Arriving in Shelburne, Nova Scotia seems like stepping back in time to an 18th-century seaport. Unlike many other communities where historic sections are often overwhelmed by surrounding modernity, Shelburne is like a time capsule because of its unique history.
Shelburne County and neighbouring Barrington County sit near the southern tip of Nova Scotia. As we toured around the region we discovered not only a rich history but also stunning coastal scenery, quirky local museums, offbeat activities, and fabulous seafood in what is known as the Lobster Capital of Canada.
From axe-throwing to history, here are the best things to do in Shelburne, Nova Scotia!
Explore Shelburne’s Historic Waterfront
Shelburne was founded in 1783 by United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution. Within a year, its population exploded to more than 10,000, making it bigger than Halifax, Montreal, or Quebec. By 1785, it was the 10th largest city in North America.
With one of the largest natural harbours in the world, Shelburne became a centre for shipbuilding and fishing. But the boom soon went bust. One thing that they hadn’t counted on was poor, rocky soil that proved inadequate to grow food for so many people. Today, Shelburne’s population is around 1,600.
Many buildings from the 1780s remain. Most are meticulously kept up and painted in an array of colours. Some are now museums or operate as restaurants, shops and accommodations for visitors. The historic waterfront is so intact that the town is often used as a set for TV shows and movies portraying that era, such as Moby Dick and the Book of Negroes.
Stay at the Historic Cooper’s Inn
The Cooper’s Inn is not only one of Shelburne’s historic buildings, but it also ranked among the most enjoyable places we stayed in Nova Scotia. Ideally situated on Shelburne’s waterfront, the building dates to 1785 during the influx of Loyalists. For many years it operated as a cooperage to make wooden barrels.
Today it’s a bed & breakfast with seven well-appointed rooms, each different. Nice touches include a complimentary glass of wine in the late afternoon served in the beautifully kept gardens. Not only is a full breakfast included, but you are given a menu with choices the night before so that it can be cooked fresh to your liking the next morning.
Learn Fishing Heritage at the Dory Shop Museum
One aspect of Shelburne’s past that lives on is its Dory building, those small flat-bottom wooden boats that used to be the backbone of the Atlantic fishing industry. The building that now houses the Dory Shop Museum was once the largest of seven Dory shops that operated in town.
While dories are no longer used for commercial fishing, they still build a few here each year in the time-honoured fashion, using some 600 square nails and fitting pieces of wood together so precisely that no caulking is used. We were fortunate to be guided through the facility by Milford Buchanan, whose insignia on his shirt and cap identifies him as a master dory builder, one of only four left in North America.
Discover the Heritage of the Black Loyalists
While Loyalists came to many parts of Eastern Canada, Shelburne was unusual because of the high number of Black Loyalists. Slaves in the U.S. who escaped and were willing to fight for Britain were given protection. Many were later offered settlement in Nova Scotia. The community of Birchtown, just outside Shelburne, became the largest free settlement of people of African ancestry outside Africa, which is one of the most interesting Nova Scotia facts. It’s a fascinating piece of Canadian history that isn’t well-known outside Nova Scotia.
You can learn more at the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in Birchtown. The large centre has multi-media exhibits, and you can take a guided tour with the staff, some of whom are descendants of the original Loyalists. Outside, visit the historic schoolhouse, church, and reconstructed pit houses made from tree trunks and branches over a shallow ditch. These makeshift dwellings are a testament to the hardships and resourcefulness of those early settlers.
Relive Early Industrial Production at Barrington Woolen Mill
This place combines a fascinating piece of history with a picturesque setting on the banks of the Barrington River. Built back in 1882, the mill runs on a water-driven turbine and was instrumental in transforming wool production in this part of Nova Scotia. Warm wool clothing was crucial to early fishing and farming families, but turning fleece into wool products was time-consuming and labour-intensive. The mill automated those tasks and provided many jobs.
The surprisingly large complex has been preserved as a museum, including antique machines that can still operate. Visitors not only learn about this once-thriving industry but also watch demonstrations of hand spinning, dyeing, processing, and weaving wool. You can even try your hand at operating the spinning wheel or weaving your own tartan.
Become a Lumberjack at Wild Axe
Practically a stone’s throw (although an axe throw might be a better term) from the woollen mill is Wild Axe. Visitors come here to play at being lumberjack for a day, learning skills such as log rolling, crosscut and bow sawing, tree climbing, and axe throwing.
