Canada’s maritime provinces, including Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and the broad gulf of the St. Lawrence River, are very popular cruise itineraries these days.
But that style didn’t suit the tastes of two Alaskans bound for adventure last summer.
“We like to stay at least two nights in each destination,” said Pat Brady of Eagle River. “I don’t like to pack up and go every day.”
The far eastern corner of Canada was a bucket-list trip that Brady and her husband, Lyon Johnson, had planned for the summer of 2020. But the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans, so they had to scrap the trip.
When Canada finally opened its borders to Americans for vacation travel, Brady dusted off her notes and started planning. She likes to do her homework before embarking on a trip. “I look at Fodor’s travel forums, look at reviews and search the internet,” she said.
“We called our trip a car cruise,” said Johnson. The couple was visiting family in Minneapolis, where they picked up a car, fitted it with a bike rack and set off on a 5,400-mile trek over three weeks.
“Friends who went there gave the area good reviews,” said Brady. “We like to be outdoors, biking and hiking.”
The combination of national parks and biking trails added to the allure of the far reaches of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
Still, it’s a long drive from Minneapolis.
“If I did this trip again I would fly to Quebec City or Halifax,” Brady said.
“The biggest surprise on our car cruise was the driving distances,” said Johnson. “On the day we traveled to Quebec City, we drove 13 hours.”
The couple trimmed a lot of driving time on the first day of their journey. Driving from Minneapolis to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, they drove onto the giant S.S. Badger for the trip across Lake Michigan.
The Badger is the last coal-fired, steam engine car ferry in the U.S. At 410 feet, the ship can accommodate up to 600 people and 180 vehicles. The short cut to Ludington, Michigan, meant that Johnson and Brady could bypass Chicago on their way to Canada.
After staying overnight on the Michigan side, Brady and Johnson made their way to Niagara Falls.
“We stayed on the Canadian side by the bike trails,” said Johnson. “The bike trail goes along the Niagara River. It’s very congested by the falls.”
Johnson located an award-winning distillery on the Canadian side: Limited Distillery. “We picked up some nice cocktail fixings, so we could pop the hatch-back and have our own happy hour,” he said. “There was beautiful weather — so people were jealous of our set-up.”
After a couple of days biking around the Niagara River trails, the couple set out on their longest driving day to Quebec City.
“We ate, we shopped and we enjoyed the French ambiance of the Old Town,” said Brady. “I want to go back for the Christmas market.”
The couple stayed at Hotel Le Priori, which Brady described as “modern and compact.”
A big part of Brady’s pre-trip research is devoted to overnight stays. “I’m fussy about where we stay,” she said. “If it’s crappy, it affects our experience.”
“She hit 100 percent on this trip,” said Johnson of Brady’s picks.
The next stop was St. John in New Brunswick, just north of the Maine border. This was on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, which has the biggest tides in North America. Our own Turnagain Arm is in second place.
The bikes stayed in the rack in St. John. After some nice hikes, they boarded a powerful ferry that could cut through the big tides to reach Digby, on the northern shore of Nova Scotia. From there, they made their way to the town of Lunenburg on the southern shore. “Lunenburg was the start of the really good seafood,” said Brady.
Brady and Johnson had originally planned to travel in June. But during her research, local sources told Brady that June “can be kind of cool.” So they opted for July. The weather throughout their “cruise” was beautiful.
“July and August are the most popular months to travel in the maritime provinces,” said Brady. “That means for the most popular areas you have to start planning about six months ahead.”
Although they did some biking around Halifax, they spent most of their time hiking on the northern tip of Nova Scotia, in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
“It was never crowded,” said Brady. “If we were hiking we would run into one or two other couples.”
From Nova Scotia, it’s possible to drive across a bridge to reach Prince Edward Island. But Brady and Johnson opted for a ferry, which left from Caribou, Nova Scotia. The ferry crossed Northumberland Strait, landing at the southern tip of P.E.I. at Wood Islands.
The couple chose the Inn at St. Peters as their “port” in Prince Edward Island. It’s on the northern shore of the island, looking out over the water. It also affords easy access to the Confederation Trail, a 470-kilometer bike trail on the island. The trail used to be a railroad, so it’s an even grade and very accessible to cyclists of all abilities.
In addition to her pre-trip research, Brady likes to keep a journal of her trips, “I want to remember place names, restaurants, where we stayed and the pros and cons along the way,” she said.
When we met to discuss the trip, Brady showed a photo book which she ordered from Shutterfly. “It cost about $30,” she said. It offers a good way to show friends the highlights of a trip.
A big part of any trip is visiting with the local folks along the way. “Canadians love Americans,” said Brady. “And they’re fascinated with American politics.” It also helped that every stop along the way was able to help them secure their bikes inside overnight.
Retracing their route back to Minneapolis, Brady and Johnson once again took the shortcut on the S. S. Badger across Lake Michigan.
In retrospect, both Brady and Johnson would have liked to stay an extra week and visit Newfoundland, which is accessible via a long ferry ride from Cape Breton. But even with their “car cruise” accommodations, Johnson confessed that “we were sick of the car thing by that time.”
If you want to go on your own car cruise of the maritime provinces, Johnson suggests you double-check the driving distances and be sure to pick up your cocktail set-up at Limited Distillery in Niagara Falls.