I’m tired, and I’m REALLY ready to be done with this particular parental project. But I’m still going to try to catch up on our adventures, mostly through a combination of blogs and simple ‘blog postcards.’ Maybe it will help me remember that I have a life outside of this archeological dig. So, picking up where we left off in mid-summer…
For two-and-a-half weeks in July and early August, we were seduced by the magic of Cape Breton Island. We hiked trails along seaside cliffs and through boreal forests. We kayaked pristine bays, ate lobster on picnic tables overlooking the ocean, tapped our feet to rousing fiddle music in small parish halls, and explored the diverse cultural heritage of this beautiful island. (Yes, it really was that idyllic!!)
Navigating Cape Breton Island
Just off the tip of Canada’s Atlantic Coast, Cape Breton is attached to the mainland by a causeway. On a map, it looks like a giant lobster claw, which is fitting, considering that lobstering is a big deal here.
Although the island is only 100 miles long and 75 miles across at the widest point, we chose five different locales for our adventures. We almost always prefer relocating instead of driving long distances to do the things we want to do.
Because we made a beeline to see puffins by mid-July, our Cape Breton travels involved a bit of backtracking. But we loved all of the places we stayed, and because the landscape is so beautiful, we didn’t mind retracing some stretches of our route.
Big Bras d’Or, Cape Breton Island
Our first stop was Big Bras d’Or for our puffin adventure, which I wrote about in our last post.
This was a convenient location for delving into the Gaelic heritage of the island. Almost one-third of Nova Scotia’s residents are descendants of Scottish immigrants, who found a familiar landscape in the velvety green hills and rocky coastline of Cape Breton.
They brought with them their traditions, including the ceilidh (pronounced “kay-lee”), also known as a ‘kitchen party.’ These informal, exuberant gatherings take place in parish halls and pubs and feature Celtic music, dance, and storytelling. Fiddles are mandatory, guitars and piano likely, and bagpipes are not uncommon (in that case, don’t sit too close to the stage. I speak from painful experience).
We attended several ceilidhs, including an evening at the modest little St. Michael’s Parish Hall in Baddeck, where we sat on folding chairs and were served homemade oatcakes and hot tea while being entertained by outstanding Cape Breton local musicians.
Exploring the History and Traditions of Cape Breton Island
To learn more about Scottish history and traditions, we visited Colaisde na Gàidhlig, a college devoted to the preservation of traditional Gaelic culture. Events are offered throughout the day—we especially enjoyed the kitchen party with instructors performing traditional dance and music, and the kilt demonstration, which involved folding eight yards of wool into pleats and lying on the floor to be wrapped like a burrito. I tried to get Eric to volunteer, to no avail. He hates scratchy fabrics, doesn’t like being dressed in front of an audience, and besides, he’s Swedish, not Scottish. My mother’s maiden name is Scottish, and I found our tartan. It’s blue and green. I was hoping for purple.
Click on any photo to see a larger version
The most famous Scotsman to adopt Cape Breton as his home was Alexander Graham Bell. We explored his life and many inventions at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. I found it interesting that Bell refused to have a phone in his study, for fear it would distract him.
To round out our cultural explorations of the area, we visited Membertou Heritage Park to learn about the history, cultural traditions, and present-day status of the Mi’kmaq, the indigenous peoples of Nova Scotia. Despite the devastating effects of colonization, including being removed from their homeland and having their children forced into boarding schools, the people have maintained a strong connection to their heritage.
If you find yourself in Baddeck, and if you like beer, there’s one more thing that you must not miss. Big Spruce Brewing is one of the best breweries we’ve been to anywhere, with a fabulous selection of IPAs. I lost my ‘glamour shots’ of the brewery when my phone decided to go belly-up several weeks later (a good reminder to always back up my phone photos). But if you want to see a pretty beer shot, check out our friends’ Laura & Kevin’s blog…they told us about the brewery, along with other great tips for our Maritimes adventures.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Our next three stops gave us the opportunity to focus on Cape Breton Highlands National Park and the picturesque 186-mile Cabot Trail. The ribbon of highway hugs Cape Breton’s rocky northern coast, with stunning views and quaint fishing villages tucked into coves here and there along the way. Although it’s possible to drive the loop in one day, don’t. We spent two weeks leisurely exploring the Cabot Trail, beginning with our stay in Baddeck, and it felt just right. (On the map of our travels at the beginning of this post, the Cabot Trail corresponds to the upper loop of our Cape Breton Island adventures.)
