William Roach sat in his folk-art studio in Chéticamp, a fishing village on the Cabot Trail, near the entrance to Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
He proudly revealed that when he was five years old, his uncle gave him a tiny penknife that moved him to eventually take up a career in woodcarving. He noted his inspiration comes from the harmony of the beautiful natural surroundings of the area: birds, trees and shadows, as well as dreams and childhood memories.
But it was Roach’s laugh, the twinkle in his eyes and the sincerity of his storytelling that captivated us and reinforced the ambiance of Cape Breton Island as a warm, friendly, fascinating place to visit, where the people, the culture and the music live in harmony with the rugged terrain, the ocean, trees, mountains, wildlife and breathtaking coastal landscapes.
After flying into Sydney, Nova Scotia, the capital of Cape Breton Island, it doesn’t take long to realize you’re in for something special. Standing 18.3 metres tall at the Port of Sydney, the Big Ceilidh Fiddle (ceilidh, pronounced ‘kay-lee,’ refers to a social event with singing, dancing and conversation) is dedicated to the Island’s fiddle music and to fiddlers past and present, evoking a sense of history and social camaraderie. From there it takes only a minute to cross the road to the Governors Pub and Eatery to experience the afternoon ceilidh session where straight-faced men rise from their dining tables and with arms pinned to their sides, step dance to the lively reels and jigs.
STEP BACK IN TIME
And only 30 minutes away by car, at the reconstructed Fortress of Louisbourg, the tradition of friendly greetings and conversations continues. Originally built by the French in 1745 the fortress fell to the British and was eventually demolished in 1758. Today, visitors explore the houses, shops, museums and the Governor’s quarters in the King’s Bastion, and interact with the warm personalities who live in the fortress: soldiers, bakers, fishermen, farmers, pub keepers and common folk.
From Sydney we headed west on the highway known as the Ceilidh Trail, which would eventually join the iconic Cabot Trail, and leisurely loop around the north part of the island.
Along the shores of Lake Bras d’Or in Iona, the Highland Village Museum recreates the lives of Gaelic-speaking immigrants from Scotland who settled the area in the early 19th century. Staff dressed in period working clothes chat with visitors while only recognizing life and politics as they existed at the time the immigrants arrived.
And while on the Ceilidh Trail, it’s only proper to stop at the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou, owned by the famous singing Rankin family who live and often perform in the area. The afternoon ceilidh featured square dancing to the accompaniment of a fiddle and piano and drew a large crowd of locals and tourists who enthusiastically tapped their feet to the music.
Down the road at Mabou Harbour, fishing boats, a lighthouse and stacks of crab and lobster traps made for great photos, while close by, the scenery at West Mabou beach was stunning as the last rays of sunshine blended into the shadows of the sand.
The next morning, after a decadent breakfast of cream-cheese-stuffed French toast with whisky-infused maple syrup at the Glenora Inn and Distillery in Glenville, we toured North America’s first single malt distillery and enjoyed a wee taste of the golden liquid.
Tiny Margaree Harbour lies just about where the Ceilidh and Cabot trails converge. The beach consists of take-off-your-shoes sand, dotted with patches of wild grass, under the protective gaze of the rocky outcrop known as “the Monster” that guards the small harbour entrance.
After driving through Chéticamp and visiting the studio of William Roach, we entered Cape Breton Highlands National Park. As we embarked on the 7.5-kilometre Skyline Trail, signs warned us of the dangers of close encounters with bears, moose and coyotes, and cautioned hikers about the steep terrain and high winds. We actually passed a pair of coyotes who paused to look at us as we madly clicked our cameras.
The trail continued toward French Mountain and then at the highest (and windiest) point, the panoramic views of the blue sky, indigo ocean, green trees and the rocky grey cliffs were postcard perfect.
After a dinner of chunky, fresh lobster rolls at the Rusty Anchor Restaurant in Pleasant Bay, we continued east to Dingwall where, at the Markland Coastal Beach Cottages, the cool breeze, the sounds of the waves on Aspy Bay, and a stunning moonrise were all the evening entertainment we required.
Without doubt, the best way to discover Cape Breton is simply to find a road leading toward the ocean and follow it. We wandered around Meat Cove, Neil’s Harbour, Black Brook Cove, Green Cove and Ingonish. Each place provided its own unique insight into blissful scenery.
Middle Head Trail at Ingonish Beach was called “Geganisg” by the Mi’kmaq, meaning “remarkable place.” The 3.8-kilometre walk bears this out as the hike follows a narrow peninsula to a lookout over the Atlantic Ocean where great black-backed gulls nest and feed their chicks on Cape Smokey and Ingonish Island.
Our reward that evening was a savoury dinner of seafood chowder, fresh-boiled lobster and rhubarb pie at the friendly Castle Rock Country Inn.
On our last day, before returning to Sydney, and still following the Cabot Trail, we drove to Baddeck to explore the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, a museum celebrating the inventor’s ingenuity. Baddeck itself is a pleasant village with a small morning market, restaurants, shops and a scenic waterfront.
Tuning into Cape Breton involves music, artistry and the natural beauty of the island. Experiences are enhanced by the delicious food, sunrises, sunsets, moonrises, fishing boats, freshly caught lobster, vivid green trees, blue ocean waves and dramatic cliffs. And all propelled, in the true spirit of harmony, with smiles and great conversations all along the way.
For more information on this amazing region of Nova Scotia, visit:
Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site: pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/ns/grahambell.aspx
Cape Breton Highlands National Park: pc.gc.ca/fra/pn-np/ns/cbreton.aspx
Castle Rock Country Inn: castlerockcountryinn.com
Fortress of Louisbourg: fortressoflouisbourg.ca
Glenora Inn and Distillery, Glenville: glenoradistillery.com/the-inn
Governors Pub & Eatery: governorseatery.com
Highland Village Museum, Iona: highlandvillage.novascotia.ca
Margaree Harbour: margareens.com
Markland Coastal Beach Cottages, Dingwall: themarkland.com
Port of Sydney Visitor Information Centre: sydney.com/visitor-information-centres
Red Shoe Pub, Mabou: redshoepub.com
Skyline Trail and Middle Head Trail: cabottrail.com/hiking.html
The Rusty Anchor Restaurant, Pleasant Bay: therustyanchorrestaurant.com
The Sunset Art Gallery: sunsetartgallery.ca