Mabou & Vicinity
The little village of Mabou sits on a deep, protected inlet along the island's western shore. This former coal-mining town has made itself over as a lobster-fishing town, though you don't come here for crustaceans; the seafood is shipped out to Halifax and beyond. Instead, the lovely scenery and culture are what you come for. Attractive drives and bike rides are easy to find in the area; almost any road you choose is an opportunity to break out the camera. The town itself consists of a short main street, a clump of homes, a gas station, a few eateries and services, plus (if you can find it) a scenic little beach.
But there's a hidden bonus to the area, giving it an importance disproportionate to its size: Local residents are strongly oriented toward music, even more so than is usual on already-musical Cape Breton Isle. The local kids, nearly all of Scottish descent, grow up playing instruments, singing, and dancing; amazingly, this tiny town has produced not only several international hit Celtic music acts, but also the former premier of Nova Scotia (Rodney MacDonald), a former step dancer and fiddler who was elected in 2006 at the age of just 34 and served as premier for 3 years.
Evening entertainment in Mabou revolves around fiddle playing, square dancing, and the traditional gathering of musicians and storytellers known as a ceilidh (kay-lee). These planned and impromptu musical events take place in pubs, civic buildings, outdoors, people's homes . . . anywhere. To find out what's going on, stop by the village grocery store, The Mull pub right across the street, or the Red Shoe pub and scope out their bulletin boards and calendars. You might also check with the Strathspey Place Theatre (tel. 902/945-5300; www.strathspeyplace.com) on Route 19. It offers occasional Celtic music events too, usually for C$15 to C$40 per person.
In a handsome valley between Mabou and Inverness is the distinctive post-and-beam Glenora Distillery (tel. 800/839-0491 or 902/258-2662). This modern distillery—North America's only single-malt whisky ("scotch") producer—began producing spirits from the pure local stream in 1990, and selling it in 2000. Your tour guide will tell you that the Cape Breton water is what makes all the difference, and is in fact the reason the owner chose to put the factory here—seemingly in the middle of nowhere. They use Kentucky bourbon casks to age the whisky, because the distillers here believe those impart a mellower taste to their spirits than the traditional sherry casks.
Production runs take place each fall, but tours of the facility are offered throughout the year. Tours cost C$7 and last about a half-hour (offered daily 9am-5pm), culminating in welcome free samples; they also conveniently end near the gift shop, where you can buy local music CDs, gift glasses, even bottles of the whisky itself (for at least C$80 a pop). The owner can't call the product scotch, by the way, since it isn't made in Scotland, hence "Canadian single malt whisky."
The distillery complex also includes an adjoining restaurant (open seasonally) and a nine-room hotel with rooms and chalets on a hillside overlooking the valley ; traditional music is often scheduled for weekends or evenings in the contemporary pub.
West of Baddeck and south of Chéticamp, the Margaree Valley consists of the area from the village called Margaree Valley (near the headwaters of the Margaree River) to Margaree Harbor, downriver on Cape Breton's west coast. Some seven small Margaree-themed communities are clustered along this valley floor, a world apart from the rugged drama of the surf-battered coast—it's more reminiscent of Vermont than Maine. The Cabot Trail gently rises and falls here on the shoulders of rounded hills flanking the valley, offering views of farmed floodplains and glimpses of a shining river. The whole area is best explored by slow and aimless driving, or by bike or canoe if you've brought one along with you. And, in autumn, the foliage here is often among eastern Canada's very best.
The Margaree River is a bona fide celebrity in fishing circles -- widely regarded as one of the most productive Atlantic salmon rivers in North America, and the salmon have continued to return to spawn here in recent years, which is unfortunately not the case on many other waterways of Atlantic Canada. The river has been closed to all types of fishing except fly-fishing since the 1880s, and in 1991 it was designated a Canadian Heritage River.
Learn about the river's heritage at the Margaree Salmon Museum (tel. 902/248-2848; http://margareens.com/margaree_salmon.html) in North East Margaree. The handsome museum building features a brief video about the life cycle of the salmon, and its exhibits include fishermen photos, antique rods (including an impressive 16-footer), examples of seized poaching equipment -- plus hundreds of skillfully hand-tied salmon flies. (You've got to be a buff to appreciate those, maybe.) If you want to fish, museum docents can help you find a guide to bring you out on the river; late spring and early fall are usually the times of year when the fish are biting. The museum is open daily mid-June through mid-October, 9am to 5pm.
