10 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Atlantic Canada
It’s idyllic here, with a slower pace of life that’s defined by the region’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.
Atlantic Canada encompasses Canada’s easternmost provinces: Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. There’s something for every traveler, whether chance encounters with friendly locals, endless lobster boil-ups, coastal hiking trails, or simply sitting in a pub watching a traditional music session in action. Life is simple here, but even so, there are certain things to keep in mind before you begin your trip.
It's Impossible to See All in one Trip
The Atlantic Canadian provinces appear as mere blips on a map compared to the rest of Canada, but in reality, the region is incredibly large. Travelers often make the mistake of trying to jampack their itinerary to fit it all in, but driving times are long and unpredictable weather can often throw you off schedule. Consider this: from the northern tip of Newfoundland to its capital city of St. John’s is nearly 12 hours of driving time. If you’re planning on hopping over to Nova Scotia, it’s at least an eight-hour ferry ride, followed by another lengthy drive through Cape Breton to reach Halifax and the neighboring provinces. Take this all into consideration when you’re planning your itinerary. Most travelers would be smart to only explore one province per trip, to truly be able to appreciate each for their beauty and uniqueness.
Pack for Every Season
You might not need to pack your swimsuit if you’re visiting Atlantic Canada during the winter months, but the daily weather in this region can be extreme from one day to the next. You very well might be greeted with chilly temperatures on the day you arrive, and then experience a heat wave the next day. Check the weather reports and you might find alerts for heat waves, severe rainstorms, and frost warnings—all within the same week. So come prepared. Assuming you’re visiting in the busiest spring or summer months, you’ll want to pack a few extra layers as well as rain gear (although umbrellas often don’t fare well in the windy coastal areas). Fall tends to be cooler, but with temperatures ideal for hiking and getting outdoors.
Watch out for Moose
As they say in Newfoundland and Labrador, put your moose eyes on. Although Prince Edward Island is exempt from this issue, the risk of running into moose while driving throughout the other Atlantic Canadian provinces is a real issue. In Newfoundland, you’ll find road signs informing visitors of how many moose/vehicle collisions have already happened this year, and the numbers are nearly always high. Moose are hard to see while driving at night (and especially at dusk), and their uniquely long-legged stature means they’ll collapse heavily onto your windshield if you drive into one. But don’t let that frighten you off. Just stay aware of your surroundings, and if you’re driving with a passenger, ask them to be vigilant, especially at dusk.
Each Province Is Culturally Unique
Despite their proximity, each of the Atlantic Canadian provinces boasts unique cultures and traditions. In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Acadian history is important. If you’re visiting in August, you can celebrate Acadian Day; otherwise, visit the Grand-Pré National Historic Site in Nova Scotia, which was once home to the largest Acadian settlement in the Bay of Fundy. Prince Edward Island is more straightforwardly Canadian; it’s the birthplace of Canadian Confederation, and Charlottetown’s Province House National Historic Site is an important landmark. So is Green Gables Heritage Place from the beloved book series, Anne of Green Gables . In Newfoundland and Labrador, experience the cod fisheries that shaped the province for hundreds of years by doing a little cod jigging yourself. Soak up the Celtic influences through musical performances and chatting with locals. The accent is strikingly similar to Scottish and Irish accents, and Newfoundlanders have their own dialect (complete with its own dictionary). The Aboriginal peoples were here long before anyone else, with tribes that include the Innu, Mi’Kmaq, and Beothuk. Keep an eye out for Mi’Kmaq Pow Wow celebrations, or visit one of the many educational sites in the region like Metepenagiag Heritage Park in New Brunswick.
You’re Going to Eat a Lot of Seafood
People from around the world flock to Nova Scotia to sample the province’s lobster, and you can’t go home without trying the region’s famous lobster roll. The same goes for New Brunswick: travel anywhere along the Bay of Fundy or Acadian coasts, and you’ll find plenty of places doling out affordable seafood. Prince Edward Island is world-renown for its oysters, thanks to its many cold water bays that provide ideal harvesting conditions. You’ll find oysters on just about every seafood menu around the province and in all varieties and flavors. In Newfoundland and Labrador, cod is king. Look for the traditional dishes, like cod au gratin or fish and brewis. Don’t shy away from the cod tongues or cheeks either—they’re served with fried scrunchions (salted pork fat).
Summer Is by Far the Best Time to Visit
Atlantic Canada is beautiful year-round, but it’s true that summer really is the best time to visit (unless you want to see the spectacular fall foliage on the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island ). Winters can be rough in this part of the country, and so the onslaught of warm weather and sunshine changes the entire atmosphere of the region. Most of Atlantic Canada’s festivals take place during this time, too, including New Brunswick’s Lobster Festival in Shediac, the boisterous George Street Festival in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the country-inspired Cavendish Beach Music Festival in PEI, and the TD Halifax Jazz Festival in Nova Scotia.
Coastal Elite (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Flickr
At first glance it may seem like the ultimate destination for those wishing to relax and recharge, but Atlantic Canada is built for adventure lovers. Some of Canada’s most remote and wild country is here, including in Labrador and the Torngat Mountains . If you’re a hiker, the Long Range Traverse in Gros Morne National Park , Newfoundland will take you on a multiday journey through fjords, marshland, and mountains. In New Brunswick, the Bay of Fundy is home to the highest tides in the world, with 160 billion tons of seawater flowing in and out each day. To experience it, visit the Hopewell Rocks , or hang out in Fundy National Park. In Nova Scotia, try tidal bore rafting on the Shubenacadie River. But if you’d prefer two feet firmly planted on the ground, you must hike the Skyline Trail in Cape Breton. And although Prince Edward Island is known as the gentler island, it’s not without its thrills. The 270 miles of the flat Confederation Trail is ideal for cyclists and hikers.
Traveling Throughout Rural Areas Can Be Tricky
The rural areas of Atlantic Canada can be tricky to navigate, so proper preparation is key to a safe and easy trip. Keep in mind that driving times can be long, and sometimes gas stations are few and far between. Make sure you set out for the day with a full tank of gas, and pack plenty of snacks for the drive. Not all areas have cell phone service either. If you’re depending on your phone’s GPS to get around, you may want to pick up a basic map at any gas station or visitor center. Generally, though, the locals will be more than happy to point you in the right direction should you need it.
As much as the sea is a part of Atlantic Canadian life, so is music. The traditional music in the region draws from Celtic influences, and you won’t have to search long to experience it. Walk down any busy street in the cities like St. John’s, Halifax, Charlottetown, and Fredericton , and you’re bound to hear fiddle and accordion ditties pouring out of bars and pubs. Other genres are just as popular, and the music community sprawling the four provinces is impressive. If you want to fully immerse yourself into the local arts scene, pick up a free local paper and dive right in.
Andres Garcia Martin/Shutterstock
Book Everything Ahead of Time
Most visitors travel to Atlantic Canada during the summer, which means higher volumes of traffic and lower accommodation availability. This isn’t a place where you can do a spur-of-the-moment trip (at least not in peak season). If you’re arriving between early June and September, you’ll want to book your accommodations well in advance. The same goes for ferry schedules and even popular activities like whale-watching or iceberg viewing. In Newfoundland and Labrador, there’s a particular shortage of car rentals. If possible, book at least six months in advance if you plan on renting one for a road trip in the region. But overall, don’t be afraid of all this legwork. The reward of traveling around Atlantic Canada is well worth the effort.