Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Peace and quiet, serene outdoors, quaint fishing villages, and miles and miles of breathtaking coastal views on a drive that rivals the Pacific Coast Highway in California.
Cape Breton island is the size of Hawaii or Jamaica, but with only 132,000 residents. That compares to 185,000 residents on the “Big Island” of Hawaii, or 2.8 million for Jamaica. Thus: small villages and towns, mostly forested hills and empty two-lane roads, not a lot of services, and certainly not a lot of hustle and bustle anywhere. Just our kind of place.
We spent a week driving some 1,000 miles around Cape Breton Island (CBI henceforth) along the famed Cabot Trail, staying in different B&Bs along the way.
Check out our trip photos. Be sure to read the captions 🙂
Our goal was to explore various hikes in the vast National Park, to venture out on a whale watch in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to hop aboard a boat to spot Puffins, Eagles, sea birds galore and Grey seals off the northeast coast, and to learn more of the history of the people who settled and who today make this unique corner of Canada their home.
Fingers crossed, I had chosen the first week of July for our visit, when I hoped the weather would be warm, with little rain or wind.
As it turned out, the very week we arrived the weather turned hot (80 degree days), and the seas surrounding this island were placid. The rains came the day we headed home, and stayed rainy for the next week. And- it had snowed a mere 2 weeks before we arrived. Talk about good weather mojo- we lucked out!
Our road trip around CBI allowed us to settle into an area for a couple of days at a time, and to experience the rhythm and the unique character of the villages nearby.
Our photos of the awe-inspiring sunsets, our hikes, the whale watch, the captivating Cabot Trail views out to the sea and the villages capture the low density of people, the character of the fishing villages, and the serene scenes as we drove along or stopped to enjoy vistas, an early morning harbor or a hike in the Canadian arboreal forest.
Our photos with captions and short video snippets are designed (and laboriously written, edited, etc by me!) to share a sense of what it’s like to travel to this area of the planet, in awesome weather. Hope you’ll take a moment to indulge, and feel free to leave comments and share.
Black Flies, Hikes and an Eye-popping Sunset
The first two nights spent on CBI, our cottage-on-the-shore HQ was in Belle Cote, one of a handful of small fishing villages dotting some 30 miles along the west coast of the island.
Nights were quite chilly and by late morning, 80 degrees was commonplace. Being along the coast was a grace, as the chill onshore breeze helped to keep us cool in the shade and chased off the worst of the black flies. But look out on those hiking trails in the woods– we came away a few pounds lighter after the flies took off with chunks of our flesh in their jaws!
Over the next two days we explored scenic harbors from Margaree Forks to as far north as Cheticamp. I bet we drove up and down that stretch of the Cabot Highway at least 6 times, heading up to Pleasant Bay to catch a whale watch boat, stopping at little restaurants to eat or finding a co-op to buy water or snacks.
Of course our focus was hiking the various trails in the National Park on this section of the coast, the highlight of which was the sunset hike on the famous Skyline Trail.
This hike was a three hour undertaking, but thanks to the newly-minted young ranger who led our tiny group, we popped out of the forest and along the ridge line overlooking the sea wayyy down below just in time for the start of a simply breathtaking sunset. Wow. The pictures really do the scene justice, for a change!
Good thing full dark didn’t occur until an hour or so after sunset, so we were able to hoof it back to the car well before we needed our flashlights. We were, after all, at a high latitude, in the summer, with full sunrise by 5:45am and full dark at 10pm.
Hiking is generally a central feature to our vacations, and this was no exception. The hikes in the National Park were challenging, with amazing views out to the ocean and luckily, no run-ins with the 3,000 or more moose who are crowded into the National Park.
We learned that the moose love to eat fir trees, which is fine, except they favor the young, tender trees, so the high population of moose in a park sized for 500 means the moose are basically eating themselves out of house and home. Park rangers have set aside large enclosures to protect the young trees, which will be replanted after they’ve matured to help ensure moose chow over time, but apparently it’s a losing battle. So the moose are being culled. A controversial topic with the locals, unsurprisingly.