Axe-throwing has become wildly popular almost everywhere, but the big difference is that this operation is run by a genuine lumberjack. For five generations, Darren Hudson’s family harvested logs in the Nova Scotia forest and floated them down the Barrington River to the coast to be milled. Darren has won lumberjack competitions around the world, including becoming a seven-time world champion log roller. His mission is to keep lumberjack traditions alive.
Darren indicated that log rolling is usually the favourite among kids visiting the park. He demonstrated the technique by casually jumping on a floating log and rolling it around at faster and faster speeds. This was an important skill for log drivers who stood atop the precarious moving logs as they floated down the river. To take things up a notch, he jumped up and down on the floating log and showed how competitors would splash each other and devise tricks to throw the other off balance and into the water.
What everyone was waiting for was the chance to throw axes. Most of the half dozen novice axe-throwers in our group had mixed results at first, occasionally hitting the target, but more often seeing the axe fly past or glance off the target. When Arlene had a series of misses in a row, Darren corrected her stance, and on the next throw, she scored the first perfect bull’s eye.
For those looking for unique Nova Scotia tours, Wild Axe offers options such as the Lumberjack Experience featuring the full range of lumberjack activities, as well as sessions specifically on axe throwing. They even have a special package that combines lumberjack activities with a visit to the woollen mill, appropriately called the Wild & Wooly Experience.
Encounter Aliens at Shag Harbour UFO Centre
The most unusual place we visited was the Shag Harbour UFO Centre. This tiny community burst onto the world stage in October 1967. On the night of October 4, several people saw four orange lights in the sky which suddenly disappeared into the water.
One of the witnesses was Laurie Wickens who now operates the UFO Centre. At first, he, as well as other observers, assumed that an airplane had crashed into the ocean. A massive search was made but nothing was found. To complicate things further, no planes were reported missing. Investigations by the RCMP, Coast Guard, Navy divers, and other agencies came up empty. Something was there they agreed, but no one knows what, leading authorities to conclude that it was not “any known object”. The incident was significant enough that the Royal Canadian Mint even made a commemorative coin to celebrate the event.
The UFO Centre has numerous details on the incident, as well as being a general celebration of UFOs and aliens. Laurie Wickens is happy to relate his involvement in the mystery and his suspicions that maybe the divers did find something that wasn’t made public. A short drive down the road is the actual crash site, with a pleasant picnic site where you can relax and perhaps scan the skies for unusual activity.
Soak up seaside scenery and visit lighthouses
One of the top things to do is simply wander around and soak up the coastal scenery. From rugged coastlines to fine sandy beaches, river estuaries, and colourful fishing boats, views are everywhere. Be sure to take the causeway to Cape Sable Island, the southernmost point in Nova Scotia.
Nova Scotia is famous for lighthouses and this area is no exception. Some that caught our eye included the Baccaro Point Lighthouse which sits on the southernmost tip of the Nova Scotia mainland. The most unusual one is the Sandy Point Lighthouse at the entrance to Shelburne Harbour. Come here at high tide and the historic lighthouse, built in 1873, is surrounded by water, making it look as if it was built far offshore. However, it sits on the end of a sand spit, and at low tide, it’s possible to walk out to it without getting wet. To learn more about the workings of a traditional lighthouse, head to the Seal Island Lighthouse Museum near Barrington.
Savour the seafood
The region’s culinary highlight can be summed up in one word – lobster. After all, this area is called the Lobster Capital of Canada, with 40% of Canada’s catch, something that is celebrated every summer in the annual Shelburne County Lobster Festival.
A favourite eatery is Capt. Kat’s Lobster Shack in Barrington, which serves up an array of seafood, including lobster prepared in every way you can imagine and some you may not have thought of. Lobster poutine anyone?
Or head to the Salt Banker restaurant (named for a schooner that carried saltfish) on Cape Sable Island. The emphasis is on fresh seafood and straight-from-the-garden vegetables and herbs that chef Nicolle Hopkins grows herself. Desserts are built around ice cream made on-site. Not only is the food delicious, but the restaurant’s philosophy is to offer affordable meals that get a lot of repeat local business.
For a spot that combines great food, award-winning craft beers, and a legendary story, it’s hard to beat the Boxing Rock Tap Room. The unusual name for the brewery comes from a small, nondescript rock in Shelburne Harbour that is only visible during low tide. Sea captains of old had a special use for it. When they found crew members fighting, they would drop them off on the rock with a jug of beer and the following instructions.
“Shake hands and share a beer, or box until one of you drops. We’ll be back before high tide to pick up one or both of you.”
Want More Things to Do in Nova Scotia?
As awesome as Shelburne is, there’s so much more to Nova Scotia! For more detailed travel guides, check out the links below: