Should I vacation in Nova Scotia or Northern New England this fall?
April 11, 2011 3:22 AM   Subscribe

What's a better fall vacation spot: New England or Nova Scotia?

My wife and I would like to take a vacation in September or October to either northern New England (Boston up into Maine, mostly along the coast) or Nova Scotia. Neither of us has ever been to either of these places, and we're just not sure which to choose.
We'll have about a week and a half, possibly right at two weeks, and doing both on a driving tour just doesn't seem feasible. We like outdoorsy stuff, but we also like to be in cities and towns and eat at nice places, go to museums and galleries, etc. My wife is also a Celtic musician, and Nova Scotia has a rich tradition, so that's one point in the NS column. Both seem equally appealing at this point, so there is no front runner. So, mefi, what should we do?
posted by doogan nash to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've lived in New England my whole life, and I've been to Nova Scotia once. It's about a 14 hour drive from southern NH. It's beautiful, but if you're looking for foliage, New England is the place to be (and not until early-mid October, actually). Nova Scotia had a lot more conifers than deciduous trees. Beautiful place though, I can't wait to go back.. They have the Highland Games (I think in July usually) up in Antiganish and it's such a great time!!

If you guys have almost two weeks, don't just spend it all on the coast! The thing about New England is that it has such a variety of landscapes.. You can travel just two hours in from the coast and climb Mt. Monadnock in Jaffrey, NH. It's an easy 1.5 hour climb, and it's the only mountain for miles, so on a clear day you can see down to Boston and up to the Green Mountains in Vermont.

I would also suggest that you go to Burlington, Vermont for a weekend. It'll be a bit of a drive for you, but the high way in VT is absolutely breathtaking... There are no billboards, hardly any buildings.. Just rivers and mountains. Burlington itself is this little cultural mecca inside Vermont. It's super-packed with unique people and restaurants.. There's a great night life and always a lot of music. It could be a real fun side-trip depending on how much time you have.. Probably 4.5 hours from Boston, I'd estimate.

Boston is definitely your spot for museums and galleries..

The coast of Maine is unlike any other. Comparable to some spots in the north west, but less "huge" and more sharp.. You can't go wrong heading up the coast.
posted by Glendale at 3:48 AM on April 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Are you a horror fan? If so, New England is your place. When I studied in the Berkshires and hung out in the towns Lovecraft wrote about. Grew up in Connecticut and we'd always drive to other New England states. Gorgeous scenery. Little villiages everywhere, each with an antique shop and bed & breakfast. Boston is awesome. Providence is cute. My own hometown of Southport was nice but probably too close to NY.

Sorry I can't remember specifics. I just remember endless expanses of trees and little hills and mini mountains. The colors when the leaves change are INCREDIBLE.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:08 AM on April 11, 2011

Where are you coming from? It might be significantly easier and/or cheaper to go to one of these places than the other. Almost any place you would want to go on a 10-14 day trip to New England is within a five hour drive of Boston (a major city with a reasonably well-served airport); I don't know what getting to/around Nova Scotia is like (though I'd love to go!).
posted by mskyle at 4:20 AM on April 11, 2011

I've lived in both Maine and Nova Scotia.

If the Celtic music and culture is an important consideration, then definitely head to NS, especially the northern mainland and Cape Breton. The landscape is beautiful there too, especially the Cabot Trail.

For the mix of outdoor activities and nice places to eat and galleries, etc. I would strongly recommend the coast of Maine. There is nowhere in the world quite like it.

As was mentioned above, for a fall vacation the foliage is much better in New England.

Wherever you go, try to stay a bit off the beaten path. Portland and Halifax are great, but the real character of the places is in the small towns and the areas of natural beauty.
posted by Vectorcon Systems at 5:36 AM on April 11, 2011

Where are you coming from? It might be significantly easier and/or cheaper to go to one of these places than the other.

