I am Canadian (raised, of course, on Anne of Green Gables stories), so I’ve always wanted to explore the Eastern coast of Canada. So a few years ago, we took a dream vacation with my parents in Maritime Canada.
I was in a months-long massive flare-up during the trip, so all of the activities we did had to be accessible to me. At the time, that meant we would need to cover short distances on level ground with a cane, or have wheelchair access for any longer distances. I wasn’t yet diagnosed with celiac disease at the time of the trip, so unfortunately I cannot speak to the celiac-friendliness of the places we visited.
If you are dreaming of a tour of Eastern Canada, here are some of the highlights and must-see places from our trip.
Jolly Breeze Whale-Watching Tour
Hands down, this was the best experience of our trip!! We knew we wanted to go whale-watching during our stay. I have a bit of a fear of things lurking under me in the water, and the thought of going out in a rubber dingy or a small boat terrified me (not to mention, it would have been extremely challenging to navigate with a cane). We more or less stumbled on the Jolly Breeze, and it was like winning the lottery!
The Jolly Breeze is a steel replica of a 1900s ship, completely decked out to look like an old wooden ship. In their shop/office in St. Andrews, NB, child passengers can choose from a wonderful chest full of costumes and dress up like pirates. They offer the use of complimentary jackets to all customers. At first, we didn’t see the need. We were sailing in mid-June on a sunny day. Thankfully, though, we took the jackets. Once we were out on the open waters, it was frigid!
We boarded the ship via a floating ramp. The tides vary wildly in this area. We sailed out at low tide, meaning the ramp was at an incredibly steep incline. It was a bit of a challenge for me with the cane, and it definitely helped to have my husband close by for support. When we returned at high tide, the ramp was almost horizontal.
Getting onto the boat was a little challenging, as well. It required stepping from a floating dock up into the ship. If you have serious mobility impairment or are wheelchair-bound, it would be difficult to access the ship. That being said, with assistance I think it would be possible to be lifted aboard. Once on the ship, the deck was wide and level and didn’t present much of a challenge. The company was extremely accommodating and responsive, so if access is a concern, I would recommend speaking to them directly to see what could be arranged.
Once we were on board, the adventure really began! There were long benches along the sides of the ship as well as down the center of the deck. The crew were fantastic: friendly, knowledgeable, and very welcoming. Ours were the only kids on board that day, so they put them to work helping to hoist the sails, raise flags, and take the helm. We happened to sail on my son’s ninth birthday, and they made him a special “crew member,” and asked for his help with various tasks.
Below deck was a cozy cabin fitted out with a small kitchen, and a table with bench seating. They had coloring pages for the kids, pirate puppets, and pirate and sea animal toys. The access was little more than a ladder, but it was not a necessary part of the voyage.
We cruised through beautiful waters out to the open sea. Our trip took place in mid-June. We didn’t realize it when we were planning, but this was actually just ahead of the tourist season–and ahead of most of the whales. Minke whales were just appearing in the area, and we did see some (as well as dolphins and seals). Later in the season, they see a much wider variety of whales and sea life.
The crew of three included a marine biologist. At the midway point of the trip, she produced a bin filled with sea water and a variety of sea creatures: star fish, lobsters, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, etc. The biologist collected the specimens at low tide each morning, keeping them alive on board, and released them each night. She gathered the children and explained each animal in detail, then allowed them to pick up, touch, or hold the different creatures.
On the return to shore, the crew served us split pea soup and soda crackers. It was absolutely delicious (the company will share their recipe on request, and it’s become my family’s go-to recipe for split pea soup!).
Jolly Breeze was by far the most expensive attraction on our trip, but it was well worth the splurge. If you are looking for an unforgettable excursion for all ages, I can’t recommend them enough!
Eskasoni Cultural Journeys
Cape Breton was originally, and still is, home to the Mi’kmaq people. We wanted a way to learn more about their culture and introduce our kids to the indigenous people of the area. We discovered Eskasoni Cultural Journeys, and it was a fabulous experience!
The tour takes place on Goat Island, Eskasoni, a remote and beautiful area in Cape Breton. We were guided along a 2.4 km trail through beautiful ancient woods, as we learned and experienced different parts of Mi’Kmaq culture.
We were hosted by a beautiful group of indigenous people who were passionate about sharing their culture and history. They were warm and inviting, and we felt welcomed into their community from the moment we arrived. The tour began outside the main office, where we learned how to play an ancient game with sticks and wood pieces. Our kids were fascinated. Next, we ventured into the forest where we were told about the history of the island and its people. The trail was made of packed gravel, and very level throughout. I had no trouble walking it with my cane, and we made frequent stops where I could rest. I don’t think it would have been difficult to push my wheelchair, had we needed it. They also had a golf cart available, and offered me a ride for part of the journey. They would have been happy to drive me the whole way if needed.
