Sunday, March 2, 2014
A Guide to Cape Breton Island
Just a little bit east off the Coast of mainland Nova Scotia in eastern Canada is the tiny island of Cape Breton. While the island belongs to the province of Nova Scotia and is a part of Canada, it is nothing like any other place in the country…or in the world for that matter. It is hard to know where to begin in telling you what the island has to offer because there is so much. The culture, the history, the scenery, the beaches, the hiking, the food, the nightlife! One can travel to Cape Breton Island and enjoy a taste of all of these things in just one day if they wanted to. Ideally, a good solid week is usually enough to get a good taste of the island. Longer is even better. And you will want to stay longer because the island has that effect on people; they come, they fall in love with the peaceful landscapes, the isolated beaches, the down-to-earth people and the lively nightlife. They leave with a heavy heart. Most come back again and again, some come back and never leave.
Best Places to Visit in Cape Breton
Locally known as Cape Breton Island’s unofficial capital, the city of Sydney may be small (with only about 30,000 people) but there is much to see and do. The Sydney Boardwalk is a great place to start your visit. This boardwalk runs along a section of the harbour downtown and in the warmer months, buskers gather to show off their various talents to the crowds that gather on warm summer nights. It’s a great place to watch the boats coming and going, to watch a starry night sky or enjoy a plate of Fuzzy’s Fries or an ice cream float or some homemade fudge from the Cape Breton Fudge Co located nearby. A few small museums, like Cossitt House and St. Patrick’s Museum, are located in the downtown area and these are great places to learn more about the history. Come nightfall, one can learn about the darker side of the local history by taking the guided Ghosts and Legends of Historic Sydney walking tour. The city is also home to many restaurants (with both ethnic and local fare), cafes, bars, retail shops and a casino.
Glace Bay is a mere twenty-minute drive from downtown Sydney and just embarking on a tour of the Miner’s Museum makes the trip worth while. Upon entering the museum, visitors can see a number of exhibits that depict the life of the average coal miner from the time coal started to be mined in the area until the industry ceased to exist in 2001. The next step in a visit to the museum sees visitors donning a cape and hard hat in preparation to enter a real coal mine complete with all the fixings that a miner would see during a typical shift. The guide, a retired coal miner himself, has lots of stories to tell about the camaraderie that developed between miners and the dangers that awaited them around every turn. I highly recommend taking a tour of the museum on a day when the famous Men of the Deeps hold one of concerts in the auditorium. This choir made up of retired coal miners put on a spectacular show that can bring grown men to tears!
The name Mira may sound familiar to you and that is probably because you’ve heard about it in the song “Song for the Mira” written by Allister MacGillivray and performed by numerous artists over the years. Mira is not far from the urban center of Sydney but the peaceful and quiet surroundings make it seem like you are in the middle of nowhere. One can spend a perfect summer day walking sandy Mira Gut Beach, sailing down the Mira River or relaxing on the banks of the river at Mira Provincial Park. Two Rivers Wildlife Park is also located in the area and visitors can see many of the wild animal species – mountain lion, coyote, wolf, otters, moose and reindeer - that make the park their home.
This is one of the most remote areas of the island. Deep woods, long sandy beaches, desolate coastline and a sparse population make this an ideal place to get away and admire nature without any distractions. There are a few historical museums and provincial parks in and around the town of St. Peter’s but, for the most part, you will be surrounded by pure wilderness. Morrison’s Beach is a great place to spend an evening roasting marshmallows over a fire and watching the night sky and if you like to fish, some of the best fishing holes are located in the area.
