Canada, as a whole, is a very young country. But here, on the East Coast, the history goes back over 400 years in some parts. One of these places carries the evocative name of Annapolis Royal.

After Wolfville and its wineries, Annapolis Royal is another worthwhile stop in the Annapolis Valley region of Nova Scotia. Despite being the smallest town in the province (only 481 inhabitants), it is surprisingly rich in history, as I discovered last Friday.

The beginnings

Founded by the French in 1605, Annapolis Royal predates Quebec City by three years, making it one of the oldest settlements in Canada. The four oldest surviving buildings in Canada are here, with the oldest one dating from 1708.

Oldest house in Canada - 1708 (Annapolis Royal)

Oldest house in Canada – 1708 

The town was originally called Port-Royal, and became the most fought over land in the country, changing hands between the French and the British seven times between 1605 and 1710. In 1710 the British captured the area for the last time and renamed the town Annapolis Royal in honour of Queen Anne. It became the first capital of Nova Scotia before being replaced by Halifax in 1749.

It is also known as the birthplace of the Acadians, a French-speaking people who were scattered around after their deportation by the British from 1755 to 1762. Some ended up back in France, in other Atlantic provinces, in Quebec, in New England, as well as in Louisiana where they became known as Cajun. Some remain in Nova Scotia today, although the majority are now found in New Brunswick.

Replica of an Acadian house (Annapolis Royal)

Replica of an Acadian house (Historic Gardens)

One day in Annapolis Royal

You will need a full day, possibly more, to do all the things on offer here. It may be more relaxing to stay overnight in one of several B&Bs located in beautiful historical homes. But if, like me, a day (or part of a day) is all you have, here is how you could spend it.

The main street, St George, is where pretty much everything of interest is located. Start by having a coffee at Leo’s Café, perhaps accompanied by a pastry. Their cinnamon buns are to die for, and they’re huge!

Quirky shop (Annapolis Royal)

Quirky shop on St George Street

Poke around a few handicraft and gift shops, then follow the boardwalk along the Annapolis river, past the small lighthouse. If it’s Saturday (or Wednesday in July-August), you may also want to browse around the Farmers & Traders Market that sets up in the centre of town, a fairly large affair for a place this size, offering produce, meat, wine, sweets, books, crafts, jewelry, even antiques!

Next, make your way to the Historic Gardens, a few blocks away. You may think $11.75 is a bit steep to visit a garden, but the Historic Gardens are world-class, recognized as one of the best gardens in the country. The centrepiece is probably the Rose Collection, with thousands of fragrant and colourful blossoms. Within its 17 acres, you will also find a Victorian Garden, a replica of an Acadian house, several smaller themed gardens, many paths among trees and alongside dykes, a café, and a gift shop. If you’re here at 11:00 AM Friday to Sunday, you can also join a guided tour of the gardens.

Historic Gardens, Annapolis Royal

Rose Collection, Historic Gardens

Leo’s Café makes a good stop for lunch, with soups, sandwiches, and a special of the day. (It was “fish pie” the day I visited.) Don’t get there too late if you want a table on the small patio though; it’s popular! There are a few more restaurants and cafés along the main street.

Make sure you’re done before 2:00 PM, because you’ll want to take a Historical Association walking tour. You don’t need to reserve; just show up at the lighthouse a little before 2:00. Alan Melanson, a 10th generation Acadian, talks about the Acadian Experience on Tuesdays and Fridays. You’ll get to see the very dock from which over 1600 Acadians were deported in 1755. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, you’ll explore the National Historic District through its history and architecture. Annapolis Royal has 135 registered historical properties, including the four oldest houses in Canada!

Tours cost $9 and last an hour. Mr Melanson is an engaging and gregarious guide, and I learned a lot about the Acadian story on this tour. He also offers a candelight graveyard tour most evenings. You can see the complete tour schedule here.

With guide Alan Melanson in front of the lighthouse (Annapolis Royal)

With guide Alan Melanson wearing a traditional Acadian outfit (in front of the lighthouse)

If you want to dig even deeper into the history, you may wish to visit the Sinclair Inn Museum (donations only), the second oldest house in Canada (1710) where sections of the original walls and ceiling have been exposed. A video also tells you the story of previous inhabitants in the form of “ghosts” still haunting the property.

Another historic landmark is Fort Anne ($3.90 admission) located on expansive grounds above the river. The original structures from the fort itself (except for one) are no longer standing, but a museum inside a building dating from 1797 contains a few artifacts and several information signs. The true eye-popping feature however, is the four-panel tapestry that occupies an entire wall. It’s recent (1985), but illustrates in minute detail the events that unfolded in Annapolis Royal during each century of its history, one century per panel. Many people, including Queen Elizabeth II, helped stitch the tapestry which took four years to complete.

Fort Anne, Annapolis Royal

Fort Anne Museum

If you still have time and energy (I didn’t) two more attractions are worth your attention. Across the river is Port-Royal National Historic Site, a reconstitution of the “Habitation”, the original French settlement. Costumed interpreters bring history to life with demonstrations and descriptions of life in a 1605 fur trading post.

The Tidal Power Plant, at the edge of town (in the same building as the Tourist Office), is North America’s only tidal power generating station. With the highest tides in the world (up to 16 metres in some places, 7 metres in Annapolis Royal) the Bay of Fundy is an ideal location for this project. The plant uses the world’s largest straflo turbine to generate electricity for 4500 homes. Upstairs, displays and signs explain the process. With advance notice, you may also be able to go on a “down under” tour, where a guide takes you to the upper machine room, directly above the turbine, and explains how things work.

B&Bs in historical houses (Annapolis Royal)

You could stay in a B&B in an historical house

There is actually more to see in Annapolis Royal and surrounding area, so you could spend several days here. Travelling to and around this area requires a car. It is located about an hour and a half’s drive from Wolfville, and over two and a half hours from Halifax, along highway 101.

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