Gayle Forman, who wrote our March feature story on Nova Scotia and who is the author of "You Can't Get There From Here: A Year on the Fringes of a Shrinking World," answered your questions on Nova Scotia.
Gayle Forman: Hi everyone:
Thanks so much for coming to this chat. I'm Gayle Forman. And I wish I were in Cape Breton right now. Well, not actually now because it's still winter but I wish it were July and I were in Cape Breton. Which is to say, I fell in love with the place and am happy to answer your questions about it now.
So, fire away.
Ithaca, N.Y.: Hello, Are there any misconceptions about Nova Scotia that you would dissuade Americans about?
Gayle Forman: I think that one of the huge misconceptions with visiting the area known as Maritime Canada—one that I just bolstered in my intro—is that it's cold. I expected it to be on par with Alaska or something. But we visited in late July-early August and had 90 degree weather for a few days and high 70s for the rest. And I was shocked at how warm the swimming beaches were. You get frostbite swimming in the Atlantic in Maine in the summer, but the water was 75 degrees in parts of Cape Breton, meaning you can have a beach holiday, too.
In general, I think Americans (and for the sake of this chat, I mean those of use from the USA) don't know much about Nova Scotia and Cape Breton and I found the mix of stunning natural scenery, quirky culture, strong musical tradition and delicious food to be enchanting. I have yet to meet anyone who visited Cape Breton and didn't come away with stars in their eyes.
Boston, Mass.: I'd like a quick getaway...are there minimum stays for many of the properties you mentioned in your stories? If so, do you have suggestions for where to find places with two-night stays?
Gayle Forman: Some rental houses, including where we stayed, do have minimum stays—5 days to a week, generally. I find that with house rentals, owners don't want to deal with a rapid turnover. That said, there is plenty of accommodation on Cape Breton, including cottages with kitchens available for rent by the night. For instance, Sail Loft Cottage, an adorable one-bedroom loft right on the Bras D'Or in Baddeck rents nightly. The problem is that jewels like this go quickly. If you log onto the capebretonisland.com or baddeck.com, you'll get an idea of the range of accommodation available for nightly rentals.
New York City, N.Y.: Is a rental car absolutely essential, or is public transportation to any of these hotels and sights feasible?
Gayle Forman: See below.
New York, N.Y.: I'd love to visit Nova Scotia but am a non-driving New Yorker—can one feasibly see the sites and get to the beautfiul spots without a car?
Gayle Forman: As anathema as a car is to a New Yorker, I'd have to say, yes. Unless you have a motorcycle. Or a bicycle and are in Tour-De-France worthy shape. The distances between places on the Cape are significant, and while there is municipal bus service, if you plan to explore the Cape by bus, I fear you'd wind up spending most of your time exploring the busses. I suppose you could hitch around, though we didn't try it. If you're really determined to see the area, you could do it without wheels, of course. And there are certainly plenty of organized tours that leave out of Sydney, but all in all, if driving was not an option, I'd probably look for somewhere else to go. There are enough places in the world that you can easily visit without depending on a car. And a caveat about car rentals—they're expensive. We paid almost as much in taxes and fees as we did for the car, totaling nearly $600 for five days! I'd say that gas was really expensive, except it's really expensive here now, too.
Washington, D.C.: The dollar is at about parity with Canadian currency. Any advice on how to save on currency fees for either getting local cash or for purchasing hotels with U.S. credit cards? Many thanks.
Gayle Forman: During our visit, the USD's value was just about even with the Canadian buck for the first time in 30 years, and it definitely stung. As I mentioned in the article, some homeowners seem to be lowering their rental prices to lure folks from the USA back up north, so feel free to bargain. As for fees, I generally use my ATM to withdraw money in the local currency and I don't get charged by my bank. Similarly, at least where the house rentals are concerned, I was able to pay in $USD, part on a credit card, part in cash. So set the price in USD and ask if you can pay with greenbacks.
Atlanta, Ga.: I don't like seafood. Is that the only real option in Nova Scotia restaurants? And what's the standard for tipping in restaurants? Is it automatically included in the bill? 10% of the bill?
Gayle Forman: There are plenty of other options in Cape Breton, both in the restaurants and at the markets, from poutine, that uniquely Québécois dish of french fries slathered in a cheese gravy (you either love it or hate it) to steak. In fact, we bought a steak from the local market and grilled it up at our house and it was one of the best we'd ever had. Meanwhile, the lobster at restaurants was more expensive than what we pay down in New York (baffling given the zillions of lobster traps you see everywhere). As for tipping, Canada is not like Europe where service charges cover tips. It works like in the US. I tip the usual 15-20 percent.
Washington, D.C.: Hi Gayle, Loved your story, you really brought the place alive and made me want to get up and go there. Was there anything about Nova Scotia that surprised you, was different from your previous trips there or from what you expected?