Also make a point of dropping by Cape Breton Clay (tel. 902/235-2467; www.capebretonclay.com), northeast of the salmon museum. Margaree Valley native Bell Fraser's work is truly unique. Fish, crab, lobster, starfish, ear of corn, and other motifs are worked into her platters and bowls in ways that will surprise and delight even pottery haters. Bell's colorful hand-painted lobster and starfish platters bring a whole new interpretation to the serving plate, while her fish-handled serving bowl is reminiscent of the local river's leaping, silvery trout. The shop is open from June through mid-October, 10am to 5pm, it's definitely worth a stop; individual pieces might run from C$60 to C$300. Don't miss "the Koop" next door, either, a place where real -- and Bell's ceramic -- chickens commingle.
The Acadian town of Chéticamp is the western gateway to Cape Breton Highlands National Park, and the center of French-speaking culture on Cape Breton. The change is rather obvious as you drive northward from Margaree Harbour—the family names suddenly go from MacDonald to Doucet, the landscape from wooded to windswept fields, and the cuisine turns on its head. So does the obvious sense of humor: look for "tourist traps" (stacks of lobster traps for sale to visitors), scarecrows with celebrity faces, and brightly painted folk art, including one entire house. In this vein, do stop at Gallery La Bella Mona Lisa (12225 Cabot Trail. www.labellamonalisa.com; tel 902/224-2560) in Les Moine, before you hit Chéticamp, where you’ll find whimsical, original artwork that will have you laughing out loud and marveling at the range of the human imagination. Much of the brightly painted work is by Michel Williatte-Battet; his paintings and sculptures have a folk art feel with a surrealist edge—a man in a red hat stands in a field under moonlight while a dog dashes past in the distance: Title—"Looking for my dog."
The town is an assortment of restaurants, boutiques, and tourist establishments spread along a Main Street closely hugging the harbor. A winding boardwalk follows harbor’s edge through much of town, a good spot to stretch your legs from the drive and have a look at the local geography. Chéticamp Island sits just across the water; the mighty coastal hills of the national park are visible just up the coast.
Chéticamp is famous worldwide for its hooked rugs, a craft perfected here by the early Acadian settlers. Those curious about the craft should allow time for a stop at Les Trois Pignons, which houses the Elizabeth LeFort Gallery and the Hooked Rug Museum (tel. 902/224-2642; www.lestroispignons.com). It is located on Main Street in the north end of town and displays some 300 fine tapestries, many created by Elizabeth LeFort, who was Canada's premier rug-hooking artist for many decades until she passed away in 2005 -- check out her tableau of U.S. presidents from 1959, which required 1.7 million loops to be hooked. You can also view tools used for the craft. The museum and gallery are usually open from mid-May to early October, daily 9am to 5pm (until 7pm in July and August). Admission is C$5 per adult, C$4 for seniors, C$3.50 students, C$12 for families, and free for children 5 and under.
In the 1930s, artisans formed the Co-operative Artisanale de Chéticamp, located at 5067 Main St. (tel. 902/224-2170). A selection of hooked rugs—from tiny ones on up—are sold here, along with other trinkets and souvenirs. There's often a weaver or other craftsperson at work in the shop. A small local museum downstairs (admission is free) chronicles the life and times of the early Acadian settlers and their descendants. It's closed from mid-October to May.
Several boat tour operators are based in Chéticamp Harbor. Love Boat Seaside Whale Cruises (tel. 800/959-4253 or 902/224-2400) sets out in search of whales, seals, and scenery, and has hydrophones on board for listening to any whales you may encounter. (No, Captain Stubing will not be your captain.) The tours take 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
The most pleasing drive or bike ride in the area is out to Chéticamp Island, connected to the main highway by a road and bridge. Look for the turnoff just south of town; the road is just north of the gift shop.
Several restaurants and pubs in town offer live entertainment, including The Doryman Pub and Grill at 15528 Cabot Trail (www.doryman.ca; tel. 902/224-9909) for local music like Saturday afternoon fiddle sessions.
At the north end of the Cabot Trail's exhilarating run along the island's western cliffs, the road turns inland to the village of Pleasant Bay. You need to sneak off the Trail (down Harbour Road, naturally) to find a surprise: a simple, attractive little harbor protected by a man-made jetty, complete with bobbing brightly painted fishing boats. It's just a short walk off the main road and sits at the base of rounded, forested mountains that plunge down to the sea. You know what to do: Break out that camera all over again and impress friends with your foray into the "real" Nova Scotia off the main roads.
The Whale Interpretive Centre (tel. 902/224-1411), built on a rise overlooking the harbor, features exhibits to help explain why the waters offshore are so rich with marine life -- not to mention life-sized models of some of the local whales. It's open daily, June through mid-October 9am to 5pm; admission is C$5 for adults, C$4 for children and seniors, and C$16 for families.
Whale-watching tours are offered three to five times daily from June through October from the harbor by Capt. Mark Timmons of Capt. Mark's Whale and Seal Cruise (tel. 888/754-5112 or 902/224-1316; www.whaleandsealcruise.com). Timmons's 2 1/2-hour cruises on his 13m (42-ft.) Double Hookup provide unrivaled glimpses at the rugged coast both north and south, and often a close-up look at whales (almost always pilot whales, frequently finbacks and minkes, occasionally humpbacks). The boat has a hydrophone on board, so you can hear the plaintive whale calls underwater. Trips are C$25 per adult, C$12 children age 6 to 15, and reservations are encouraged. The same outfit also offers Zodiac sea tours in 6m (21-ft.) inflatable boats, though you'll spend more -- and get considerably wetter -- if you take one: The cost is C$39–C$49 per adult, C$34–C$44 for kids age 8 to 15. Seniors get discounts on first or last sailings.
If you bear right at the "Y" and continue northward, the road wraps around the coastal hills and turns to gravel after 5km (3 miles). Keep going another 3 to 5km (2 or 3 miles). Here you'll come to a spectacular coastal hiking trail, which runs to Pollett's Cove, about 10km (6 miles) up the coast. A dozen families once lived here; all that remain now are two cemeteries. The cove and the trail are on private land, but hiking and other quiet recreation are allowed.
On this road, you’ll pass a Buddhist Monastery called Gampo Abbey (www.gampoabbey.org; tel. 902/224-2752), which offers retreats and welcomes visitors for free tours (July and August at 1:30 and 2:30) inside the buildings and on the wooded grounds and gardens. If you arrive outside touring hours, you’re free to wander the grounds and visit the “Stuppa of Enlightenment,” an intriguing sculpture decorated with prayer flags and surrounded by stones etched with phrases. In town, you’re likely to meet a robed monk or two picking up the mail or buying supplies.
Cape North is a recommended detour for adventurous travelers hoping to get off that heavily trafficked Cabot Trail. Outdoor types say Cape North is much like the Cabot Trail used to be 20 or 30 years ago -- before the glossy travel magazines showed up and started trumpeting its glories, leading to a huge influx of tourists. So if you're really here to see wild nature, this is worth the extra driving and backtracking.
The cape is reached via a signed turnoff at the northern tip of the Cabot Trail, after you descend into the Aspy Valley. You'll soon come to Cabot Landing Provincial Park, where local lore claims that John Cabot first made landfall in North America in 1497. (We're still not sure, though.) Debate the issue amongst yourselves near the statue of Cabot, or take a long walk on the lovely 3km (2-mile) ochre-sand beach fronting the bay. The views of the remote coastline are noteworthy and camera-worthy.
The road then winds onward to the north; at a prominent fork, you can veer right to Bay St. Lawrence, if you wish, and find the tiny harbor and several summertime whale-watching outfits.
Family-owned Oshan Whale Watch's (tel. 877/383-2883 or 902/383-2883; www.oshan.ca) thrice-daily tours on Captain Cyril Fraser's 13m (42-ft.) lobster boat cost C$30 per adult, C$20 senior and student, and C$12 per child from July through October. These folks can also take you deep-sea fishing (and clean your fish for cooking afterward). They're even on Twitter. (Sample entry: "On our 4:30pm whale watching tour we sighted 80 pilot whales . . .") Captain Cox's Whale Watch (tel. 888/346-5556 or 902/383-2981) costs more but also offers a different experience: Its whale-watching cruises are aboard an 8m (25-ft.) inflatable Zodiac craft, fully safety-certified, from mid-June through September. These tours cost C$45 adults (discounts for seniors) and C$25 per child, but require a four-person minimum; don't show up expecting a tour, unless you are four or more. Instead, call ahead to check on the status of tours.
From Bay St. Lawrence, go left at the fork in the road and continue along the stunning cliffside road to Meat Cove. The last 5km (3 miles) are along a dirt road that runs high along the shoulders of coastal mountains, then drops into shady ravines to cross brooks and rivers. The road ends at a rough-hewn settlement that's been home to hardy fishermen—seemingly all named McClellan—for generations.
Baywatch -- The 8km (5-mile) trip from Bay St. Lawrence to Meat Cove is ideal for a mountain bike ride, if you thought to strap one to the top of your car. This is one of very few places in Canada where you can pedal and whale-watch at the same time -- a terrific daily double, to be sure.
White Point & Neil's Harbour
From South Harbor (near Dingwall) you can drive on the speedy Cabot Trail inland to Ingonish, or stick to the coast along an alternate route that arcs past White Point, continues onward to Neil's Harbour, then links back up with the Cabot Trail.
If the weather's clear and dry, this coastal road is a far better choice. Bear left at South Harbour onto White Point Road. Initially, the road climbs upward amidst jagged cliffs with sweeping views of Aspy Bay; at White Point, you can veer a mile-and-a-half out to the tip of the land for even more dramatic views.
The road then changes names (to New Haven Rd.) and tracks inland before emerging at Neil's Harbour, a postcard-worthy fishing village of a few hundred souls. On a rocky knob located on the far side of the bay is a square red-and-white lighthouse (now an ice-cream parlor). From Neil's Harbour, it's just a 2-minute drive back to the Cabot Trail.
The Ingonish area includes a gaggle of similarly named towns—Ingonish Centre, Ingonish Ferry, South Ingonish Harbour—which collectively add up to a population of perhaps 1,300 or so (on a good day). Like Chéticamp on the peninsula's east side, Ingonish serves as a gateway to the national park and is home to a park visitor information center and a handful of motels and restaurants. There's really no critical mass of services in any one of the villages, though -- instead, they're spread along a lengthy stretch of the Trail. So you never quite feel you've arrived in town. You pass a liquor store, some shops, a bank, a post office, a handful of cottages. And that's it—suddenly you're there, in the wild park.
Highlights in the area include a sandy beach (near Keltic Lodge) good for some chilly splashing around, and a number of shorter hiking trails.
For golfers, the windswept Highlands Links course (tel. 800/441-1118 or 902/285-2600; www.highlandslinksgolf.com)—adjacent to the Keltic Lodge but under completely separate management—is considered one of the best in Nova Scotia, if not all of Atlantic Canada. It's a 6,600-yard, links-style course with stupendous views and some stupendously difficult holes. Peak-season rounds cost C$102.65 per adult (C$27–C$45 for children); spring and fall rates are about C$20 lower, and twilight rates are also available. Ask about packages whenever booking a hotel, and be sure to reserve your tee time in advance—it’s popular.
South of Ingonish, the Cabot Trail climbs and descends the hairy 1,000-ft. promontory of Cape Smokey, which explodes into panoramic views from the top. At the highest point, there's a free provincial park—really little more than a picnic area and a trailhead—where you can cool your engines and admire the views. A 10km (6-mile) hiking trail studded with unforgettable viewpoints leads to the tip of the cape along the high bluffs.
Traveling clockwise around the Cabot Trail, you'll face a choice when you come to the juncture of Route 312. One option is to take the side road to the Englishtown ferry and cross over St. Ann's Harbor in slow but dramatic fashion. The crossing of the fjordlike bay is scenic, and it only takes about 2 minutes (if there's no line—this is the province's busy "small" ferry). The ferry runs around the clock, for C$7 per car.
Your second option for making the Cabot Trail circuit is not to cross via ferry but rather to stay on the Trail, heading down along the western shore of St. Ann's Harbor.