We stayed in two of the national park campgrounds (Cheticamp on the west side, and Broad Cove in the east) and at the halfway point on the far north Atlantic coast at Hideaway Campground and Oyster Market in Dingwall.
Cheticamp, Cape Breton
In Cheticamp, we reunited with our friends and traveling buddies Beth and Perry, whom we last saw in Niagara Falls in June. Our time together went by too quickly, filled with hiking, kayaking, and a tasty lunch of PEI mussels at the picturesque Glenora Distillery while being entertained at yet another ceilidh.
We hiked several trails on this side of the park, but the don’t-miss attraction is the iconic Skyline Trail that offers stunning views of the rugged highlands plunging to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. We chose the longer 5.6-mile loop that travels through a boreal forest, along the highlands, and returns through a beautiful bog—and we finally added moose to our list of wildlife sightings.
Dingwall, Cape Breton
Midway on the Cabot Trail, we stopped for three nights at the Hideaway Oyster Market and Campground in the tiny hamlet of Dingwall. A campground with an oyster bar is our idea of an excellent full-service campground. We kayaked the crystal clear waters of South Harbour, hiked the sweet Corney Brook Trail and the stunning trail at White Point and ate fresh lobster and oysters from the campground market on picnic tables overlooking the bay.
We drove out to Meat Cove one day, the northernmost settlement on Cape Breton and considered a “must-do” if you make it this far north. We weren’t convinced it was worth the long and winding drive. A local told us about White Point—now THAT was worth the drive. So peaceful, and so ruggedly beautiful.
Ingonish, Cape Breton
Moving to the eastern side of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, we stayed at Broad Cove campground in Ingonish for several days. Highlights included hiking the gorgeous coastline on the Jack Pine, Coastal, and Middlehead Trails, as well as the unique and beautiful Mica Hill Trail, a five-mile loop that traverses a highlands plateau with shimmering quartz and mica outcroppings.
The national park and historic sites in Canada offer an array of appealing activities that go beyond the usual hiking and nature options. At every event we attended throughout the summer, we were impressed by the skills of the presenters. At Broad Cove Campground, we took part in an evening lantern walk along the lakeshore, where we were regaled with tales of historic people and events while the calls of loons echoed off the lake.
Sadly, my photos of this event also disappeared when my phone croaked. So I’m borrowing this photo from the national park website. (No, we were not expected to follow our leader out into the lake.)
Another activity worth mentioning in Ingonish is eating at the Periwinkle Cafe. My blog-worthy photos of a phenomenal lobster salad sandwich (on homemade gluten-free bread) went down with my phone, but trust me on this. This is a very cool place with delicious food…we ate there three times in three days, including a take-away picnic lunch (lobster salad sandwiches, of course).
Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site
On the far eastern side of Cape Breton Island, we wrapped up our Cape Breton adventures with three nights at Mira River Provincial Park, where we spent a day at the nearby Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site.
Located near the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Louisbourg was a thriving French town and fishing center in the early 1700s, with a fort strategically placed to protect French interests in the interior of Canada. In 1760, following the Seven Years War, the British destroyed it all. But one hundred years later, one-quarter of the original town and fortifications were reconstructed as a national historic site.
Walking through the fortress gate—where we were stopped by a French colonial soldier who solemnly greeted us and asked what our business was—it was as though we had stepped back in time. It’s an extraordinary reconstruction of French colonial life in the mid-1700s, and the reenactors bring it to life.
A note about the campgrounds: We liked every place we stayed, and wouldn’t change a thing about our travels on Cape Breton Island. The booking window for the national parks is six months in advance; the provincial parks don’t start accepting reservations until April. Book as early as possible, especially if you want water and electric hookups.