Nova Scotia has a number of 100-series highways that make getting around the province fast and, in most places, as safe as highways can be. It’s easy to depart Halifax, flip on the cruise control and just wait until you get to Cape Breton, Yarmouth or Amherst and beyond Nova Scotia into New Brunswick and points west.
Nevertheless driving on these routes can be monotonous and not that inspirational, especially in a vehicle that begs for winding, twisting country roads.
One of the busiest highways in the province is the section of Trans Canada Highway 104 between Amherst and Truro where, if heading east, traffic either continues on the 104 to Cape Breton or takes a right onto Highway 102 to Halifax. The 104 is also known as The Miner’s Memorial Highway in memory of the Springhill mining disasters in 1956 and 1958 that took the lives of 113 miners in two of the worst mining accidents in Canadian history.
Before the 104 was completed in 1964 as a two-lane highway, there were two options to get to Halifax from the New Brunswick border.
One was to take Route 6 along the Northumberland Strait to Tatamagouche, make your way to Truro then join Route 2 to Halifax. But most of the traffic followed Route 2 from Amherst through Springhill, Parrsboro, Five Islands, Masstown, Truro and then on to Halifax.
There were no divided highways in Nova Scotia back then and crossing the province was a slow drive fraught with blind hills and low shoulders. Passing zones to get around lumbering transport trucks were at a premium.
I lived in Moncton in the early 1960s and, although I never drove to Halifax, what today is an easy three-hour drive was rumoured to be an all-day affair.
The call of the manual
For me, a driver’s car is one with a manual transmission so on a recent Sunday drive from Moncton to Halifax in a 2020 Toyota Corolla SE, equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, the call of the back road came through loud and clear.
A beautiful fall afternoon is not the time for a short-cut, we reasoned, so we took a couple of extra hours for a long-cut with planned stops at Ottawa House near Parrsboro, Five Islands and Four Seasons Retreat in Economy where Lisa and I got married.
As soon as one gets off a highway, life changes. Route 2 is two-lane road where we watched people going about their lives. We talked about what was parked in their driveways, watched fall yard work in progress and joked about parents staging Halloween scaries on front porches.
The Corolla SE was a fine ride. The completely redesigned body is the most dramatic change the Corolla has undergone in its stellar history of more than half a century. With vastly improved looks, it is more comfortable and handles better that any previous Corolla, the best selling car in the world with over 43 million sold since its introduction in 1966.
Our tester, powered by a 169-horsepower four-cylinder engine coupled to a six-speed manual transmission, was comfortable and fun to drive. I like driving a manual and it doesn’t have to be bolted into a sports car or a transport truck. In fact, although most new Corollas will be automatics, a manual version would be perfect for someone who wants to learn to drive a ‘stick’ where they, and not a computer, make the decision when to shift gears.
The 2020 Corolla comes as a hatchback or a sedan with a slightly longer wheelbase and a real trunk. Crossovers and SUVs have cargo covers but there is nothing like a trunk lid that locks when closed to make one feel their cargo is secure. Out of sight, out of mind for pesky petty thieves.
It didn’t take long to get into the back-road mood as we drove through the countryside to Parrsboro on the Bay of Fundy. A 15-minute break at the Ottawa House beach was like landing on another planet. It had only been an hour since leaving the treadmill of the 104 and we had already strolled through rusty red fields, rolled past shimmering lakes and skipped stones in the Bay of Fundy.
The grasses were still vibrant, oranges and reds everywhere, as we continued east along the Minas Basin past Five Islands and through Upper and Lower Economy. The Bay of Fundy, with up to 65 metres of tidal action a day, was at low tide offering a breathtaking backdrop of sandbars and stretches of open beach.
Coming back to Highway 104 at Masstown, I heard Lisa whisper to herself, “Oh no, look at all the traffic”.
I worked the Corolla through the gears then engaged the active cruise control, ending the weekend back on the treadmill of a controlled-access highway. Our diversion along Route 2 had been a good old-fashioned Sunday drive, well worth the extra time it took to get home from Moncton.
Long live the long-cut.
Follow Garry on Instagram: @garrysowerby