Andy Mossack explores touring the Cabot Trail and Cape Breton. A scenic wonder road trip around Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island.
It was late autumn when I was standing on a heavenly rocky perch in Cape Breton Highlands National Park trying desperately to keep my emotions in check. If you were searching for a WOW factor, then this was certainly it. A rugged wilderness bedecked in autumnal rusty red as far as the eye can see. And, far below, a river snaking its way out to the roaring Atlantic Ocean. An impossibly beautiful scene and one only Mother Nature could conjure.
This was one of many jaw-dropping Kodak moments I encountered as I drove the Cabot Trail, the undisputed jewel in the crown of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Quite possibly one the most majestic scenic highways I have ever had the privilege of travelling on.
Touring the Cabot Trail is a 298-kilometre circular road trip around almost half of Cape Breton, and if you drive anticlockwise, the thrilling Highlands National Park and North Mountain in the north of the island is a fitting finale.
Named after the maritime explorer John Cabot, who in 1497 was the earliest European to explore Atlantic Canada, the trail takes you through charming historic inland communities while others hug Cape Breton’s rugged Atlantic coastline. It’s a tour you could complete in a day’s drive, but honestly, what would be the point in that. This is a drive to savour, take in the the views, stop frequently, and spend a few days discovering all its nooks and crannies.
I’d arrived in Halifax after an epic Arctic cruise and got rid of my sea legs enjoying a couple of days in Nova Scotia’s historic capital. It’s a very walkable city, with its 4 km waterfront boardwalk a worthy highlight. Plenty of restaurants, boutique shops and places of interest. None more so in my opinion than the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, a celebration of Nova Scotia’s rich maritime history, from sail to steam, to the Titanic disaster and the 1917 Halifax Harbour explosion. The Harbour Hopper amphibious tour is also unmissable.
It’s a three-and-a-half-hour drive to Baddeck from Halifax via the Canso Causeway, the gateway to Cape Breton. But once you cross over, there’s no mistaking you’ve arrived somewhere quite different from the rest of Nova Scotia. Cape Breton has a distinct island vibe, but its roots lie in the Gaelic culture and language of its Scottish ancestry.
After all, Nova Scotia literally translates as New Scotland. So expect plenty of traditional bagpipe and fiddle playing because Celtic music in North America was born right here. As luck would have it, I visited during the 9-day October Celtic Colours Music Festival, an absolute feast of music, dance and storytelling taking place right across the island.
Baddeck is a worthy overnight stop on the Cabot Trail because of Alexander Graham Bell, the man credited with inventing the telephone. It’s a charming village perched on the banks of Bras d’Or Lake, a huge tidal inland sea that was named a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 2011 and our first glimpse of the Cabot Trail route. Bell fell in love with Cape Breton and bought a large estate here for his summer home.
While he lived here, he worked on many ground-breaking innovations in watercraft and aviation. His life and works are beautifully chronicled at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, a unique museum celebrating his life and achievements. Plenty of original artifacts, films, and full-scale replicas of his aircraft are on display. You can even go behind the scenes and have a ‘white glove’ demonstration of many of his personal items.
The Inverary Resort is great for an overnight stay by the lake, and it is walking distance from the village. You can kayak or do some stand up boarding or simply sit in the lakeside chairs and watch the birdlife on the water. Luckily for me, we had the chance to see some late night live Celtic festival music in the Hall of the Clans at nearby Gaelic College.
Iona is a worthwhile diversion away from the Trail because it gives you an early glimpse of the stunning beauty and charm of Cape Breton. It’s about an hour’s drive from Baddeck and you drive there via the cute and free Little Narrows Ferry. The peninsular views are epic, you’re practically surrounded by water as you get closer to Grand Narrows Bridge a railroad swing bridge that opens for marine traffic. Drivers cross over to Iona via the adjacent Barra Strait Bridge.
Just before you reach the bridges you’ll find the Highland Village Museum, not so much a museum but an authentic recreation of a 19th century Gaelic village brought to life by costumed actors demonstrating weaving and quilting within their traditional houses. This is not some Disneyesque tourist park, more a genuine delve into Cape Breton pioneering life, and I enjoyed it immensely.
Fortress of Louisbourg
A 90-minute drive southeast brings you to the rugged Atlantic coastline for the first time and to The North Star, a highly recommended place to spend the night. However, the Fortress of Louisbourg is the main reason to visit here, a remote French/British defensive fort dating back to 1713. It was besieged twice during its active history during the Anglo-French war over control of Canada until it was abandoned in 1785.
After years of neglect the subsequent archaeological reconstruction project that started in 1960 and continues today remains the biggest in North American history. It offers visitors another authentic doorway into the past with excellent costumed actors describing garrison life in a time travel tour, as well as providing an awesome venue for concerts and performances.
Leaving Louisbourg you make your way north to rejoin the Cabot Trail at St. Ann’s, but if you have the time, it’s worth stopping off at Sydney, Nova Scotia’s former capital. It’s a regular port for cruise ships and down by the harbour, the World’s biggest fiddle is well worth a picture, and there is an excellent cheese shop in the port mall along with numerous other artisan retailers.
