HEADING NORTH

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In Nova Scotia, even the best-oriented travelers will encounter moments where they completely lose their bearings. After all, where else on the Eastern Seaboard does one find oneself marching along a coastline overlooking what appears to be the ocean -- and facing west?

In some cases, the sense of dislocation is more than just geographic. The visitor to Nova Scotia happens upon places of such isolated splendor that it is difficult to believe that one is still tethered to the land mass of North America, a mere 90-minute flight from Boston, and has not, in fact, passed over into some Nordic fantasy land.

For my wife and me, that moment came on an early summer hike at the furthest tip of Cape Breton, the rugged island that lies just northeast of the Nova Scotia mainland. We had set off from the tiny community of Meat Cove, a settlement populated almost entirely by three extended Scottish families -- the MacClellans, MacDonalds and Frasers.

After an hour's march on a deserted logging trail over one of the high, green knobs that give the Cape Breton coast its distinctive allure -- and wins it comparisons to the Scottish Highlands -- we descended toward the even more secluded, second cove that was our destination.

Having passed not a single hiker, we were surprised when we suddenly heard heavy footfalls on the trail behind us. We turned to see bearing down on us a very large wild horse, its long tail swinging; quickly, we stepped off the trail to allow it to pass.

Minutes later, we saw why the horse was in such a rush. The trail opened onto a stunning coastal plain, a broad wave of low grass bordered by high cliffs. Beyond, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the sea that bounds Cape Breton to the west, rushed toward its meeting with the North Atlantic on the island's east. Somewhere beyond that, invisible, lay Newfoundland. A strong but warm wind blew in off the water toward the ridge behind us. And there, a hundred yards away, was the horse, gamboling in the breeze, then rolling onto its back, legs waving in the air.

We followed the horse as it continued down the plain to the cove where, as it turned out, it had an appointment -- five other horses, including a colt, awaited it. From a respectful distance, we watched as the party of six played in the sun, oblivious to our presence. By that point, the scene seemed so unreal that we would not have been surprised if the horses had sprouted unicorn horns.

But that is Nova Scotia's appeal -- such moments are very real, and they are very attainable.

We may have felt that we were at the end of the earth, but we had hiked only two hours on a manageable trail to reach it. A few hours later, we would be driving the 20 minutes back to our highly civilized inn, a large, handsome 1898 house with several parlors, private baths in most guest rooms, and a rear deck overlooking the water where we took our breakfast.

And that night, we would be dining nearby on mussels and halibut -- accompanied by Keith's, the superb Nova Scotia beer -- at Morrison's, a restaurant that, with its wide floorboards, bottle-lined walls, strong-jawed patrons and round-faced waitresses, is as honest an embodiment of rustic elegance as one can hope for.

One finds the same heady mix of foreignness and reassuring comfort all around Nova Scotia, a peninsula roughly the size of West Virginia appended to the coast of Maine and New Brunswick. On summits in Cape Breton National Park, one is more likely to find a well-kept wooden bathroom than another hiker; the equally incomprehensible Acadian French and Scot-inflected English spoken in the province give you the thrill of being abroad, yet walk into a bar and there's baseball on TV.

The province of just under a million people is more rugged than pastoral Prince Edward Island, which lies just to its north; at the same time, it is more accessible than even harsher Newfoundland, the East Coast's last stop on the way to the Arctic. Nowhere else, perhaps, can vacationers from the eastern United States travel so quickly, easily and inexpensively -- and yet feel as if they've landed very far away. Think of Nova Scotia as Maine, the premium edition: fewer tourists and outlet shops, friendlier locals, more languages, a more striking coastline and -- not to be overlooked -- the advantageous Canadian exchange rate.

Bustling Halifax

For us, as for most who arrive by plane (the province is also accessible by ferry from Maine or New Brunswick, or by road from New Brunswick), the visit began in Halifax, the province's capital and largest city. Halifax is best known for its large harbor -- it's the second largest in the world, in fact -- but it would be wrong to write it off as a gritty port town.

In fact, the city is a surprisingly cosmopolitan hub of some 350,000 (suburbs included), well stocked with a range of hotels, restaurants and shops and worth spending a couple of days in before or after touring the countryside.

Most striking is the city's commanding location, perched against a hillside dropping to a wide inlet in Nova Scotia's eastern shore, with steep streets climbing up from the harbor toward the city's best-known (if little used) landmark, the Citadel.

The first-time visitor should make straight for the fort, if only to get a sense of the city's scale and felicitous physical situation; for me, as I'm sure for most American visitors, the mere realization that such a sizable, bustling city lies to the north of the U.S. East Coast was bracing. We tend to think that urban life peters out around Portland, Maine, a misperception that Halifax rebukes.

The citadel, built in various stages from 1749 to 1856, also offers a good introductory historical lesson -- notably as a reminder that Canada was, from an American perspective, not always a benign, easily taken-for-granted neighbor to the north. The big guns, and thickest walls, at the fort are those facing to overland approaches from the south, not toward the harbor, since the greatest threat to Halifax for much of the 18th and 19th centuries was an American invasion of British Canada.

Such worries, of course, turned out to be exaggerated -- aside from trashy television, Canada has had little to fear from the United States since the Civil War or so.

Again and again, our perky tour guide assured us that "there has never been a shot fired in anger" from the Citadel, as if to keep the existence of the fortifications from damaging her country's placid reputation. This was unnecessary. The sight of the fort's mock soldiers prancing around in kilts and berets was more than enough assurance that Canada remains a threat only on the hockey rink.

Tragedy in history

Even more instructive was a visit to the city's Maritime Museum, on the waterfront, for it is here that one learns about the times when Halifax was at the center of the action, and when blood was spilled in its streets.

The museum features torpedoes and other mementos from the North Atlantic submarine warfare of two world wars, in which Halifax had a leading role; also, a deck chair and other surviving artifacts from the Titanic, many of whose victims were brought to Halifax for burial.

But the museum's highlight is its section on the great Halifax explosion of 1917, when a French cargo ship carrying munitions bound for the Western Front collided with a Norwegian relief vessel in Halifax's busy harbor, setting off an explosion that obliterated an entire swath of the city, killing about 2,000, injuring 9,000 and leaving some 25,000 homeless.

It is said to be the largest man-made, nonmilitary loss of life in world history, and it marked the city forever. Yet many Americans know little if anything of the explosion. In the shadow of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- so similar in their unexpectedness and death toll -- filling that gap seems especially worthwhile.

This weighty past should not suggest, though, that Halifax is a gloomy town beset by ghosts. Far from it. The best thing about the city is its vibrant, edgy air, and the best way to enjoy it is to walk the streets and while away the hours in any of its many bookstores or even more plentiful bars and restaurants.

As elsewhere in Canada, American and European influences meet to good effect on the streets of Halifax: New England-style white frame houses sit near a busy European-style shopping street, Spring Garden Road, which in turn leads to the Victorian idyll of the Public Gardens.

Nightlife benefits from the same cultural confluence. Res-taurant patrons have the relaxed air of Europeans with the time for lengthy meals, yet can choose from the array of ethnic dining options found in American cities.

Bars have live-music lineups as full as those to be found in a much larger American city, but they also offer the pleasant sight of the town's university students socializing, like their European counterparts do, without having to go through the American charade of presenting fake IDs at the door, since the Canadian drinking age is 18.

If the Iraq-related tensions between United States and Europe ever reach the breaking point, one could recommend few better sites for reconciliation than the happy medium of Halifax.

Cape Breton Island

The cosmopolitan scene disappears rapidly as one heads for the countryside -- less than an hour outside Halifax on the main coastal highway heading up toward what's known as the Eastern Shore. The villages were so sparsely settled, and the road so little traveled, that locals strolled in the middle of the road, two and three abreast, and simply stepped aside as we sped past, much as we did for the horse near Meat Cove.

Visitors with no more than a week or 10 days are best off focusing their travels outside Halifax on Cape Breton, where the landscape is more impressive than anything else to be found in the province. But the mainland's hinterland has a pastoral appeal all its own, and one way to experience at least part of it is to take this coastal road for either leg of the roughly four-hour trip to and from Cape Breton, rather than the slightly faster route via the four-lane highway that cuts across the province past its larger industrial towns.

Once across the causeway onto Cape Breton, the visitor faces a simple choice: which way to round the Cabot Trail, the road that rings the island. We went clockwise, heading up the island's particularly striking western edge toward the heavily Acadian hamlets that overlook the Gulf of St. Lawrence -- Margaree Harbor, Grand Etang, Cheticamp.

