Strafing Nova Scotia

To Shubenacadie-and beyond!

The first day of any long-awaited vacation is typically accompanied by feelings of excitement, inspiration and even joy. On this particular morning, however, I was filled with nausea, apprehension and a deep desire to remain in bed. My traveling partner Matt had already been up for an hour, cheerfully prepping our bikes, when I finally summoned the will to rise and begin our two-week motorcycle journey to Nova Scotia. Heavy drinking late into the evening seemed a prerequisite for my summer job as a wedding chef. Now I was paying the price.

Considering my condition, I was happy I finished packing the previous day. Aside from practically passing out over my oatmeal, the day started smoothly. As our pair of Yamahas-my late-model FZ-1 and Matt's classic FJ1200-rolled away from Vermont and through New Hampshire's Dixville Notch, I really began to feel alive. Moving rapidly, we made good time, arriving at the Belle Isle Motel in Bar Harbor, Maine, in the early afternoon.

Gliding out of Bar Harbor the next morning on the Cat Ferry, a high-speed catamaran that crosses the Bay of Fundy, we were rewarded with a magnificent view of the rounded granite domes forming Acadia National Park, with Cadillac Mountain-the highest point on the eastern seaboard at 1532 feet-looming in the distance. The ferry is an impressive piece of engineering, cruising across the bay at 40 knots, but the passage was disappointing-apparently, the $250 ticket price doesn't warrant decent food. As we approached the port city of Yarmouth, however, we forgot all grievances with the boat. We were entering Canada.

Clearing customs was a breeze, and once through, we took off like bullets from a gun. An hour at triple-digit speeds moved us quickly toward our destination: Grand Pre. There we explored the Minas Basin tidal flats-a coarse, deep-crimson plain that stretched miles out into the bay during low tide. Dinner at Paddy's Pub in nearby Wolfville was our introduction to what would become our daily routine: fresh mussels every night, do or die. Also at Paddy's we discovered another maritime ritual: sea shanties, sung at top volume by kilted locals. Nova Scotia is French for "New Scotland," after all.

The next day we set off in search of Atlantic Motorsports Park, a Canadian Superbike Series venue. We finally found the racetrack outside of Shubenacadie, locked up and deserted. The only sign of life was a woodchuck hot-lapping pit lane. I was praying we'd find an open gate or a cooperative maintenance man-any way to get out for a lap of "Canada's Rollercoaster"-but it wasn't to be. Instead we forged onward into Nova Scotia's interior, a boggy, coniferous forest pock-marked with glacial lakes. We reached Sherbrooke just before nightfall, where a too-good-for-us Bed & Breakfast called Saint Mary's River Lodge awaited. The proprietor, Andy-a chunky, wild-eyed, afro'ed, modern Beethoven with a dozen keyboards and an in-house recording studio that would make any audio engineer jealous-entertained us all night long.

We hit the road the next day with spirits high, knowing we would soon ride the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island. But first we paused for a quick pass through Gaelic College in St. Anns, where we discover the cultural heart of Nova Scotia. The Hall of the Clans transported us across the ocean to the misty moors and rugged highlands of northern Scotland. While lost deep in a mural celebrating one of Rob Roy's bloodiest battles, Matt shook me from my reverie and reminded me that my trusty steed was waiting outside for its afternoon flogging.

Off we went, then, strafing the coastal roads lining St. Anns Bay, then finding heaven in the form of Cape Smokey, where we encountered the smoothest and most serpentine asphalt this side of the Alps. Unfortunately, we also encountered rain, forcing a more relaxed pace. We agreed to come back the next day to scratch up these roads properly-sans baggage, with dry roads and full visibility.

Sadly, the rain continued the next day, forcing a much-needed break. We bunked down in a dormitory-style gambrel called the Driftwood Lodge in Ingonish and caught up on our sleep. This left us well-rested for one last early-morning blast back to Cape Smokey. We did the up-and-down twice more before heading back to the Driftwood and picking up our stuff.

That night's destination was a backwoods dive-town called Meat Cove, at the extreme tip of Cape Breton Island. Twelve miles after the pavement ended we found the campground. This is the heart of the Cabot Trail, characterized by cold, deep mists in the valleys beading up on your jacket and face shield, contrasting with brilliant, warm sunshine and clear, crisp air on top of the raised highlands. Being from Vermont, I felt right at home with the strange and variable weather.

