Canada sounds like it’s a long way away, and long haul travel can be a worrying and expensive thing when you’ve got a whole family to take away, with fears of jetlag and long plane journeys to contend with. This is where Atlantic Canada really comes into its own – just over six hours away (and less than six on the way home) with a mere 4 hour time difference, not only is the wild beauty of Canada’s east coast easily accessible, it’s also a whole lot of fun for a family looking for adventure.
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You could spend a week, a fortnight or longer exploring and enjoying the gems in this beautiful part of the world. But if you’ve only got a few days to spare, where do you start? Here’s our guide on what to do with the kids for an active adventure in Nova Scotia.
Morning: Exploring Halifax on the Harbour Hopper Tour
The perfect way to acclimatise yourself and see the highlights of Halifax, without little feet getting tired, the Harbour Hopper Tour is an amphibious adventure that shows you the best of this stunning Atlantic Canadian city by land and on water. The history of the vehicles, used in WW2 and now colourfully redecorated, is fascinating and it’s a fab way to get an overview of what’s on offer so you can revisit any particular places of interest at your leisure later. My kids loved seeing the Citadel – with family-friendly activities taking place in the moats, and kilt-wearing sentries standing on guard. But without a doubt the highlight was the sudden descent into the ocean as our tour bus suddenly became a boat!
Fun with brollies on the Harbour Hopper Tour
Despite some serious concentration, no seals were spotted on this trip but they often are. In fact, we returned to a water-front spot for dinner later that night which we'd spied during this outing, and were lucky enough to see one then. Your water cruise takes you past George’s Island Lighthouse and the Halifax Waterfront Boardwalk. The amazing story of the warships, the SS Imo and the SS Mont-Blanc, which collided and then exploded on the harbour, sending one of the ship's solid iron anchor flying over a mile away and blowing the windows out of homes for miles, filled my boys with awe. No sight-seeing fatigue here! It’s worth packing a jumper even on a sunny day, as it can get breezy on the water.
Afternoon: Discovery Centre and museums
Hungry sailors will enjoy grabbing lunch at Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market just a short (and very pleasant stroll) along the seafront from the Harbour Hopper ticket office. A large, indoor market, you'll find a fabulous mixture of food, drinks, arts and crafts on offer under one roof. Whether it’s hot dogs, Indian food or some organic vegan treats that tempt you, there’s no way the whole family won’t be satisfied.
Taking part in a real life computer game
Moments up the road there’s Halifax’s fabulous Discovery Centre which housed a very cool computer game exhibit while we were there. An interactive climbing wall enabled restless kids to take part in their own virtual reality game, clambering all over the place to whack aliens with their hands and feet. Whatever the main exhibit though, curious minds and fingers will find plenty to do at this multi-level science and nature centre – and the hands-on gallery on the top floor had mine begging to stay, as 3-D printers spewed out creations and they grappled with electronic circuit challenges.
There’s so much to do in Halifax from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (with its fascinating Titanic relics) to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and the city’s Natural History Museum, that your kids are guaranteed to be entertained, regardless of their interests.
Evening: A waterfront walk
A walk along the city’s famous waterfront is the perfect way to unwind either before or after dinner. A giant wave sculpture is a veritable magnet to little ones, who swiftly abandon shoes and socks in a bid to create enough foot friction to scale the creation to the very crest. If they make it, the slide back down is a lot of fun.
He made it! Climbing to the crest of the wave
Where construction is currently going on, the waterfront stroll is rerouted into the sea, onto a floating boardwalk which is also a fun (and wobbly!) experience. Further on there are hammocks to swing on, melted lampposts to climb on and a playground or two to break up the stroll.
Dinner-wise our favourites were Waterfront Warehouse and Salty’s Bar and Grill, both right by the water (it was Salty’s where we spotted a seal) and both have scrumptious lobster options and very reasonable and happily-ingested kids’ menus. At Waterfront Warehouse we discovered Canada’s reputation for friendly behaviour was very well earned – with our waiter going above and beyond usual North American attentiveness to get hold of eye drops for my son who was struggling with post-swimming-pool eyes.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Westin Nova Scotia which is right on the waterfront and has convenient adjoining rooms for families. Car parking is extra but the family friendly pool made it a hit with our kids. Not to mention the to-die-for waffles the next morning with lashings of maple syrup. Definitely a necessity in Canada!
Morning: Peggy’s Cove
Time to hit the road and motor along the coast towards some of Nova Scotia’s most stunning spots. It’s about an hour’s drive but it’s an easy one, on an empty motorway - in reality just a single lane road with the odd road train which kept my boys occupied when they weren't enjoying the sound of the V6 engine in our Dodge Charger hire car. And it’s certainly worth the effort. Peggy’s Cove is stunning – but it is also a very popular spot on the tourist trail so getting there early is definitely advisable.
Whales were feasting in the waters behind us - and barely a tourist in sight
Park in the car park and take a wander down onto the granite rocks below, before heading round the corner to the famous lighthouse (follow the tour busses!). While pausing to see the other side of the cove, we were lucky enough to spot whales eating just off shore. And the rocks are a lot of fun to climb on away from the hubbub of the tourist crowds.
