ON THE CABOT TRAIL IN CAPE BRETON – It’s like going back to your high school reunion and finding that sweetheart from grade nine even prettier than you remembered.
I drove the Cabot Trail once before. But it was with three kids and my wife in a mini-van maybe 16 years ago. They’ve since changed, of course, as kids do, but at the time I remember them looking at my wife and I as we drove along beautiful beaches and high sea cliffs and thinking we were crazy.
“We’re not view people,” my daughter said, or words to that effect, before going back to her book.
This time I was on my own schedule. I pulled off when I saw interesting roads snaking down to the water. I took scenic bypasses. I stopped and took photos. And more photos. And more photos. And I slept at the beautiful Keltic Lodge in Ingonish instead of a small rental cottage.
If you come up by way of Inverness on the west coast and aim to drive the Cabot Trail in a clockwise direction, which is what a lot of folks recommend, your first experience on what is the actual Cabot Trail (and not the Ceilidh Trail or other highways, beautiful as they are) will be in Margaree Forks. The road takes you through a beautiful inland valley with stately homes in clearings of old trees; mostly white homes with red or green or black trim for the most part, folks here still being somewhat traditional.
If it was Ontario the valey would be a destination in itself. Instead, it’s an appetizer; the prelude to the big show folks come from all over the planet to see.
The road soon towards toward the Gulf of St. Lawrence and you reach a great turnoff at Cap LeMoine. And it’s a beauty; tall cliffs and spiky golden grass and white waves on brown/red rock and a seemingly endless gulf.
I took a photo of a Swiss biker who was enjoying a fine, 20 degree day in September. He grinned and pointed up to the sun. “Nice weather.”
In Cheticamp, I pulled into the Tres Pignons (pignons means gables; everyone asks) centre, which celebrates rug hooking and local art and crafts. They’re passionate about the work of Elizabeth LeFort, who made hundreds of intricate rugs over the years.
Among the works on display are rugs showing all the Canadian prime ministers up to Pearson, along with scenes of Cartier, Cabot, Vancouver and other explorers. I’m told there are 416 colours in the rug and that it took nearly a year to finish.
One of the rugs, showing the resurrection of Jesus, has 20 million loops or stitches in it.
“She was a machine,” my guide said of LeFort.
I stopped at Aucoin’s bakery outside of town for good cinnamon rolls and excellent chocolate croissants. I soon crossed into Cape Breton National Park and get one of those classic Cabot Trail views you see in the magazines: a massive red cliff on the right and a grey road rising into the Nova Scotia sky. Further on I turned into a “look-off” where someone has placed a red Muskoka chair, as well as a plaque to remember the war dead who will no longer be able to gaze at the view I’m drinking in. I nodded at the plaque and said thank you to our armed service folks and headed back to the trail.
The road winds inland and you pass small waterfalls cascading over ancient rock and drive through beautiful valleys before coming back to the coast near Pleasant Bay. Unlike my recent drive along Lake Superior, there are TONS of places to pull over and soak in the scenery or take a photo or just listen to the silence.
The Rusty Anchor has a nice patio if you’re in the mood for lunch and the weather is good. Otherwise dine inside and admire the views from there. There also are nearby craft shops selling quilts, pretty jewelry, locally made pottery and soft watercolours.
I’d seen the odd sign for the Cabot’s landing historical site so I pulled off around Cape North to check it out. I drove maybe 10 minutes off the Cabot Trail, past a pretty marsh, and then saw a small sign for the landing site. There’s grass to run your dogs or kids and there are picnic benches, but it’s on the dingy side to be honest.
If you make the trip you’ll find a couple of small plaques commemorating Cabot’s landing here (they think) on June 24, 1497 and there’s bust of him on a stone pillar. There’s also a flagpole that looks like the leaning tower of Pisa with the Nova Scotia colours waving in the wind.
I know Cabot (John Cabot to use, Giovanni Caboto or Cabota to those who knew him in his native Genoa) got to North America five years after that Columbus guy. But he was sent by the King of England and his landing is one f the reasons there’s a North America and a Canada. He’s certainly a main reason for us speaking English.
