While the beauty of Atlantic Canada isn’t exactly a secret, there are few places where that beauty is as pronounced as along the raw and rugged coastline of Cape Breton Island.
Crashing surf, frolicking whales, dramatic highlands and bald eagles are just a few of the sights.
Factor in the island’s fiddling and Celtic music traditions, along with an authentic Scottish-style whiskey distillery and a surprising connection to Alexander Graham Bell, and you’ll begin to see why travellers in the know make this an annual destination.
Here’s how to maximise your time there:
Kayaking is a popular way to explore some of the island’s inland waterways. Wildlife, undisturbed wilderness and the chance to work off a big breakfast are some of the perks. If you’re not comfortable striking out on your own, affordable guided excursions can be booked through North River Kayak. Its half-day experiences start at $C64 ($A62.40) and include instruction, paddling past historic ruins, and a break on a secluded beach with hot chai and homemade rhubarb jam on freshly-baked banana bread.
Whale-watching tours are another way to experience the local wildlife. A fun place to work one in while cruising the Cabot Trail is Pleasant Bay. A number of local companies operate there, with prices starting as low as $C35 ($A34.12) per adult. Captain Mark’s goes the additional step of allowing visitors to ride on an actual research vessel where children can listen to the undersea whale song through an on-board device. Pilot whales, seals, leatherback sea turtles and more have been sighted in this area.
For those who prefer a more personal interaction with Mother Nature, there’s Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Featuring stunning scenery, 26 hiking trails catering to a variety of skill levels and eight separate campgrounds, it’s worthy of an extended visit. There’s also road access around a significant portion of the outer perimeter, for those who want to visit civilisation for a restaurant meal or a night at a local pub.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park isn’t the only attraction on Cape Breton Island operated by Parks Canada.
The historic Fortress of Louisbourg features costumed actors throughout the site, plus period demonstrations of children’s dancing, soldiers’ living conditions, cannon firing and more. With a per-person entry fee of $C17.60 ($17.16), plan to spend a day here.
An affordable lunch option is available oin site at the Grandchamps Inn. For $C5 ($A4.87), you can enjoy homemade soup and bread the way it would have been eaten when the fortress was still occupied. Large linen cloths tied around your neck and pewter dishes add to the experience.
Many people are unaware of the connection Alexander Graham Bell had to Cape Breton Island. The inventor spent much of his life here, and is buried on a peninsula in the town of Baddeck, where a number of his descendents still reside.
There is a national historic site in the village. It’s actually a full-blown museum of his drawings, inventions and personal artefacts. This is a great educational experience, particularly for those travelling with school-age children.
Consider buying a national parks pass before your trip. It costs $C136.40 (about $A133), but the majority of that will be paid for with a visit to the fort alone. Add on a day’s entry to Cape Breton Highlands National Park (roughly $C30 for four people) and you’re even closer.
The entry fee for four to Alexander Graham Bell facility in Baddeck has a similar price tag. Since these three venues basically cover the majority of the national pass cost, and you’ll still be granted access to other parks and historical sites throughout the country, the pass is good value.
In addition to the indigenous Acadian, Mi’kmaq, and Gaelic communities, Cape Breton Island has deeply-rooted traditions in both fiddling and Celtic music. You’ll realise just how deep when the guy behind the cash register takes out a fiddle to play a tune during a lull – or when your nature guide whips out his guitar and starts singing after you break from a canoe trip. These people are the real deal. Music is like breathing to them, and permeates many experiences across the island. If you’re really a fan of this style of music, schedule your trip to coincide with the annual Celtic Colours International Festival, held in the middle of October. Cultural events and concerts take place across Cape Breton, and the autumn foliage is a bonus.
While there’s no shortage of affordable local seafood, I was particularly excited about the veg-friendly dining options. At Glenora Distillery, you can start off with an affordable $C7 facility tour that includes tasting samples. From there, it’s an easy stroll across the storybook grounds to its pub, where you can enjoy fireside treats such as the $C6 whiskey sorbet and $C12 breads and spreads starter with tapenade, hummus and red pepper dip. There’s also a mean homemade lentil burger.
The Dancing Goat Cafe in Margaree has good coffee (with soy milk available for the vegan crowd) and a daily selection of veg-friendly soups and sandwiches. You can walk away satisfied for less than $C15.
Governor’s Pub and Eatery in Sydney is loaded with atmosphere and offers a number of affordable vegetarian dishes, including a $C9 tomato bruschetta and a $C16 mushroom and asparagus risotto. If you prefer the live entertainment of the pub upstairs, the bar menu offers meatless burgers and vegetarian nachos.