A little ways into the woods, we stepped into a large teepee to participate in a smudging ceremony. Our tour guide explained the history and importance of these ceremonies, and burned sage to demonstrate how the ceremonies were performed.
From there, they led us down by the water where we gathered at picnic tables to learn the art of basket weaving. After a brief demonstration, we had the opportunity to try it for ourselves, weaving small wooden bookmarks.
Next, we learned to make “Four Cents Bread,” Mi’Kmaq traditional bread, over open fires. We mixed bread dough in open bowls, pressed it onto wooden sticks, and roasted it over campfires.
After the bread baking, we learned about traditional herbal and medicinal remedies. Then we gathered around to learn some of the basic traditional dance steps.
Finally, our tour led us to a “Trading Post,” where we saw beautiful examples of Mi’Kmaq craftsmanship in basket weaving, wood carving, the making of knives, pottery, etc. Nearby, log-hewn teeter totters and swings provided entertainment for the kids.
Finally, we wound our way back to the main office, with a small gift shop. The children were offered traditional deerskin clothes to try on for pictures. We parted from our tour guides with hugs and warm well-wishes, and felt we were leaving behind a group of wonderful friends.
Cabot Trail Drive
Rick Steves reportedly calls this the best drive in North America, and now I understand why! The Cabot Trail is a 185-mile long winding road that hugs the coastline and hills of Cape Breton. Around each corner was a new breathtaking view, different from the last. Some of the passes were a little harrowing in our large passenger van, but all of it was stunningly beautiful.
Much of our trip was seen from the car windows, since we covered a massive amount of territory in our short stay. By far the most stunning ride was along the Cabot Trail! There were little restaurants or shops from time to time along the place, and a few scattered houses. But for the most part, there was nothing but wide open, wild space and unobstructed nature.
Cape Breton National Park
We took a break from the stunning vistas of the Cabot Trail to explore Cape Breton National Park. It was the first of the Canadian National Parks we visited. All of the National Parks provided activity books for our kids with information about the wildlife and plants that could be discovered there. They also received a collectible rubber key chain at each park (what kid doesn’t love a collection?). The Canadian National Parks also do a fantastic job with accessibility and identifying accessible trails, services, etc. This site provides an overview of all of the National Parks, with the option to search by Atlantic, Western, etc, parks; and to search by individual park. We read ahead on each place that we visited to pinpoint accessible trails and facilities, and it was a life saver!
Cape Breton is will and rugged, and absolutely stunning. We saw most of it by car, because it was getting later into the evening by the time we entered the park. We had hoped to visit the Skyline Trail, pictured above, but the sun was getting a little too low by the time we reached it. Many of their lookout points are easily accessible, though, by cane or by wheelchair.
We took some time to drive back to a waterfall, the Mary Ann waterfalls, off the main road. The route to the falls was rough and rocky, but it was worth the drive. The stream and falls were beautiful. A gravel path led down to the water, and it was easily managed with my cane. My family ventured down to the water’s edge, but I had a wonderful view from the path. There were even picnic tables and benches where I could rest.
The area is known to have an abundance of wildlife, including moose, black bears, and coyotes. We came the closest to seeing them at this stop, although we were never fortunate enough to actually stumble on wildlife in the flesh (traveling with noisy kids no doubt had some correlation to the lack of wildlife!). We saw fresh bear scat along the trail, and many of the trees had evidence of rutting (moose rub their antlers against the tree trunks).
Confederation Bridge, PEI
There are two ways to get from the mainland to Prince Edward Island: by bridge, or by ferry. We explored both!
Crossing from New Brunswick into PEI, the eight-mile-long Confederation Bridge is stunning! Once we were on the bridge, we enjoyed views of nothing but sky and water for miles. What an amazing experience!
Green Gables Heritage Place
This place is every Anne of Green Gables reader’s dream! A visit to Green Gables was an essential part of our trip, of course!
The highlight, of course, was the house itself. The area around the house is level and easily accessible by foot or wheelchair. A ramp allows access to the first floor of the house, where rooms are set up look like the scenes from the L.M. Montgomery books. The second story is not wheelchair accessible, but I was able to manage it with my cane and pacing myself.
Outside of the house, there is a barn with a collection of period clothing for children to try on. There is a buggy where tourists can try on hats and red braids and pose for a photo op.
