When Bill and Jan Dillberg disembarked the plane in Halifax, the idea was to rent a car and explore the most easterly Canadian coast for two weeks, driving the perimeter of Nova Scotia to see the fall colors. The itinerary called for a relatively quick drive from the middle of the province to the most northerly shore – where the fall foliage is world-renowned – followed by a leisurely drive southward again, taking in the oceanic and mountainous landscape. When they arrived in Halifax, though, there were no autumn hued leaves, no orange and yellow trees. Surely they’d find those colors just a little to the north, perhaps in a day or two. So for now – on with the planned itinerary, and maybe a few surprises to boot.

First stop: Canada’s iconic maritime beacon, Peggy’s Point Lighthouse. More than 160 historic lighthouses speckle the shoreline throughout the province of Nova Scotia, but this one ranks among the world’s most famous. Built in 1915, the lighthouse rises from atop broad wind-polished boulders that jut precariously into the Atlantic’s violently crashing waves. It was pouring rain and bitterly cold when the Dillbergs arrived. Bill thought he’d have to forgo this photo op. “But then the rain suddenly stopped,” Jan recalls now, “and the sun popped out. The timing couldn’t have been better. We were pleasantly surprised.”

From the South Shore region, the Dillbergs headed north. Eager to see the fall colors, they drove towards Cape Breton, where they planned to see what they assumed would be a spectacular autumn show. Once in Cape Breton they would travel a famous leaf-watching route, from Cabot Trail southward, then along the Bay of Fundy shores. The Nova Scotia fall colors typically start changing the last week of September and continue until late October. But so far, no colors. Nature was running a bit late. So, north the Dillbergs went.

They zigzagged along the eastern shoreline, where rocky outcroppings gave way to inlets and salt marshes. They darted inland toward the historic Sherbrooke Village, where it seems time warped back to the year 1860. Here our road adventurers discovered McDonald Brothers’ Sawmill, a fully operational reconstruction of a water-powered sawmill along one of the largest rivers in the province. “It all looks just as it did more than a hundred years ago,” Bill said of the two-story batten-clad structure, where water pounds through 12-foot wheels at 35 revolutions per minute.

Beautiful as it was, the wooded landscape lacked a certain quality Bill and Jan had expected to see by now, that seasonal spectrum of fall. “Even the locals we talked to were surprised that everything was still green,” Jan said. “When you plan a trip like, this – to go from the West Coast to the East Coast – you have to book everything six months in advance. You plan according to the
typical seasonal changes.”

Surely Cape Breton would have turned by now. It was only a matter of getting there. The Dillbergs continued north, where steep cliffs and deep river canyons carve into a forested plateau that towers above the ocean. Although on a mission of sorts, they made plenty of stops. Photo ops. Village boutiques. Church cemeteries. Sleepy fishing villages. A few museums. Lobster meals. A margarita or two.

“Every town had its own charm. And everywhere the locals were friendly,” Jan said. They even made a stop to meet a person Jan had known online for some time. (Jan happens to run a very busy fan website for singer celebrity Clay Aiken, and Jan had learned in advance that one of the fan club’s financial supporters lived in Nova Scotia. How better to say thanks than in person?)

When they finally reached their most northerly destination, the world famous Cabot Trail, they still didn’t find the autumn hues they’d been expecting. Even though the Dillbergs had diligently planned the entire trip in advance (routes to take, attractions to see, hotels to stay in) and even though they were starting to realize that Mother Nature had indeed postponed her leaf-turning schedule, a certain unexpected discovery ranks high on Jan’s list of favorite moments – a roadside attraction along the Cabot Trail.

Joe’s Scarecrow Village isn’t your average tourist trap. Jan and Bill didn’t know quite what to expect as they followed the directional signs along the highway, but based on its name and a few strategically placed scarecrows off the road’s shoulder, they figured they were in for something offbeat.  As they neared Joe’s Village, a large grouping of (what seemed to be) scarecrows pointed the way, uniformly posed, arms outstretched, bodies completely still. And then … all at once, the scarecrows moved in unison – their arms hinged this way and that, their legs stepped out, then back together. At first Jan was surprised. What an amazing mechanical display, she thought. And then the scarecrows broke formation – they all laughed and moved about freely, slapping their knees and pointing at the cars passing by. Jan’s surprise turned to shock. How could that be? she wondered. Those particular “scarecrows” turned out to be other tourists playing a prank. The real roadside attraction lay beyond the curve ahead. “I couldn’t believe it,” Jan said with alaugh.

The real scarecrow village turned out to be just as quirky as their fellow tourists’ prank. A bizarre collection of costume-clad scarecrows was displayed across a sprawling field just off the road: fishermen, school kids, store keepers, old ladies, clowns, farmers, celebrities, politicians, brides and grooms – some holding hands, some seated in chairs, some pushing baby strollers. This eclectic and truly original art display attracts some 18,000 visitors from around the world each year. Some folks plan it into their itinerary – others stumble upon it.

Fast forward one week, and our road travelers had nearly come full circle in their drive around the perimeter of Nova Scotia – and still no fall colors. Nothing along Cabot’s Trail. And so far, nothing in the Bay of Fundy region, either, where they took in the sparsely populated town of Digby, a community settled in 1783, now famous for its succulent scallops harvested offshore nearby. “Digby was probably the largest ‘pure’ fishing village we went to,” Bill recalled. “Quite a few fishing boats were getting ready to make their rounds. There was a lot of activity.”

By now Bill had taken a plethora of photos depicting various fishing towns they’d encountered throughout their trip. Some villages were especially quiet, like Hackett’s Cove and Glen Margaret – both near Peggy’s Point Lighthouse where they’d started their road trip – where fishermen still carry on the traditions of their 18th century predecessors. Bill’s photos capture the serenity of those towns, of bobbing sailboats moored close to shore, and nearby, sturdy two-story homes nestled between groves of spruce and poplar. Tiny water inlets are bordered by shingle sided dock houses that waiver on stilt elevated platforms, and aluminum rowboats bump rhythmically against dock cleats.

Other fishing villages buzzed with activity. The Dillbergs experienced firsthand the seafaring heritage that has at once changed with the times, yet has preserved its traditions. Take Lunenburg, for example, one of Bill’s favorite stops. The town of Lunenburg is like a capsule of modernized history. The homes and buildings date back more than 200 years. In the early 1600s, European settlers laid out the town in a perfectly organized grid, regardless of the local topography. Industrious townsfolk managed to transform civic planners’ sketches into a thriving settlement, with straight and narrow streets lined with colorful buildings crisscrossing the steep slope that leads inland from the harbor. Seventy percent of the town’s original buildings continue to greet visitors with their colorful facades. Where water meets land,
old-time wooden lobster traps are stacked four and five tall, lining the docks along steel-hulled boats.

By the middle of their second week on the road, Bill and Jan had all but given up on seeing the fall color show they’d come for. In just a few days they’d board their plane in Halifax. And then, just when they’d resigned their hopes, they took the advice of some of the locals. They drove an inland highway route along one of the rivers, a road not typically taken by tourists. And … voila. Mother Nature had indeed come through, at least on this secluded stretch of road. Thunderous reds. Glowing yellows. Deep oranges. The forest dazzled its autumn tones in the cool, damp air of Nova Scotia.