This article is from the October 2016 Issue of Forever Young

 2016 oct

The best parts of this Cape Breton experience are the village stops along the way

By Anne Bokma

The world famous Cabot Trail is arguably Canada’s most beautiful drive — a 298-kilometre smoothly paved scenic roadway that forms a loop around the northern part of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. Travellers can’t help but blink in wonder at its blazing technicolour vistas — the shining emerald hues of the hills that roll into the forever distance and the shimmering blues of the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean that border this iconic route.

Yes, you can stay in your car and do the drive in a speedy four hours. But that would be missing the point. The point being to go slow — slow enough to properly store its coastal views and highland scenery in your memory bank.

Life is more interesting off the beaten path and that’s especially true on the Cabot Trail, where three days of stopovers in the villages of Baddeck, Ingonish, Cheticamp and Margaree offer the chance to explore the abundance of beaches, museums, lookouts and trails on this coastal playground which boosts world class hiking, golfing, fishing, whale watching, sailing and kayaking.

Situated along the shore of the Bras d’Or Lake, Cape Breton’s expansive inland sea, the town of Baddeck, located an hour’s drive from Sydney and three-and-a-half hours from Halifax, is the best start and end point on the Cabot Trail loop — you can travel in either direction (locals argue about whether it’s best to go clockwise or counterclockwise but haven’t reached a consensus). Baddeck became a tourist destination with the1874 publication of the travel guidebook “Baddeck, And That Sort of Thing”, that caught the attention of its most famous citizen — Dr. Alexander Graham Bell — who built his summer home, Beinn Bhreagh, (“beautiful mountain” in Gaelic) in Baddeck because the place reminded him of the Scottish highlands of his youth.

We stayed the night in the Silver Dart Lodge, a charming 90-acre compound named after the aircraft designed by Bell and flown off the ice of Bras d’Or Lake in 1909 — the first powered flight in Canada. The next morning we caught a glimpse of the famous estate where Bell is buried during a peaceful two-hour paddle with North River Kayak Tours before heading north to Ingonish, located at the eastern entrance of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This massive (950 sq km) protected wilderness area is home to a wide range of animals from moose to martens, masked shrew and meadow jumping mice. One-third of the Cabot Trail passes through the park, which offers photo ops by the thousands with spectacular views on its 26 trails that range from easy strolls, such as the Skyline Trail, a level path that leads to a boardwalk built on a dramatic headland cliff with perfect views of the Cabot Trail winding down the mountainside, to hardcore hiking, such as the Franey Trail where you’ll transition from Acadian to boreal forest on the steep ascent and be rewarded with a 360º view of the canyon and coastline below.

Rest for the night in a cocoon tent nestled high amongst the trees at the Ingonish Beach campsite in the park or opt for something a little more luxurious at the nearby Keltic Lodge, perched atop a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, a popular spot where golfers come to play the top-rated Highland Links.

Two hours west is the Acadian fishing village of Cheticamp, home to the largest francophone population in Cape Breton and a popular spot for whale watching tours. After checking into the homey eight-room Maison Fiset House, we set off on a bike ride and don’t get far before stopping to admire the ecclesiastical French-Canadian neo-classical architecture of Paresis Saint-Pierre (Saint Peter’s Church), built in 1893. Later, panting to get to the top of a step and rocky gravel trail, we discover a secret swimming spot — an old gypsum quarry. Dripping in sweat, we peel down to our skivvies and slip into the tranquil turquoise water. The swim and ride serve to build an appetite sufficient to devour a hearty plate of butter-drenched lobster at a ‘Learn to Lobster Boil’ dinner hosted by Parks Canada at La Bloc beach later that evening.

Heading back to Baddeck, we spend an afternoon in Margaree, an area renowned for its authentic cultural events (many nights you can catch a ceilidh, pronounced “kay-lee,” a traditional Gaelic gathering of music and dancing), craft studios featuring the work of highly regarded potters, quilters, painters and rug hooking artists, and superior salmon and trout fly fishing on the mighty Margaree River. Swimming in massive hip waders, I experi Heading back to Baddeck, we spend an afternoon in Margaree, an area renowned for its authentic cultural events (many nights you can catch a ceilidh, pronounced “kay-lee,” a traditional Gaelic gathering of music and dancing), craft studios featuring the work of highly regarded potters, quilters, painters and rug hooking artists, and superior salmon and trout fly fishing on the mighty Margaree River. Swimming in massive hip waders, I experience my own River Runs Through It moment thanks to our guide Ed McCarty, who has 40 years of fishing experience in the area. I don’t catch a thing but one person in our group snags a lost shoe, hoists it proudly and triumphantly shouts, “filet of sole!”

Our three-day tour of the Cabot Trail ends back in Baddeck with a visit to Alexander Graham Bell museum. Here we learn the father of the telephone was also a gifted teacher of the deaf and perpetual inventor who helped create Canada’s first powered aircraft, the world’s fastest boat and the precursor to the iron lung and the metal detector.

The beautiful natural environment of Cape Breton was his inspirational backdrop. As Bell himself said: “I have travelled around the globe. I have seen the Canadian and American Rockies, the Andres, the Alps and the Highlands of Scotland. But for simple beauty, Cape Breton outrivals them all.”