A whirlwind trip through Cape Breton Island, off the tip of mainland Nova Scotia, is not the way to experience one of Canada’s most scenic treasures. But whirlwind is what we chose to do – a glorious four days of breath-taking scenery at the height of the fall season, with nature doing its very best to entertain us from sunrise to sunset. As a bonus, we’d timed our visit to coincide with “Celtic Colours,” Cape Breton’s annual music festival – 10 days of Celtic music featuring musicians from near and far.
The festival is spread throughout the island, with concerts and events happening in a different town each day and night. We’d booked tickets in advance for just one show, somehow imagining that if we’re going to be on the island for four days and the music is everywhere, we’d find plenty of music on an impromptu basis. This plan didn’t work out as well as it could have, but that was completely our fault. Arriving on the island on Canadian Thanksgiving weekend during a music festival with no lodging booked for our stay meant a lot of “no room at the inn” signs wherever we went. Tip #1: If you’re going to Cape Breton during Celtic Colours, book your stay in advance.
We arrived on the island Saturday night, after a full day’s drive from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia’s provincial neighbor to the north. Crossing over the narrow Strait of Canso that divides the mainland from Cape Breton Island, we landed in Port Hastings and found a bed for the night.
My travel companion, Corinne, like me, was visiting Cape Breton for the first time. Now, all my friends aren’t Van Morrison fans, but Corinne is; and if nothing else, it makes the musical selection in the car an easy matter. Six days in the car and it’s all Van, all the time. It’s too easy. The golden autumn days, like most things in life, are only enhanced with a Van soundtrack.
Bright and early Sunday morning, we elected to take the Ceilidh Trail that hugs the western coast of the island. The area was settled primarily by Scots, who brought their fiddles with them, and nowadays, you can visit any of the towns along the trail – with names like Creignish, Craigmore and Campbell – and find yourself a ceilidh in the making. A stop at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre immerses you in the local color and culture, and if you’re inclined to dance to the music, you can learn some square dancing steps that you can demonstrate on the dance floor later on that night farther on down the road.
After a visit to the local farmers market in Mabou, we stopped for a very pleasant lunch at The Mull before continuing north through Inverness to Dunvegan.
Taking a small detour inland took us through the idyllic Margaree River valley. Fishermen, farms and, today, glorious colors all contribute to a picture-perfect setting.
Following the river to the ocean, we are now on the Cabot Trail, perhaps one of Canada’s most scenic drives. We head north, watching the waves pummel the shoreline; and on we traveled, through the towns of Cheticamp, Presqu’ile and Pleasant Bay, where the road turns inland through Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The Highlands has its own climate – the sun is gone and drizzle has set in, making the sharp curves on a slick road a real challenge.
We see plenty of signs for hiking trails and campgrounds, which suggests that the road here is much more traveled in the warm summer months. Today the hills are a blanket of red and orange and it’s all about taking it in … and finding a place to rest our weary heads tonight. Not such an easy task, it turns out. We’d hoped to find a spot in Cape North, which would give us a good place to begin day two on the Cabot Trail, but with no room at the inn, we were forced to motor 27 miles to Ingonish on the eastern side of the island before we found a hotel with a vacancy sign.
The morning saw us backtracking north to Cape North, where we picked up a side road off the Cabot Trail that took us up to Meat Cove, the northernmost tip of Cape Breton. A popular destination during the summer months, it’s almost deserted in October. The view from atop the cliff takes in the Atlantic Ocean, and among the trails, there’s a gentle one through the woods down to the cove. And back up, for a quick lunch at the one restaurant open for business at this time of the year.
Back on the Cabot Trail at Cape North, we continued south, with stops in Dingwall and Green Cove before passing through Ingonish, hugging the eastern coast of the island all the way. The day shines brightly, and the blustery winds of yesterday on the western side of the island have turned calm here on this side. We stop to enjoy the waterfront, and we also take the opportunity to window-shop at various shops dotting the “Artist’s Loop of the Cabot Trail.” There are many treasures, most priced at beyond our reach unfortunately. Instead of collecting art treasures, we collect rocks along the seashore for our respective rock gardens back home.
The Artist’s Loop ends south of St Ann’s and so does our day’s journey. We find the delightful Helena’s Housekeeping Cottages near the North River Bridge, set among the woodlands in the lower part of the island.
The North River Bridge takes the traveler east to Sydney, the capital of Cape Breton and its largest city. But we’ve chosen to travel farther south to Baddeck, a little town on St Patrick’s Channel. A perfect place to stop, grab a coffee to go and head down to the boardwalk along the water’s edge. Among its claims to fame, Baddeck is home to the Alexander Graham Bell Museum. After inventing the telephone (and making oodles of money on his invention), Bell and his family moved to Baddeck, where he continued a life of inventing, most notably the hydrofoil. Who knew? A replica of the HD-4 hydrofoil is on grand display in the
museum, along with exhibits of his lifetime achievements and a movie detailing Bell’s experiments with the hydrofoil. A trip to the museum that day came with an added bonus: an hour of Quebecois traditional music performed by De Temps Antan in the shadow of the suspended HD-4. The trio was heading up to Cheticamp for an evening performance, but we were heading in the opposite direction. Heading south from Baddeck, we came to Little Narrows, where we caught the ferry that took us to the back-roads route to Sydney and Sydney River, our destination for the night. A night of Celtic music.
The evening was dubbed “Matches Made In Heaven,” and it most assuredly was. The first match was local songstress Laura Smith and guitarist Tony McManus, and while Tony indeed is a master on the guitar, it was Smith I was here to see. I discovered her beautiful voice many years ago and this was, finally, my chance to see her perform live. She performed a half dozen or so songs from her most recent album – all new to me – and ended her set with perhaps her most evocative song, My Bonny, which has brought audiences to tears for many years. The other matches included master fiddler Alasdair Fraser and cellist Natalie Haas, and a string quartet featuring Kimberley Fraser, Darol Anger and Natalie and Brittany Haas. The final song of the night brought all performers back on stage for a rousing end to a magnificent night of music.
Our final day on the island took us on a drive along the shores of Bras d’Or Lake. Our travels throughout Cape Breton had revealed that the island is losing its population; wherever we went, For Sale signs dotted the landscape. The young people have left for greener pastures and their parents are left to downsize and go who knows where. But the story is completely different along Bras d’Or Lake – lots being excavated, new homes being built, big homes, homes with a view for the rich. Perhaps it all balances out.