The Cabot Trail and Cape Breton have long been on my Canadian road trip bucket list. As my East Coast trip grew near my excitement ballooned as I was finally going to tick this trip off. This excitement was quickly deflated by friends, family, and readers of my blog. “Three days is a lot of time for Cape Breton” was a common reply to me eagerly sharing the details of my trip. This left me a bit concerned. Was I spending too much of my East Coast trip exploring Cape Breton Island? This island, after all, is not that big and the Cabot Trail can be done in a day as one of my readers pointed out. To me, and from the photos of Cape Breton I had viewed online, seeing it in a day would be a disservice. I took this as a challenge to prove the naysayers wrong.
Day 1 – Halifax to Baddeck
After three days checking out the highlights of Halifax, we made our way north. The first thing that caught me by surprise on Cape Breton Island is that it is, indeed, an island. Looking at a map this doesn’t immediately jump out at you so I always assumed it was just an odd label like calling a close family friend Aunt or calling Donald Trump president. Nope. Cape Breton is separated from the mainland by the narrow Strait of Canso. More surprisingly is that the island was not connected to the mainland until 1955 when the 2 km long Canso Causeway was completed.
Our first stop while exploring Cape Breton Island was, fittingly, a craft brewery. Tipped off by Tidehouse Brewing in Halifax we made a pitstop at Big Spruce, a certified organic brewery like no other. There you will find unfiltered and unpasteurized beer made fresh from locally grown hops on their farm. If this wasn’t clear in the description it was obvious in their tasting room. Alongside live local music was a group of workers drinking beer and picking through a bush of hops. On first sip, I was sold on Big Spruce beer. On first sight of their tasting room, I was sold on exploring Cape Breton.
Alexander Graham Bell
Warm sunshine plus live East Coast music lead to a few more pints which ate into our time in Baddeck, former summer home to one Alexander Graham Bell. The famed inventor of the telephone spent many summers in Baddeck and much of his final days inventing and experimenting in the area. This included the first flight in Canada under the British Empire on the frozen Bras d’Or Lake.
This and so much more can be explored at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. We could have easily spent a couple hours exploring this amazing museum, however, we were left to cram as much in as possible before the doors closed. My lose is forever your gain.
Our day of unpasteurized beer and Canadian history worked up an appetite. Thankfully Baddeck is home to one of the best seafood feasts you will ever have. Simply named Baddeck Lobster Suppers, this Cape Breton favourite serves up local lobsters with a side of unlimited muscles. It was by far mu favourite meal experience while exploring Cape Breton. Tuck in and don’t forget the bib.
Day 2 – Getting on (and off) The Cabot Trail
Our second day exploring Cape Breton began with the main event, the Cabot Trail. This 298 km loop takes you through old growth forests, past sandy beaches, and along oceanside cliffs with jaw-dropping vistas. It’s consistently named one of the best drives in North America and is dotted with history, trailheads, and postcard photo ops.
Although incredibly scenic at points, my favourite parts of the Cabot Trail came when we actually got off it. Our first detour took us to White Point for a short hike. This offered baron scenery which illustrates the harsh conditions locals face. This was brought home with a monument to the unknown sailor located near the end of the trail.
The drive to White Point is spectacular and allowed us to hug the coastal road on our way back to the Cabot Trail. This was only briefly as we hopped off once again to make our way to the most northern point on Cape Breton, Meat Cove. This rugged fishing village is located at the end of an 8 km dirt road and offers superior views along the way, in my experience, than those found on the Cabot Trail. This detour made the trip and was highlighted by a short 4×4 dissent to the rocky beach full of inukshuks.
Heading south from Meat Cove is where our luck with the weather ran out. While passing through the Cape Bretons Highlands National Park we were met with fog so thick I could not see the car in front of me. Thankfully this was short-lived and burned off for the true highlight of our three days, the Skyline Trail
Day 3 –Chéticamp to Mabou
We spent the night in Chéticamp which is arguably the closest town to the best the Cabot Trail has to offer, or at least that is why I think we paid a premium for it. Our accommodations at the Ocean View Motel & Chalets were nothing special and came with an odd odour and set of rules like asking guests not to move the furniture (as not to scuff the vinyl flooring from the 90’s) or cook seafood. I typically only mention hotels I recommend. This is not the case here.
The next day we made our way back north to capture some of the scenery lost in the previous day’s fog. This included a stretch of the Cabot Trail that is easily the most scenic. When you see postcards from Cape Breton, chances are you’ll see shots from this stretch of the Cabot Trail.
What I was most excited about on my time exploring Cape Breton was hiking the famous Skyline Trail. This 7 km looping trail takes visitors along an amazing boardwalk that straddles the coastal mountains and gives some of the best views in all of the Highlands National Park. While reading up on the hike while en route that morning, Erin stumbled on the tragic news that a hiker was attacked and killed by a coyote not too long ago. This did not sit well with her. At the mouth of the trail, I started to explain that the attack was rare. Just as the words “they are more scared of you than you are of them” left my mouth, a grouse flew inches from my face sending me backwards in a high-pitched squeal. “The coyotes have evolved and can fly!” We died in laughter.
Coyote concerns squashed, we were able to enjoy our day and the subsequent views. This place lives up to the hype and was indeed a highlight of my time exploring the Cabot Trail. We sat for sometime enjoying the sweeping views and as a reward, spotted several whales breaching in the distance.
With that bucket list item ticked off, we continued south and sadly, off the Cabot Trail, this time for good. We stopped for a pick-me-up at Downstreet Coffee in Inverness, a surprisingly hip coffee shop in a not so hip area, as well as at the beautiful Glenora Distillery for a quick sample.
Dinner was supposed to include live music at the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou however it was a Sunday night in the fall so there was no entertainment on. This was too bad as I had heard a night out at the Rankin family owned and operated pub is a highlight of Cape Breton for more than a few people. Just another reason to return I suppose and something to consider on your tour.
Three days too many?
At the end of my three days road tripping around Cape Breton, I was left confused. How could anyone think this was too much time? If anything, I could’ve used another day to squeeze in another hike or play around of golf. Turns out Cape Breton is home to some of Canada’s best golf courses. Again, next time.
This realization led me to believe that those I talked to prior to my trip did not do Cape Breton right, but I guess that is why am writing this. From my experience exploring Cape Breton, you need to get off the Cabot Trail, eat and drink local, dance, and relax. After all (and to my suprise), you’re on island time. There is need to rush.
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Although my time exploring Cape Breton was sponsored in part by Nova Scotia Tourism,
the experience, opinions, and fear of grouse are my own.