Lobsters, whales, sweeping vistas, winding roads and the haunting sounds of the bag pipes; these are the heart and soul of The Cabot Trail, a 106-kilometer long paved road that meanders through Cape Breton Island, providing the traveller with year-round breathtaking scenery and an intimate experience with the Scottish ancestry of Nova Scotia.
Named after the famous explorer John Cabot, who was the first European to visit Cape Breton in 1497, the Cabot Trail is a must-do for any visitor to Nova Scotia. The best way to access the trail is with a car from the mainland, driving across the Canso Causeway. A word of caution: make sure the vehicle you are driving has an excellent braking system, as it will surely be put to the test. The drive is reminiscent of Scotland in more than its culture; it winds through mountainous terrain and hugs the rugged coastline, creating an almost roller-coaster effect in some areas.
From the moment you cross the Canso Causeway, you will feel the presence of the Scottish culture. Stop at the tourist office just east of the causeway in Port Hastings and purchase a map of the Cabot Trail and a CD of a local Scottish band. The soulful sounds of the pipes will set the mood for your journey through the mountainous landscape and will help you feel the spirit of the local communities. Browse through the selection of tartan products that serve as reminders of the Scottish clans who first arrived in Cape Breton during the early 19th century.
From the tourist office, you have a choice in directions. You can travel the Cabot Trail from the west to the east, or the east to the west. I recommend travelling from the east to the west, along Highway 105 because the best views are along the west coast, and those can be savoured at the end of the journey.
The first major town on Highway 105 (heading east and north) is Baddeck, the site where Alexander Graham Bell came and remained after his invention of the telephone. Visit the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, and wander through the three exhibit halls that display examples of his work and research. Outside there is a model of the hydrafoil and walking around the site will give you glimpses of the Bras d’or Lakes.
Settle into the drive and continue north, entering the Cape Breton Highlands National Park at beautiful Ingonish Beach. In the summer you can swim in the Atlantic Ocean at this beach; in the fall you can overlook the beach from a set of picnic tables just off the side of the road. Drive a little further and lunch (or dine) at the majestic Keltic Lodge Resort and Spa. This red and white European-inspired lodge is nestled near the edge of the cliffs and offers stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean. Dine at either one of their two restaurants and experience your first taste of Atlantic lobster, mussels, or crab while overlooking the vast greenery that makes this land unique and untameable. Make this your first day’s stop and visit the resort’s spa to unwind from the long drive, or walk out to the parking lot and become part of the land on Middle Head Trail, a 4-kilometer hike suitable for all ages. Weave among the spruce and birch trees until you reach a meadow dotted with local flowers. Here the trail opens wide and gives way to a rocky end that leaves you staring out at the vast Atlantic Ocean. You might even glimpse a small burst of water off in the distance, and if so, you will have just witnessed your first whale.
If you prefer a more rugged evening on the Cabot Trail, continue your drive onwards to the best-kept secret of the trail: Meat Cove. Accessible by a winding and somewhat harrowing dirt and gravel road just north of Cape North, Meat Cove is the place you will want to stay if you are a camper and want to wake up on a cliff overlooking the passage of whales. It is run privately and has very basic service, but well worth the extra fifteen kilometre detour off the road. The best spot is right on the cliff where the Atlantic wind will challenge your ability to build a fire but will incite your spirit as you sleep listening to the water crash below, and awake to a sunrise that may bring a family of humpbacks just offshore. There are no restaurants or grocery stores nearby so pack your food accordingly before you venture off the highway.
Cape North marks the turning point of the Cabot Trail, as you now head east toward Pleasant Bay. This town is the best place to go on a whale-watching tour as they have a great Whale Interpretive Centre that provides a lot of information on the whales you will see. Book your whale-watching tour with Capt Mark, a friendly, knowledgeable and seasoned tour operator who offers guaranteed sightings. Even if you have seen the stunning humpback whales in other parts of the world, it is worth the affordable tour to witness the abundant pilot whale, a friendly, smaller whale that frequents the local waters.
From Pleasant Bay and heading south you will witness some of the more incredible views of the Cabot Trail. Here the road pulls inland at moments to bring you into the valley between the rugged mountainous hills that are reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. When it sweeps out towards the coast you will hold your breath at the sight of the water; although you may have seen the ocean an hour before, the contrast between the wild green land and the cobalt water is startling. There are many photo opportunities at various pullouts on the sides of the road, and in the summer, at any moment, you may see a pod of whales traveling offshore.
The last main town to visit on the Cabot Trail is Cheticamp, a place where the unique French Acadian culture presides. Snap a quick photo of the gleaming white Saint-Pierre Church and take the time to meander through town and experience Acadian culture. There are a few crafts stores to explore, as rug-hooking is the dominant craft in the town. Lunch out on the patio at Harbour Restaurant and try some Acadian cuisine. The gingerbread dessert is warm, welcoming and just the item if you are travelling the trail on a colder day. A warning to French-speaking visitors: be aware that Acadian French is a different, unique dialect and if you are in a hurry it may be best to converse in English, albeit enlightening to compare the pronunciation of different words.
At the end of your journey you will have a chance, as you drive back to the mainland, and listen to the bagpipes in your car, to reflect on your visit to Cape Breton. No doubt you will realize that The Cabot Trail is a unique Canadian experience, since it offers the chance to embark on a picturesque journey that is rewarding from both land and sea, and provides the opportunity to taste two very diverse but essential cultures to Nova Scotia: Scottish and Acadian. The two, three or even four days you spend driving along the rugged coastline will not only be a feast for the eyes, but for the heart, body and soul as well.
|1||Baddeck to Ingonish||1 h 30 min||105 km|
|1||Ingonish to Pleasant Bay||60 min||60 km|
|1||Pleasant Bay to Chéticamp||45 min||43 km|