Take a drive on the wild side with a visit to Cape Breton Island on the northern tip of Nova Scotia. With its soaring cliffs, bountiful seas and a heady mix of Gaelic, Acadian and Mi’kmaq cultures, this vast land delivers a Maritimes experience like no other. Visitors can hike, paddle or immerse themselves in local art and history at various stops and attractions.
Where to stay: Keltic Lodge at the Highlands sits on the Cabot Trail in Ingonish, on a jut of land with seaside cliffs on three sides. Renovations to the historic property’s bedrooms lend contemporary comfort. Kilted bellhops, a links-style golf course and a robust whisky menu uphold old-world traditions.
What to do: For the best views of the island’s rugged coastline, hike in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Suggested jaunts include the west coast’s Skyline Trail for its dramatic headland and Franey Trail, known for a steep ascent that rewards hikers with a sweeping view of the eastern coastline.
Where to eat: Pick up a Parks Canada souvenir picnic blanket and basket filled with sandwiches, salads and more at the Keltic Lodge in Ingonish or Harbour Restaurant in Chéticamp. Then, drive the Cabot Trail, stopping for lunch at a surfside picnic site such as Black Brook Beach in the east or La Bloc Beach in the west.
Where to stay: The innkeepers at Maison Fiset House in the Acadian village of Chéticamp have adorned the walls of this cozy eight-room inn with historic photos as a nod to its past; the home was built in 1895 for the area’s first doctor. Outside, the inn’s many terraces feature uninterrupted harbour and ocean views.
What to do: Explore the art scene at the Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design in Sydney. Year-round exhibitions, workshops, art studios and a gallery feature work by local artisans. Use the centre’s Artisan Trail Map to plan stops at studios such as The Gaelic College in St. Ann’s, which specializes in kiltmaking and weaving.
Where to eat: In North East Margaree, visitors line up for soups, sandwiches and positively addictive porridge bread at The Dancing Goat Cafe and Bakery. Grab a coffee to go and walk across the road to Two Macs Gallery, a homey shop brimming with jewelry, pottery and glass works (open by appointment until mid-May).
Where to stay: Spend the night in a canvas tent or in a former merchant’s home within the walls of the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. Overnight guests can cook dinner over an open fire and, when darkness descends, explore the reconstructed buildings and cobblestone streets of this 18th-century fortress by lantern light.
What to do: Journey back to when coal was king on an underground tour led by a retired coal miner at the Cape Breton Miners’ Museum in Glace Bay. Also visit Baddeck to view mementoes and photos of the island’s most famous resident, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, at the National Historic Site that bears his name.
Where to eat: Dress up in 18th-century garb (provided) and enjoy a feast of seafood and good times at the Beggar’s Banquet, hosted by Point of View Suites in Louisbourg or wear your own clothes, and your dancing shoes, when you dine and dance to live music at Governor’s Pub & Eatery in Sydney.
Where to stay: At the sprawling Silver Dart Lodge in Baddeck, guests can stay in the main lodge, book a suite at MacNeil House or settle into a cozy chalet. On the shores of the vast Bras d’Or Lake, Canada’s only inland sea (in which freshwater and saltwater mix), its amenities include an outdoor pool, playground and restaurant.
What to do: Expect harmonica riffs when you kayak on St. Ann’s Bay with recording artist and North River Kayak Tours owner Angelo Spinazzola. On his top tour, kayakers explore the St. Ann’s Bay region, paddling along rocky shores, past
an eagles’ nest, a waterfall and (seasonally) lobster fishers hauling in traps.
Where to eat: Learn about Cape Breton’s favourite crustacean, then pull a specimen from the communal cooking pot to eat (with salad, bread and dessert) during Parks Canada’s Learn to Lobster Boil program. Toast your new-found skills with a flight of organic beer at Big Spruce Brewing in Nyanza. Sláinte!
Getting there: WestJet flies to Halifax 22 times a day from nine Canadian, four U.S. and two international cities and to Sydney twice a day from Halifax and once a day from Toronto (seasonal service July and August).