Last winter, depressed by an endless slew of snowy days, I yearned for a faraway, exotic vacation, somewhere to clear my mind and let my spirit soar.
Alas, my wallet didn't back me up. Was I destined to summer in my backyard? A state park? A crowd-bulging strip of sand? Ugh. Thank goodness the vacation gods intervened and embedded in my mind the prospect of going to Canada; more specifically, to Nova Scotia. And why not? It's relatively nearby. The dollar goes an embarrassingly long way there. And it's breathtakingly gorgeous.
I decided biking was the way to explore the lobstering villages and centuries-old lighthouses along Nova Scotia's quintessential South Shore.
But I ran into a problem: All the big-name touring companies that I wanted to go with were big-time expensive. No go. But then I came across a small, locally based company called Freewheeling Adventures, featuring guides born and raised in Nova Scotia. Not only was I promised a personal tour of the island province's most hidden beauty spots but also an informal cultural tour accented with such offhanded tidbits such as how a lobster trap works and the best mussel-eating technique. Given these lures, it seems almost beside the point that this weeklong vacation was so inexpensive - about $1,000 US for all lodging (a single room), guides, and most meals.
And that's how I found myself in the charming waterfront hamlet of Chester one warm July afternoon, sitting on the weathered deck of the Rope Loft, sipping a locally brewed Keith's, surrounded by six friendly strangers - four other bikers and two guides. (Small groups are guaranteed - no more than six clients.) "This is your vacation," said guide Jeff Fry, his soft words tinged with the Nova Scotian lilt of Celtic forebears.
"So what time do you want to hit the road tomorrow?" I braced for the inevitable establishment of an early hour, which all touring companies seem to have.
"Nine?" piped up one of my fellow bikers. We must have all been thinking the same thing, as we all rushed to express our approval. "Yeah, yeah, 9. That's perfect. Breakfast at 8:30. Great."
If anything, this trip was a democracy. No mandatory map reading sessions, no set schedules, no firm itineraries. Just simple guidance off the tourist track and the desire to show us the best time possible, as if we were just friends going on an enjoyable trek, complete with a lot of jokes by Jeff.
Our first day we cycled along St. Margaret's Bay, a shimmering gray-blue vastness bordered with rocky beaches, bounties of wildflowers, and tiny fishing villages. I had expected resplendent scenery, but for some reason the Freewheeling brochure neglected to mention the gourmet picnic lunches. I nearly missed the picnic area, a tiny pull-off on the side of the road.
That's why I was a bit taken aback when, as I approached the group, I was greeted by David, a green-aproned mirage straight out of a Parisian cafe - Freewheeling's personal chef. "Your hors d'oeuvres are almost ready," he said in a serious, fine-restaurant tone. I plopped down at the picnic table, covered with a white linen tablecloth and graced with a vase of fresh-cut wildflowers. "Help yourself to a drink," he said. "Freshly pressed watermelon juice or honey-lemon iced tea."
Turns out that Freewheeling is based in Hubbards, just a few miles up the road from this picnic site. And the company's owners, Philip and Cathy Guest, who started Freewheeling 13 years ago, are fanatics about their food. They grow most of the vegetables in their backyard, Cathy makes the sauces, relishes, and salsas herself, and Philip even maintains his own beehives for fresh honey. So what proceeded was an indigenous feast of poached salmon dribbled with cucumber-dill sauce, on a bed of fresh greens (the hors d'oeuvre), accompanied by three kinds of baked bread, still steaming. Cold turkey with marinated tomatoes, roasted peppers, and a special homemade cranberry relish followed. And then there was dessert: a choice of piping hot apple pie (one of the tallest, fullest pies I've ever seen) or pound cake dabbled with freshly picked strawberries and whipped cream. To make sure we didn't snooze the afternoon away, lunch ended with espresso, its beans ground at the table with an old-fashioned hand grinder.
We ended the ride at a little cafe on St. Margaret's Bay's far shore, with the promise of an ice-frosted, locally made soda. Before Jeff would let us sit down, though, he insisted we follow him across the street, behind a tree-shaded residence, to a small, dark shop. Inside sat a weathered old man surrounded by decoys, miniature ships in a bottle, and other locally made goods. After a bit of consuming, then savoring an icy orange drink, we hopped into the van and were led to another favorite local secret. I can't tell you which dirt road we drove, or which leafy footpath we traipsed - I trusted our local guides knew where we were going - but soon we found ourselves on the boulder-strewn banks of an inviting gorge fed by a little waterfall. We were the only ones there, probably the only ones around for miles. The water was surprisingly warm, inviting, and, very unlike me, I dived in with the rest to splash and frolic . . . a glorious ending to a glorious day.
