Anne of Green Gables dolls on Prince Edward Island, Canada

The Canadian Maritimes | best museums | the quirky dozen

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Explosions, shipwrecks, inventions, spirited redheads, duplicitous sea creatures and buried treasure … discover the Canadian Maritimes’ magnetic attractions via a unique museum trail

On Canada’s Atlantic flank sit the three provinces that comprise what’s called the Canadian Maritimes: Nova Scotia with its umbilical cord to Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick.

As well as a landscape of elegant conifers, picturesque highways, shapely rocks and irascible oceans, the region boasts a string of museums that encapsulate the region’s heritage, history and colourful inhabitants.

Stars of the show include the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell; fictional heroine, Anne of Green Gables; folk artist Maud Lewis; the inventor of the radio, Guglielmo Marconi; the First Nations people, the Mi’kmaq; and the Titanic. This is where they get their close-ups.

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Halifax at dusk

1. Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

In the Nova Scotian capital of Halifax, re-live the Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917, when the Mont-Blanc, a French munitions ship carrying 2925 tons of explosives, collided with a Norwegian relief ship, Imo, in the harbour, blowing the city to smithereens, killing upward of 1600, injuring 9000 and leaving 6000 homeless.

Identifying the victims was, ironically, aided by the tragedy that was the sinking of the Titanic, also explored at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

The Titanic’s maiden voyage ended on April 15, 1912, after hitting an iceberg. While survivors were taken to New York, hundreds of the dead were brought to Halifax where the Deputy Registrar of Deaths, John Henry Barnstead, devised an identification system that involved logging tattoos, scars and dental work, bagging personal effects, and taking photos to be circulated worldwide. It was a template used to identify those who could be identified after the Halifax explosion five-and-a-half years later and in other subsequent disasters.

The museum is beloved of old salts, charting both the Days of Sail and the Age of Steam, with detailed models of passenger liners, freight vessels, armed merchant raiders, petroleum carriers, and even a Morse code workshop.

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All things maritime at the Halifax museum

2. Art Gallery of Nova Scotia

Not far away is the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, where the work of folk artist Maud Lewis is now ensconced. Lewis was the subject of the raw 2016 Hollywood film, Maudie, starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. The tiny roadside house that Lewis painted every surface of has been restored and moved here and, along with a curation of Lewis’s paintings and doors, is now a permanent exhibit in the gallery. Like most cool galleries, there’s a good café attached.

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Maud Lewis lives on in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia

3. Canadian Museum of Immigration

It seems right that this is located at Pier 21, just along from where the cruise ships dock. Halifax is a reminder of the early settler influx of Scottish, English, Irish, French, German, and Dutch settlers. The stories of fear, hope, frustration and sacrifice shine a light on the 21st century’s ongoing people movements and the value of sympathetic migration policies.

4. Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Centre

The First Nation people of this region were the Mi’kmaq, adept, we learn here, at porcupine quillwork, glass beadwork and splint basketry. Artefacts at the centre, at Millbrook near Truro, date back 7,500 years, and a recent archaeological dig has unearthed tools and pottery carbon-dated to 13,600 years ago.

With luck, a visit might coincide with drum-making workshop or a “smudge” cleansing ceremony – a smoking of sweetgrass, sage, and cedar aimed at vaporizing negativity.

The Mi’kmaq community in Canada these days numbers around 60,000. The culture is rich with customs and beliefs, many based on the derring-do of the mythical hero Glooscap. Pick up Marion Roberston’s Red Earth: Tales of the Mi’kmaq to enjoy the creation tales.

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Artefacts at the Millbrook cultural centre

5. The Gaelic College

The kilt, it seems, might be fashion’s most under-rated fashion item. See how it starts life as a sleeping mat, gets pleated into a skirt, and is ready for any sartorial occasion. Team it with hiking boots and a navy polo shirt (the sporran becomes a pocket for your oatmeal, loose change, flask and phone) for casual cred; or add a tuxedo shirt, jacket and tails, black ghillie loafers and swap out the day-time sporran for a fur-embellished evening man bag.

The Gaelic College was founded at St Ann’s, Nova Scotia, in 1938, by people from the local community who wanted to create a memorial for the Gaelic-speaking pioneers of Cape Breton. The first Scots, 189 of them set out, arrived in 1773 at Pictou on the Hector. A replica of the ship is moored at the Hector Heritage Quay.

There are courses on just about anything to do with Gaelic culture – students can study Cape Breton fiddle, piano, guitar, step-dancing, piping, highland dancing, weaving, and Gaelic language (there are six). This is the place to shop for tartan. And to learn about the clans and their colours: there are 24 tartans representing the McDonalds alone.

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Artefacts at The Gaelic College

6. The Bog Trail

Just out of Chéticamp, in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, is “the Bog”, a wonderful natural wetlands “museum” – a peat bog with all manner of nifty botany glinting under a milky sun. See purple pitcher plants with thick-lipped leaves, buckbean, leather leaf, bog rosemary, orchids. It’s an easy 0.5 km stroll, and on a boardwalk to keep feet dry.

