12 must-do experiences in Atlantic Canada

Four unique provinces on Canada’s east coast offer remote and rugged parks, sublime beaches, and vibrant cities full of heart and character.

Photograph Courtesy Atlantic Canada Tourism
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Sunset at Cavendish Beach, Prince Edward Island National Park.
Photograph Courtesy Atlantic Canada Tourism

From the rushing fury of the world’s highest tides to serene red sands and sublime seafood, the four provinces that make up Atlantic Canada – New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island – offer travelers an array of activities. Here are 12 ways to experience the best of all four provinces.

NEW BRUNSWICK

Whale Watch in the Bay of Fundy

The world’s highest tides rise and fall over 50 feet in the Bay of Fundy, and all that rushing water creates a fertile summer feeding ground for up to 12 species of whales. Take a trip on a converted fishing boat, or a fast and thrilling inflatable Zodiac. You may well encounter the majesty of a breaching humpback or get close to endangered North Atlantic right whales, minkes, finbacks - even white-beaked dolphins. Stay in pretty St. Andrews by-the-sea to catch a Zodiac tour with Fundy Tide Runners or sail on the historic Jolly Breeze tall ship.

Catch the Vibe in Saint John

This revitalized city on the Bay of Fundy has become a cultural hub and summer festival destination. By day browse the historic Saint John City Market, and the indie boutiques, galleries, and coffee shops in the uptown area. Start your night in the city with dinner at Port City Royal, which serves up innovative locally sourced cuisine and fab cocktails. Sample brews at the Loyalist Brewing Company, then wrap your evening up with a dram or two at the tiny Hopscotch Whisky Bar spread over three intimate floors of a historic brick building. Be sure to check out the natural phenomenon of the Reversing Falls, where waters from the St John River and Bay of Fundy crash together, and best observed from the SKYWALK experience - a steel and glass platform suspended above the water.

Hike Mount Carleton

Located in the sublime 42,000-acre Acadian forest wilderness of Mount Carleton Provincial Park, Mount Carleton is the province’s highest peak and offers a 2,500 foot climb that rewards you with views of millions of trees. Part of the Appalachian Mountains, more than 30 species of mammals and 100 species of bird live here, as well as rare flora such as alpine blueberries. Designated a Dark Sky Preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, staying the night is a stargazers dream. Pitch your tent at one of three serviced campgrounds in the park, set up camp at one of many backcountry sites, or stay in a heritage lakeside log cabin.

NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR

Explore the Majestic Landscape of Gros Morne

For hikers, Gros Morne National Park UNESCO World Heritage Site is one incredible destination. The Tablelands are geographically unique - they allow you to walk on the earth’s mantle – usually submerged far beneath the earth’s crust. Views from the flat-topped mountains of the tablelands are your reward for the challenging hike, or you can opt for a boat tour that lets you view this hard to access area from Trout River Pond (in fact a massive lake). The entire park is captivating though, with pristine lakes, deep unspoiled woods where moose and other wildlife roam, mountains to climb, and local culture to enjoy.

Fall for St. John’s

From the colorfully painted houses of Jellybean Row to the views from Signal Hill (look out for icebergs and pods of passing humpbacks), the boisterous live-music in the pubs along George Street to the quaint fishing community of Quidi Vidi, St. John’s is a delight. As Newfoundland and Labrador’s biggest city, and one of the oldest port cities in North America, you’ll get a friendly welcome from locals only too happy to show off the incredible cultural and food scenes in St. John’s (dinner at multi-award winning restaurant Raymond’s is a superb adventure of wild game and local seafood). A short drive from the city you’ll find unspoiled ecological reserves, lighthouses, and gorgeous little towns dotting the coastline.

Of special mention is Cape Spear Lighthouse National Historic Site, which sits on the rocky headland of North America's most easterly point and is the oldest surviving lighthouse in Newfoundland and Labrador.