Canada Day Harness Racing
The locals trotted out the bunting and street decorations for Canada Day, and we were fortunate to stumble upon a harness racing event in the town of Inverness, just south of our digs at Belle Cote. We followed hand-made signs up a hill to the rear of the coastal village, where a regulation track spread out before us, with paddocks, barns and large viewing stands.
When we arrived, the contenders were warming up, so we settled in to watch the activities and to catch the first race.
Robin had never seen harness racing before, so this was a fun intro to the sport for her. The feeling was a bit provincial, what with the gravel parking areas, with cars (pick-ups, mostly) able to pull right up to the fence to watch the race from the comfort of their front seats. The “crowd” may have been a couple of hundred spectators at the most, but the beer was cold and the sausages freshly cooked, available along with pari-mutual betting at a few tiny windows in the cavernous concrete room beneath the stadium seats.
Check out the video snippets at the track on my YouTube channel!
Such unexpected pleasures like tripping over this harness race are what make independent travel rewarding and so much fun. I’m thankful we have been able to travel independently in many countries, including New Zealand and Australia, experiencing these kind of unplanned moments. I hope we have lots more to come!
So about that whale watch out of Pleasant Bay: we left early of a morning, when the fog lay thick, chill and heavy on the little harbor. The boat plowed slowly along the coastline, the young PHD students up in the flying bridge keeping a sharp eye out for whales.
“One o’clock! One o’clock!” someone would yell, and by the time I pointed my camera, the slick black dorsal fin and a glimpse of a whale’s back would have disappeared. This happened a few times. I gave up taking pictures and enjoyed the boat ride over pellucid seas, on what turned out to be a stunning, sunny, hot morning. We all came back sunburned. Still. A lovely boat ride along the underpopulated CBI shoreline.
Along the Cabot Trail
Continuing our clockwise drive around CBI on the famed Cabot Trail, we briefly visited the tiny fishing harbor of White Point (no facilities, no restaurant, but scenic and atmospheric).
Even more picturesque scenes here.
Further along the north coast, Neil’s Harbor was definitely worth a stop, and a good lunch in the restaurant situated on a rocky promontory. The heat of midday was relieved by walking over to the sea cliffs and enjoying the cool, stiff onshore wind from that chilly Atlantic.
We spent two nights in the harbor town of Baddeck (Beh-DECK). What a pretty little town! The town wharf reminded me pleasantly of that in Marblehead, MA where I lived for awhile. So scenic, so mellow.
The light and the sunset our arrival afternoon were simply phenomenal, and the seafood takeout at the wharf side restaurant was delish!
Puffins, Eagles and Grey Seals
A highlight of our stay in Baddeck was a tour of the Bird Islands, really interesting rocky outcrops just at the mouth of St. Anne’s bay, in the Atlantic Ocean. We certainly saw lots of the cute Atlantic Puffins who breed here, as well as Bald Eagles, Arctic Terns, Common Loons, Common Eiders, White-winged and Surf Scoters, and Red-breasted Mergansers.
The seas surrounding these craggy, grassy and windswept rock formations were full of Grey Seals, which added their grunts and barks to the noise of nesting birds. When the boat swung downwind of the islands, the odor was astounding.
A lobster boat briskly wound its way between us and the islands, hauling in the day’s catch. A proud lobster man held up a truly massive lobster pulled from one of the traps for us to see. Here’s a video short of a Grey Seal on a small rock and the lobster boat working.
We then bid a fond farewell to Baddeck and CBI and drove back onto Nova Scotia, to Pictou, a cute little fishing village with a small but admirable museum the Ship Hector, a “… ship famous for having been part of the first significant migration of Scottish settlers to Nova Scotia in 1773.”
We discovered an expansive seaside park just a few kilometers up from Pictou, where we enjoyed fantastic sunset and a lobster picnic catered by the local grocery. Our B&B host gave us the tip to pick out our lobster, and the co-op (rather like a Kroger) cooked it.