Gayle Forman: Thanks! It's funny but in general I was surprised by how much the place got under my skin. I started entertaining fantasies about living up there in the summer, which I don't usually do after visiting a new place. (And until husband gets a job doing something that gives him summers off, my little fantasy is going to stay a fantasy.) The two big surprises were the scenic beauty and the music. Our family came to Nova Scotia directly after an Alaska cruise, so we'd just come off some awesome scenery. And at first, we were like, "pretty, but..." But the scenery along the Cabot trail (the scenic byway that loops around the northern part of the cape) is breathtaking—seriously, we were gasping out loud in the car as a new panorama opened up—and so varied we could not get over it. And the music. It's everywhere. At first you think it's a tourist thing, piped-in Celtic music, but the Ceilidhs and the dances are part of the local tradition. Everyone plays, it seems, and the music infused the entire island.
Murfreesboro, Tenn.: What are the five best hikes in Nova Scotia, and what are some of the best wildlife experiences?
Gayle Forman: I'll speak to Cape Breton, as I didn't see much of the rest of Nova Scotia. Cape Breton Highlands National Park has some stunners, particularly The Skyline trail on the west side of the island, which is gorgeous, plus you stand a good chance of seeing moose and whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Bog trail, also in the park, is short and runs along an elevated boardwalk through a bog. I'm clearly partial to the Jackpine trail, also in the park. The park has lots of wildlife—moose, fox, coyote, lynx, bear—though we didn't see much. I thought I heard a moose, but it turned out to be a foghorn. Near Baddeck, the Uisge Ban Falls (pronounced Usa Ban; Gaelic, go figure!) came highly recommended by Bethsheila Kent, the hippie naturalist guide I hiked around with. And there are lots of trails in St. Ann's near the Gaelic College along the gypsum cliffs and the inlet. My husband was walking through these woods and the view just opened up onto the water and the highlands and in the distance he heard the sound of someone practicing playing bagpipes. No, really.
Carson City, Nev.: I have friends and relatives in Nova Scotia and don't get to see them very often—primarily due to the cost of travel getting from here to there. Many times it is cheaper to fly from the west coast to Europe than it is to get to Halifax. Heck...sometimes it's even cheaper to get to Europe than it is to get to Halifax from many northeastern cities (where I frequently find myself on business). What's with that?!! Is Canada trying to discourage tourism? Are there any discount airlines or other deals that can get me there without applying for a subprime second mortgage? Help!
Gayle Forman: See my answer below.
Chicago, Ill.: Any advice on how to get discount flights to Nova Scotia? I heard there's a new airline called Porter and some other airlines but I don't know if they fly there or how to book 'em. Or should I just use Expedia, etc., and see what pops up?
Gayle Forman: I'm always a huge fan of Kayak.com, which consistently gets me the best fares no matter where I'm going. That said, the New York City-Halifax route is only served by a few flights, so you're not likely to get discount fares. Interestingly, we were actually in Vancouver, BC before going to Nova Scotia and I'd thought it would be easier and cheaper to fly within Canada but it actually turned out to be a better deal (and shorter flight) to drive down to Seattle and fly back to New York (Newark, really) and fly up to Halifax from there. Halifax is a good drive to Cape Breton (3-4 hours). There is a local airport in Sydney (Cape Breton's largest city), but flights there are very expensive and require a stopover. Porter Air is a new Canadian carrier, but to fly to Nova Scotia (Halifax) you first have to get yourself to Toronto or Ottawa, though that may change.
Nova Scotia: Was there something you had wanted to include in your story but couldn't and ended up on the cutting room floor, so to speak, that was a real great tip or anecdote?
Gayle Forman: The editors at Budget Travel went to great pains to not cut out any of the highlights of my article. The one exception was my semi guilt-ridden explanation of why I committed a sacrilege by not visiting the Cape's main tourist attraction. For your edification, I went back to the original piece to show you what you—er, I—missed.
"I should probably admit here that we also skipped Cape Breton's top tourist attraction Louisburg, a French fortress that fell to the British both times it was attacked but has nonetheless been restored to its former glory, complete with Colonial Williamsburg type actors. I'd like to blame my daughter for this oversight—you know how preschoolers are—but really, I'd sooner visit the DMV than a fort.)"
There, now you know the limits of my travel-writer-selflessness!
Orchard Park, N.Y.: August trip for 1 week+ leaving from Bar Harbor or Portland, ME ferry 2 60+ adults. Suggested sights for car tour of Nova Scotia, large and small towns, suggestions for best restaurants (all price ranges), possible side trip to PEI. Thanks.
Gayle Forman: Seeing as I'm partial to Cape Breton, I'd suggest taking a day or two to drive up the east coast of Nova Scotia (stopping in Halifax if you want to do the city thing) and then hot-tailing it up to Cape Breton. You can see all sorts of info about restaurants and areas on the Cape in the Budget Travel article: see the link at the top of this page.
People are also partial to the Bay of Fundy, but alas, Nova Scotia is too big and a week is too short to see more than a sliver of it.
Morehead City, N.C.: Any tips on budget places to stay besides camping? Thanks.
Gayle Forman: House rentals. We saw a four-bedroom house in Baddeck for $600 a week. Other spots are less, so it's worth combing house rental sites (we mention several in the article).
Back to that four bedroom house. If you're traveling with a number of people who can pitch in, that $600 a week is a mighty good deal, especially if you cook meals in. If you stay in Baddeck, be sure to get some Bumbleberry pie from The High Wheeler. And maybe send me a slice. I'm jonesing just thinking about it.
Gayle Forman: Thanks for coming everyone.