpentine in favor of the last isle in the chain. Seal Island is the southwesternmost slab of silt still included within the province of Nova Scotia. Small in stature and surrounded by what the local fishermen refer to as “tricky” waters, the only way to get to the island is by boat — preferably a large one. In the North Atlantic it’s not unheard of for gigantic swells, rogue waves, shifting tides or fast weather to turn boats into barnacle bait without warning. In 1991, a freighter named the Fermont met with stormy conditions while negotiating the coast and took on water. The captain decided he’d rather beach his ship than risk a journey to the briny deep, and today the Fermont‘s gradually disintegrating hull still sits upon Seal Island’s shore, a greeting to tourists, summer time residents and the odd sheep. Thankfully, our boat was a good size and the conditions were impeccable — the water was glass and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
Not only was the ocean flat, it was low — the tide was out and our vessel was too large to land at the dock. Thankfully, our thoughtful captain had dragged his runabout behind us; 75 feet from shore, we carefully transferred from ship to boat and made our way inland. Settled in the early 1800s, Seal Island was first put to use as a refuge for sailors lucky enough to make it ashore after losing battles to those “tricky” waters. A lighthouse quickly found a home on the island’s east shore in 1831 that, although decommissioned, is still standing the test of time.
Our walk to see Nova Scotia’s oldest wooden lighthouse took us through the West and East Side Villages, both of which served as year-round fishermen’s residences until the early 1990s and today are simple summertime cottages. Powered by shared diesel generators and warmed via wood-stoves, the small wooden homes somehow survived the region’s harsh winters and protected their sailor inhabitants. On our way back to the mainland, we realized that these homes epitomize Nova Scotia’s charm: hardy, quaint, and unassuming, they seem entirely comfortable with the peace and quiet of waterside life.