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The ‘Bog Trail’ outside Cheticamp in Cape Breton

7. Prince Edward Island

At 224 km long and from six to 64 km wide, PEI is the smallest of Canada’s provinces. While it’s famous for beaches, golf courses, 30 different types of oysters, the Russet Burbank potato, and the Confederation Bridge, it’s the legacy of local author L.M. Montgomery that is the biggest drawcard. Anne of Green Gables, the story of a red-haired orphan who wasn’t the boy her adoptive parents were expecting, is one of 23 books Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote. PEI is often, not surprisingly, referred to as “Anne Land”. The fictional house, based on the novels, the bucolic walks around it, plus the author’s birthplace and family home and a recreated village attract thousands of avid fans each year from all over the world. Buy the doll, buy the hat.

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Anne of Green Gables’ backyard, Prince Edward Island

8. Grand-Pré National Historic Site

The beautiful manicured grounds here include a statue of Evangeline, heroine of Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline: Tale of Acadie, and a memorial church which serves as a museum exploring the unhappy history of the put-upon Arcadians and their deportation in 1755. The church added, in 1985, a stained glass window by Terry Smith-Lamothe, in siren blue, financed by Acadian descendants in Nova Scotia.

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The Grand-Pre Historical Site honours the Arcadians

9. Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site

Time spent in the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site is a speed date with greatness. Alec Bell – Edinburgh-born scientist, inventor, engineer and humanitarian – might be best known for inventing the telephone, but his need-to-know knew no bounds. With contemporaries such as Edison, Marx, Einstein, Marconi, Pasteur and the Wright Brothers, he lived and worked during a golden age of intellectual curiosity.

The Bell museum is by the Bras d’Or Lake near Baddeck on Cape Breton, across the lake from Beinn Bhreagh (“beautiful mountain” in Scottish gaelic), the summer home of the Bell family and its descendants since 1892. It’s where the Bells escaped the pressures, litigation and social whirl of Washington D.C.

The museum is an absorbing archive of sketches, engineering, machinery, photos, notes, journals, and insights into the extraordinary partnership he had with his wife, Mabel Hubbard, who became deaf after contracting scarlet fever at the age of five, and came to Bell as a teenage pupil.

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Bell applied his curious mind to both Heaven and Earth

Bell was never happier than when experimenting, and his areas of interest encompassed sound transmission, photography, medicine, aeronautics, marine engineering and space frame construction. Between 1875 and 1922, Bell and associates were issued with a total of 31 patents.

During his years on Cape Breton, from 1892 to 1923 when he died, Bell was also developing steering wheel prototypes, instruments to measure wind velocity, air-conditioning blowers, devices for providing drinking water from human breath and for transmitting sound underwater.

He was a successful sheep breeder and fascinated by aviation and seacraft.

In 1909, the Bell team’s Silver Dart was the first powered controlled aeroplane to fly in Canada. Version four (HD-4) of Bell’s hydrofoil (or “hydrodromes” as he called them) had its maiden voyage in 1918 and, having achieved a test run of 70.86 mph, was declared the fastest boat in the world.

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The Alexander Graham Bell Museum at Baddeck

10. The Fisheries Museum of The Atlantic

In the port of Lunenburg on the southern shores of Nova Scotia, a new memorial honours 650 fishermen who have died in this town alone since 1890. The Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic is nearby. One of the best exhibits is the Tidal Touch Tank that shows just what starfish, lobsters, urchins, carnivorous snails and periwinkles get up to underwater when nobody’s looking. They all look like butter wouldn’t melt … but it’s a world of thuggery and deceit, of death by smothering, drilling, and suction. Kids love the predatory hierarchy.

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Memorial to those fishermen lost at sea, Lunenburg

11. The Marconi Historic Site

The Marconi National Historic Sites of Canada in Glace Bay, near Sydney in eastern Cape Breton, was created by Parks Canada as a tribute to Marconi’s vision in the development of radio telecommunications. The first official wireless message was sent from here via the Atlantic Ocean to England in 1902. The museum has photos, artefacts and models. Like Bell, Marconi preferred the laboratory to the celebrity’s stage.

12. Oak Island

The treasure hunt on this island in Mahone Bay, on the southern shores of Nova Scotia, has been going on here for some 222 years.  Locals discovered, in 1795, a well worn path and a depression that came to be known as the Money Pit.  The presence of fibres that weren’t local, strategic layerings and markings indicated a sophisticated stashing. But dozens of shafts, bores, excavations, new technologies, and cameras have failed to turn up any bounty. Hope lives on. And the onsite history of the hunt makes for a good read. There’s a TV series, too, The Curse of Oak Island. And there are T-shirts.

Susan Skelly visited the Canadian Maritimes as a guest of Collette,


Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab.

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Copyright © Susan Skelly 2020.