Where else but along the seafood-rich coastline of Nova Scotia can a journey be measured not in kilometers, but by bowls?      

By Barton Seaver
September 25, 2017
Aaron McKenzie Fraser

I am eating, I am sure, the best bowl of chowder in all of Nova Scotia.

Sitting before me is a butter-laced milk broth laden with a sumptuous quartet: tender mussels, charmingly petite shrimp, golden smoked haddock, and sweet sea scallops provided by neighboring Adams & Knickle, one of eastern Canada's most historic fisheries.

Photo: Stephen DeVries; Prop Styling: Lindsey Ellis Beatty and Rachael Burrow; Food Styling: Erin Merhar

Never mind that I've already indulged in a plate of fried seafood; this hearty bowl delivers the real reward for a day spent exploring the rugged coast of Canada's peninsular province. Around us hums the goodwill and coziness of the Salt Shaker Deli, a clapboard-clad eatery overlooking Lunenburg Harbour. I nurse my second pint of a bracing, hoppy Halifax IPA, and think about how this bowl not only connects me to this little notch in Nova Scotia's southeastern flank, but also connects to bowls already consumed, and those to come. I feel like a besotted traveler in a picturesque jigsaw puzzle.

Aaron McKenzie Fraser

My wife and I are making our way along Nova Scotia's Chowder Trail—a circuit that was mapped by the province's tourism folks to guide pilgrims like us to local riches—and with each stop I feel the puzzle clicking together. On one level, I taste place: the clean breezes of the Maritimes, milk from cows eating sweet salt grass, produce from rich soils, and seafood recently gifted by the tempestuous, clear waters of the North Atlantic. On another level, I taste the intention of each cook here who has stood behind a stove, and whose recipe has been perfected over generations of enduring cold winters and reveling in crisp, glorious summers. In fact, these are my ancestors: Hard-laboring men and women of Nova Scotia inhabit my family tree, reminding me right here, via these sweet and nourishing bites, of just how sustaining and welcoming a place this is.

Aaron McKenzie Fraser

Nova Scotia welcomes, indeed, with her many charms. We pass through small seaside towns dotting the south and eastern shore, beginning with the ferry port of humming Yarmouth. We linger in the cosmopolitan and vibrant capital of Halifax. But we fall in love with Peggy's Cove, a place so beautiful that we take an extra day to double back and see it again. The tiny, rural fishing village on St. Margaret's Bay is like a distillation of all that is emblematic of this region: a few lobster boats, a handful of houses, a large (and excellent) restaurant, and, of course, a steadfast red-and-white lighthouse, which has guided fishermen home to port from those gray, swelling seas for more than a century.

To the northeast, we navigate atop the sheer cliffs and tumbling landscapes of Cape Breton Island, making sure to carve out time for hiking the renowned Cabot Trail. And everywhere—in cafés, in markets, in delis and gas stations—we tuck into hot bowls of chowder that speak of place as much as any guidebook.

Christian Heeb/Laif/Redux

Along Cape Breton's Pleasant Bay, haddock and snow crabs swim within our bowls. Carrying on in our counterclockwise journey, along the tidal-churned Bay of Fundy, we reach Digby and discover chowder full to the brim with the scallops that have for more than a century been hauled in and celebrated here. And if in every recipe the seafood is a regional mixture, so too is the base. Some chowders spoon up thick with cream, while others are delightfully milky-thin and light. But the constant in every bowl, from one end of the province to the other, is an abiding sense of warmth and comfort.

It tastes like home. And while for me this is a literal thing—Nova Scotia is part of my metaphorical recipe—I imagine this must happen for every lucky traveler on The Chowder Trail. This is the final piece of the puzzle, I think. You come home again and again in Nova Scotia, from port to port: taking shelter, sharing a table, and tasting that rich and comforting gift from the sea, this coast, and its people.

Illustration by Muti

Chasing Chowder

Discover your seafood bliss, bowl by bowl, using this circumnavigation of Nova Scotia's rich and abundant coastline.

Courtesy of Fox Harb'r Resort/Shane Robilliard

Home to a large scallop and lobster fleet, this fishing village celebrates the local catch in two festivals: Lobster Bash in July and Digby Scallop Days in August. Eat Digby scallops at Churchill's Restaurant & Lounge, an upscale eatery at Digby Pines Golf Resort and Spa.

