The stunning vistas and warm hospitality always leave me wanting to return
By Mike Gridley
The planning had taken months of emails and calls back and forth with Patricia Nelder, executive director of the Atlantic Marine Trades Association. I have travelled out East many times over the years, and the stunning vistas and warm hospitality always leave me wanting to return. And now it was finally here. We were loading our gear into the car and taking the short drive to a scenic stretch of Nova Scotia’s coast that is a summer playground for both visitors and residents alike.
Less than an hour from the airport and we were arriving at Shining Waters Marina on the shore of St. Margaret’s Bay, where we were to kick off our long-anticipated cruise of this popular area. This would be my first extended cruise where the on-water time would greatly exceed that on land. I was excited, as this is hands down the best way to experience coastal Nova Scotia.
And Shining Waters was the ideal marina to start from. It’s one of the largest in the region, catering to local power boaters and sailors, as well as transients from other Canadian ports-of-call, along the US eastern seaboard and even a few adventurous Europeans from time to time.
A full-service sales and service marina, Shining Waters has an extensive mooring field and floating docks. A launch ramp and a 70-ton travel lift can handle most boats in the area for service and winter storage. On site, you’ll also find an excellent chandlery and a first-class dining room.
A flotilla of local boaters and dealers were on hand eager to show us their home waters. Craig and Catherine Newell of Iron Wind Marine had launched a pair of Pursuit centre consoles for the day and Terry Conrad of Conrad Marine Sales and Service had a brand-new Boston Whaler 285 Conquest.
St. Margaret’s Bay is an expansive body of water that widens to the south as it opens to the Atlantic Ocean. Its eastern shore is formed by the Chebucto Peninsula and its western shore by the Aspotogan Peninsula, while the head of the bay is the main part of the Nova Scotia peninsula. The bay’s shores are mostly rocky, with a few beaches scattered among the natural harbours at the head of the bay. With its wide-open waters, it is a popular spot for sailors but is also a destination for power boaters and motor yachts.
Being from away, as they say, the first destination I asked about was Peggy’s Cove and her world-famous lighthouse that marks the entrance to St. Margaret’s Bay. Our host was more than willing to make the run, so off we set into freshening winds.
Clearing Shut-In Island, just a few miles from Peggy’s Cove, the seas began to kick up as we headed for the open waters of the Atlantic. While the Pursuits and Boston Whaler were more than capable, it was impossible for our cameraman get any good shots so we did the intelligent thing and headed back in to explore the bay’s picturesque shoreline, which offered better protection in its many natural harbours and small coves.
As we cruised past Hackett’s Cove and on into Glen Margaret in Long Cove, the mix of buildings dotting the shoreline surprised me. Among the small homes of the original settlers who worked the waters and the land were expansive modern homes and estates.
As we entered the larger French Village Harbour, it was quickly evident how popular the bay is with sailors since the waters were covered with sailing dinghies from the youth program at St. Margaret’s Bay Sailing Club.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent enjoying the sights of Head Harbour, Schooner Cove and Head Bay. The shoreline once again was a mix of modern homes and still active wharfs for the local fishing and lobster boats painted every colour of the rainbow.
As the sun started to sink lower at the head of the bay, it was time to call it a day and cruise back to Shining Waters Marina.
Day two awoke bright and sunny with light winds at the Atlantica Hotel & Marina Oak Island, where the gang was staying. This is a great choice for boaters looking for a transient slip or trailer boaters requiring land-based accommodations.
The marina has 41 berths and four moorings, as well as fuel, laundry and shower facilities. Boating guests also have access to the hotel’s pools, spa, dining rooms and lounge. Onshore accommodations range from single rooms to seaside villas.
Joining us for our exploration of Mahone Bay were John Mills and Richard Rafuse from Seamaster Services, who had brought a Grady-White down from Dartmouth to tour us on. From Oak Island we cruise quietly along the communities of the Western Shore, enjoying the morning sun and calm conditions in the sheltered waters of Mahone Bay
Unlike St. Margaret’s Bay, Mahone is well protected from the Atlantic and is dotted with what is said to be 365 islands – “one for every day of the year.” These islands provide miles of protected beaches, coves and some of the most scenic waters on the South Coast of Nova Scotia. Unlike the rocky shores of St. Margaret’s Bay, Mahone Bay has a greater variety of soils and bedrock. Numerous glacial drumlins on the western shore near the towns of Mahone Bay and Lunenburg have resulted in small-scale farming operations.