If you only have the choice of visiting a couple of places on Cape Breton Island, be sure to include Louisbourg in your itinerary. The town’s claim to fame is the reconstructed 18th century French fortress that stands on the edge of the town. When it was originally constructed, it was much bigger than what is there today but The Fortress of Louisbourg was once a bustling fortified town until the English attached and seized it for good in the mid 1700’s. Today, visitors can walk through the fortress and experience what it was like to live in those times. Some original artifacts are on display throughout the grounds and guides are dressed in period costume. Even the restaurant serves meals that would have been typical of meals served in the 18th century. After spending a morning or afternoon at the Fortress, relax and take a cool dip at Kennington Cove Beach or have a picnic near the old lighthouse at the other end of town.
There is so much to say about Baddeck, I don’t know where to begin! First of all, the town itself is right in the middle of the island and makes for the perfect central destination from which to embark on various adventures. Everything on the island is about an hour’s drive or less away from Baddeck. Baddeck is a resort town popular with movie stars (Madonna, Sylvester Stalone, Sean Connery just to name a few) and it is the world-class sailing on the Bras d’Or Lakes, the fine dining restaurants and the quiet and relaxing nature of the town that draws them and many visitors each year to the town. However, you do not need to be a famous movie star to enjoy (and afford) all that Baddeck has to offer. The Yellow Cello offers delicious and affordable meals and snacks in a cozy café that hosts live entertainment. A five-minute boat ride takes visitors across a small bay to Kidston Island where there is a beach, a lighthouse and some walking trails. For a mere twenty-five bucks, one can enjoy a sail on the Bras D’or lakes onboard the beautiful schooner The Amoeba and see bald eagles and Alexander Graham Bell’s stately mansion, Beinn Bhreagh. Speaking of Alexander Graham Bell, did you know that this famous inventor of the telephone and many other inventions once lived and worked in Baddeck. It’s true and visitors can see his work and learn all about his life at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum.
Ingonish is another must-see on any visit to Cape Breton Island. The town is at the opening of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and is along the famous Cabot Trail. While in Ingonish, visitors can enjoy a number of long, sandy beaches including Ingonish Beach, North Bay Beach and Black Brook. A number of walking trails are located in the area. Franey Mountain, Warren Lake, Broad Cove Mountain, Middle Head and Sqeaker’s Hole are just of few of those trails. Maryanne Falls is a great place to admire two waterfalls and take a swim in one of the freshwater pools below and freshwater swimming is also available at Warren Lake. Because Ingonish is a hub along the Cabot Trail, there are a number of restaurants, gift shops and places to stay such as the Keltic Lodge Resort and Spa which is one of the most famous and nicest resorts on the entire island. The Highland Links Golf Course has been rated as one of the top ten golf courses in North America. When you are ready to move along the Cabot Trail towards the next major hub on that route, you will pass through some of the most beautiful scenery in all of Canada. In fact, the Cabot Trail, with its rolling hills, rocky coastline, and deep valleys that meet the sea, has been voted one of the most scenic drives in North America. Along this route, some can’t miss stops include Gampo Abbey Monastery and The Skyline Trail which is said to be one of the most scenic walking trails in all of Nova Scotia. A number of other hiking trails, picnic parks, beaches, gift shops and waterfalls are also located on this 100-kilometer-long stretch of scenic highway.
The Cape Breton Highlands National Park ends where Cheticamp begins but the beauty of the Cabot Trail continues on through the town and beyond. This small French/Acadian fishing village with its colorful houses, well-manicured lawns and rocky coastline sits at the foothills of the surrounding mountains. The town, although small, is a major hub in the area. Grocery stores, retail shops, coffee shops, bars, hotels and a number of restaurants are scattered about. Several museums, a world-renowned golf course and a scenic boardwalk are all located in the village. Camping is available at the opening of the Highlands Park and near the sandy beach at Plage St. Pierre. Several hiking trails, including La Buttereau, are located near the entrance to the town going into the national park and some of the most beautiful sunsets on the island are seen from the look-offs and beaches in that area too. Heading west on the Cabot Trail the town of Cheticamp fades away and the scenery gives way to rolling meadows on one side and the raging sea on the other. At the bridge at Margaree Harbour, you can go one of two ways but they both end up in the same place. The road that goes towards Chimney Corner is a windy one along the coast. Whale Cove Beach, with its warm waters and sandy bottom is a great place to take a nice dip on a hot day. The other route runs through a forested area with old homes and fields. No matter which way you go, you eventually end up in the town of Inverness.
