Visiting Fortress Louisbourg for the first time? Here's our inside tips for food, accommodations, activities.... and footwear.
"Half of you are wearing blue! And the other half have some red! What's going on? I can't tell if you're French or the dreaded English. Maybe I shouldn't let any of you pass."
It's never a great idea to provoke an armed guard, but at Fortress Louisbourg National Historic Site in Nova Scotia, Canada, dramatic flair is all part of the experience. Louisbourg has been described as the jewel of all Canadian historic sites - an apt term, considering how precious the fortress was to the French.
In the 1740s, Louisbourg's size, importance, and operating costs were unmatched in North America. As the second most important French settlement in North America (after Quebec City), Louisbourg was quickly transformed from a small fishing settlement to a massive fortified town on the cusp of the Atlantic Ocean. Though remote and built on finicky, low lying grounds, the fortress was a major bargaining chip as France and Great Britain battled for control of Europe and the New World.
By 1758, Louisbourg was firmly under British control - but it saw a different kind of war in the 1960s. Architects, historians, archaeologists, and engineers battled a new enemy - damage, decay, ruin, and erosion - as they undertook North America's largest restoration project. Today, Louisbourg is a Parks Canada National Historic Site and the muskets are fired for demonstration only . But you can still expect plenty of French versus English jokes from the gate guards, along with a host of other historical adventures. Here are our best tips for making the most of your visit.
Getting to Louisbourg - and Getting Inside! (Plus: Admission Advice).
Officially, Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site is a 40 minute drive from Sydney, the largest city on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island (and just a few hours from where I grew up!) Unofficially, I'd say it's closer to an hour. The road is a single paved lane with plenty of turns and dips and (I hate to say it....) the pavement wasn't in fantastic shape during our last visit. I'll get my revenge, pot holes! Take your time and drive carefully.
There are a few small gas stations and basic corner stores along the route but this is a rural area - you'll be hard pressed to find much along the way in terms of extra amenities (translation - get your coffee and breakfast before you head out).
When you arrive, you'll be greeted by the large, modern visitors' centre and spacious parking lot. During high season, there is a shuttle bus in continuous operation that transports visitors from the centre to the Fortress. The ride just takes a few short minutes and, in theory, it wouldn't be terribly inconvenient to return to the centre to, say, retrieve something from your car - but as you'll soon read, it's probably best to take everything you need with you in a small backpack. I've read that in the low season, you can drive your car and park directly on site at the Fortress but I haven't done this personally myself.
Before you pay your admission fee (about $17.60), take a moment to think about your future travels. Will you be visiting other National Historic Sites or National Parks? A Parks Canada Discovery Pass is about $67. Given that Louisbourg has one of the more expensive admission costs, you wouldn't have to visit that many more sites for your pass pay for itself.
The Weather at Fortress Louisbourg: It's A Wild Ride.
I am the only person in recorded history who has experienced blazing sun during every visit I've made to Louisbourg. THIS IS NOT NORMAL! Louisbourg is in a league of its own, weather wise. It doesn't matter what's happening in nearby Sydney. Louisbourg is a spit of land completely exposed to whatever the Atlantic Ocean wants to hurl at it. It is very common for the rest of Cape Breton Island to have gloriously warm, sunny weather, and yet Louisbourg will be blanketed in heavy fog, intermittent mist, and chilly winds.
Remember earlier, when I suggested that you bring along a small backpack? This small bag will save your sanity in Louisbourg. You're going to want to pack a light, waterproof jacket, an umbrella (we love this $8 one), and a lightweight sweater or heavier long sleeve shirt. If you have long hair, you'll be grateful for pony tail holders when the wind picks up.
No matter the forecast, pack sunscreen and a hat. If you're like me and happen to visit on a beautiful day, sunburns are in your future. The Fortress offers little in terms of relief from the baking sun. (I'd also pack a bottle of water, a small snack like a granola bar, a few dollars in cash - more on that in a minute - and some bug spray or spritz yourself and your gear before you head out). We often use this classic pack from The North Face as our go-to day bag.
Long, light weight trousers are a better idea than shorts for both warmth and rain protection AND sun protection. And on your feet, well.....
Where There Are Ducks, There Is Poop.
Louisbourg is an authentic, accurate representation of French garrison and town life during the 1700s. Many of the original materials, such as stones, were repurposed during the fort's restoration and painstaking effort has been made to make everything as authentic as possible. That means using natural materials. That means having gardens which reflect the period. And that means ducks. And geese. And chickens. And all other kinds of animals that would be important to a self sustaining military base.