We paired our lobster with a couple of sides, wine and (for me) a beer and wow, what an amazing evening we had! Even the black flies couldn’t dull my delight, as I shot frame after frame of yet another breathtaking Canadian summer sunset. I wondered later why my phone smelled of lobster and butter. Oops.
For the History Buffs
Ok so I admit to being a “student of history”, which is to say I read a helluva lot about the places we visit, and retain little, so it’s a good thing for me that the history of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton island was ever-present in our travels. Or perhaps we were tuned in, as visitors do pay attention to many things locals take for granted.
Named places, settlements, landmarks, foods etc reflected the earliest known tribal people, the Mi’kmaq and the many European colonial periods. Europeans fished out their stocks and headed to the fertile waters here as early as the 1520s. French priests showed up, soon followed a Venetian Italian explorer whose Anglised name John Cabot is ubiquitous on CBI.
In the 1600s French colonists were shoved aside briefly by the Dutch, and Scottish folk created a colony but of course they and the French were soon at odds and the fight was on. The French won, then most of the European peeps stayed quiet for awhile until the English decided to lay claim to all of Nova Scotia (hmmm, a familiar pattern here). Colonial wars, the American Revolution, the War of 1812– you’d be surprised just what roles this area of our continent had to play in what Americans think of as “American History”.
I did find the Scottish colonists story arc to be rather poignant, considering how and why so many chose to dare a dangerous ocean crossing to an unknown country, with so much to learn and create, literally from their own hands. Sorta like those survival reality shows, many of these families arrived with little more than the clothes on their back, sick from the trip, showing up in the winter, with no home, no crops, no livestock.
Thank goodness they had the folks living in small, existing settlements like Highland Living Village to lend a hand, with costumed volunteers who undoubtedly remained in character. OK just testing to see if you’re actually reading this or only looking at the pretty pictures!
The light, the sunsets, the fresh air, the cooling breezes from the ocean, the scenic little villages and towns– all left an indelible impression on us. The entire trip was low-impact, few people but pleasant ones when met, and a true sense of solitude and quiet, pretty much everywhere we went. Even the towns had few people roaming about, with few cars. No planes overhead. No trains honking off in the distance. Maybe a fog horn near a harbor, and at night just crickets and, if we were near fresh water, frogs croaking. The stars were brilliant those nights when fog didn’t creep along the coast.
Yep, I’d definitely vote this as one of the nicest road trips we’ve taken, and would recommend it for anyone who values independent travel and who is willing to get off the beaten track, who enjoys the outdoors and nature, and who can take care of themselves (remember, few services, places close early, and no ATM’s.)
Canadian currency is King, with few places that “do exchange”, or give you Canadian change for your US dollar. You can often find your currency exchange advantage being eaten up when your $US is spent as if it were the face value of a Canadian dollar. Yeah, go ahead and exchange as soon as you can, especially before you head to rural areas.
AirB&B was a terrific resource for us, but don’t overlook TripAdvisor, VRBO and other sources for unique yet reasonably priced places to stay. Not every place is listed with AirB&B. Remember the summer is High Season so prices will be up and places booked months in advance. Same with excursion boats– book early!
Plan to arrive at your destination and check in well before 5pm, to allow ample time to get settled, perhaps glean tips from your host around places to eat etc. Not all useful or current info is on the Internet. Interact with the locals for the real skinny on what’s what! And remember- places close EARLY, assuming you are in a town large enough to have a co-op or a store. Best to do your homework.
You will encounter road work as you drive around CBI so be prepared to stop and wait. Again, local information trumps your mapping app on this one.
Cellular service is skippy, at best, and WiFi will be hard to come by and likely not the best unless you are in Halifax or a decent sized town. Many restaurants have WiFi, or say they do, but we discovered the WiFi was often not working, “needed to be reset” or whatever. So be prepared and do NOT count on continuous access to the internet or your phone while on CBI.
Enjoy your trip!