If you're in the US, there's no "might be." Flying to Canadian destinations is shockingly expensive from the US. Doesn't seem like it should be cheaper to fly from Boston to Seattle than Boston to Halifax, but it sure is. If you're driving, it's a lot of time and gas. There isn't even ferry service between Maine and NS and anymore.

I love the Maritimes, I love Canada. But I don't know that I could find enough to occupy me for two weeks in Nova Scotia outside of something like a dedicated bike trip. Halifax is a lovely city, but it's not big. New England will allow you to do big city stuff, and then drive two hours and be on the Maine coast or in the mountains of New Hampshire or Vermont. It really depends on what you want to do (NS would be awesome for a small subset of things), but if you like to really fill up your vacations with different things I think New England is the obvious choice here.

If you're familiar with my posting history and my constant reminders of how ethnically New England I am, it may come across as bias. But I feel that I'm being objective-- I love the Maritimes dearly too and love to visit.

There are many, many opportunities to hear and play Celtic music in the Boston area-- there are always bands from Ireland and Irish ex-pat musicians in local venues. Especially if you plan ahead.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:44 AM on April 11, 2011

Holland America has this cruise...

Sat Oct 1 Montreal, QC, Canada 5:00pm
Sun Oct 2 Quebec City, QC, Canada 7:00am 5:00pm
Mon Oct 3 Cruising The Gulf St. Lawrence
Tue Oct 4 Charlottetown, PE, Canada 8:00am 5:00pm
Wed Oct 5 Sydney, NS, Canada 8:00am 4:00pm
Thu Oct 6 Halifax, NS, Canada 8:00am 4:00pm
Fri Oct 7 Bar Harbor, ME 8:00am 5:00pm
Sat Oct 8 Boston, MA 7:00am

You could do this cruise then spend a couple days in Boston then drive through NH and Vermont and end back up in Montreal.
posted by beccaj at 7:05 AM on April 11, 2011

We drove around the Cabot Trail one October and it was absolutely stunning.! One thing to keep in mind is that many B&Bs close down in the fall. However, the ones that stay open often have off-season rates, so you can get some good deals. Memail me if you want any recommendations.

Having also visited New England, though, I would say you really can't go wrong either way!
posted by oohisay at 7:07 AM on April 11, 2011

If you really want to do both, consider exploring Boston and heading north to Maine. With a jaunt* up to St. John, New Brunswick you could then take the Princess of Acadia Ferry (with your car) over to Digby, Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, the high-speed CAT ferry from Maine was discontinued a couple of years ago.

* -- for example, the drive from Bar Harbor to St. John is 183 miles (3 hours, 45 minutes).
posted by ericb at 7:09 AM on April 11, 2011

One thing I consider when travelling are crowds. I dislike them. There will be fewer people in Nova Scotia and it is a lot more rural and well, empty than the New England coast. Great driving. Lots of places you can stop and hike and just be totally totally alone. Lots of authentic fishing villages. It's just different than New England. But not in a bad way. The weather will be cooler up there. I've been there the end of August early September and was surprised at how chilly it got in the evenings. Cold enough that I think we got a frost.

With New England you will have several cities you can visit Boston, Portsmouth, Portland. All with great places to eat and stay and wonderful museums. But it is still tourist season so things will be busy with gray haired tourists. So you will probably be dealing with that. It will be warmer, and if you like the ocean the water temps have just peaked and are on their slow decline down. You can swim in MA, NH and probably southern Maine. You may not last long but it will be tolerable.
posted by WickedPissah at 7:26 AM on April 11, 2011

If you are into celtic music (as you mentioned you wife is), there is a fall festival in Cape Breton called Celtic Colours.
posted by phirleh at 8:15 AM on April 11, 2011

Honestly the choice will be easy. IN NS there is Halifax for the city life. You will get your fill of Celtic music there. Then there is literally thousands of miles of road with NOTHING but scenery. NS is mostly vacant. If you like hopping from town to town I would plan it like this.