Anyone expecting the quaint saltboxes of New England fishing villages will be disappointed -- with a few exceptions, the coastal settlements of Cape Breton are almost aggressively prosaic, with a strong smattering of synthetic siding, sometimes in curious shades, and a more temporal feel than the Colonial-era villages of Massachusetts' North Shore or Maine.

The absence of historic charm is made up for, however, in the island's natural beauty, which is simply on a different level than anything one finds in New England, and the idiosyncratic vibrance of the island's residents. In Maine, one can delight in the clipped accent of the grouchy lobsterman, but Cape Breton goes one better, mixing entire languages:

"You doing all right?" one man asked another in the grocery store in French-speaking Cheticamp. "Ouais," he replied.

One can, as I and some friends once attempted to do on a madcap college trip, circle the island in a day's driving. To do so, though, is to rush yourself through some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in the world -- not to mention risk crashing on the serpentine road as it hugs the high cliffs.

Far better to arrange at least one or two overnights along the way and advance only 80 miles or so each day along the Cabot Trail. That way, one has time for stops at the frequent rest areas along the road, each of which seems to offer a more stunning vantage than the one preceding, and for occasional man-made sights like the French fort at Louisburg and the Keltic Lodge, the grand hotel in Ingonish.

Alternatively, one can set up a base in the heart of the island, most conveniently in Baddeck, the genteel sailing town on the huge inland bay called the Bras D'Or, where a $20 boat ride will give you a clear view of Alexander Graham Bell's summer mansion. It's more expensive and less intriguing than the villages on the island's perimeter, but may suit those wanting a more comfortable base for their exploration.

Accessible hiking

We spent our first two nights on the island in Cheticamp, the heart of French-speaking Cape Breton, in a bed and breakfast set halfway up the high ridge that slopes up from the shore. There, we enjoyed brilliant sunsets over the gulf in the evening -- again, pleasantly disorienting for Easterners, since the gulf is so wide that far north (the distant islands of Quebec are barely visible on a clear day) that it is easy to mistake for the ocean, even though it lies to the west.

Most charming, though, was our hostess, an ebullient landscape painter who regaled us during hearty, made-to-order breakfasts with tales of her enormous Acadian family and of her recent good fortunes at bingo; the game has become so popular along the coast that it is now played nightly at different halls and weekly over the local radio station, with pots climbing beyond $10,000.

Outdoor diversions abound in Cape Breton -- whale watches, plane rides, kayaking or canoeing along the coast. We stuck with hiking simply because there is no better way to appreciate the unique pleasures of coastal mountains -- the sensation of reaching a certain height on what by itself would be a rewarding trail, bounded by creeks and birch groves and with mountain views comparable to parts of New Hampshire's White Moun-tains, and suddenly being confronted with the astonishing bonus of the blue sea laid out below.

Adding to hiking's appeal is its accessibility -- Cape Breton National Park, which encompasses most of the northern end of the island, offers 26 well-marked trails of varying length and difficulty. The shortest of them, the Skyline, may be the best hiking bargain around. An hour's jaunt with little uphill to speak of along a narrow shoulder reaching into the water brings you to a lonely point far above the gulf, with a full view of the curving coast behind you.

There is just as big a payoff for people-watching: the locals are small in number but rich in variety. One day, we were among the Acadians, dining on specialties like fricot (a form of chicken stew)served by waitresses in traditional frocks, watching women at a roadside shop work at their hooked rugs, a local custom.

The next day, after just a few hours' drive around the tip of the island to the eastern edge, we were deep in Scot country, listening to our sardonic innkeeper's tales of the interfamily brawling up at Meat Cove, so named by sailors because of the moose and caribou they'd hunt there on their way around the cape. Its denizens, infamous for their drag races along the winding dirt road to the cove and for their rowdy fights at local dances, are simply carrying on the grudges of long-ago ancestral Scottish clan warfare, he said.

On some matters, though, the three families clearly agreed. Entering their settlement, we were amused by a large sign that declared, "Meat Cove: The Most Northern Community."

