Though not many Irish have heard of Cape Breton, which is located in the province of Nova Scotia on Canada’s east coast, we are heavily dependent on tourism – and we do tourism very well. Cape Bretoners are known for their hospitality, friendliness and welcoming nature. Sure in the past, any traveller who made the effort to visit our remote communities deserved a warm welcome – we were not always very accessible.
This has changed, though, and in the past few years the airline Westjet introduced a seasonal (May to October) direct flight from Dublin to Halifax (the capital city of Nova Scotia). For me, this means it has become easier than ever to travel home to Cape Breton, which is a three-hour drive from the airport.
Cape Breton is known as the Celtic Heart of North America. Many of us are descended from Scottish colonists (they mostly arrived in the early 1800s). We retained our culture and developed our own style of traditional Celtic music, regional Gaelic dialects and a tradition of oral storytelling, song and ceilidhs (which in the Cape Breton context are usually kitchen parties with singing, drinking and lots of music).
Today, our musical culture can be experienced in small community hall dances or in larger venues. The Celtic Colours International Music Festival takes place each October when our forests, which blanket the island, turn a vibrant red, orange and yellow. Celtic musicians from around the world visit to perform, share stories and party.
A strong indigenous culture thrived in Cape Breton before any Europeans ever stepped foot on its shores. To the Mi’kmaw First Nations people, who have always called Atlantic Canada home, Cape Breton Island is known as Unama’kik (Land of Fog). A visit to a Mi’kmaq cultural centre is essential. You can experience Mi’kmaw culture first-hand (which include powwows, storytelling, art and drumming ceremonies) in places throughout the island, but particularly in the areas of Membertou and Eskasoni.
In the 1500s, groups of Acadian French settled here and in other parts of Nova Scotia. For centuries, the French and English were at war over the region, with the English eventually winning. They expelled most of the Acadians; many of whom ended up living in the Bayou region of Louisiana. However, pockets of communities remain and in Cape Breton you can experience their distinct culture, which includes art, crafts, music, food and language, in the areas around Cheticamp and Arichat.
1 Drive the Cabot Trail
The Cabot Trail is a 298km loop which winds through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The trail generally starts and ends in the village of Baddeck, which is found on the shores of the Bras d’Or Lakes (one of Canada’s largest inland seas).
The Cabot Trail takes you through valleys and over mountains, with breathtaking ocean views, quaint fishing villages, valleys (including my own community of Middle River) and chances to stop, hike, take in the scenery and see wildlife. There are larger towns along the route where you can book accommodation and eat, and there are places to camp within the national park as well.
2 Soak up the sun
I love a good beach and in Cape Breton we have something for any kind of beach lover. Try Port Michaud on the south coast if you’re into surfing (or searching for sand dollars). If you have small kids, I recommend the warm, sandy and sheltered beaches on the west side of the island. If nature and waves are your thing, try the beaches in and around the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
3 Work on your golf swing
Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs are both top-rated golf courses found near the town of Inverness. They offer sea views and make use of the natural landscape – the way golf courses were originally designed. Cabot Cliffs is currently number 11 on Golf Digest’s World’s 100 greatest golf courses.
On the other side of the island near the village of Ingonish, Highlands Links is located within the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and offers a unique golf experience in undisturbed nature and stunning scenery.
4 Hike, swim, kayak
There are many maintained trails throughout the Cape Breton Highlands National Park for hikers of any age or ability, but the most famous is called the Skyline Trail.
This loop takes you on a roughly 5km walk at the very top of the Cape Breton highlands. It finishes with ethereal views of the ocean and the Cabot Trail, and hikers will almost certainly encounter some local wildlife. This hike is kid-friendly and accessible, with public toilets, a car park and a boardwalk for much of the journey.
The Margaree River valley is ideal for fishing salmon, swimming or using an inner tube (like an inflatable ring) for a leisurely cruise. Live Life in Tents (livelifeintents.com) is a local business specialising in eco-friendly hiking and camping adventures and can rent out tubes for those interested. In North River, you can go on a sea kayaking adventure with North River Kayaking Tours (northriverkayak.com). Guides are friendly, fun and provide snacks along the way as they safely guide you along beautiful St Anne’s Bay.
Where to eat
If you arrive during lobster season (May to July), indulge in a fresh lobster feed – you can even buy your own fresh from the boat. Otherwise, most local restaurants will offer traditional lobster dinners.
I’d recommend the Baddeck Lobster Suppers, The Lobster Galley in St Anne’s or The Rusty Anchor in Pleasant Bay. It’s pricey (a minimum of $30.00CAN per lobster dinner), but if you’re a seafood lover, it’s worth it.
Chowder is another popular dish, my favourite being found at Charlene’s Bayside Restaurant in Whycocomagh. We also have great clams, mussels, scallops, grilled haddock dinners, salt cod fishcakes and fish and chips (no mushy peas though as we serve ours with tangy coleslaw).
Cape Breton oatcakes are popular (they are sweeter than the Scottish version) as are our buttermilk biscuits (similar to scones). The Herring Choker in Nyanza, The Dancing Goat in Margaree and The Highwheeler in Baddeck are all great places to get a sandwich on homemade bread and sweet treats to pack for day trips.
Local Nova Scotia beers, wines, spirits and ciders can be found all over, but in Nyanza you will find Big Spruce Brewery, which specialises in organic craft beer. During the summer months, they have a food truck on-site, which serves a variety of foods to enjoy with a cold pint.
See cbisland.com for more information
Where to stay
There are many accommodation options all around the island, from high-end resorts to eco-yurts and camping options.
The Markland Coastal Beach Cottages in Dingwall is a beautiful spot with self-catering cottages, an outdoor pool and a local beach. It’s found just outside the national park (starting at around €125 per cottage)
The Inverary Resort is in the village of Baddeck and offers classic hotel rooms with an indoor pool and spa, an on-site pub, restaurant and activities (starting from around €130 per room per night).
Archer’s Edge Luxury Glamping in Judique offers picturesque dome camping with sea views and no WiFi or television for a tranquil escape (around €180 per dome per night).