Heading south, we tracked through some of the thickest fog yet encountered on our way up Mackenzie Mountain, which on a clear day has to be as entertaining as Cape Smokey. Once high atop the dome again and back into the sunlight, we opted to dry out a bit and take a walk around one of the park's many natural features, a boardwalk traversing a highland bog. Properly dried, we headed out for Cheticamp, a distinctly Acadian locale with some deep cultural heritage. The Acadians are the descendants of 17th century French colonists that settled in the region of the Canadian Maritimes. While in Cheticamp we had some authentic Acadian-style fish cakes, pastries and chowder, then stayed the night at the Cheticamp Outfitters B&B.;

This was the turning point. From here we headed back in the direction of home, making certain to pass through Mabou for more excellent food and céilidh (the Gaelic word for a social gathering) at the Red Shoe. That night proved to be the best of the trip. Musicians Chrissy Crowley and Jason Roach absolutely burned down the (standing-room-only) house. After the céilidh, a good meal and a few beers, we cruised back past our campsite and out to West Mabou Beach to catch the westering sun. We made a driftwood fire, sipped some whiskey and enjoyed a gorgeous sunset.

The next morning, we did some routine bike maintenance and had a good breakfast of coffee, smoked fish and cheese. We then set out for Halifax, the capital of the province. We arrived at Shubie Park, a municipally run campground in Halifax's sister city of Dartmouth, across the harbor. Leaving our bikes and gear at the campsite, we walked down the road, caught a bus to the ferry dock and ferried across the water to check out this modern city's offerings. The Citadel, a hilltop fortress, is Halifax's central feature. An imposing structure made from huge pieces of granite, it's literally built into the top of the hill in the center of the city. Armed forces holding control of the Citadel would be impossible to oust by force.

The following day, we headed south along the coast toward Peggy's Cove, one of Nova Scotia's famous tourist spots. The landscape is unique: a cross between the Alaskan tundra and the lunar surface. Low, rocky, swampy, moss-covered and flat, it's downright weird to look at but wonderful to ride through. Stopping for lunch, we were rewarded with some of the best food so far: seafood crepes and an arugula salad. Moving south, we reached our destination for the evening: Ovens Nature Park and Campground. Perched high atop a rocky headland facing the Atlantic, this privately owned property is famous for its sea caves and beautiful nature trails. We had a restful evening and a good walk the next morning before setting out again.

At this point of our journey, we were leisurely working our way back down the coast toward the States. Our next stop was Shelburne, and while Matt made a quick stop at a pharmacy I scanned the windows for local music. There was a flyer that said Tosca was in town. I didn't know that Tosca is a famous opera by Puccini. I thought maybe it was another Nova Scotia fiddle thing. So there I was reading the poster when a nicely dressed man stopped to chat.

It turned out that this man was the mayor, checking on his town's visitors and making suggestions on how to best spend their time. He recommended a campground, a restaurant and a route for our next day's travel. After giving me his personal business card, he shook my hand and said, "Don't hesitate to call me if you need anything," and "I'll see you tonight at the show." After setting up camp, I opted to go to the opera; after all, where else could one see world-class opera singers for $20? It was very ... operatic. I returned to the campsite after dark to find Matt had built a roaring fire and hit the liquor store for a 12-pack of cold ones and a fresh pack of cigarettes. Not operatic, but damn fine entertainment.

Our final day in Nova Scotia dawned cloudy and cool, but it wasn't raining yet and we only had a short ride to Yarmouth and the ferry back to Portland. We arrived a little early, so did some last-minute shopping for souvenirs and gifts. Matt did the T-shirt, mug and sticker thing, while I found my way to the local pharmacy to stock up on Canadian treats-specifically Crunchy, a delectable candy bar that my sister absolutely loves. As we queued for the Ferry it began to sprinkle, and for some peculiar reason they loaded us bikers on last. By that time the steel deck was like an ice rink. Nobody dumped it, though I saw some come close, and Matt and I strapped our bikes into place and hunkered down for the 6-hour crossing. We reached Portland without any major problems, and I was relieved and sad at the same time that we were back in the States. Once at our hotel, we watched some good, old American TV and hit the sack.

The following day was the last of our trip, and after a congratulatory hand-slap and brotherly hug, Matt and I went our separate ways. My ride took me along some fantastic local roads and over the famed Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire. By the time I got back to Vermont I was tired and surly, ready to sleep in my own bed. An hour later, I was home. As I got off of my trusty Yamaha, I breathed a sigh of relief, patted the gas tank and vowed to do it again next summer.

By definition all adventures must entail some degree of tribulation. Thankfully the only serious issue we encountered was the author's self-inflicted infirmity on day one
Atlantic Motorsports Park has been around since 1974 and features a 1.6-mile road course. It's the most easterly circuit in North America and one of the few remaining tracks you approach via gravel road.
Nova Scotia holds firm to its Scottish heritage with regular displays of old-world antics. Never mock a man with a gun, even if he is wearing a skirt.