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RANDOM MUSINGS ON THE CANADIAN MARITIMES

Ten facts you probably don't know about Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island unless you actually have gone to the Canadian Maritimes:

1. There is a cobblestone district that actually works.

It's a concept that may be a surprise to Buffalo residents, whose "cobblestone district" is a single block near Marine Midland Arena. Halifax, Nova Scotia has a thriving waterfront section next to a hotel/casino that is called the cobblestone or historic district. There are many restaurants, markets and shops in the neighborhood, and the area was filled with people on a recent summer Saturday night. The district is open year-round. For those who say it's too cold in Buffalo for a riverfront district to thrive, well, it gets cold in Halifax, too.

Halifax, the provincial capital, has the second-largest natural harbor in the world. (Sydney, Australia is first.) The city has a connection to the Titanic, as it was the closest major port to the scene of the disaster. The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has an exhibit on the subject. Some of the casualties from the Titanic are buried in Halifax, as poorer families could not afford to transport bodies of relatives back home.

2. They have funny places for post offices.

Peggy's Cove is a town of about 60 people that is a short drive from Halifax. It boasts what is said to be Canada's most photographed lighthouse, which is built right into the rock formation that hugs the shoreline. At the bottom of the lighthouse is an actual working post office during the summer. Tourists, which outnumber the town's population in warm-weather months, eagerly line up to buy postcard stamps.

Visitors can walk along the huge, smooth rocks which form the shoreline as long as they keep an eye for the odd wave that can spill over without warning and make the surface very slippery. The rocks make a unique border for Peggy's Cove, which is a sleepy fishing village.

3. Wake-up calls come from a long way from your hotel room.

Westport is a very small town on Brier Island just beyond the peninsula known as Digby Neck. The area lines part of the eastern edge of the Bay of Fundy, which separates Nova Scotia from Maine. The island is a quaint place -- far, far away from anything resembling civilization -- but the weather is unpredictable at best.

On one summer night, visitors had a spectacular view of the strait between the two islands at sunset. Those same tourists were awakened at 3:30 a.m. by the foghorn coming out of the lighthouse in the middle of the strait. Mind you, the lighthouse couldn't be seen because of the fog -- indeed, the road 25 yards in front of the hotel couldn't be seen.

4. Whale-watching tickets should not be purchased too far in advance if possible.

Several such cruises are offered from the Digby Neck region, but you should check the forecast before heading out to sea. It took less than 20 minutes for Westport to go from sunny to foggy one morning. By the time a whale-watching boat departed at 10:30 a.m., the entire town almost had disappeared into the mist.

A few tunas, seals and porpoises were spotted in the Bay of Fundy, but the whales didn't feel like entertaining on such a crummy day and stayed out of sight. Since whale sightings are guaranteed by the boat company, passengers at least became the proud owners of passes for free whale-watching trips for the next time they are in Westport. For those who came all the way from Buffalo and are unlikely to casually pass through the area again, the passes make great bookmarks.

5. Tidal bores aren't boring.

Truro, Nova Scotia -- in the middle of the province, more or less -- is the home of the tidal bore, which requires a little explaining. The Bay of Fundy features the world's most powerful tides. When the tide comes in, there is so much water that the bay can't hold it all. Therefore, the water actually goes up the rivers that help fill it.

In Truro, tourists gather twice a day along the shore of the Salmon River to watch a wall of water -- as high as three or four feet, depending on the phase of the moon -- come upstream and fill up a mostly empty riverbed. As the water approaches, it almost sounds like a truck coming up the road. Whitewater rafting rides that go the "wrong" way are sold in the region. The effect lasts for more than an hour, and then the water turns around and heads back into the bay.

Oh, and when in Truro, you'll see advertisements for McDonald's McLobster sandwich. Honest. Lobster really is served everywhere in the region.