See Exquisitely Preserved Fossils

Newfoundland and Labrador is home to a park full of the oldest, largest, and most complex fossilized life-forms seen anywhere on earth. These 500 million-year-old fossils are embedded into the stratified planes of rock at Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site. This protected area is accessible only via a guided tour or permit only, but is so worth the effort. (Read more on Newfoundland and Labrador)

NOVA SCOTIA

Hike the Pristine Wilderness of Cape Breton

Touring Cape Breton Highlands National Park showcases everything that’s best about this beautiful part of the world, including the world famous Cabot Trail, where craggy mountains meet the sea, moose roam wild and free, and the vistas are incredible. In the park, hike the two to three-hour return Skyline Trail along the dramatic coastline to take in awe-inspiring views of ocean, or explore one of the many other scenic trails in the park. Book a Parks Canada oTENTik (a mix between a furnished cabin and a permanent tent) at Ingonish Beach and enjoy spectacular sunsets from the white sand beach.

Discover Nova Scotian Wine, Indulge in Lobster

Order Nova Scotia wine with your meal, and look for the Tidal Bay appellation - light, moderately sweet, whites that are winning awards over the world. Many wineries in the Annapolis Valley have tasting rooms in gorgeous settings, some overlooking the Bay of Fundy. As for the lobster, it is everywhere and served in the most inventive ways. You’ll find lobster poutine on the menu in pubs, and for a true Nova Scotian experience, have a traditional lobster supper at Hall’s Harbour Lobster Pound, where you pick your lobster from the tank before they prepare it freshly and serve it with white bread rolls and melted butter. You can also join a lobster boil on a beach, or head out with a lobster fisherman and catch your own.

Take a Bay of Fundy Adventure

The Nova Scotia side of the Bay of Fundy offers up plenty of opportunities for adventure. Head out into the tidal bore on a Zodiac boat with Fundy Tidal Bore Adventures and hold on tight as the rushing waters of the world’s highest tides hit the Shubenacadie River causing roller coaster rapids. Hike the 6km one-way trail to Cape Split, which overlooks the spectacular rugged shoreline of the Bay of Fundy below, or Burntcoat Head Park, where you can walk on the ocean floor along the red rock cliffs and rock formations that line this coast.

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View of the Skyline Loop Trail totalling five miles of hiking paths surrounded by dramatic views of the coastline.

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND

Explore a Captivating National Park with a Literary Heritage

The shores of Prince Edward Island National Park are a mix of dramatic red rock cliffs and powdery red-tinged sands edged by wind-swept dunes. The gentle waves make these beaches great for swimming and paddling, and the park is an important area for birders. The park is home to several landmarks, including National Historic Place Green Gables, the farm that inspired Lucy Maud Montgomery to write her classic 1908 book about spunky orphan Anne Shirley, and historic hotel Dalvay by the Sea, which played host to festivities for Prince William and Duchess Kate when they stopped by on their cross Canada honeymoon tour.

Seek Out the Best Seafood

Prince Edward Island has a hyper-local food scene where you’ll find great chefs working with incredible local ingredients from the abundant waters and fertile red earth. The island is legendary for its oysters, and the Oyster Lover’s Experience gets you out tonging and shucking oysters with a fisherman, then feasting on as many oysters (naked or dressed) and clams as you can eat. The seafood obsessed will love the PEI International Shellfish Festival (held each September). You’ll find exquisite seafood all over the island, but Gallant’s Shellfish and Seafood is a firm favorite with local chefs.

Hike or Bike the Island’s Trails

A vast network of trails spans Prince Edward Island, perfect for hikers or cyclists of all abilities (the Island is pretty much flat all over). The Island Trails take you through pretty villages, along dramatic cliffs, past glorious red sand beaches, through Acadian forests, and pretty little villages. You can rent bikes all over the Island, or join a guided to tour with an outfitter like the Red Rock Adventure Company in Souris (up on the north-east coast). They’ll take you from the lobster fishing village of Naufrage Harbour to Cow River Beach, with a guide pointing out birdlife and explaining the history of the area along the way.

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View of Cavendish Beach at sunset, Prince Edward Island.

Lola Augustine Brown is a travel writer who lives in Nova Scotia. Follow her journeys on Twitter.

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