Getaway: Oh, Canada: Stretch your travel dollar and take in the cultural and natural delights of the Canadian Maritime Provinces

Alan R. Earls

If the current economy has you dreaming about a spectacular summer vacation but worrying about your budget, the answer may be found in our neighbors to the northeast - Canada's spectacular Maritime provinces.

Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island all offer cultural diversity, abundant unspoiled natural beauty - including plentiful sea views - and best of all, a lot for your money (in addition to already lower prices for hotels and meals, the exchange rate has tipped back in favor of Americans).

Another plus: Lines, traffic and crowding are the exception in the Maritimes, particularly if you travel prior to July 1 - when Canada Day starts the Canadian school vacation period and the summer season kicks into high gear.

Culturally, all three provinces have much in common with New England, particularly in their early English settlers. Nova Scotia was the "14th'' English-speaking colony in North America - the one that stayed loyal to King George. Even today, many monuments to these migrants from the south dot the region, some maintained by a very active association called The United Empire Loyalists.

And the Canadians of the Maritimes have managed to keep alive many of their distinctive immigrant traditions.

French Acadians, descendants of settlers from the 17th and 18th century and culturally distinct from the French-speaking inhabitants of Quebec, are found in communities in all three provinces. Scottish culture is celebrated with particular fervor in Nova Scotia (the province whose Latin name means New Scotland) through a number of large festivals. For example, in July, the village of Pugwash hosts the 58th Gathering of the Clans, an event which includes Highland dancing, parades, Highland pipe bands, musical contests and athletic events such as caber tossing.

In the fall, the Cape Breton region of Nova Scotia, which is perhaps the most Celtic part of the Maritimes - some communities even have signs in Gaelic in homage to the remaining native speakers - caps the season with the Celtic Colours International Festival. The event includes performances by more than 200 musicians, dancers, singers and storytellers at various locations. Cape Breton is also home to the spectacular not-to-be-missed Cabot Trail, with its rugged coastal vistas, considered one of the most scenic drives in the world.

On Prince Edward Island, the city of Summerside hosts the summer-long Celtic Festival at The College of Piping and Celtic Performing Arts of Canada. In New Brunswick, the Miramichi Scottish Festival, in mid-August, includes dancing, piping and a unique Candlelight Tartan Ball.

At any time of the year, chances are, wherever you happen to be in the Maritimes, you'll find a local ceilidh - an informal concert at which musicians gather as much for their own enjoyment as for the benefit of the audience. These events are full of spontaneity and are a gathering spot for locals and visitors alike. To find them, check with local visitor offices or simply watch for hand-painted signs at many crossroads. The musical fare will likely include a smattering of popular music and American country and western as well as more traditional fare with roots in the culture of the French Acadians or the British Isles.

Of course all the cultural treats on offer shouldn't distract visitors from enjoying what nature has available. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia share the spectacular Bay of Fundy, whose shape and orientation provide it with the world's highest tides - up to 40 feet. Those tides have produced spectacular scenery. For instance, on the New Brunswick side, the Hopewell "flower pot'' rocks - bedrock eroded into arches and pillars by the waves - are a must-see attraction. Be sure to time your visit to include low tide, when you can walk through a fantastic landscape of sand and sea creatures on the "floor'' of the sea.

On the opposite side, make sure your Bay of Fundy experience includes a stop at Nova Scotia's Joggin's Cliff, a Mecca for fossil hunters. Here, sedimentary rocks formed during the Pennsylvanian period of 300 million years ago are constantly falling victim to the sea's relentless assault, leaving a beach scattered with the remains of long extinct plants and animals.

Both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia also have a number of reversing streams or rivers whose flow to the sea is altered twice a day by the might of the tides. In New Brunswick, you can visit reversing falls in Saint John and the less spectacular but still impressive "tidal bores'' found on the Petitcodiac River at Moncton. And you will find reversing waters in Nova Scotia at the Shubenacadie River, the Maccan River, the St. Croix, Herbert and Kennetcook rivers in the Minas Basin, and the Salmon River in Truro.

Prince Edward Island, the storied home of Anne of Green Gables, is a world of its own, with fertile farms, woodlands, golf courses, sandy beaches - and what must be the most amazing complex of walking and biking trails on the planet - totaling almost 300 miles. Just to underscore the point, the province has instituted a "Cycle Welcome'' program for businesses and municipalities to make the trails and the island even more bike-friendly.

IF YOU GO

FERRY SERVICE: A glance at a map of the Maritimes will show you how they got their name - there is water everywhere. While that water can be a barrier, it can also be a link thanks to a substantial network of ferries. The drive from Boston to New Brunswick is about 350 miles, to Prince Edward Island (via the Confederation Bridge) about 600 miles and to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia (view New Brunswick) about 850 miles. That's why many travelers choose to shave hours or even days from their drive time by taking The CAT - a high-speed ferry - from either Portland (about 5 1/2 hours) or Bar Harbor (about 3 hours), Maine, to Yarmouth. The huge, state-of-the-art vessel can carry a full complement of vehicles and passengers with little sensation of being at sea thanks to its multi-hull design. For details on the seasonal schedule, fares and package deals, you can visit the company Web site at www.catferry.com/.

The same company, Bay Ferries, also runs more traditional ferries across the Bay of Fundy between Saint John, N.B., and Digby, N.S., as well as to Grand Manan Island.

Prince Edward Island is now linked to New Brunswick by the spectacular Confederation Bridge, but a ferry also links the eastern end of the island with Nova Scotia.

Ferries also run from the Cape Breton end of Nova Scotia to Newfoundland and from P.E.I. to the remote and beautiful Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

DRIVING THERE: Roads in Canada are similar to interstates in the U.S. In fact, Interstate 95 connects directly with New Brunswick 95, which in turn connects to Rte. 2, the Trans-Canada highway. Ample multilane roads are available across most of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Quieter and more out of the way areas rarely offer more than two lanes. But, then again, that's usually enough for the traffic volumes.

Be prepared to buy gasoline by the liter and to watch your speed in kilometers per hour. Roadside stops include many familiar American names (McDonald's and Burger King) as well as that ubiquitous Canadian institution, Tim Horton's donut shops. English is understood in most areas.

STAYING THERE: The provinces offer accommodations ranging from campgrounds and B&Bs to top-class resorts, and include a variety of inns, hotels and motels.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: The tourism Web sites of Nova Scotia (www.novascotia.com), New Brunswick (www.tourismnewbrunswick.ca) and Prince Edward Island (www.tourismpei.com) offer good information on what to see and where to stay.

Check out our Discover Atlantic Canada contest to win roundtrip passage for four, plus your car, on the CAT ferry to Falmouth, Nova Scotia - valued at up to $1,250. Enter at www.wickedlocal.com/travel