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A shore thing
Schooners, sailors and seafood lovers converge on Nova Scotia's most charming town
Returning from a much-anticipated trip around the world last spring, I was suddenly struck by an embarrassing affliction: namely a complete loss of travel libido. When your job is travel writing, that’s not a condition to be trifled with. Hoping for a quick cure, I decided to concentrate on making forays closer to my Halifax home. It turns out I wasn’t the only one shifting my geographic focus.
Major players in the vacation game — including Frommer’s, Lonely Planet and Budget Travel — put the Maritimes on their must-see list for 2012. Ditto for National Geographic Traveler, which put Nova Scotia’s South Shore in its roundup of the world’s “Top 10 Coastal Destinations.” The magazine is right about the region’s briny beauty: the landscape ranges from rocky headlands to sandy, secluded beaches. Plus, South Shore communities deliver hefty doses of both history and heart-felt Maritime hospitality — and none is more celebrated than Lunenburg (lunenburgns.com).
On the Lighthouse Route, 70 minutes southwest of Halifax, this lovingly-preserved locale boasts a colourful past and a surplus of equally colourful heritage buildings, which led to its Old Town being named a National Historic District in 1992 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Such recognition, in turn, inspired a renaissance of sorts. In the last few years, without sacrificing its unpretentious character, Lunenburg has added outstanding eateries, distinctive boutiques, an artisanal distillery, even a pair of spas — emOcean (296 Lincoln Street; emoceanspa.com) and Spa at Ninety4 (94 Pelham Street; eden.travel/content/spa-ninety4). And after repeated day trips, I was besotted enough to buy a vintage vacation home there. Here are a few of my favourite things about the town.
Founded by the British in 1753, Lunenburg was settled by German, Swiss and French immigrants who helped transform it into a world-renowned fishing and shipbuilding centre by the mid-19th century. Today, tangible reminders of its seafaring pedigree are easy enough to find. Lampposts are decorated with metal marine life; the spire of a centuries-old church sports a codfish weathervane; dory builders practise their craft at the water’s edge; and fishermen continue to unload their catch within view of a granite memorial that pays tribute to predecessors who lost their lives at sea.
To fully understand the back story, a visit to the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic (68 Bluenose Drive; museum.gov.ns.ca/fma) is almost mandatory. Once a fish processing plant, the fire-engine red building that dominates the front harbour now houses aquariums filled with indigenous fish plus displays about whaling, rum running and other themes. Touch tanks give the former added appeal; regularly-staged demos bring the latter to life; and museum interpreters, many of whom are retired fishermen, lend a real air of authenticity. You can board a Saltbank schooner and a steel-hulled trawler moored outside. Come this summer, they'll be joined by Bluenose II (68 Bluenose Drive; schoonerbluenose2.ca), a faithful replica of the fabled Lunenburg-built schooner, back from an two-year refit.
Surf and turf activities
The adjacent wharves are also hubs of civic activities — some work-related, some tourist-oriented. The two, appropriately, merge in the “Working Waterfront” stroll led by Lunenburg Town Walking Tours (tel: 902-521-6867; lunenburgwalkingtours.com). Note that if your boots aren’t made for walking, you can grab a carriage for a narrated horse-drawn drive with Trot in Time (trotintime.ca) at the museum’s main door.
Events are often staged at the waterfront as well. Among this year’s highlights are Tall Ships Nova Scotia (my-waterfront.ca/tallships) which will see at least five of the many-masted vessels tie up in front of the museum July 25 to 26 and the Wooden Boat Reunion (my-waterfront.ca/lunenburg) which honours all manner of wooden boats, July 28 to 29.
Getting out on the water itself is no problem either during warmer months. You can spy whales, porpoises, puffins, seals and more on a three-hour outing with Lunenburg Whale-Watching Tours (tel: 902-527-7175; novascotiawhalewatching.com), or unwind on a 90-minute ketch cruise with Star Charters (tel: 877-386-3535; novascotiasailing.com).
Itching to exert more energy? Pleasant Paddling (tel: 902-541-9233; pleasantpaddling.com) rents kayaks and leads trips to sites such as Blue Rocks (a cluster of slate shelves laced by narrow channels) and the scenic sea caves in Ovens Natural Park. Lunenburg Ocean Adventures (tel: 902-634-4833; lunenburgoceanadventures.com) amps up the intensity level by offering options that run the gamut from deep-sea fishing to wreck diving.