At the time, we snickered at the hyperbole. The most northern community of what? we wondered. But a few hours later, after we had found ourselves in the wild horse wonderland, we had a better sense of what the sign meant. You may not always know whether you're facing east or west in Nova Scotia, but of this you can be sure: You're always "most northern," in the best possible way.

When you go

Getting there: The only cities in the United States from which you can fly directly to Halifax are Boston and Newark. But BWI and other regional airports offer connecting service to Halifax from Toronto or Montreal. Flying time from Boston is under two hours.

* It's also possible to drive to Maine and then take ferries to Nova Scotia from either Portland (11 hours) or Bar Harbor (3 hours). The ferry from Saint John, New Brunswick, takes 3 hours. The boat-averse can drive all the way to Moncton, New Brunswick, and then back south onto the Nova Scotia peninsula.

Lodging:

Waverley Inn, 1266 Barrington St., Halifax NS B3J 1Y5

800-565-9346

www.waverleyinn.com

* A large Victorian house done up in ornate Victorian style, most famous for having had playwright Oscar Wilde as a guest in 1882. Rates from $85.

Lord Nelson Hotel and Suites, 1515 South Park St., Halifax, NS B3J 2L2

800-565-2020

www.lordnelsonhotel.com

* One of Halifax's fancier hotels, a 1928 building fully renovated five years ago, adjacent to the Public Gardens. Rates from $99.

Cheticamp Outfitters, P.O. Box 448, Cheticamp, Inverness County, Nova Scotia, B0E 1H0

902-224-2776

www.cheticampns.com / cheticampoutfitters

* A bed and breakfast, run by a charming Acadian woman, that is set high on a slope with a view of Cape Breton's western shoreline. Serves hearty breakfasts. Rates from $55.

Four Mile Beach Inn, R.R. No. 1, Cape North, Nova Scotia BOC 1GO

888-503-5551

www.fourmilebeachinn.com

* An 1898 general store converted to a handsome inn five years ago, with views of the bay, at the northern tip of Cape Breton. Rates from $74.

Dining:

Il Mercato, 5475 Spring Garden Road, Halifax

902-422-2866

* Fine Northern Italian fare in a warm setting, popular with local residents. Dinner entrees around $10.

O'Carroll's Restaurant and Lounge, 1860 Upper Water St., Halifax

902-423-4405

* Good seafood, more elegant than a typical fish-and-beer place. Dinner entrees from $19.95.

Restaurant Acadien, 774 Main St., Cheticamp

902-224-3207

* Classic Acadian fare in a simple setting, with waitresses in traditional dress. Dinner entrees around $11.

Morrison's Restaurant, Cabot Trail, Cape North

902-383-2051

* Terrific seafood at a crossroads near the northern tip of Cape Breton. Dinner entrees around $15.

Information: Nova Scotia's most popular tourist months are from July to October. In mid-summer, temperatures get into the high 70s; in fall, the foliage is impressive. June is slightly cooler but has the added benefit of long daylight.

* For more information about lodging, dining and activities in Nova Scotia, request the province's annual visitor's guide, Nova Scotia: Complete Guide for Doers and Dreamers, from the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism and Culture: 800-565-0000; www.novascotia.com.

An ideal day

8 a.m.: Wake at Cheti-camp Outfitters as the fog is lifting over the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Enjoy a large breakfast made to order by your gregarious hostess.

9 a.m.: Work off the breakfast on the Skyline Trail just north of Cheticamp, an easy hour's walk along a boardwalk that juts out high over the gulf.

Noon: Refuel at the Restaurant Acadien with fricot (chicken stew) and ginger cake. Pick up some hooked rugs (a local specialty) for souvenirs at the shop next-door.

1 p.m.: Bask in the sun at one of the beaches outside Cheticamp.

3 p.m.: Drive north along the Cabot Trail, stopping often for the increasingly striking views of the coastline and highlands.

7 p.m.: Arrive in Cape North, at the northern tip of the island. Marvel at the sudden change from French influence to Scottish. Dine on halibut, lobster or lamb at Morrison's, and reward yourself with one or two Keith's, the superb Nova Scotia beer.

10 p.m.: Read in one of the three parlors at the Four Mile Beach Inn in Cape North. Enjoy the silence -- broken only by the occa-sional drag-racer headed out for nearby Meat Cove.

-- Alec MacGillis

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