One good launching point for exploring the waters is North River, where local guide/musician Angelo Spinazzola offers tours through his North River Kayak Tours (tel. 888/865-2925 or 902/929-2628) company from mid-May through mid-October. The full-day tour (C$119 per person) includes a steamed-mussel lunch on the shore; 3-hour tours cost C$69; and there's also a more expensive "romance tour" offered, where couples camp overnight on a remote beach -- the owner cooks dinner, sets up a tent, and then departs for the night. Most every trip, claims Spinazzola, involves sightings of a bald eagle or two. Kayaks can also be rented (or even purchased) from the outfit.
In the village of St. Ann's, be sure to drop by the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts (tel. 902/295-3411; www.gaeliccollege.edu), located about a kilometer (2/3 mile) off the Trans-Canada Highway at exit 11. The school was informally founded in 1938, when a group of area citizens began offering instruction in Gaelic language in a one-room log cabin. Today, both campus and curriculum have expanded significantly, with classes offered in bagpiping, fiddle, Highland dance, weaving, spinning, and Scottish history, among other things.
The expansive, 142-hectare (350-acre) campus is home to the seasonally open Great Hall of the Clans, a museum where visitors can get a quick lesson in Scottish culture via interactive displays. Exhibits provide answers to burning questions like "What's the deal with the plaid?" and "What do Scotsmen really wear under a kilt?" Pretty impressive. Even better, one of poet Robert Burns's walking sticks is on display here, and you can buy one of the intriguing clan histories if you've got Scots blood running through your veins. The museum is very heavy on Gaelic music history, too.
The Hall is open daily in July and August, 9am to 5pm, Wednesday through Sunday only in June and September. Admission is C$8 per adult, C$6 for students, and C$20 for families. A crafts shop offers Gaelic souvenirs such as bolts of tartan plaid and CDs of traditional music. Live music performances happen from time to time; call or ask at the crafts shop for a schedule.
If you're driving from Ingonish south to St. Ann's during summer, be sure to drop by the Giant MacAskill Museum as well.
One Giant Detour: If you happen to pass through Englishtown—it's about 64km (40 miles) south of Ingonish, on the way down to the middle "lobe" of Cape Breton Island—you can find one of Canada's most fascinating and Ripley-esque museums. I'm talking about the seasonal Giant MacAskill Museum (tel. 902/929-2925) on Route 312. This museum honors the memory of local Scottish transplant Angus MacAskill, who lived here from 1825 to 1863 and gave new meaning to the term "living large." Angus, you see, was huge.
Supposedly MacAskill's father was of normal height, and Angus was a regular-sized baby, too. But when he hit adolescence, something went haywire: The boy shot up to 7 feet tall before he was even 20. At 7 feet 9 inches tall and 425 pounds, MacAskill is believed to have been perhaps the tallest natural giant who ever lived. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, he was the strongest man in recorded history. MacAskill's feats of strength—tipping over his fishing boat to drain water from it; lifting 1-ton anchors off a dock easily—are still legend, and he later made a successful go of it as owner of Englishtown's local general store. Angus was well-liked (he would have to have been), but caught a fatal infection during a trip to Halifax to purchase supplies and died a week later, not yet 40. He is buried nearby.
Children might enjoy sitting on MacAskill's massive chair (if they can reach it, that is) and trying on his sweater; the actual-size replica of the coffin MacAskill was buried in is simply astounding. The museum is open daily mid-May to September from 9am to 6pm. Admission is C$8/adults, C$6/seniors and youth and C$20 for families.
Bras D'or Lake
With so much beauty on Cape Breton Island, Bras d'Or Lake hardly gets noticed by travelers. That's amazing; almost anywhere else in the world, Bras d'Or -- a vast inland sea that's so big it nearly cleaves the island in two -- would be a major tourist attraction ringed by motels, boat tour operators, water parks, and chain restaurants. But today, along the twisting shoreline of this 112km (70-mile) saltwater lake, you find -- well, next to nothing. Yes, roads circumnavigate the whole lake, but there are few services for tourists because there are few tourists. Is this good or bad? It just depends on your outlook.
Bras d'Or is a difficult lake to characterize, since it changes dramatically from one area to the next -- wild and rugged in some parts, pastoral and tamed in others. Wherever you go on the lake, though, keep an eye peeled for the regal silhouettes of bald eagles soaring high above the water (or for a telltale spot of bright white in the trees, indicating a perching eagle). Dozens of eagle pairs nest along the lake's shores or nearby, making this one of the best places in Canada for observing eagles in their natural habitat.
