It was the whirligigs that caught my eye. Wooden seagulls staked into the ground, their wings twirling madly in the wind. Plus the sign that read “Fish Stories Told Here.”
I pulled over, of course. And Herbert Seymour emerged from the small shed where he paints these rough-hewn souvenirs in the village of Neil’s Harbour on Cape Breton.
He sold me a seagull and a tiny wooden buoy. And, while I didn’t leave with any amazing fish tales, the chance encounter felt like payoff enough, meeting someone who had worked this coastline for 58 years and had started out when a lobster licence cost just 25 cents. (Nowadays, if you can get your hands on a licence, it can go for more than $1 million.)
I had come to Nova Scotia for Cape Breton’s scenic Cabot Trail. It’s a 300-kilometre loop around the island’s northern tip, starting and ending in Baddeck. You can drive it in six hours, but why would you want to? To really experience the island, to find those authentic and unexpected moments both traditional and new, you need to slow down and get out of the car.
Here are 10 places where I did just that, on and off the Cabot Trail.
In the course of a morning, I hear the boom of cannon fire, eat grilled haddock on pewter plates and sift through silver candlesticks and swords. Not a bad way to start off a trip—with a detour to the Fortress of Louisbourg, a National Historic Site of Canada. It’s located on the island’s eastern coast, less than an hour from Sydney. The fortress recreates life in New France as it was in 1744. There are so many costumed interpreters that it starts to feel very natural and very much of this place.
Gaelic is everywhere on this island. Here at the Keltic Lodge, two hours north of Sydney, it’s even carved into the front entrance pathway. The words translate to “one hundred thousand welcomes.” I feel that sentiment in the wide-open ocean views from the front lawn. I hear it from the singer explaining the stories behind traditional island songs in the bar that night. And I see it in the bowl of souvenir beach glass at the front desk that guests can take home.
My lunch stop the next day at the Rusty Anchor in Pleasant Bay doesn’t just serve up a classic and buttery lobster roll. It delivers the perfect roadside attraction: an oversized fisherman in a yellow slicker holding a lobster aloft like a torch. I snap some quick photos. Instagram must be fed, too!
After taking the exit for Neil’s Harbour, I turn in at a small sign and park on a hillside. Footpaths lead out to the cliff’s edge, an easy 15-minute walk. The landscape is dotted with wild iris and descends into rocky promontories. Across Aspy Bay, I see the headlands where John Cabot was said to have landed when he sailed to North America in 1497. The views are striking, and I have them almost all to myself.
There are 26 hiking trails in Cape Breton Highlands National Park that range from leg-stretchers to longer loops. The 7.5-km Skyline Trail, between Pleasant Bay and Cheticamp, is one of the most popular. This is partly because it’s easy to navigate. But mostly it’s because it opens out at the edge of a cliff. From this perch, I can see almost-aerial views of the Cabot Trail as it carves along the mountains so close to the Atlantic Ocean.
Built on the site of Inverness’s former coal mine, this modern hotel and golf course is considered Canada’s first authentic links course. My hands never warm a club, but it’s energizing to experience this oceanfront property that is reinvigorating Inverness. And no golf scores are required to enjoy the sunset views from its Panorama restaurant, or the beautifully plated scallops and cod on offer.
Located on a farm in Nyanza, a 10-minute drive west from Baddeck, this organic microbrewery, which grows its own organic crops, exudes enthusiasm. I sample some house favourites: pale ale Kitchen Party, smooth malty Regatta Red and, my favourite, the rich and chocolatey Cereal Killer. “We’re the first brewery in Cape Breton,” says Melanie Block-White, who bought the country property in 2008 with her husband, sight unseen, after visiting the island on their honeymoon. “Compared with hundreds in Ontario and B.C., that makes the opportunities here endless.”
This is one of the only places in North America where you can study the Gaelic language and culture in an immersive style. But, if you’re not ready to commit to a four-week immersion course, the college offers daily cultural demonstrations until October, including kilt-making, dancing and milling frolics. On my visit, The Barra MacNeils are performing, and I watch the popular siblings fiddle, step dance and story-tell at the college’s Great Hall of the Clans.
Alexander Graham Bell wanted to be known for more than the invention of the telephone. And the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck, where he spent his summers, obliges. The National Historic Site of Canada shares his far-flung interests in airplanes, mechanical lungs and early fibre optics. It’s exciting to make connections with this creative man, and a “white glove tour” brings me one step closer: touching the tweed jacket Bell would wear to fly kites or turning the pages of a book he wrote to help a deaf boy learn to speak. My guide, Melissa Nicholson, a self-confessed Bell geek, pulls up an 1885 recording of Bell’s voice on her cellphone taken from his experimentation with recording sound. “There was no stopping what he was interested in,” she says. “But I don’t know if he’d have ever known his voice would be in my pocket.”
A former greasy spoon, this North Sydney restaurant is now a Cape Breton favourite, thanks to the vision of chef Richard Moore. In an urban, yet casual ambiance, lobster is served up in a variety of creative ways, from crispy wontons to creamy ravioli. But there’s one lobster that won’t be on a dinner plate during my visit—a rare, blue-shelled creature that’s in a saltwater tank in the corner. “We’re going to put him back,” says Moore. “Some lobsters should be able to live out their lives in the ocean.”