Learning to boat, for me, was a rite of passage just like learning to ride a bike. My parents are boaters, and many friends are, too. When you live in a place like Nova Scotia, a Canadian province that is almost completely surrounded by the ocean, you are never far from the water’s edge. My brother and I grew up in, on, and around the ocean; the salt water never fully rinsed off before we were in it again.
My first boat was a wooden rowboat named Bull Frog. A Zodiac with a 9.9 horsepower motor quickly followed, and eventually I was teaching myself how to sail on a Laser, driving it up the beach on downwind runs until I learned how to tack.
My teen years were spent bombing around in an old Boston Whaler. That boat took me to undiscovered beaches and small hidden inlets; together we explored Nova Scotia’s rugged coastline in a way that only a beach boat and a determined teenager could. When I wasn’t playing on boats I was working with them as a sailing instructor on the Bras d’Or Lakes. Best. Summer. Job. Ever.
I realize now how lucky I was to grow up in a place like Nova Scotia. It truly is a limitless ocean playground. Now with a family of my own, I am rediscovering the magic of boating here through the eyes of my two children as we continue to discover new destinations and visit old favorites.
Cruising Nova Scotia
Boating season here runs generally between May and October. Prime season is July through late September, and summer is temperate, with highs reaching the middle 70s to low 80s. Nova Scotia, clinging to the rest of Canada by a narrow isthmus, is almost an island. Coastal landscapes vary dramatically across more than 4,300 miles of coastline, which feature hundreds of islands, coves, harbors, and inlets. The province also includes an inland sea inside Cape Breton Island and the warm waters of the Northumberland Strait. And with the population of the province just under one million, these destinations feel untouched, though you’re never more than a short sail away from amazing seafood and wine or a local brew from one of Nova Scotia’s more than 30 craft breweries.
For a foreign yacht arriving from the south, a good point of entry is Yarmouth, a jump across the Gulf of Maine near the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. Canadian customs service is provided here, and they will happily work through your entrance requirements. Should you wish to explore the Bay of Fundy region, famous for the world’s highest tides, you can find good floating docks and services in the Port of Digby and some of the world’s best scallops.
The Fundy’s dramatic tidal range is unique to the bay, and most of coastal Nova Scotia has very manageable tidal impacts. While in this area you are likely to encounter abundant marine wildlife, including a variety of whale species. For a shore excursion, I strongly suggest securing a rental car and heading to the Annapolis Valley, about an hour away, where you will be pleasantly surprised to find a thriving boutique wine region surrounded by picturesque farmland and orchards.
If you prefer small harbors and sheltered island anchorages, the South Shore of Nova Scotia is your place. Picture Newport and Cape Cod, but with far fewer people. Once home to wooden ships and iron men, the coast is still dotted with fishing and boatbuilding communities.
Throughout the South Shore region you will find quaint communities and peaceful anchorages, including Chester (home to Chester Race Week, the largest keelboat regatta in North America), Mahone Bay, Hubbards, the famous Shore Club, and St. Margaret’s Bay. Not to mention the almost innumerable, uninhabited islands along the way.
A must-visit port of call is Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the famous schooner Bluenose and its replica Bluenose II. The Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic is also worth a visit. The culinary scene here is among the best in Nova Scotia, and work is underway to enhance services for visiting boaters and provide better access to the historic town center. The town has many local marine trades, with a proud shipbuilding tradition. For cruisers in need, Lunenburg is also a good place for haul-out services.
The capital of Nova Scotia, Halifax has a long maritime history and is home to Canada’s east coast navy base. The city’s historic waterfront has been transformed with meandering public boardwalks and fixed piers with floating docks and marine services for visiting boats. At the waterfront marina, you are in the center of it all. Pubs, restaurants, museums, historic sites, galleries, and markets are all within walking distance of your boat. But if you prefer to be out of the spotlight, there are other marinas in the harbor, including the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron. Founded in 1837, it is the oldest yacht club in North America.
If you’re in Halifax, stop by and say hello to our friendly team at Waterfront Development. We manage the Halifax Waterfront Marina and are always happy to assist in getting you settled, whether you prefer to be close to the action downtown or in a more secluded slip.
My family’s favorite Halifax Harbour destination is McNabs Island. Great for a daytrip, the island has historic forts, hiking trails, and great beaches. Depending on the wind, you can enjoy a sheltered anchorage off Maugher’s Beach on the west side of the island or Wreck Cove on the east side. Or take a voyage up the Northwest Arm to experience many of Halifax’s stately mansions located along the shoreline.
100 Wild Islands
Not far from Halifax is a collection of islands stretching nearly 20 miles along the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. Known as the 100 Wild Islands, this untouched archipelago was recently granted protective status by the provincial government as a wilderness preserve. Here you will find remote anchorages, white sand beaches, and abundant wildlife. A little farther along the Eastern Shore is the Liscombe River, which leads you to a rustic lodge and marina. The river is a beautiful run with a well-marked channel providing a unique inland experience on the rugged and wild Eastern Shore.
Bras d’Or Lakes
The spectacular Bras d’Or Lakes (translated means, “arm of gold”), a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, welcome you to Cape Breton Island. The lakes, with over 600 miles of coastline, are said to be as deep as the surrounding mountains are high. From the east, enter through historic St. Peter’s Canal, where you will find the village and marina of St. Peter’s, or from the north through the Great Bras d’Or Channel. The village of Baddeck is the largest community on the lakes and a strategic destination for exploring inland.
Once the summer retreat of inventor Alexander Graham Bell, the village has everything you need to restock for the next leg of your journey. This is another place you’ll want to arrange for a car so you can experience the Cabot Trail, one of North America’s most scenic drives. Much of my adolescence was spent exploring the many nooks and crannies of these lakes, and I look forward to returning each summer to visit my family in Baddeck and continue exploring these brackish waters that experience little to no tide or fog.
My earliest boating memories are of the Northumberland Strait, between Nova Scotia and the neighboring province of Prince Edward Island. The strait is said to have the warmest waters north of the Carolinas, and I definitely have a soft spot for this place. Here a day on the water is usually followed by a barbecue with local favorites fresh from the sea and typically ends with a spectacular sunset followed by a beach bonfire under a star-filled sky. This is a great area for day-tripping, breaking out the tender, kayaking, or stand-up paddleboarding. The beaches around Melmerby, Black Point, and Chance Harbor feel like a resort, especially in peak summer, but without large crowds. Close by is my favorite place, Pictou Island.
This small island, which rests about four miles off the coast, is home to only a handful of year-round residents and sees visitors only infrequently. With favorable sea conditions, you can anchor off a breathtaking beach and sandbar on the south side or an equally beautiful beach on the north side of the island. (The wind direction of the day will help you with this tough decision.) While rounding the northeast end of the island you will likely be entertained by the resident seal colony. If you want to stay the night in this area, scoot back to the mainland coast. A good anchorage can be found in Merigomish Harbour, and marine services are available in Pictou Harbour; both destinations are close. Prince Edward Island is also a short motor away.
The biggest mistake made by visitors to Nova Scotia is not budgeting enough time for their stay. These are just a few of Nova Scotia’s secrets—I recommend you research your visit carefully.
Visit www.novascotia.com/boating to get started on your boating itinerary in Nova Scotia.