And that means poop!
So how much poop is there? Very, very little, in fact. These are well mannered animals and you're unlikely to see (or smell) much evidence of their... digestion... Unless you show up wearing flip flops. This is not a flip flop kind of place. And if poop isn't deterrent enough, imagine how muddy things get during the rain! Add in a lot of walking and you'll be very happy you're wearing sneakers.
Eat Like A Soldier (And DEFINITELY Save Room For Dessert).
A military assignment to Fortress Louisbourg was not necessarily a desired post. The area was extremely isolated, with both France and Quebec very far away. Supplies, comforts, and communication were irregular at best. The weather was unforgiving and the living conditions for the common soldier were rough. And the food, well, it's best enjoyed with a modern twist!
I mentioned bringing a few dollars in your pack. At Louisbourg, you can visit the King's Bakery where the soldiers' rations of bread were baked in a wood burning oven. The oven is once again baking fresh bread and you can purchase one of a large, round loaves (about half the size of a conventional loaf of bread) on site but be warned: The white flour bread is delicious, every bit as yummy as you'd expect. But the brown flour loaf, a blend of wholemeal and rye flour, is an entirely different story.
This was the soldier's bread and it is remarkably heavy and dense, weighing in at 6 pounds. Combined with salt pork, it was the primary staple of their diet. It is a challenging exercise to eat a small chunk of it- especially without considerable jam and butter. I'm sure it provided sound nutrition for the French soldiers but it's not exactly soft and fluffy.
The nearby Grandchamps and Hotel de la Marine were bright spots in the soldiers' otherwise bleak routine. Once a site for them to eat, drink, and be merry, it's now a not for profit restaurant. Meals are simple, with robust snacks like hearty pea soup and bread (white bread, that is!) or bread and cheese costing about $5. Combined with the main dish of the day (meat or fish and vegetables) and tea or coffee, a full menu is just $16. If it's a rainy, chilly day, you'll want some of their hot chocolate - or hot rum punch. And you absolutely, definitely, 100% NEED to order the bread pudding.
This is a bread pudding unlike anything I've ever had before. Instead of cubed chunks of bread, the texture is smooth and the flavor resembles a delicious spice cake. It is marvelously delicious and is my decided favourite. Honestly, it's worth going to Fortress Louisbourg just for the bread pudding.
(It's not very often I get to warn people about duck poop in one paragraph and then heartily endorse a dessert in the next so let's just take a moment to chuckle about that, shall we?)
Note that you'll be eating just a like a solider of the 1700s would - and that means just one utensil, a giant pewter spoon. Here's a tip - if you ask for salt or pepper, you'll get a small pewter bowl of it. You can use the tip of your spoon's handle to scoop out the equivalent of a tiny pinch.
Plan Ahead For Some One-In-A-Lifetime Experiences.
The buildings you see represents only 25% or so of Fortress Louisbourg's original footprint - it's hard to imagine just how vast and mighty it was at the peak of French power. You should count on putting in a full day to take in all the sites, activities, and attractions. Nearly every restored and reconstructed building is staffed by costumed guides who are eager to welcome you and help you enjoy interactive historic experiences, like helping in the vegetable garden (or maybe chasing the ducks back in the yard...) But that's just the tip of the iceberg (or the Louis-bourg, if you will....)
With advanced arrangements, you can take part in activities as diverse as making hot chocolate with 18th century ingredients and tools or learning about the early rum trade and sampling some Fortress rum punch (both about $10), to sleeping overnight in a period-appropriate tent or historic home ($70-$120).
Even if you don't decide to sleep under the stars, surrounded by history, it's still prudent to arrange advanced booking for your Louisbourg accommodations. Louisbourg - the modern village, that is - has a handful of historic homes serving as bed and breakfasts, a motel, and a smattering of rental cottages. Many are closed in the low season and then fully booked in the high season. An unexpected drive back to Sydney will definitely feel a lot longer than the official "40 minutes" in the dark, at the end of a long day, so plan ahead accordingly.
You can find an accommodation list and more resources about the village here. In particular, here's two properties to note:
No trip to eastern Canada is complete without a stop at Fortress Louisbourg. Whether you're on team red or team blue, whether it's foggy or sunny, you're going to have an unforgettable visit. Don't forget to order the bread pudding!
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