Fishing is big business in these parts, and you can taste what the boats bring back at virtually any Lunenburg restaurant. While some are a bit too fond of the deep fryer, an increasing number now serve regional fare with continental flair. Elegant, French-inspired Fleur de Sel (53 Montague Street; fleurdesel.net), the Taste of Nova Scotia’s 2011 award winner in the Fining Dining category, is a case in point. Chef Martin Ruiz Salvado offers seasonally-inspired menus and the results — from the smoked salmon amuse bouche through the sushi-grade tuna with pommes Parisiennes to the last crumbs of cheesecake (made with Nova Scotian goat cheese) — are uniformly delicious.
Uphill at King’s Plate (15 King Street; marinerking.com/dining), the ingredient’s provenance remains proudly provincial. Seafood is a star attraction (try the half-shell lobster in saffron sauce or fresh Atlantic salmon adorned with pistachio-crusted scallops) and you can wash it down with a selection of genuinely good Nova Scotia wines. Located in the rainbow-hued UNESCO Fresco block (arguably Lunenburg’s brightest), the more boisterous Trattoria della Nonna (9 King Street; trattoriadellanonna.ca) delivers dishes like shellfish-laden spaghetti that tastes as if it came from an Italian grandma’s kitchen.
Although the previous restaurants aren’t open for lunch, you can still dine mid-day without resorting to those ubiquitous fish-and-chips joints. For instance, the airy Salt Shaker Deli (124 Montague Street; saltshakerdeli.com) satisfies purists with straight-up versions of Maritime classics like hearty seafood chowder and fish cakes with mustard pickles among them. However, menu items such as Indian Point mussels — prepared Thai, Indian, Portuguese or Provençal style — prove that it is adept at incorporating international influences as well.
Just a few steps away, the cute, quirky and frequently crowded Magnolia's Grill (128 Montague Street) dishes up a Nova Scotian-Deep South fusion, which isn’t really as odd as it sounds when you remember that the province's Acadian peninsula gives it a long-standing ’Cajun connection.
When picnicking seems more apropos, Sweet Indulgence *(242 Lincoln Street; sweetindulgence.ca) is well stocked with ready-to-go treats (including salads, quiche and lobster sandwiches).
Thursday mornings, grabbing DIY supplies at the Lunenburg Farmers Market (21D Green Street; farmersmarketsnovascotia.ca)* is a tasty alternative. Amidst the fresh fixings keep an eye out for specialities that reflect the town’s German roots, like Lunenburg sausage, liverwursty Lunenburg pudding and tangy sauerkraut.
Want to top lunch off with a wee tipple? Set up in a former marine smithy, Ironworks Distillery (2 Kempt Street; ironworksdistillery.com) crafts small-batch vodka and brandy from Annapolis Valley apples, liqueur from native berries and rum from the Maritimes’ own Crosby’s Molasses.
If shopping is your bag, Lunenburg has a disproportionate number of shops and galleries considering fewer than 2500 people live here — not surprising, really, given the volume of summertime visitors. The real revelation is that most forgo tourist tat in favour of quality arts and crafts. The same creative impulse that originally led Lunenburgers to ornament their homes with eye-popping architectural flourishes and paint them in Crayola colours lives on, thanks to artisans who offer modern takes on folk techniques that have survived through generations.
The Windbag Company (123 Montague Street; windbagcompanyofns.ca) for one, marries resourcefulness and whimsy by making totes from recycled sails, in the process giving appliqué an updated twist. Elsewhere, boutiques like The Spotted Frog (125 Montague Street; spottedfrog.ca), The Black Duck Gallery (8 Pelham Street; blackduck.ca) and Jenny Jib (174 Lincoln Street; jennyjib.com) sell folk art plus hooked rugs, painted furniture and funky wood carvings.
If you have an endless appetite for such things, time your trip to coincide with the Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival (21D Green Street; nsfolkartfestival.com), on August 5. For those preferring a hands-on approach, The Makery (228 Lincoln Street; www.lunenburgmakery.ca) schedules workshops and drop-in sessions year-round that are devoted to traditional needle arts.
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