It’s also interesting to note the currents though the bay continue to shape the islands and gravel and sand bars, even eliminating one island that had once been a prosperous farm. All that remains is a small shoal.
The other factor that makes the bay a popular haven for boats is the southwesterly flow of the winds in the summer, which enhance the weather and calm the waters.
Mahone Bay is home to numerous picturesque towns like Chester and Mahone Bay plus several working fishing communities, such as the famous Big Tancook and Little Tancook.
As we headed north past Western Shore, we had to keep an eye out for stretches of floating nets as local fisherman still work these waters for Mackerel.
the banks are lined with year-round and summer homes
Our cruise took us into the entrance of the Gold River, which had been dredged inland for 25 miles during the heyday of logging on this portion of the coast. Freighters from Europe would head up this section to load timber. Now the banks are lined with year-round and summer homes. Boaters visiting the river can find dockage, service, repairs and storage at Gold River Marina.
From Gold River our tour took us around Borgels Point and past Shaw Island to Stevens Bay, home of one of the largest marinas on Mahone Bay, South Shore Marine. Unlike marinas many of us are familiar with, South Shore is primarily a mooring field for nearly 500 vessels. This is the most practical way to accommodate boats in the harbor due to the tides. The floating docks on the marina’s waterfront are primarily for service, fuel, loading, and the large fleet of tenders and dinghies that service the vessels at anchor.
South Shore is a true full-service marina, offering all types of repairs (including paint and fiberglass) and winter storage for 900 vessels. Diesel and gas are both available as well.
Another reason this is a popular destination for cruising boaters is the Galley Restaurant & Pub. Overlooking the marina and Stevens Cove, this is a great spot to enjoy an excellent meal or a cool drink and a snack outdoors on the deck.
From Stevens Cove, John ran us past Dauphinee Point and inside Big Gooseberry and Little Island into Back Harbour. This long, narrow harbour is surrounded by pine-covered shoreline with more than a few expensive homes – some over 100 years old. The harbour is also home to the oldest operating marina in Eastern Canada, Heisler Boat Yard, which still builds traditional wooden boats.
Next, we cruised into Chester Harbour, a community that attracts thousands of tourists to Mahone Bay every summer. What can you say about Chester? It’s a picturesque, quintessential Nova Scotia seaside village. All the clichés apply! It is pretty, colourful, historic and charming. It’s also hopping. Many boats call this harbour home, from sailing dinghies, to classic wooden sailboats and down east fishing boats converted for pleasure use. You also find fiberglass, from 65-foot yachts to boats like the 24-foot Grady-White and 28-foot Whaler we were touring in. While busy when we visited the village, the town explodes for Chester Race Week, Canada’s largest Keelboat Regatta.
Onshore and accessible by boat, there are great restaurants and pubs like Rope Loft where you can sample the best in local seafood. Settled in 1759, Chester’s main street is lined with historic homes and businesses befitting one of Nova Scotia’s wealthiest communities.
Departing Chester, we got up on plane and headed out for six miles across the Bay to Big Tancook Island and one of the still active fishing villages on the South Shore. The largest island in Mahone Bay, it has a year-round population of 120. There is a small, protected harbour and regular ferry service to Chester.
You can tour the island on foot or rent a bike and visit the art studios and enjoy the vistas of Mahone Bay. Once a farming community famous for Tancook Sauerkraut, the primary business now is a small lobster fishery and tourism. If you are hungry, you can get yourself a great lobster roll at Carolyn’s and chat with the local residents.
Departing Big Tancook, we headed west to cruise through the glacial drumlin islands en route to the village of Mahone Bay. A few still have farms, others have truly spectacular summer homes, many are uninhabited and some are protected by the Mahone Islands Conservation Association, allowing public access to these treasures. Many owners of these islands and residences travel from as far away as Germany and California to enjoy the picturesque waters and its peace and tranquility.
When we arrived in Mahone Bay, we headed for the public wharf on the western shore of the bay. You can also head for Mahone Bay Civic Marina upon arrival. From here, it was a short walk along Main Street to the centre of the action.
People moving from Lunenburg settled Mahone Bay in the 1750s. It has a rich history of boat building and hosts a variety of events, including a Wooden Boat Festival. As the largest community on Mahone Bay there is plenty to see and do in the wonderfully preserved historic community.
