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A weekend in Nova Scotia for a light price

When the majority of you voted for Nova Scotia/Prince Edward Island for my July escape, I admit that I was a little nervous. Could I really visit this remote locale for under $500, especially during the peak summer tourist months? However, to my delight, finding affordability and availability was a breeze.

The only hitch was needing to focus my adventures on just one of these two Canadian Maritime Provinces. Having always identified with Prince Edward Island’s Anne of Green Gables books, it was a tough choice. Nevertheless, I ultimately picked the more accessible Nova Scotia, the preference among readers who voted by writing in.

What’s the deal?

Getting there

There are many affordable ways to get to Nova Scotia, especially for those who live near Maine (as I do). Thinking it would be an experience in itself, I decided to drive the four and a half hours from Boston to Bar Harbor, ME, and take the high-speed CAT ferry. As a foot passenger, the crossing cost only $118.50 round-trip and took me from Bar Harbor to Yarmouth, NS, in less than three hours. I chose the morning ferry so I’d get there before noon and have a full day to explore.

The CAT was nearly everything I expected, with affordable food and free entertainment onboard. The only unanticipated drawback was that unusually high seas made many of us a bit sea-queasy, which put a damper on the first of two tour days. If you’re sea-squeamish, take anti-motion sickness medication before you board as a precaution; otherwise, your short escape might be cut even shorter.

Other options include taking a slower-speed ferry, the Scotia Prince, from Portland, ME, or flying directly to Halifax. Although a crossing takes longer than that of the CAT, the Scotia Prince can be an affordable option by serving as an all-inclusive cruise. The line also provides cost-effective specials and packages, even for short getaways. Plus, leaving from Portland can save a few hours off your drive time.

Even if you don’t live within driving distance of Bar Harbor or Portland (the two ferry ports), you can still do this trip under $500. For instance, my traveling companion, Jessica, flew nonstop to Boston from her hometown of Canton, OH, on AirTran for $117 round-trip, including taxes. With more low-cost airlines like Independence Air, Southwest, and JetBlue flying into Boston and other New England cities (like Manchester, NH, or Providence, RI), finding a cheap flight should be fairly easy.

For flights directly to Halifax, look for sale fares from major airlines’ regional affiliates. When I was planning, Delta released a sale with sample round-trip fares, including taxes and fees, starting from $209 (Boston) and $338 (Ft. Lauderdale) on Delta Connection and its low-cost carrier Song. Incidentally, the sale also included flights to Portland with fares from $256 (Washington, D.C.) and $297 (Tampa). Air Canada often offers similar fares on Tango; recent sample fares include $208 (Orlando) and $210 (Philadelphia) before taxes.

Where to stay

Because our ferry left in the wee hours, and we were coming off a long evening drive, we needed a cheap hotel in Bar Harbor just to rest our heads. I chose the modest Edenbrook Motel right near the ferry terminal for $81.32, which was relatively inexpensive considering it was Bar Harbor’s high season.

In Nova Scotia, we stayed in Lunenburg, a prominent seaside town filled with a multitude of inns, B&Bs, and vacation rentals, many of which cost under $100 per night. The Nova Scotia Department of Tourism and Culture website has a comprehensive listing of accommodations and rates with around 70 properties for the Lunenburg area alone; the rates are posted in Canadian dollars, so they’ll be even lower once converted into American currency.

After weighing the options at several properties, we settled on the Lincoln House for $178 for both nights, which included a full multi-course breakfast and taxes. Although this 4.5 star inn fit well under budget, it was its Victorian character and central location that sealed the deal for us.

Getting around

There were many options for getting around: bring my own car, rent one, or go car-less and rely entirely on tours. Because we wanted the freedom to explore the tiny inlets along the coast, we needed wheels. When I priced out bringing my own car on the ferry versus renting one in Yarmouth, renting was cheaper. While a round-trip vehicle crossing would have cost me at least $190, the rental rate Budget quoted was astonishingly low at only $51 for two days (plus I got upgraded for free). Avis also has a location in the ferry terminal, but was more expensive.

To my even greater surprise, the associated costs of driving (and leaving my car in Bar Harbor) were minimal. Parking at the Bar Harbor ferry terminal is free for up to 10 days. (Tip: You have to beat the rush to ensure a spot—while the ferry recommends arriving an hour prior to travel, make it two.) Gas cost $66 total, while tolls totaled a whopping $6.50.

Affordable Must-Dos

With only two full days to sightsee, we focused our excursion on a small stretch of the South Shore called the Lighthouse Route. Not only is this area a shutterbug’s paradise, but it is also peppered with nominally priced or free sights. We spent most of our time stopping on the roadside to snap pictures, waltz along the sand, pick native lupin flowers, and sometimes just contemplate and talk by the water’s edge. Some museums, such as the Seal Island Light Museum, charge a minimal admission fee. I also toured the Barrington Woolen Mill, which houses a famous woolen mural that depicts Nova Scotia sheep raising and the origin of the province’s tartan, for about $2. Here are some other must-sees:

  • Lunenberg: The entire town of Lunenberg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with colorful colonial and Victorian architecture and nautical treasures; it still remains an industrious fishing center. It also has numerous museums, boat tour charters and the famous Bluenose II schooner, shops, and casual restaurants. Jessica and I uncovered a great kitchen store called Wild Elements Home Exp and bought a few unique culinary accoutrements to impress our fellows and friends back home. Plus, we sampled the catch of the day at two restaurants, the Old Fish Factory right on the water, and the Victorian-era dining room at the historic Boscawen Inn.
  • Mahone Bay: The area of Mahone Bay is pristine and has some of the best gift shopping I have seen on a trip. The main street is filled with shops like Amos Pewter, Have a Yarn, and Birdsall-Worthington Pottery Ltd., all selling high-quality local merchandise.
  • Swiss Air Flight 111 Memorial: Set upon an impeccably maintained preserve, while blending seamlessly into the land and adjoining seascape, the memorial to the lost passengers of Swiss Air Flight 111 serves as a subdued reminder of the 1998 tragedy. Reminiscent of the coast of Ireland, the surrounding terrain is visually stunning, tumbling its way eastward toward the picturesque town of Peggy’s Cove.
  • Peggy’s Cove: This working fishing village is a sight to behold, making every penny spent and every moment of lost sea legs worth it. The tiny harbor and town functions with locally made fishing dories, shanties, and a lighthouse that serves as a post office. There are also art galleries, gift shops, and a few eateries, with enough dramatic scenery to captivate inhabitants and visitors alike.

No matter where you wind up, save your receipts for purchases over $50 and your hotel bill. Often, you can get the federal portion of your tax (about seven percent) back if you fill out the rebate forms available online or at Canadian airports or ferry terminals.

At $310 (for me) and $427 (for Jessica), our Nova Scotia escape was nothing flashy, but the scenery and quiet time spent catching up as friends was priceless. My final words of advice: When visiting the Canadian Maritimes for a short getaway, be realistic with your ambitions. Pick one destination and don’t try to see too much. Skip the highway and traverse the slow coastal road for a truly rewarding and relaxing experience.

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