What’s a good strategy for touring the lake? For starters, I would caution against trying to drive around it in 1 day—or even 2 days. There’s no equivalent to the Cabot Trail tracing the lake’s outline. The lake is a connected group of smaller bodies of water, so there’s no one route that travels the entire shore without backtracking and detouring. The circumnavigating roads serve up breathtaking views from time to time, but parts of the route are dull, running some distance from the lake’s shore and offering little more than views of scratchy woods. Here are three sections we'd recommend:
* Drive the stretch of quiet shoreline that begins in Iona and hugs the St. Andrews Channel on Route 223; if you’re headed to Sydney, go this way as far as Barrachois. It’s about a 40km (25-mile), 45-minute ride—longer if you stop awhile at the good Highland Village Museum.
* Another nice section is the hump of land that rises and falls between Dundee and St. Peter’s, which runs attractively over hill and dale. There are two or three different ways you can go; each takes about a half-hour.
* A third segment is the stretch of Route 4 that heads northeast from St. Peter’s to East Bay, running along the eastern arm of the lake as it narrows to a point. You’ll get the very best views of the lake from this route, and the best sense of its surprisingly vast size. You’ll also pass little coves, a famous tearoom (see “Where to Eat,” below), and a First Nations reserve (at Chapel Island). This is a longer haul—about 64km (40 miles)—but the road is mostly straight and quick, and it’ll very likely take you less than an hour to traverse.
On the southeastern shore is the historic little town of St. Peter’s, where the lake comes within 800m (900 yards) of breaking through to the Atlantic Ocean and splitting Cape Breton into two half-islands. There’s evidence this neck of land was settled as early as the 16th century by the Portuguese. Later the French used it strategically for shipping out timber—it was known as Port Toulouse at that time. Still later, the British built a fort and the town grew by leaps when Loyalists began fleeing America.
Nature couldn’t quite manage to split the mass up here, but humans did it when they built St. Peter’s Canal in 1854. This canal still operates, and you might see impressive pleasure craft making their way up-canal to the lake. The pathway along the canal makes for a good walk, too.
The village of Marble Mountain, on the lake’s southwestern shore, is hard to find but offers an intriguing glimpse into island history. (If you intend to come here, get a good local map of the island first, then take the back roads from Dundee, West Bay, or Orangedale.) Believe it or not, this town was briefly a little metropolis. In 1868, a seam of high quality marble was discovered here, and by the early 20th century, full-scale mining operations were exporting it to builders around the world. At its peak, the quarry employed 750 miners, and the town was home to a thousand or more souls.
Now the marble has played out, though, and the village has reverted to form: a sleepy backwater. You can glimpse the scar of the former mine (which offers great views over the lake) by car or on foot from town (ask a local for directions), and there’s a beach right in town with scenic swimming. The beach looks like it features pure white sand from a distance, but it doesn’t: It’s made up of marble chips washed down from the old quarry.
Also worth a quick detour is Isle Madame—which is the largest in an archipelago; a group of small islands—just south of the lake off Route 104 and Route 4 as you return west from St. Peter’s to the island’s “entrance” at Port Hawkesbury. Shortly after Columbus arrived in North America, French, English, and Basque fishermen used these islands as a base for fishing, whaling, and walrus expeditions. Over the years, people settled, fished, and survived both the wars between French and English and being exploited by business monopolies. A few turned to smuggling, giving the island a bit of a romantic history, but cod was the mainstay. Today, this region is almost entirely French-speaking (though everyone speaks English too).
Although Baddeck (pronounced Bah-deck) is some distance from the national park, it’s often considered the de facto "capital" of the Cabot Trail. This is partly because Baddeck is centrally positioned on the island, and partly because its main drag happens to offer more hotels, B&Bs, and restaurants than any other town on the loop. (That’s how thinly populated it is up here.) There are also a clutch of practical services here you can’t easily find on the Trail: grocery stores, laundromats, gas stations, and the like.
