LUNENBURG, NOVA SCOTIA - Hoo, boy. After arriving from the relative frenzy of St. John’s, I didn’t quite know what to make of this town.
It doesn’t help that they’re just now putting the final touches on things for the tourist season, and that a lot of things I had hoped to see were closed. And silly me for not checking more thoroughly.
But, as luck would have it, I was outside the Fisheries Museum the other day when one of the managers left the building. I asked if someone could show me around and, of course, the answer was, “Of course.”
So I got in a quick visit ahead of Saturday’s season opening.
I’d also wanted to check out the Ironworks Distillery, a micro-distillery and the only one of its kind in the province. They were supposed to be closed Tuesday and Wednesday but agreed to show me around, which was very kind.
Naturally, one expects this sort of behaviour from folks in the Maritimes and in Newfoundland. The pace is decidedly slower, and the people are so much more friendly than in the Big Smoke.
The first time I visited St. John’s I was stunned when a car slowed down on Water St. to let me jaywalk. I was gobsmacked. Not to mention flustered.
The same thing happened in Halifax last fall, which really floored me. So I guess it’s no surprise people slow down all over Lunenburg and wave you across….
Anyhoo, once I slowed down a bit I discovered a ton of charm in this town. It is, of course, the home of the legendary schooner The Bluenose, featured on Canadian dimes and easily Canada’s most famous ship.
They’re rebuilding the Bluenose II down on the waterfront (see photo) and it looks like a beauty. Ships and the fishing industry made Lunenburg what it is, but there’s far more to this town than fish and the ocean.
The whole place was given a UNESCO heritage designation a few years back, as it’s so well-preserved.
I had a great, 35-minute carriage tour for just $20, then followed it up with a walking tour by Shelah Allen – also just $20 for an hour.
The Fisheries Museum is fun; with displays on the Bluenose (naturally, given it was built here and is being rebuilt on the waterfront as we speak) and the old cod fishery and on the area’s history in the rum running biz, not to mention a series of fish tanks with lots of fish for the kids to look at.
Down the road is the community of Blue Rocks, which is impossibly quaint and has absolutely not one t-shirt shop or cute souvenir store selling lobster-shaped oven mitts; not that there’s anything wrong with that.
What has surprised me most about Lunenburg, I think, are the colourful houses and the food. I knew St. John’s had the “Jellies,” but I didn’t know Lunenburg had shrugged off its German Lutheran past in the last couple years and started painting houses in such wild colours: marigold with Golden Gate Bridge orange trim, deep fuschia, navy blue, cranberry red, mint chocolate chip ice cream (see what I mean at left!) and lots more.
It’s pretty wild. Some of the locals apparently weren’t happy when the first folks started painting over the traditional white houses with black trim, but now the place has embraced the trend full bore. In fact, one of the main streets has little place names below the street signs that say “Unesco Fresco.”
I also had no clued they had such great food in this town. The standard for high cuisine, if you will, is Fleur de Sel on Montague St. It’s an old house that’s been restored, and it’s glorious; sunny and bright with pale blue walls and an old fireplace in the middle of the main dining room. Romantic as hell.
Great food, too, and fun drinks. I had fabulous calamari that’s flash fried and served with a trio of sauces, including a green olive tapenade. There also was rabbit pot au feu as an appetizer; rich and full of tender meat. They also offer halibut, salmon, sweetbreads, lamb and lots more in a menu that feels half French and half Maritimes. And that's a good thing.
The best part might have been the Basil Lemonade, with gin, pear eau de vie from the nearby Ironworks Distillery, fresh basil, honey and green peppercorn syrup, fresh lemon juice, ground pepper and Q sparkling water. Awesome and fragrant and tasty and fresh, served in a tall glass with a sprig of deep green basil, a wedge of brilliant yellow lemon – and a bright orange straw. It looked as good as it tasted.
The folks behind the restaurant also operate the Salt Shaker Deli down the street, and it might be even better. It’s a fun spot, again with plenty of light, and they offer a wide array of dishes. I had the linguini one night with scallops, and it came with five or six large, tender scallops, plus a half pound of bacon (well, almost) and lots of garlic. One of the best seafood pasta dinners I’ve ever had.
At lunch I opted for the seafood chowder, which apparently has won awards. It’s easy to see why, as it’s a lovely base (not too creamy but just right) with a half-ton of seafood and almost no filler. I had four scallops and maybe one tiny piece of potato, plus a couple small pieces of carrot. The rest was all seafood; scallops and tiny shrimp and haddock and mussels.
I was told the secret is that the haddock is smoked and also that they cook the seafood to order when someone asks for the chowder, instead of having it sit all day in the broth.
A great concept, and the best $10 bowl of soup I’ve had in my life.
The Savvy Sailor makes a good breakfast, with views out over the harbour and a small, outdoor patio for when the weather's nice. Great bacon and homemade raspberry jam and excellent coffee, too.
One of the top places to stay is the Lunenburg Arms Hotel. Many of the rooms offer outstanding views of the harbour, so be sure to ask for one of those; preferably up high. My room was 408, with lovely wood floors and big windows and a small sofa in the sitting room area. Just perfect.
It's funny, but as travel editor I don't get offered many stories about Nova Scotia. Which is one of the reasons I came here. I get a lot from PEI and Newfoundland, and a few from New Brunswick. But the Nova Scotia tourism folks don't seem nearly as aggressive in the Toronto market, which I really don't understand given how lovely this province is and how much they have to offer....