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Travel

Sian Lloyd heads to Canada for a glimpse of old Scotland in the New World

By Sian Lloyd for MailOnline


A new Scotland: the debate will exercise the hearts and minds of voters in that country until next month's referendum.


It was also a question faced by a generation of Scots 250 years ago.


But they had to sail across the Atlantic to find their Nova Scotia.


Disappearing act: Sian Lloyd raises a glass to the joys and freedom of travel in Nova Scotia


As the independence arguments raged - and as my husband and I yearned for traffic-free roads, trees and foodie treats - we booked a last-minute Icelandair flight to Halifax, Nova Scotia's capital, and for a week toured parts of this isolated eastern peninsula of Canada.


Over two-thirds of the province is covered by forest - conifers, of course, but maple, birch, oak and mountain ash too. Nova Scotia is also the world's largest exporter of blueberries and Christmas trees.


Celtic music is very much alive here and is one of the highlights of a visit; another is the freshly cooked lobster; yet another the whalewatching. In short, there's a lot on offer.

There's certainly a lot of genealogy to discover. Within five minutes of our arrival, the jolly doorman at The Lord Nelson Hotel in Halifax proudly told us that he was a quarter French and a quarter Scottish.


He waxed lyrical about how thousands of Highlanders came over and mixed in with French, English and Germans to form the unique strain of folk known as Nova Scotians.


The major Scottish influx to Nova Scotia began in 1773, when the Hector sailed into Pictou - acknowledged as the birthplace of New Scotland. It's an easy drive there from Halifax.


An impressive full-size replica of the Hector was built in the town and is now in the harbour. Many of the guides are descendants of families that came over on the Hector.


But it's hard to believe such a small vessel made it across the Atlantic.


A walkabout below deck gets you wondering at the bravery and tenacity of those 200 early settlers. You can almost hear the melancholic notes of the pipes as you emerge blinking into the sunlight.


From Pictou we took a two-hour scenic drive to the luxurious golf-focused resort of Fox Harb'r on the Northumberland Strait, passing small marshy tidal inlets and gentle rolling farmland on the way.


You don't have to be obsessed with golf to stay here, but the gorgeous coastal panorama and the manicured course are enough to make you really want to learn.


We chose to cycle and swim in the impressive 25-metre pool.


We also went on wonderful walks on the beachfront and in the forests of the Cobequid Mountains, discovered the lovely local Jost wines, and slept like babies on down pillows in gigantic beds.


Unsurprisingly for a province called New Scotland, there are a fair few top golf courses. We drove for half a day to get to Inverness in western Cape Breton, in order to stay at the beautifully chic glass-fronted Cabot Links golf course, and to tap our feet to Celtic reels at the famous Red Shoe Pub.


Cabot Links hugs the shore, and is recognised as one of the world's greatest golf courses. The splendour of the place is truly appreciated from the Panorama restaurant.


We witnessed two sublime sunsets and enjoyed two lots of lobster-stuffed ravioli and blueberry cobblers. Scenic, serene and scrumptious.


We were very keen to cycle part of the Celtic Shores Trail. This 60-mile well-kept coastal track stretches from Post Hastings to Inverness, and has been on my bucket list for some time.


It is accessed just down the road from Cabot Links, and is a pure pleasure to cycle.


We went as far as Mabou and back, breaking the journey with a late lunch at the Red Shoe, which is owned by the folk-singing Rankin sisters.


Both food and musicianship are second to none.


We tucked in to crab dips with flatbreads and mussels and sweet potato chips, enjoying the heady combination of food, fun and fiddling, and staying far longer than we expected.

We enjoyed sunny gin-clear skies while on Cape Breton, so saved the indoor attractions till last, just in case the weather misbehaved. It didn't, so we rather rushed around must-visit attractions like the Alexander Graham Bell Museum and the Gaelic College, where we helped weave a kilt.


Both places were entertaining and enjoyable and left us wondering whether we should have spent quite so much time at the splendid Uisge Ban Falls; or chatting with lobster fishers at Baddeck's lovely village market; or loitering over breakfast with owner Earlene Busch at the Chanterelle Inn.


This place is a Cape Breton gem, intimate and tranquil, and serving local products, such as fiddlehead fern soup and local cranberries and blueberries.


The menu changes nightly and names all the food sources.


Our line-caught halibut was from Neil's Harbour, about 50 miles away. The bread at breakfast was fresh from the oven. Even the oatcakes were home-made. We left with a generous pile and munched away merrily on our journey to Sherbrooke on the Eastern Shore.


Sherbrooke village is a charming living museum. It's an actual village, though, superbly restored to its 19th century appearance and staffed by people in costume, portraying the experiences of the time.


I rode a penny-farthing, got a recipe card from the printing press, watched wild rose hand-cream being made at the pharmacy, visited the telephone exchange, ate fresh-baked biscuits in the jailer's kitchen and spun some wool at the weaver's home.


Disneyland, eat your heart out.


This is the real deal, and that's the thing about Nova Scotia: it is warm, accessible and authentic. Scratch almost anyone and you'll find a Scot or two in the family tree, a kilt or a fiddle in the closet.


It's as if a chunk of auld Scotland has been broken off by ancient giants and hurled on to Canada's north-east coast. The land and soil look the same, the weather's the same and you find the same hardy people.


In some ways, it is more traditionally Scottish than Scotland.


If Alex Salmond loses the referendum, to ease his sorrows I'd thoroughly recommend a trip to Cape Breton, a dance along the Ceilidh Trail… and plenty of the island's own single-malt whiskies.