Courtesy of Rudder's

This southwestern town is the arrival seaport for the high-speed CAT ferry from Portland, Maine. At Rudder's Seafood Restaurant & Brew Pub, enjoy seafood chowder, haddock fish cakes, Digby scallops, fried clams, and craft ales. Walk it off gawking at elegant sea captains' homes and the Cape Forchu Lightstation.

Courtesy of South Shore Fish Shack/Doug Townsend

At this UNESCO World Heritage Site, sail aboard the tall ship schooner Bluenose II, taste rums at Ironworks Distillery, and then settle in for Barton Seaver's favorite seafood chowder and idyllic harbor views at Salt Shaker Deli.

Laszlo Podor/Getty

Slow down for Three Churches of Mahone Bay, one of Canada's most photographed spots; shop for serving pieces in the shapes of dories, oars, and seashells at Amos Pewter; and take a kayak tour with Cape LaHave Adventures.

Aaron McKenzie Fraser

This fishing village is marked by one of Nova Scotia's bestknown landmarks—Peggy's Point Lighthouse—perched among broad granite boulders. Take a free walking tour on summer Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and don't miss Rhubarb's seafood chowder, which is loaded with cubes of salmon, along with haddock, lobster, and vegetables.

Aaron McKenzie Fraser

There's much to do in the capital city: Tour the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, browse the massive Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market, and tour and taste at the historic Alexander Nova Scotia Brewery. Build a picnic with local oysters, squid ink, and hot-smoked salmon tenders, among other treasures, from Fisherman's Market, or enjoy the impressive list of Nova Scotia wines at The Five Fishermen Restaurant.

Courtesy of Rusty Anchor/Donna Timmons

Here at the halfway point along Cape Breton Island's renowned Cabot Trail, Rusty Anchor is the spot for Atlantic snow crab and seafood chowder that features shrimp, haddock, and potato. Pleasant Bay is considered the whale-watching capital of Cape Breton, so head onto the water with Captain Mark's Whale & Seal Cruise.

Courtesy of Fox Harb'r Resort/Shane Robilliard

Overlooking Northumberland Strait, Fox Harb'r Resort is not just a spectacular spot to spend the night (and play a few holes); its elegant Cape Cliff Dining Room menu includes rainbow trout grown on the premises and serves up a seafood chowder with halibut, scallops, salmon, and lobster. The award-winning wine cellar features a deep list of Nova Scotian whites.

Break Your Own Trail

Taste Nova Scotia's Seafood Trail offers a variety of seafood-focused maps and suggested stops, from chowder and fish-and-chips to lobster and oysters. A new Good Cheer Trail focuses on beer, cider, wine, and spirits. 

What Makes a Chowder a Chowder?

While everyone agrees it's delicious, the world disagrees on chowder's definition and origins. Food writer John Thorne may have put it best when he wrote that chowder is "a savory meal of what were long the humblest of ingredients, … prepared in the simplest of kitchens."

What most chowders largely share, beyond this, are which humble ingredients: salt pork, milk, starchy vegetables like potatoes, and seafood or corn in the central role. The rest is up to local variation (and pride).

But why do we call it chowder? One version begins with the Latin caldaria (a type of pot), which evolved into the French chaudière. Cauldron concoctions featuring seafood traveled with fishermen to Newfoundland, down the coast of Nova Scotia, and into New England. Chowder was born.

However, others point to Great Britain as the source of a 16th-century recipe written in the Cornish language, in which the word for fisherman is jowter. The theory sounds (literally) possible, and partisans have long argued about the real origin story.

Thorne redefines the question. "Beyond a certain point nationality is more perplexing than helpful," he writes. "But think of its parentage in terms of place and all confusion falls away. Chowder is the natural child begotten in the great convergence of fishermen off the North American coast, where its parents somehow, somewhere, met and fell in love."

Or even more apt, as he writes: "Chowder … isn't just something you make; it is something you do."

Courtesy of Tourism Nova Scotia 

Get here

BY LAND: Drive into New Brunswick from Maine, and onto the peninsula.

BY SEA: Halifax and Sydney are the province's main ports of call for major cruise lines; ferries run from the United States via Portland, Maine, to Yarmouth.

BY AIR: Connect to Halifax Stanfield International Airport from Portland, Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, or Chicago.