There is a wonderful visitor center with accessible bathrooms, and an extensive gift shop. But my favorite place was actually the little area behind the house, Lover’s Lane. This real-life wooded path inspired the Lover’s Lane of the Anne of Green Gables books, and it was every bit as romantic and magical as L.M. Montgomery described! A wide, level packed gravel trail leads through the Acadian forest, and it is accessible by foot or on wheelchair.
Another great nearby destination is Avonlea Village. Based on the spin-off books and television show, this great stop is made up of cute little shops grouped together. When we were there, ahead of tourist season, almost nothing was open. We were able to enjoy some ice cream at the visitor center, but all of the other buildings were closed up. At the height of the season, though, this would be a fantastic place to spend the day popping in and out of the beautiful shops. The area was paved and level, and would be easily accessible on foot or wheels.
Prince Edward Island National Park
The famous red sand beaches of Prince Edward Island are definitely the stars of Prince Edward Island National Park. My mom remembered camping on the island as a little girl, and spending long hours playing in the sand on the beaches.
Every picture I’d ever seen of PEI looked full of color: the red earth, bright green fields, and brilliant blue skies. Again, our timing for the trip was a little off. Arriving in mid-June, PEI was just beginning to emerge from the long winter. The skies were overcast and grey–none of the brilliant colors I expected–and it was cold and drizzly. Even so, the views were breathtaking!
I had been a little apprehensive about navigating the sandy dunes with my cane, and I knew my wheelchair would never make it through. There are some boardwalks and level places, but to explore the beach itself, there was no easy access. My husband surprised me and arranged to rent a specialized beach wheelchair! It looked like something that could tackle Mars, but it made all the difference.
The dunes at this park were pretty epic, and our kids enjoyed jumping and tumbling off the tops of them into the soft sand. There was also a great playground where they could run off some energy (while I, in all honesty, took a cat nap in the van).
There are also countless quaint lighthouses in the area. Many have plaques that detail the history of the lighthouse or of the area. They make fantastic photo ops, too!
We had taken the bridge into PEI, but wanted to experience as many different things as we could on our trip. So on our way out of PEI, we decided to take the Northumberland Ferry. What an adventure! We lined up with several other cars prior to the departure time. When it came time to load, it was like a well-oiled machine. We were directed where to park and had no trouble getting our large van on board. Then for the duration of the journey, we were free to roam the large ferry. There were several observation decks, indoor seating areas, restaurants, and gift shops.
We gathered on an upper observation deck at the front of the ferry to watch as we pulled out of port. It was fun to see the Atlantic up ahead in front of the massive bow of the ship. The ferry was large, so there wasn’t an excessive amount of movement and rocking. We did have one little person feel motion sick, but it didn’t take us long to get our sea legs.
The ferry was wheelchair accessible, and easily navigated with my cane. There was plenty of seating indoors and out, too, so I didn’t have to go far before finding a place to rest.
We enjoyed ice cream from COWS Creamery, a local ice cream company with adorable merchandise. We also had time for a quick lunch in the cafeteria. It was a very memorable part of the trip!
Fundy National Park
I could have stayed in Fundy National Park for a week. It was our final stop, by far my favorite, and I wish we’d been able to explore much more of it!
As with the tides on the Jolly Breeze, Fundy has phenomenal changing tides. We explored at low tide, and the water was out miles from the shore. That meant we had an entire field of beautiful seashells, rocks, and sea glass. The area also has a significant Jurassic history, so it’s not uncommon to find amazing fossils at low tide! We took our time exploring and wandering around what had been the sea floor just hours before.
The sea floor was certainly not wheelchair accessible, and a bit of a struggle on foot. I actually used walking sticks for additional support as I navigated the uneven terrain. Eventually, I made my way to a pier with large rock boulders to rest. My kids took the opportunity to climb the boulders and play King of the Mountain.
There are some wonderful trails in the park, including some that are primarily made up of boardwalks. Wheelchair accessible trails are clearly marked in the park literature and online.
After all the traipsing over the sea floor, I was exhausted. We explored Caribou Plain Trail, one of the accessible trails, by wheelchair. It was largely made up of boardwalk, although there were some stretches with roots or rocks that were difficult to navigate. I was able to walk these stretches with my walking sticks, but they would have been a challenge if I had been confined to my wheelchair. Other trails seem to be slightly more accessible. Still, it was a beautiful hike with gorgeous Acadian forest vistas as we wound into the woods.
There are countless other attractions on the Eastern Coast of Canada, but these were my family’s highlights. If you are in the market for a wonderful vacation, I highly recommend a trip to Maritime Canada! What are your experiences in the area? I’d love to hear your recommendations in the comments below.
*Information valid as of 2018, and current information verified via attraction websites. Most Livable by Design photo credits to my dad, our resident photographer!