Along you way you will find an assortment of artisan’s galleries, eclectic specialty shops, romantic restaurants, museums and inns.
A walking tour of Main Street is a must just to soak up the colourful, century-old architecture. Along you way you will find an assortment of artisan’s galleries, eclectic specialty shops, romantic restaurants, museums and inns.
After a full day on the water, we were more than ready to cruise back to Oak Island for a great meal and a relaxing evening at the Atlantica.
With our next ports-of-call lying south of Mahone Bay and requiring us to transit the open water along the coast, we were up before daybreak and prepping gear. Terry Conrad was joining us again with his Boston Whaler. Also lending a hand was Robbie Craig, who had generously towed a new Whaler 250 Outrage from Quartermaster Marine on Prince Edward Island.
Words cannot describe the magnificent morning as the sun rose out past Mahone Bay over the Atlantic Ocean. It was clear this would be a special and spectacular day for a run along the rocky shores of Nova Scotia.
Clearing the bay, we passed the marker off of Gunning Point inside Duck Island with the Atlantic like glass. The sun brought out the incredible detail in the rocking shore with its crags and fissures carved by the waves. While there are miles of empty and truly photo-worthy shoreline, I was surprised to see some of the homes perched high on the rocks in pure isolation, miles away from any community.
After crossing the entrance of Lunenburg Bay, we turned in to have a look at a natural wonder called the Ovens. Thousands of years of waves have eroded tunnels or “ovens” into the cliffs. While attractive visually, they actually draw visitors to the cliffs for their sound. As waves crash into the cliffs, the air and water compressed into the tunnels is expelled with the sound of a cannon firing.
From The Ovens, it was a clear cruise up Lunenburg Bay running for the lighthouse off Battery Point Bay and our final port-of-call. As you near the point, Lunenburg suddenly reveals itself like a postcard along the far shore. To arrive by water is to truly appreciate how much of a historic treasure this community is. Picture perfect wharfs, boats sheds, and colourful houses and businesses jump out at you, reflecting in the waters of the harbour on a sunny day. It’s only after a second look that you see it’s still a working port with a full complement of traditional fishing boats, plus large trawlers that supply fish and scallops to the local High Liner plant.
First settled as a British outpost in 1753, Lunenburg evolved into a farming settlement. In the 19th century the town became a major centre for the offshore banks fishery, building and manning fishing schooners to exploit Newfoundland’s Grand Banks of Newfoundland and the fishing banks off Nova Scotia. This focus on fishing created a thriving boat building business. While wooden shipbuilding lapsed in other parts of Nova Scotia with the arrival of steamships, Lunenburg yards specialized in fishing schooners, which remained competitive until the 1920s. The most famous was the Bluenose, built in 1921. In 1995, Lunenburg was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Arriving in the protected harbour, access for cruising boaters is limited but you can find berthing at Zwicker & Co and at the Fisheries Museum. Once tied up, plan on spending several days here since there is so much to see and do and so many great places to enjoy fresh seafood – and a local beer or two.
A great way to start out is to just stroll along the waterfront and up a block or two to take in the Old Town. After experiencing the architecture and colours of the houses, businesses, churches and public buildings from the late 1700s and early 1800s, you will understand why “Old Town” Lunenburg is also a National Historic Site of Canada.
The Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic will enlighten you on Lunenburg’s fishing history. You can tour the Theresa E. Conner, a fishing Schooner built in Lunenburg in 1938, and the Cape Sable, a steel-hulled side trawler, built in 1962. The museum houses many photos and artifacts from the Bluenose, but the star attractions are the cod, lobsters, halibut, eels, scallops, crab, trout and Atlantic whitefish that are in the largest aquarium in the Maritimes.
After stepping back in time and seeing how traditional Dorys were built at the Dory Shop, stop by the Iron Works Distillery for a sample of their unique local vodkas before heading to one of the local restaurants for some excellent lobster or halibut. If you are fortunate, the Bluenose II may be in port when you visit. (This summer, we were able to get a good look at her since she was in dry dock for a complete retrofit.)
After a day in Lunenburg I was reluctant to call an end to my time in Nova Scotia. As we said our goodbyes to our hosts – who exemplified “Maritime hospitality” – my final remark to Pat Nelder was, “When can we do this again?”