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Northern Exposure: Nova Scotia, Canada attracts Hollywood heavyweights, expatriates and travelers alike

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Few places in the world evoke as much romance as Nova Scotia, Canada's fabled Maritime Province that is almost completely surrounded by water, just east of Maine in the North Atlantic. It is here that some say Viking explorer Leif Erikson was the first European to land on North American soil, some 500 years before Columbus. Following the Civil War, Georgia Governor Charles J. Jenkins lived in exile in Nova Scotia, and Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell spent summers at his Cape Breton Island home and research lab, from 1885 until his death in 1922. More recently, The Scarlet Letter, starring Demi Moore and Robert DuVall was filmed here, as were scenes of the blockbuster Titanic.

Many tourists set out for Nova Scotia dreaming of its postcard-like scenery and storied past steeped in Scottish, Celtic and Acadian history. Some people who come to this unassuming outpost are drawn to Nova Scotia as much for what it lacks as for what it has: No crowds or traffic jams, friendly people, fresh seafood, and a slower pace.

In fact, there are two Nova Scotias. One is filled with those who, taking advantage of the province's proximity to New England and its low prices, come in the morning and leave with the evening tide. The other is a picturesque getaway, an escape attracting the likes of Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson and countless Americans, Europeans and Canadians seeking peace and privacy. Many rent or own vacation homes, while some have become year-round residents.

Most visitors arrive in Nova Scotia by air in Halifax or fast ferry from Bar Harbor, Maine. From a distant aerial view, the province, which is about the size of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont combined, resembles a lobster in silhouette, with the majestic Cape Breton Island forming its claws, and the southwestern corner forming the crustacean's tail. Imagine New England 100 years ago, and you get a good sense of Nova Scotia today. It feels more like the British isles than part of Eastern Canada. Its craggy coastline dotted with lighthouses and lush highlands is breathtaking and forbidding, and the foggy New England air gives it the veil of storybook fantasy.

As one nears the shore, hues of cerulean and turquoise emanate from the water. Seabirds glide over stunning 19th Century buildings that line the waterfront, behind traditional fishing boats bobbing in the bay. You feel as though you've stepped back in time and Nova Scotia begins to look real, but no less stunning.

The area's seafaring heritage is thick in the atmosphere of Yarmouth, where the ferry arrives in Nova Scotia. A working seaport, it is home to 8,000 souls, many of whom earn their living in the lumber and fishing industries, much as their ancestors did engaging in lucrative trade with the West Indies. This overlooked village is more than a place for the ferry to dock. Its Main Street bustles with activity, as locals frequent its many shops, eateries and other establishments.

But the center of the action is Halifax, the capital, which is linked to Yarmouth by a regular bus service. With a population of just over 350,000 in the metropolitan area, Halifax is the world's second largest natural harbor (after Sydney, Australia). The fascinating mix of big-city amenities and small-town charm along with food, live entertainment, nightlife and the hospitality of Haligonians make it a unique gem of North America.

Tourists and locals alike wind up in Halifax's pub district. On any given night of the week, you'll find every type of music from rock and Blues to classic and Celtic. The food is best from the sea--steamed lobsters or creamy chowders--and when you tire of lobster (is that possible?), ask for planked salmon, Acadian rappie pie or oatcakes, all mouthwatering local delicacies. The music and the food goes best with the many locally produced wines, and beers you'll find on tap at the pubs, but be sure and try Keith's India Pale Ale, a homegrown Nova Scotian favorite.

Halifax aside, Nova Scotia is best appreciated outside of the city, where it can seduce you through its sheer natural beauty. The environment that has attracted centuries of explorers and adventurers remains an integral part of the province's life and culture. It has everything a lover of the great outdoors could yearn for: golfing, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, white-water rafting, scuba diving and surfing. Cape Breton Island's idyllic Bras d'Or Lake (pronounced "bra door"), thousands of offshore islands and hidden coves harbor generations of stories, mysteries and sunken ships.