And this is all he gets? I know we Canadians are humble (sometimes), but a momentous occasion like Cabot’s landing deserves far more than this paltry showcase.
Still, it’s a pretty spot with a long, long beach and far-reaching views of the Cape Breton headlands.
Back on the trail, I veered off a couple km’s to check out the village of Dingwall and wondered what local denizens call themselves. Dingwallites? Dingwallians? I thought about stopping at the tiny St. Paul’s Island museum but instead opted to get back on the main road. I only had gone a couple miles when I saw another turnoff, this time for a scenic route past White Point.
The tourism folks had suggested this route to me so I pulled off and enjoyed a tremendously beautiful drive that most folks miss by staying on the main Cabot Trail. It’s a glorious drive that feels like the coast of Newfoundland with small fishing villages and craggy cliffs. White Point is glorious in the distance from the road above and Neil’s Haven has lovely views out to the Atlantic and another war memorial that I stop at.
I pulled in for the night at Keltic Lodge (see photo below right), an old-style place on a tremendous bit of headland, with glorious views of Ingonish. The grounds are well-kept with lots of flowers and I had a great room with soft browns and a nice-sized bath and a large, walk-in closet.
There was a great guitar player in the bar before dinner, which is served in a lovely dining room with great views of the bay and super friendly service. I had very good scallops in a Thai sauce as an appetizer but then had a tough piece of monkfish and uninspired lobster ravioli. Breakfast was much better, with lots of pastries and sausages and all that, plus great blueberry pancakes.
South of Ingonish the next day, I drove a few hundred metres to a small park at Cape Smokey and was treated to an unbelievable expanse of open sea and views of the Cabot Trail snaking along towering, rugged cliffs.
It’s an incredible spot, and the views are even better if you walk 40 or 50 metres down one of the small paths towards the water. Don’t worry, there’s a fence to keep you from toppling into the Atlantic.
The drive on the other side of the trail is probably more celebrated, but I love this section.
Down in Baddeck on Bras d’Or lake (which is HUGE, by the way), I stopped at the Alexander Graham Bell centre/museum and learned about his exploration of flight and love of fast hydrofoils, as well as that invention called the telephone. I sipped on good, strong coffee and soak up the sun on the patio at a café called Bean There, then wolfed down a slice of pizza at Tom’s before heading back towards mainland Nova Scotia, if you will.
South of Baddeck and not on the Cabot Trail per se I took a turnoff for a place called Little Narrows. I pay $5.50 for a ferry that takes maybe a minute, then head to the “town” of Iona.
I’d been told to check out McCormack Park and Plaster Cove down near Iona. And I’m glad I did. The drive reveals lovely views of Bras d’Or lake, which goes on forever. Just past the bridge to Great Narrows I spotted a small, chalky white cliff in a pretty bay called Plaster Cove. Someone has built a tiny white church on the side of the bay, compete with tiny white crosses. There’s a small wooden shack surrounded by a pretty green lawn but the doors are locked and I couldn't quite tell what’s inside.
I was later told a local woman ran the place as a craft shop and fixed it all up to look nice. But a guy at a tiny convenience store near the ferry told me he thought Rita McNeil had something to do with it. I may never know. But it was beautiful and fun and kinda mysterious.
Reluctantly I drive back over the Canso Causeway, leaving Cape Breton. My final destination was the Pictou Lodge Beach Resort, a nice spot with cottage-like units overlooking a pretty bay on the north shore of Nova Scotia, and only five minutes from the ferry to PEI.
It would be a great place for kids as they have bikes you can use and lots of open space to play, and even a small pond in addition to the beach. The lobby has an enormous ceiling and wood beams and feels like an old-time lodge.
Dinner was mussels in a tomato broth with spicy chorizo sausage (not very spicy to be honest) and a good steak perfectly cooked, with onions and mushrooms on top, and excellent service.
A great, great spot with beautiful views and good food and comfortable units. Not to mention a good-sized TV and a nice bath and a mini-fridge and Wi-Fi that worked well, even on my front porch.
NEXT UP: PEI