Inverness is mostly known for its long, sandy beach that runs from one end of the town to the other. A boardwalk and beachside café welcome visitors at one end and the other end is a quiet, windswept, lonely stretch of Atlantic coastline with cute little cabins perched atop the dunes. The town itself is lined with restaurants, shops and cafes and a newly built golf course has been added to the island’s list of world-class courses that are said to be among the best in North America. Inverness was once a mining town and visitors can learn more about this part of the town’s history by visiting the Inverness Miner’s Museum.
Hotels in Cape Breton Island
Where to Eat in Cape Breton
When it comes to places to have a great meal in Cape Breton, the choices are endless. There are many different types of restaurants all over the island from small take-out canteens to fine dining. Coastal Waters in Ingonish offers a wide range of items. The plates are big, the prices won’t break the bank and the staff is friendly and accommodating. Le Gabrielle in Cheticamp is a unique restaurant inside a lighthouse-inspired building that offers a wide range of local favorites including fresh seafood, pasta dishes, wraps and many more. The Chowder House in Neil’s Harbour is home to some of the Island’s best seafood dishes and the restaurant overlooks the scenic rocky coastline that surrounds the small fishing village. The Red Shoe Pub in Mabou is one of the most famous pubs/restaurants in Cape Breton for a number of reasons including the fact that it is owned by some of the members of the most famous musical families on the island, The Rankins. Patrons are often graced by performances by some of the most accomplished musicians from Cape Breton. Various seafood dishes, fresh salads and baked goods are just some of the delicious down-home items that can be found on the menu. Amedeos in downtown Sydney specializes in authentic homemade Italian Cuisine served in a stylish and comfortable bistro. Governor’s is located on the Sydney Waterfront and serves up a variety of local favorites and patrons can enjoy live entertainment during their meal on many nights during the week.
How to Stay Safe in Cape Breton
Cape Breton is not a dangerous place to travel to by any means. However, just like you are at home or anywhere that you travel, its important to always be familiar with your surroundings and be aware of potential dangers that could occur. Keep an eye on your belongings and lock your car when you are away from it. During the late summer, storms sometimes creep up the coast and cause high sea levels and large waves so it is very important that you stay away from the coastline during these storms. In the highlands, in particular, bear and coyote encounters are common but rarely do these animals interact with humans. If you do cross the path of one of these wild animals, try to make a large beeline around them, scream or make loud noises if approached and make sure to always have a stick or bear spray with you when you are hiking or camping in the backcountry. Moose and deer often wander onto the highways in many areas of the island. Reducing your speed and keeping a sharp eye on the road and ditches in these areas are good practices to ensure you do not hit one of these animals.
How to Save Money in Cape Breton
While it may cost a bit to get to Cape Breton depending on where you are traveling from, generally, it is quite cheap to travel around the island once you are there. If you want to save money on food, try eating at one of the great diner’s that offer delicious food at cheap prices like Mike’s Lunch in Glace Bay or Fitzgerald’s near the Seal Island Bridge. There is a hostel located in Pleasant Bay that offers very cheap accommodations and camping is an option during the summer months if you want to save money on accommodations.
Finally, Don’t leave Cape Breton without attending a Ceilidh, which is a traditional Celtic gathering with fiddles, dancing and singing. The biggest Ceilidh that is held every year in October is the world-renowned Celtic Colors Festival which features traditional Celtic artists from all over the world who converge on the island for ten days of non-stop music and cultural events in various venues all over Cape Breton. If you travel to Cape Breton during this time of year, be sure to take a drive around the Cabot Trail because the area is known for its beautiful fall foliage.