The tragic story behind Canada’s newest World Heritage Site

A place made of equal parts persistent human enterprise and epic human devastation, the Acadian settlement of Grand Pré is now using its fertile land to look to the future.

It is the landscape that recently won this tiny Nova Scotia farming community a place on the prestigious Unesco World Heritage List. Grand Pré, North America’s most recently inscribed site, at first glance seems like little more than a picturesque patch of the Annapolis Valley on the shores of the Bay of Fundy. But there is far more here than so pleasantly meets the eye. 

To get to this rural settlement, take Route 1, also known as the Evangeline Trail, 90km north from the Nova Scotian capital of Halifax. The road is named for the fictional character of Evangeline, immortalised in the epic poem Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, published in 1847 by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The story follows an Acadian girl as she searches for her love Gabriel, following the deportation of their people from these lands.

The Acadians were settlers who arrived in what is now Atlantic Canada in 1682, most from Poitou, a coastal province of France. They settled on the lands around the Bay of Fundy, known then as Acadia and today as New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Marshland farming became the mainstay of the Acadian economy, with locals hand-digging dykes against some of the world’s highest tides, linking the island of North Grand Pré to the mainland and forming the east and west shores of the manmade peninsula.

A peaceful place dominated by fields of crops and farmsteads, today Grand Pré is home to small wineries and bustling restaurants. However, the main attraction is the Grand Pré National Historic Site,  several acres of former farmland containing landmarks and monuments important to Acadian history. Start your exploration at the modern but unobtrusive visitor centre, where the epic story of the Acadians, their lives and their deportation is told.

An epic history
For 73 years, the French settlers worked hard, building farms on land once covered in forest and sea – then the Arcadians got caught up in the struggle between England and France for control of North America. Because they would not swear allegiance to the British crown, in 1755 the British deported many Acadian settlements, with Grand Pré becoming the symbol for the region-wide extradition.

Over the next eight years, le Grand Dérangement, or Great Expulsion, saw some 11,500 Acadians shipped off across the Bay of Fundy to neighbouring New England, while British authorities confiscated their property, divided families and burned their crops and homes. En route, about a third died of disease and drowning. When peace returned in 1763, many Acadians left New England for destinations as far flung as the Caribbean, France and the southern United States, including Louisiana where they became known as the “Cajuns”, a derivative of the word “Acadian”. By the following year, the British allowed Acadians to return to Maritime Canada. Many did, settling in small groups across the region and founding what is today a string of French-speaking Acadian communities.

Explore the land
While few Acadians live in contemporary Grand Pré, the area is full of references to its history. The fields are owned by descendants of the Acadians turned New Englanders, and the dykes are overseen as they have been for centuries, by the Marsh Body, a collective of farmers who apprise government of the need for upkeep and repair.

The most immersive way to explore these historic and fertile lands is by bicycle; bring your own or hire one from Freewheeling Adventures. The first stop is a statue of Longfellow’s heroine outside the visitor centre, forlornly gazing over her shoulder at the church behind her, an open-to-the public memorial with many commemorative works of art and fascinating artefacts, including a replica of the ledger that lists all who were deported.

The flat country roads that run east and west from the visitor centre lead to 9km of historic dykes, passing through fields of corn, oats, barley and alfalfa. These crops are planted on deep, fertile soil hard won from the sea. Hard-packed dirt trails line the tops of the dykes; you can imagine the hard-at-work settlers building them one shovelful of soil at a time and farming the land they claimed back from the bay. Flocks of thousands of shorebirds such as plovers and sanderlings fly in unison, swinging this way and that in waves over the mud flats, attracting birdwatchers in search of a late summer spectacle.

Another interesting route is along Grand Pré Road, an easy 3km cycle from the visitor centre across flat farmland and past farmhouses to Evangeline Beach. Several small roads with names like Plover Lane, Eagle Lane and Sandpiper Lane lead down to the brick-coloured sands. At low tide when the water recedes half a kilometre into the bay, the mud flats shimmer like frosted cakes and become an endless source of ammunition for good natured mud fights that erupt among groups of shrieking kids.

A modern take
Grand Pré is not all about history. Within the past three decades, vintners have planted grapes on hills around the area, taking advantage of rich soil, a suitable microclimate and southern-facing slopes. Cycling along Route 1, stop off at the Muir Murray Estate Winery, which pays homage to the lore of Grand Pré with wine names such as 755 Reserve and Fundy Tide. The on-site restaurant, appropriately named the Perfect Blend, offers up local fare, including favourites such as seafood chowder and lobster rolls.

About 1km east along Route 1 is the award-winning Le Caveau Restaurant at the Domaine de Grand Pré winery, which specialises in grapes such as L’Acadie Blanc, developed for growing conditions like those in Nova Scotia. Now the grape of choice for winemaking in this region, the tart whites produced are comparable to a crisp chardonnay. The winery has quickly racked up a long list of award-winning vintages, taking gold at the 2012 All Canadian Wine Championships for Tidal Bay, a blend that includes L’Acadie Blanc and muscat. The result is a bright, fresh, full-bodied wine, which the vintner claims reflects the coastal breezes and the cool climate.

Another 1km east along Route 1 is the rustic Tangled Gardens, a herb and flower garden that specialises in chutneys, vinegars, liqueurs and jams as well as herb jellies with such inspired flavours as garlic rosemary or raspberry lavender. With a small onsite art gallery, this is a delightful place to stop and wander about, drinking in the aromas of the herbs and the whimsy of the artwork, some of it placed about the gardens. Next door is Just Us Coffee, the last stop along Route 1 before leaving Grand Pre. This unique coffee shop is Canada’s first fair trade coffee roaster, where you can learn about fair trade at the in-store interpretive museum, and try coffees from countries as diverse as Guatemala, Ethiopia, East Timor and Rwanda.

From the roastery, the road rises steeply back toward Halifax. Dismount and look back, perhaps longingly like the statue of Evangeline you can see down below. It is as if she is searching in vain for a bygone place and time made of equal parts persistent human enterprise and epic human tragedy.