The next day we detoured to Oak Island - actually to the end of the short causeway leading to Oak Island, since trespassers aren't allowed. And for good reason - Captain Kidd is said to have buried a gold-filled treasure chest there, somewhere. No matter. It's a quiet, scenic spot to enjoy the view; I was content with that. Onward, we pedaled in and out of royal-blue coves, admiring fishing shacks graced with twisted lobster traps and grand, pine-shaded vacation homes. At Indian Point we stopped by Bill Lutwick's tiny boat-building shop, just in time to see planks of wet wood being warped into the shape of a hull.
About 1 p.m., the three steepled churches of the town of Mahone Bay appeared around a bend, glimmering in smooth, indigo waters at the head of the harbor. This upscale artists' community features potteries, pewter and rug-hooking studios, photo and art galleries, a fun place to wander about.
Our destination that night, Lunenberg, is no secret, given that it's a world heritage site, famed for its shipbuilding and fishing prowess. The town is picturesque enough, its long line of teetering old fisheries reflecting splashes of red and white in the harbor's placid, indigo waters. But our B&B, the Arbour View Inn, was amazing: a highly polished, wood-paneled, Victorian-style manse with perfectly appointed rooms including claw-footed bathtubs and lovely antiques. And that's not all - the proprietor is a chef, French-trained I believe, who runs an in-house restaurant. His Thai-spiced crab cakes were an exotic treat, the filet of salmon divine. Someone made the point that the larger cycling groups can't stay in such charming little places because of lack of space. In Lunenberg, for instance, most are stuck at a larger, nondescript motel on the outskirts of town (and they pay a lot more for their trips, tee hee).
The next day we explored some of the sunniest, loveliest inlets the South Shore has to offer - pine-fringed waters in infinite hues of blue, and everywhere you look a great blue heron, loon, or cormorant. We took a cable-drawn car ferry across La Have River to reach La Have, a tiny, out-of-the-way place that boasts one of the best bakeries around. Anywhere.
We stopped there for lunch, right beside lapping azure waters, savoring vine-ripe tomatoes and slabs of mozzarella cheese tucked between enormous slices of 12-grain bread. Pure bliss. The ride ended at Crescent Beach, where icy, turquoise waves thundered onto a rocky shore. I was sad the day's cycling was done, so, while the others splashed in the surf, Jeff pointed me down a dune-edged lane, where I discovered a mystical corner of weathered gray fishing shacks, great blue heron, and a tiny maritime museum perched on the edge of a glistening aqua sea.
As if that wasn't enough for one day, we then piled into the van and headed down an unnamed side road, walked down an unmarked path, and came to a most splendid natural, tree-embraced whirlpool, formed by boulders in a clear rushing stream. The folks at Freewheeling had learned about this sanctuary from one of the employees' daughter's friends, or something like that. Anyway, it's certainly not a site listed in any tourism brochure and you won't find it on a map. It's something a native friend would share with you, to showcase the best his or her land had to offer. We were in the know.
That evening we returned to Lunenberg for a sunset sail and to sleep at our luxurious manse. And the next day we headed farther down the coast, enjoying vistas of picturesque lighthouses, the white-tipped Atlantic, and sweet-scented primrose fields. An unmarked gravel road led to our lunch stop, on huge boulders above crashing waves. A pure-white lighthouse completed the scene. But I was starving, and it was hard to concentrate on all this lonesome beauty while Jeff and another guide, Andrew Ferguson, prepared our gourmet picnic. No chef this time, but the guys, with the directions of off-site Cathy in-hand, put together an incredible lunch: beginning with steaming peppermint tea made of roadside-picked mint and Philip's honey, and moving on to smoked salmon and oversize slices of bread, fruits, and cheeses, tapanade and salsa, and a huge basket of gooey desserts. Before we could dive in, we had to wait while Jeff took a picture as proof to Cathy that the china, cloth napkins, flower vase, and dishes had been properly set up.
After espresso we exhilarated in more maritime views on our way to the colonial port of Liverpool, which was downright ugly with its foul-smelling paper mill and the first McDonald's we'd seen all week. Freewheeling was smart and put us up at the White Point Beach Lodge Resort outside of town, where the ocean's melodic pounding just outside my window lulled me to sleep.
The last day we ditched our bikes to walk a narrow trail through luscious forest to the bluest waters and whitest sands that I've seen outside the Caribbean. Seals cavorted off a rocky island, endangered piping plovers skittered across grass-covered dunes, gulls soared in the cloudless blue sky above . . . but there were no human beings, not even signs that humans had ever been there. I sat on a rocky point to take in this heavenly scene, and congratulated myself on discovering the secrets of the South Shore.
Barbara A. Noe is the associate travel editor at National Geographic Books. Her two guides, the "National Geographic Guide to 100 Easy Hikes in the Washington, D.C., Area," and "Great Rail-Trails in the Washington, D.C., Area," were published this spring.