Now you’re back on the Cabot Trail and from here, everything starts to literally take off, as the elevation rises towards the highlands and that grand climax. This is a place of rugged headlands, sandy beaches, and sweeping lush green valleys.
You’re on your way to Ingonish, a cluster of five small communities along a 16 km stretch of the coastal Cabot Trail; South Ingonish Harbour, Ingonish Ferry, Ingonish Beach, Ingonish Centre and Ingonish. Each turn could be a Kodak moment, and along the way keep a look out for numerous boutique roadside retailers, like hippy hat maker Barbara Longva from Sew Inclined.
If you can bear to tear yourself away from the views, you should stop off at Cape Smokey, Atlantic Canada’s only cable car ride. It’s a 15-minute journey up to the top plateau where you can take a hike or grab a chair and take in the view across to the ocean. Depending on the time of year, you could even do some skiing.
After Cape Smokey, you’ll quickly reach the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the scene of my near epiphany. The Keltic Lodge could be an overnight venue for you, it’s right in the heart of the park, the former stately home of Henry Carson a close friend of Alexander Graham Bell. While it’s something of a throwback to 50s National Park grand lodges, the ocean room views are extraordinary.
If you like a fun hike, the Middle Head Trail loop here is a great walk particularly when you reach the end tip of the peninsula where the Atlantic waves are crashing all around you. But don’t miss the Skyline Trail coastal walk either, a 4 mile loop along the headland cliffs where you can see the Cabot Trail road you’ll be taking soon, snaking its way around the rugged coastal mountain in the distance.
Main Street Restaurant and Café just outside the National Park entrance is also a top tip for breakfast.
What a finale awaits on this 80-minute drive to Inverness! Some truly stupendous bird’s eye views of the Atlantic along the many look out points which Canadians call ‘look offs.’ Most of them provide information panels on the marine life to look for, or any relevant points of interest. Take your time and simply absorb every turn.
This is Acadian territory, a nation of French-speaking settlers who lived in the Canadian Maritimes during the 17th and 18th centuries. The French signposts will be the obvious clues to the numerous settlements like Chéticamp, a typical Acadian fishing village you’ll drive through. Look out for Lola’s Hooked Rugs – proud to be hookers, and particularly the Elizabeth LeFrot Gallery and Museum. Stop at the Aucoin Bakery for a few delicious fresh pastries to nibble while on the road.
Inverness is heaven for golfers as this is the home of two world class golf courses: Cabot Cliffs and Cabot Links. You can stay overnight at the Cabot Cape Breton Resort, or there are numerous B&Bs nearby. For non-golfers, the walks along the huge beach here are wonderful with views out to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Back to the Canso Causeway
As you make your way along the Cabot Trail to the Canso Causeway, there are still some gems to discover. The Glenora Inn and Distillery is North America’s first single malt whisky distiller, where you can indulge in tours and tastings, and overnight accommodation if needed.
This is also the Ceilidh Trail (pronounced kay-lee) the home of Scottish traditions and Gaelic folklore. Traditional music seeps from every pub, restaurant and social gathering. None more so perhaps than at the legendary Red Shoe pub, home of the famous Rankin Sisters. I had the pleasure of listening to these two brilliant musicians further down the road at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre at Mabou. Come on, who doesn’t love a toe tapping fiddle jig!
Back on the Nova Scotia mainland, rather than head back to Halifax, there are plenty of other sights to visit if you have the time. Top of my list would be one of the undeniable wonders of the natural world that is the Bay of Fundy. A gigantic bay that has the highest tides in the world and then drains to the seabed in front of your very eyes twice a day!
Touring the Cabot Trail and Cape Breton will live long in your memory of that I can guarantee. And if you happen to find that heavenly rocky perch of mine, please say more words of thanks to Mother nature for me. Much appreciated.
Images (C) Andy Mossack, Nova Scotia Tourism and Dean Casavechia.
Tell me more about Touring the Cabot Trail and Cape Breton
For more information on Nova Scotia and Touring the Cabot Trail and Cape Breton please visit Tourism Nova Scotia.
Halifax Waterfront Harbour Hopper Maritime Museum of the Atlantic Alexander Graham Bell Museum Highland Village Museum Fortress of Louisbourg Destination Cape Smokey Cape Breton Highlands National Park Celtic Music Interpretive Centre
Muir Hotel Halifax: A fabulous new luxury hotel right on Halifax’s waterfront boardwalk.
Inverary Resort Baddeck: Gorgeous lakeside resort and just a few minutes’ walk from Baddeck village.
North Star Hotel Louisbourg: Sensational hotel with ocean facing bungalows owned by TV celebrities Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan. The Bothy Restaurant is excellent too.
Keltic Lodge at The Highlands: 50s décor in the heart of the National Park. The hotel might be vintage, but the views are spectacular.
Cabot Cape Breton: Contemporary condo living around sensational links golf courses.