Baddeck was once the summertime home of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, now memorialized at a national historic site. It’s also a compact, easy town to explore by foot and is scenically located on the shores of big Bras d’Or (say bra-door) Lake. If you’re on a tight schedule and plan to drive the Cabot Trail in a day (figure on 6–8 hrs.), this might be the best place to bed down afterward; it’s on the way to Sydney and/or Louisbourg. If, however, your intention is to spend a few days exploring the hiking trails, bold headlands, and remote coves of the Trail and the national park (which I certainly recommend), find an inn farther north. Baddeck is just too far away from the park for day trips.
The friendly Baddeck Welcome Center (visitbaddeck.com; [tel] 902/295-1911) is located just south of the village at the intersection of routes 105 and 205. It’s open daily from June through mid-October.
Baddeck, skinny and centered around a single main street (called Chebucto St. rather than Main St.), is just off the lake. Many get onto that lake with Paddledog Kayak Tours (www.paddledog.ca; [tel]888/865-2925 or 902/295-8868) at 22 Water St. They’ll get you to Kidston Island for tea and scones on the beach or a swim in the exceptionally warm waters, all for C$49. The thrice-daily tours are short at just 1.5hrs, so you’ll have lots of time for other fun. Amoeba Sailing Tours (www.amoebasailingtours.com; [tel] 902/295-7780 or 902/295-1426) has a turn-around trip of about the same length. You’ll find its tall ship at the Baddeck Wharf on the waterfront; the C$25 tour passes Alexander Graham Bell’s palatial former estate and other attractions.
About 180m (197 yards) offshore is Kidston Island ★, owned by the town of Baddeck. It has a wonderful sand beach with lifeguards (sometimes—check with the visitor center) and an old lighthouse to explore. A shuttle service comes and goes, so check with the visitor center.
The lovely Uisge Ban Falls (that’s Gaelic for “white water”) is the reward at the end of a 3km (1.8 miles) hike. The falls cascades 16 meters (52 feet) down a rock face; the hike is through hardwood forest of maple, birch, and beech. Ask for a map at the visit center.
The province's third-largest city (pop. 30,000) was northern Nova Scotia's industrial hub for decades, and three out of four Cape Breton Islanders still live in or around Sydney. Recent economic trends have not been kind to the area, however, and the once-thriving steel mills and coal mines are quiet now. So this gritty port city has thus been striving to reinvent itself as a tourist destination, though with limited success—partly because Cape Breton's natural wonders offer such tough competition for your tourodollar.
Although its commercial downtown is a bit bland, some of Sydney's residential areas might appeal to architecture and history buffs. Three early buildings are open to the public in summer, all within easy walking distance of one another. Spend a few hours visiting the trifecta if you're a fan of old buildings.
The Cossit House Museum, 75 Charlotte St. (tel. 902/539-7973), is Sydney's oldest standing house, built in 1785 and now carefully restored and furnished with a fine collection of 18th-century antiques. It's open from June through mid-October, Monday through Saturday from 9am to 5pm and Sunday from 1pm. Admission costs C$2 for adults, C$1 for seniors and children age 6 to 17.
The Jost Heritage House, 54 Charlotte St. (tel. 902/539-0366), was built in 1787 and had a number of incarnations in the intervening years, including service as a store. It's open June through August Monday through Saturday from 9:30am to 5:30pm, Sunday from 1:30pm; hours are shorter during the fall. Highlights of the home include an early apothecary. Admission costs C$2 per person.
The handsome St. Patrick's Church, 87 Esplanade (tel. 902/539-1572), locally known as "St. Pat's," is the island's oldest Roman Catholic church and dates to 1830. It's suitably impressive, made of rugged stone. From June through Labour Day, a museum in the church opens daily from 9:30am to 5:30pm.
Louisbourg, on Cape Breton's remote and windswept easternmost coast, was once one of Canada's most impressive French settlements. Despite its brief prosperity and durable construction, the colony basically disappeared after the British forced the French out (for the second and final time) in 1760. Through the miracle of archaeology and historic reconstruction, much of the imposing settlement has now been re-created, and today this is among Canada's most ambitious national historic parks.
However, a visit does require some effort. Being 35km (22 miles) east of Sydney means this attraction isn't on the way to anyplace else, and it's a very long and inconvenient detour from the National Park. So it's easy to justify skipping it. But if you're interested in local history, make the trip. For the right kind of traveler, a few hours spent wandering the wondrous rebuilt town and then walking among ruins and along the coastal trail could be one of the highlights of a trip to eastern Canada.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.