Set on the Atlantic in Canada's far east, Nova Scotia is shaped by the sea. Aside from enjoying some of the province's delicious fresh shellfish and foot-stomping Celtic music, one of the best ways to sample the culture is by spending time at its spectacular parks and exploring on foot. The ocean is almost always nearby and signature features include pristine white sand beaches and big coastal views. It's hard to narrow it down, though, with more than 100 provincial parks to choose from, so here are our recommendations and what makes them well worth a visit.
Five Island Provincial Park - The world’s highest tides
With the highest tides on the planet, the famed Bay of Fundy is a must-visit -- and Five Island Provincial Park just east of Parrsboro is the place to do so. First, there's the dramatic cliffs overlooking the ocean where some 160 billion tons of water blast in and out each day in four-story-high fluctuations. Then there's the hiking: Along the towering red clifftops 300 feet up at high tide, especially the panoramic Red Head Trail. Five Island is also a superb place to sea kayak, beachcomb, hunt for fossils and unusual rocks, and dig for clams at low tide in the red sand. Pitch a tent for a few days at the conveniently located campground off Route 2 so you can really take in the beauty. Join a park guided tour to learn more about the area's 300 million-year-old geology. Two other spots to visit nearby are UNESCO World Heritage Site Joggins Fossil Cliffs, with the world's most comprehensive Coal Age fossils exposed by the changing tides, and wildlife-filled Cape Split Provincial Park Reserve.
Smugglers Cove Provincial Park - Rum running mystique
When it's shrouded in mist, it's easy to imagine a rum smuggling ship slipping silently into this sheltered cove in southern Nova Scotia near Meteghan. Smugglers Cove Provincial Park boasts dramatic beauty: Craggy forested cliffs overlooking the clear blue-green sea, seaweed-wrapped boulders, and hushed beaches scattered with large, smooth stones. There's also a natural and fairly expansive cave camouflaged in the rocks at the bottom of the staircase leading to the shore (be sure to check the tide tables before exploring). But it's the illicit past that's perhaps the most appealing. This was the go-to contraband drop spot for rum-running renegades in the early 1900s Prohibition times. Picnic, hike the cliff-top path watching for gannets and cormorants; or better yet, go geocaching and play modern-day pirate in search of lost booty yourself.
Battery Provincial Park - 1700s history
This place looks like a painting featuring a classic white-and-red lighthouse, green pines, the blue sky, all surrounded by the sapphire sea. On the southeast coast of Cape Breton Island, a Travel + Leisure North American No. 1 island, Battery Provincial Park sits on a pretty hillside with a commanding view of St. Peter's Bay and Bras d'Or Lake. Visitors come for the iconic lighthouse, a historic beacon overseeing transit from the ocean to lake via the St. Peters Canal and dating to 1869, but mostly for the area's history. There are two 1700s-era forts here that played prominently in the British-French battles over North America, plus a lime kiln that provided plaster and mortar for the structures, including Fortress Louisbourg. The park itself is beautiful, with walking trails and water-view campsites tucked into the trees.
Arisaig Provincial Park - Standout geology
Named after a similarly spectacular and serene beach in the Scottish Highlands, Arisaig Provincial Park north of picturesque Antigonish is a strong contender for the most remarkable landscapes in the province. Volcanic rock stack formations dot the shore and long horizontal arms of gray sedimentary rocks jut out over the crashing waves, framed by painterly white spruce trees. The area hiking trails -- past rushing waterfalls spilling out of narrow canyons and through the woods with views of the Atlantic -- are a standout, and just as enjoyable in winter on cross-country skis. Geocaching is also popular here. Take the well-marked one-mile interpretive trail, pausing to read the signs about the area's impressive geology of fossils and formations some 450 million years old. The park overlooks the Northumberland Strait, known for its warm waters and ideal for swimming in summer. Bring your suit and a picnic!
Whycocomagh Provincial Park – Solitude and lake views
Also on Cape Breton Island inland from Mabou is Whycocomagh Provincial Park, a place of solitude overlooking the Bras d'Or Lakes and Skye River Valley. Camping and hiking are the top activities here, especially in October when the trees light up with firey colors. A three-mile trail circuit takes you up to the top of Salt Mountain for sweeping views. You're likely to see soaring eagles here, but not many other people. Bed down in solar-powered hillside yurts that have BBQs, beds, and decks -- a first for a Nova Scotia provincial park. Nearby sights are the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck and in Iona, the Highland Village Museum.
Summerville Beach Provincial Park - A beach to remember
Summerville sounds as lovely as it is. In fact, many call it the most gorgeous seascape on Nova Scotia's south shore. Summerville Provincial Park is a vast 86 acres of dreamy white sand dunes and open salt marshes teeming with waterfowl and myriad critters. If you imagine yourself dashing across an expanse of foamy surf "Chariots of Fire"-like, this is your spot. Explore the dunes, populated by scurrying piping plover, along the meandering wooden boardwalks. It's not usually crowded here and there are great restaurants and cottage rentals nearby. The beach itself is a half-mile long of sugar-white sand and turquoise water. Picnic, play in the water, read a good novel, or just nap on a blanket cooled by the ocean breeze.
Of course, Nova Scotia has much more than spectacular seaside parks. Add these top attractions to your vacation itinerary.
Start researching outdoor adventures at the Tourism Nova Scotia website.