Explore Nova Scotia, the Cabot Trail and North-East Canada

Put together any list of North America's top 10 scenic roads, and few in the know would fail to include the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia among their number.  The 298km highway loops around the Cape Breton Peninsula at the northern tip of the province, situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of St Lawrence. It's named after the explorer John Cabot, who was poking about in the region way back in the 1490s, and if you park up and take one of the many hiking trails through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park you'll discover a wild and verdant forested landscape that's changed little since Mr Cabot was going about his business.

The peninsula is a five-hour drive north of the funky maritime city of Halifax, and the spectacular Cabot Trail is a smooth blacktop snake that dips down to unspoilt beaches, soars above craggy sea cliffs and wends between theses dense forests to form a highway that's irritatingly scenic - you feel compelled to stop every couple of kilometres to break out the camera yet again.

Two very different cultural regions make the people here as interesting as the landscape and wildlife. Scottish emigres have clearly left their mark with many settlements boasting a Highlands namesake (Inverness, Craigmore, Creignish, etc), while Celtic traditions such as fiddle playing and ceilidhs are an integral part of local life - there's even a Gaelic College in the curiously named town of South Gut St Ann's where, should you so choose, you can learn to play the bagpipes.

North-west of the Celtic influence, though, you'll find things are very French, particularly around the town of Cheticamp. This is where Acadian settlers, whose forebears came from France, made their homes in the 1800s, erecting huge Catholic churches which seem somewhat out of proportion to the small communities they serve. Virtually every home flies the Acadian flag (a tricolour with a small gold star in one corner) alongside the Canadian flag - divided loyalties or just proud heritage I'm not sure, although I suspect a bit of both.

On my autumn visit I encountered weather that would have had the early Scottish settlers feeling very much at home as wind and rain drove in off the Gulf of St Lawrence, but pulling over for a hike in the forest the wind was stilled by the thick tree cover, and classic autumn shades of russet and gold lent character and atmosphere to the drizzly surroundings.

I'd hoped to spot a moose, as this is prime territory for these magnificent beats, but came no nearer than fresh scat and an old skull; however, one healthy population of the local wildlife that I did get to see was whales.

The various whale watching trips operating out of Pleasant Bay on the shores of the mighty St Lawrence estuary actually offer a money-back guarantee if you don't see a cetacean of some sort, and at a rough estimate I'd say we encountered 50 or more pilot whales during the hour e sailed around the gulf, while other species such as minke are equally common.

This meant my money was safely in the pocket of the boat operator, but I considered this good value, especially since one of the whales took it upon itself to give a flamboyant display of aquatic leaps in front of us, while others swam right up to the boat. You won't get moose doing that...

Travelling out of season as I was, the Cabot Trail was remarkably quiet, so I could readily pull over to enjoy the views and dawdle along without creating a huge tailback behind my car. There's a decent rash of campsites and B&Bs along the way, so although the trail can easily be driven in a day there's really no need to rush - and it would be a shame to do so.

In fact if I'd had a bicycle (and the time, along with some good waterproofs) this would have been the ideal way to explore what is essentially Atlantic Canada at its finest - a landscape that's literally thousands of miles from the glaciers, mountains and lakes that are more commonly associated with the country.

Surf Nova Scotia

Improbable as it may seem, for all its snow, ice and general frozen northrly-ness, Nova Scotia has a small and insanely enthusiastic surf population, with Lawrencetown Beach near Halifax being the focal point of the wave riding action.

I visited with the intention of joining that tiny circle of madness - never before had I encountered a surf shop beside a road sign advising motorists of the danger of blowing snow - but unfortunately there were no surfable waves during my stay. 

However, the same low pressure systems that create waves along the coastlines of Western Europe can also produce some epic beach, reef and point breaks in Nova Scotia - just ensure you have a very good and very thick wetsuit.

Halifax: The East Coast Vancouver

Having been born in Halifax, Yorkshire, I was keen to see its Canadian namesake, and have no hesitation in saying that it knocks spots off the original, putting me in mind of a smaller and more manageable version of San Francisco or Vancouver.

This vibrant port, said to be one of the world's finest natural harbours, has the feel of aa place that shaped people's lives, from the British immigrants flooding into Canada to survivors of the Titanic staggering ashore and seafarers of two world wars heading west in Atlantic convoys.

This history is well preserved in The Citadel, an 18th-century fortress that guarded what was one of Britain's most important imperial strongholds, and the fascinating Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

After a long day exploring you can enjoy a fine array of bars and restaurants as well as the legendary live music scene - try the Lower Deck Bar on the waterfront.  

Walk on the wild side

The Cabot Trail provides great access to whatever kind of hiking you're into, from easy beach ambles to full-on backcountry days (even though the highest peak in the region reaches no higher than 535m) plus the chance to camp out in lovely wild terrain. Many trail heads are close to or right beside the highway, so access is easy.

A popular day's hike is the 19km/eight-hour round trip to the beautiful Pollet's Cove at the north-west tip of the island. The walk here takes you up, down and doing the coastline of this small farming community, with some fine coastal and inland panoramas and the chance of spotting moose.

Alternatively, the Skyline Trail is a 7km loop short enough to be done in any weather (as I discovered for myself) and again offers good opportunities to see moose along with great views across the Gulf of St Lawrence, where you may see whales breaching from the steel grey waters.