Nowhere is the tourist board's touted "Canada's Ocean Playground" label more fitting than on the South Shore, home to the villages of Lunenburg, Mahone Bay and Chester. There are more yachts, country clubs and luxury homes here than anywhere else in Nova Scotia, which is why some refer to the area as "The Atlantic Riviera" or "Canadian Gold Coast."

Some visitors feel Nova Scotia is best in the spring, when the dazzling colors of nature awaken after the winter sleep. Most others say this land of simple pleasures can be equally enjoyed anytime of year. One thing is for certain. With its stunningly beautiful landscapes and laid-back pace, the most difficult thing about planning a trip to Nova Scotia is deciding what to do: Can you picture yourself lounging on a golden sand beach, exploring quaint seaside towns, sampling urban nightlife or buying of building your own affordable hideaway and putting down roots? No matter what you decide, Nova Scotia, is paradise, found at last.

GETTING THERE

Major airlines fly into Halifax International Airport; www.hiaa.ca. Airfares vary based on season and city or origin.

The Cat operates a ferry service ($48-$58 per person; 2 hours and 45 minutes) that leaves daily, mid May through October, from Bar Harbor, Maine; 207-288-3395, (888) 249-72455, www.catferry.com.

Campbell's Shuttle Service provides transportation between Yarmouth and Halifax ($40 one-way, $72 round-trip), offering door-to-door service from anywhere. (800) 742-6101.

WHERE TO STAY

The Churchill Mansion Country Inn, R.R. #2, Yarmouth, (902) 649-2818, (888) 453-5565, www.churchillmansion.com, is in conveniently located in Yarmouth close to the Ferry Terminal, and has a special Cat package. Double rooms $55-$112. A 5-star accommodation in the Halifax area is the Sterns Mansion Bed & Breakfast, 17 tulip Street in Dartmouth; (800) 565-3885, www.sternsmansion.com; rooms $72-$240 depending upon season.

WHERE TO EAT

A charming eatery with a view of Yarmouth Harbor, The Colony Restaurant at the Rodd Colony Harbour Inn, across from the ferry terminal, is a local landmark known for its Hot Lobster Sandwich and steaks. Dinner for two, with wine, about $50. (902) 742-9194 or (800) 565-RODD (7633).

The Old Triangle, whose owners believe in providing "food for the body, drink for the spirit and music for the soul," received the Best Pub Food Award (2005) from The Coast, Halifax's weekly culture, arts and entertainment newspaper. Entrees $7. 5136 Prince, Halifax. (902) 492-4900

RECENT REAL ESTATE PRICES (January 2006):

Costs are rising, but there are still deals out there.

A beautiful 14-acre lot with ocean views (off a quiet country road) for only $17,000, and a 1-acre rural lot within walking distance of a quaint riverside village: asking price: $8,600, both perfect places to build your dream home.

A charming little cottage with picturesque ocean views and plenty of extras, all within walking distance of the beach for $77,000.

An expansive 82-acre lot to build your dream home on nestled on a strip of land between a lakefront and the ocean for $55,800.

A fully-restored coastal 4-bedroom home (an hour from the capital) can be yours for only $60,000.

A charming, historic (early 1900s) building on a nice lot which would be perfect for starting your new business. The cost: $24,750.

A fully-furnished bachelor apartment in the city for $500 a month, with all utilities, indoor parking, TV, microwave, bed linens, dishes and eating utensils. Only a 10-minute walk to the ferry.

*All prices in US dollars.

FOR MORE INFORMATION Details about living or retiring in Nova Scotia are available at: www.thegloballife.net.



About the author:

Phillip Townsend is a nationally- and internationally-published freelance writer and the author of the e-Book Passport to Canada: The Complete Guide to Living and Retiring in Nova Scotia, which is available through www.thegloballife.net.

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