6. Some towns' claim to fame are pretty small.

Take, for instance, the town of Swackley, Nova Scotia, which is between Truro and Halifax. The highways here feature signs with brief descriptions of each town, a cute idea. Swackley's sign reads, "Halfway between Equator and North Pole." Any self-respecting student of geography has to stop at a town with a sign like that.

Those who pull off the highway will learn that the halfway point isn't exactly on the 45th parallel, because the poles of the Earth are slightly flattened. Nova Scotia paid some surveyors to figure out where an exact halfway point in that province was located, and the spot in Swackley is marked with a sign and a pole.

Swackley also is the site of an archaeological find of note. Two nearly-complete mastodon skeletons were found in the local mining pit. There is a little museum commemorating the find in the town's visitors' center.

7. The Cabot Trail is more magnificent on sunny days than rainy ones.

This is a similar lesson to the one about not going whale-watching in the fog. The 300-kilometer Cabot Trail makes a picturesque circle around the perimeter of the upper half of Cape Breton in northern Nova Scotia, and it is rightly considered one of the most scenic drives in North America. Mountains plunge hundreds of feet down to the shoreline within the borders of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, and the road along the edge has many spectacular viewpoints. The park also features a large quantity of wildlife, including bald eagles.

8. If you are going to be a crazy inventor, do something commercially viable first.

This is the main theme of the museum in Baddeck, Nova Scotia -- located in Cape Breton -- dedicated to the work of Alexander Graham Bell. He was the person who invented the telephone, of course, and he was smart enough to do it early in his professional career at the age of 29. Bell spent the rest of his time working on various ideas that never went very far, but he could afford to do so.

The museum is on a hill overlooking picturesque Bras d'Or Lake, and it has an excellent interactive area for children to play and learn at the same time. It's a good place to visit on a rainy day.

9. Bridges can be expensive.

The spiffy Confederation Bridge, completed in 1997, goes between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. There is no toll when you drive the nine-mile span to go to PEI. On the way out, though, you have to pay $35.50 (Cdn. funds). Yes, it takes MasterCard and Visa. They apparently have to pay the $840 million (Cdn.) price tag somehow.

The bridge has been well-received on the island, judging by the T-shirts, books, etc. about the span that are in every gift shop. Apparently PEI residents liked the idea of ending their island's separation from the rest of the continent that has lasted for centuries. The bridge has replaced the more romantic if less convenient ferry at Borden, although another boat several miles to the east still runs across the Northumberland Strait on a regular schedule.

10. Prince Edward Island is no place for those who don't like french fries.

Much of the Island is filled with potatoes that are growing in the unique reddish soil. The area's major farming crop quickly winds up on dinner tables throughout the area, if restaurants are any indication. Most serve large quantities of some sort of potato with their meals.

One area not filled with potatoes is Prince Edward Island National Park, which hugs the north-central coast. The park is basically a long, unspoiled beach bordered by majestic sand dunes. The travel books will tell you that the shallow water in the Gulf of St. Lawrence around PEI is warmer than any Atlantic Ocean spot north of Virginia, as it is heated by the feeding rivers from the island. Seventy degrees in July isn't bathwater, but it's very possible to swim in it.

Travel information

Nova Scotia Tourism, P.O. Box 130, Halifax, N.S., B3J 2M7; call (800) 565-0000. Their Web site is: explore.gov.ns.ca/virtualns.

Truro Chamber of Commerce, 577 Prince St., Truro, NS, Canada B2N 1G2; call (902) 895-6328.

Cape Breton tourism, call (800) 565-9464. The Web site is: www.cbisland.com.

Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Ingonish, N.S., Canada, B0C 1L0; call (902) 285-2691.

Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, call (902) 295-2069. Tourism Halifax, call (902) 421-8736.

Prince Edward Island Visitors Services Division, P.O. Box 940, Charlottetown, PE, Canada, C1A 7M5; call (888) 734-7529. The Web site is: www.peionline.com.