Moncton New Brunswick ( hey if it was good enough for the Rolling Stones it's good enough for you) to Shediac and along the coast to Federation Bridge ( I'd rather take a ferry) to PEI. Do the whole PEI thing including swimming (Yes in October. The water is still relatively warm), and more Celtic Music. See if you can find a kitchen Party ( more of a Newfie thing, but you may find one). Then off PEI to Amherst NS and the long drive to Halifax. On the way back take route 101 and 1 enjoy the Bay of Fundy and head to Digby. Eat some scallops and get the ferry to St. John New Brunswick.

Much less commercial than anything you could do in ME. NS Tourism will send you tons of stuff
posted by Gungho at 10:02 AM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I also dislike crowds, and would go to NS. The only place we met crowds there was at Peggy's Cove, which had a giant parking lot to accommodate the buses full of tour groups. Even without the crowds, it was not a better or more scenic place than dozens of others we found on our own. For instance: Medford Beach is not advertised - no billboards, nothing. It is stunning, with red sandstone cliffs and a tide that goes out about a mile (it's on the Bay of Fundy.) It is the location of that picture used in all the tourist brochures - the big red outcrop with a huge hole through it. That hole has long since collapsed, but it's still a great place. To find it, buy a map book and look for Medford Beach Road or Weaver Road in Medford. When we went a week after Labor Day, the weather was beautiful, and the beach was completely deserted.

We had a week, and it wasn't enough to see all of the main part of NS, let alone PEI. We didn't do many museums or festivals or anything, just stopped at interesting-looking places. The food was great, and the people are genuinely friendly.

If you don't mind crowds, then pick a bunch of places in Boston. Maybe visit the Textile Museum in Lowell, or Battleship Cove in Fall River. The coast of Maine is similar to NS, but not as concentrated, and generally much more crowded.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:15 AM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds like everyone has decided on NS for you, for the most part, but I wanted to pipe up and say that in late Sept. and October there really isn't that much in the way of crowds in Portland, ME.. maybe some leaf-peepers but nothing like the summer months.. The Portland Jetport servces Southwest and Jetblue now, if I'm not misatken.

Portland also has more great food than you could possibly sample in a two week period with lots of live music to boot... then head up the coast for some good scenery and more good food. Bath, Rockland, Camden.. they all have something to offer.

If you want to get off the beaten path I would recommend a weekend on an island like Vinalhaven or Monhegan or similar - at that time of year they will also be mostly clear of tourists.

If it interests you at all, the Owl's Head Transportation Museum is a real blast.
posted by mbatch at 11:26 AM on April 11, 2011

The folks here mentioning crowds in Maine are likely talking about a relatively small area from Portland, south and maybe Bar Harbor.

Most of the Maine coast is anything but crowded. Although some of the places you're interested in might be closed in October.

Renting a cottage or staying in a B&B in midcoast Maine (cheaper with fall rates) would put you in a great spot for visits to Camden, Thomaston, Bath and Belfast for the activities you're looking for and close too to Acadia National Park (some of the best hiking trails anywhere) and Portland's restaurants.

On preview, I see mbatch has the same idea.

The best foliage, however, is in the Western mountains. If you're not wedded to the "mostly along the coast" idea, that's another great option.
posted by Vectorcon Systems at 12:44 PM on April 11, 2011

I wanted to clarify, it is southern Maine that tends to still have the tourists that time of year but it's manageable. Nothing close to say Disney. So you can ignore that point, but it will be more crowded overall compared to NS.

Also, nothing against people with gray hair, I just dislike when they show up by the busload.

And really the Maine coast is stunning. In other words, its a tough decision.
posted by WickedPissah at 1:04 PM on April 11, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great tips, suggestions and ideas. Still undecided on which place to visit, but you all will have helped immensely when we sit down to make a plan.
posted by doogan nash at 1:04 AM on April 13, 2011

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