Peggy's Cove is pretty as a picture
The lighthouse, when you make it there, is very pretty, as is the whole cove but we didn’t stop for lunch as though stunning, the crowds were building and somewhat taking over the views. Instead we followed the coastal road round a little and pulled in at the White Sails Bakery and Deli on the edge of a lake. And this is the time to try poutine – a cheesy Canadian classic, a version of chips with gravy which seems infinitely more classy with its French moniker. The chowder is also worth a taste.
Afternoon: Treasure hunting
Back in the car, but this time to zoom off to the Oak Island Resort where legend has it, on the eponymous island, treasure has been buried for thousands of years. In fact, the story of the treasure hunt is now a History Channel TV show and Tony Sampson, a diver on the show (now in its sixth series), runs boat trips out to the island which are not to be missed. Tony is a story teller, and it wasn’t just the kids who were enthralled with his tales of bog-diving, Medieval crosses and the possibilities of riches, as yet undiscovered. The show is also available to catch on Blaze.
The pool and the views out to Oak Island
As the boat jets out in the late afternoon sun to tour a couple of the 365 islands in this natural inlet, it’s hard to believe that in the winter these waters freeze over – but it would doubtless be a beautiful sight.
Evening: S'mores by the fire overlooking the sea
As the evening sun sets it’s worth mentioning one word: mosquitos. If you or your family are usual targets, be sure to come prepared. Huge canisters of very effective jungle spray are available in every pharmacy so if you don’t bring repellent from home, stock up when you arrive in Nova Scotia. We travelled in July and May-July is said to be the worst. Once sprayed we were fine, but before we realised we all got a few big bites which bothered us all holiday.
Before you get fully sprayed up, it’s worth making the most of the resort’s leisure facilities – the indoor and outdoor pools remain open late and are very child friendly. There’s crazy golf and life-sized chess, plus a playground to entertain littlies. Dinner on site is tasty (and again a good kids’ menu if you desire) but it was the after-dinner s’mores that really hit the spot. There’s not much more than water-side marshmallow baking round a camp fire for making you feel you’re really in Canada.
Morning: Cycle to Mahone Bay
Visiting the stunning seaside town of Mahone Bay is like stepping into the world of a comforting Canadian TV series. Picturesque barely covers it and the feeling of laid-back life sweeps over you like a wave. We decided to make our trip on bikes and if you fancy it, Oak Island’s fat-tyre bikes are a very comfy ride! It’s quite a long route but if your kids are a bit older (ours managed at 9 and 12) it’s doable and it’s a lot of fun.
It was 15k but we made it!
Just outside the main entrance to the resort, you can pick up the old railway line which runs for miles and miles (all the way to Halifax in the other direction) and is pleasantly shaded from the morning sun by tall pine trees. The route skirts lakes, the sea and crosses rivers for the highest game of Pooh-sticks we’ve ever played, bringing you close to nature with birds, red squirrels and stunning dragon flies breaking up the journey all the way. For those with tired legs, the resort is planning to introduce a drive and ride option, so you can go one way, and then jump in a pick up for the return journey – so stay tuned.
Afternoon: Explore Lunenburg
The promise of ice creams made our 15k+ journey possible with the boys, and when we got to Mahone Bay, the reality was as good, if not better than we'd hoped. Ice creams in hand we put down our bikes (locks and chains were not necessary, we were advised) and went to explore – the town’s three churches on the water’s edge a photo must. Gorgeous restaurants line the beautiful bay – we feasted on fresh fish tacos at Oh My Cod restaurant, which has seats on a pretty terrace with views to the coast. A quick stop at the supermarket for homeward supplies (it’s amazing how far mine will cycle for a marshmallow) and we were back in the saddle for the return journey. Exhausted, we had a quick dip in the outdoor pool back at the resort (there are various other sporty options available too such as kayaking, and SUP paddle boards), before heading off on our next adventure – Lunenburg.
Here, the colourful waterfront houses and narrow streets are picture perfect, earning the old town the honour of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The afternoon was spent exploring the town’s ship building history and taking an up-close look at the famous Bluenose II – a schooner which features on the Country’s 10 cent piece.
Evening: Sunset at Blue Rocks
A few minutes drive down the road is the village of Blue Rocks – a small community built around blue slate rocks which is both stunning and functional – fishermen still set off daily for their catches. The fish shack on the water is another Instagram-perfect picture (my boys loved getting the shot just right for their holiday diaries upon learning it was one of the most photographed buildings in the county).
Nova Scotian sunsets don't require a filter
Dinner can be enjoyed at any number of restaurants in Lunenberg and if you’re pushed for time with a flight to catch in the morning, the return route to Halifax takes just over an hour if you take the motorway rather than the scenic route. For us though, we were lucky enough to be heading back beyond Halifax for the second half of our Canadian family travel adventure. Check out our 3 days in Prince Edward Island guide if your travel schedule allows a second stop.
How to get there
Halifax is a really easy journey, especially with kids. Outbound it’s 6 hours on the plane, on the way back it’s barely past five. West Jet, Canada’s low-cost airline, fly daily and inexpensively to Gatwick (if low-cost long haul is new to you it means food isn’t included in the price so pick up a snack at the airport). This makes Atlantic Canada a very doable half-term or holiday destination.