Isolated and craggy Cape Breton Island -- Nova Scotia's northernmost land mass -- should be tops on a list of don't-miss destinations for travelers to Nova Scotia, especially those who like outdoor adventures or great views. The island's chief draw is Cape Breton Highlands National Park, a knockout park up at the top of the island's western lobe. There's also the historic fort at Louisbourg and scenic Bras d'Or Lake, an inland saltwater lake that nearly cleaves the island in two.
Above all, there are the drives: It's hard to find a road on this island that's not a scenic route. Some of the vistas are wild and dramatic, some green and pastoral, but all of them will have you clicking your camera furiously.
When traveling on this island, be aware of the cultural context. Just as southern Nova Scotia was largely settled by Loyalists fleeing the United States after England lost the War of Independence, Cape Breton was principally settled by Highlander Scots whose families came out on the wrong side of rebellions against the crown overseas. You can still hear their heritage here, both in the accents of people in the villages and in the great popularity of Scottish-style folk music throughout the island.
You'll often hear references to the Cabot Trail while on the island. This is the official designation for the 300km (186-mile) roadway circling around the northwest corner of the island and the national park. It's named for John Cabot, whom many believe first set foot on North American soil near Cape North. (However, many scholars disagree; it's not a fact, and Cabot may have made landfall on Newfoundland first. Or even somewhere else.)
The one "problem" with this island is that it's very remote, so tourism hasn't really developed with the times. As such, it's hard to find many accommodations beyond the ubiquitous, variable-quality B&Bs scattered around the isle. Some travelers base themselves in Baddeck, which is centrally located and has a small concentration of lodgings and restaurants. It's true that you can reach both the national park and the historic settlement of Louisbourg from Baddeck. But I have to confess: I find the town boring, and a bit twee.
I'd much prefer staying in a small local village such as Mabou, or in the Margaree Valley, or scoping out a cottage rental somewhere. (The southeastern portion of the island, near Isle Madame and Port Hawkesbury, isn't nearly as pretty as the rest of it. Focus exclusively on the western and central sections if you'll only be here a couple days.)
Oh, and one more thing: If you've got golf clubs and some game, bring 'em. The golfing is wonderfully scenic here -- but it's tough.
Geographically, Cape Breton Highlands National Park is likely second on your itinerary: Most travelers enter the island, scoop up info, then make a beeline for lovely uplands areas in Mabou or the Margaree Valley for the night. Then they head straight for the Cabot Trail, the winding, spectacular coastal road which takes you right into the national park.
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