Cape Breton is a destination that has long been the highlight of trips taken by many people to Nova Scotia, as its natural beauty and culture stand out from the rest of Nova Scotia in terms of topography and preservation. Separated from the mainland these days by a mere 24 metre wide canal to allow shipping traffic through the Strait of Canso, which has been blocked since 1955 by a causeway built from rock blasted from the scarred face of nearby Mount Porcupine, the difference between the island and the mainland is palpable, as it used to be a standalone colony before being amalgamated with Nova Scotia without its consent in 1820.
This is the land of ceilidhs, kitchen parties and a unique card game known as tarabish. A land that is home to an archaic language once in decline, but is once again on the rise, with a college dedicated to its propagation being located here. A land of rugged shorelines, massive coastal headlands and beaches with water as warm as those found in Virginia. A land that possesses some of the best golf courses in the country, and some its oldest history. Though campaigns to make it the 11th province of Canada crop up periodically, it is a well-deserved point of pride among locals that this isle is the masterpiece of Nova Scotia, if not the Maritimes.
If you miss this place, you miss a lot of what makes this province special from a traveling standpoint, so don’t rush through on your way to Newfoundland, allow the spirit of this land to slow your footsteps to a more humane pace. Your soul will be better off for it.
After crossing the infamous causeway vilified by local radio personality General John Cabot Trail, make your way into the heart of the island, stopping first at the Highland Village, located on the shores of the Bras D’ Or Lake in Iona. This living history museum brings the Gaelic past of Cape Breton back to life, as various cabins on its property document the emigration of Gaelic Scots to Cape Breton, how they adjusted to a new land and climate, and the cultural aspects that defined their everyday lives.
Further along the Bras D’ Or Lake on its northern shore is the popular resort community of Baddeck, notable for its sailing, golfing, and its position at the starting and ending point of the world famous Cabot Trail.
The soul soothing vistas found here also wooed a noted American inventor to make a home here, and the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site that is situated here tells the tale of the man who gave the world one of its most game changing inventions. Along with the telephone, Mr. Bell also pioneered hydrofoil boats and a plane that logged the first flight by a fixed-wing craft in Canada, along many other smaller experiments he conducted here in Cape Breton.
Another half hour to the east, the Gaelic College Of Arts & Crafts in St. Ann’s is at the forefront of preserving and rehabilitating the Gaelic language in the world, which was once in danger of dying out in the face of overpowering English media in the 20th century. Today, visitors can experience traditional Gaelic music, as the trademark fiddles and bagpipes that define it will make your trip here well worth the time you spend here.
If the musical performances at the Gaelic College got your toes tapping, and you happen to be fortunate enough to be traveling here during October, then seek out a performance at the critically acclaimed Celtic Colours Festival.
With venues spread across the island from Sydney to Port Hawkesbury, D’ Escousse to Ingonish, a variety of not only Celtic, but also Acadian, and jazz music will explode out of community meeting places everywhere on Cape Breton, making this festival an integral event for those seeking out the musical roots of this deeply cultural part of the world.
Finally, those looking to connect with the past history of this island can relive its most dramatic chapter at the Fortress of Louisbourg, located a half hour south and east of Cape Breton’s largest city, Sydney. Though only 25% of the fortified former town has been restored, its massive nature will take an entire day to appreciate properly, as its actors/actresses, the weathered stone ramparts, and the numerous homes and shops will be an endless source of fascination for the history buff.
Once you have completed absorbing the complex culture of this island, set out to experience its subtle yet poignant nature. A trip to Cape Breton Highlands National Park will achieve this goal handily, as the massive headlands coated with impressive stands of virgin hardwoods, which blaze a bright red, orange and yellow in early to mid October will wow even the most cynical traveler.
Pro tip: travel to the Cabot Trail via the Ceilidh Trail, which starts at the causeway in Port Hastings. The headlands here, while not as dramatic, will warm you up for the spectacle that is to come. Former coal mining towns now show off their culture in the form of kitchen parties (the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou is recommended for this purpose), offer beaches that have water that gets as warm as places such as Virginia (beaches in Port Hood and Inverness are prime examples), and play host to rivers that will give the avid angler an amazing day out casting lures (Margaree River is ideal for this).
Another great reason to take this route instead is the presence of one of North America’s best new golf courses, Cabot Links, in the town of Inverness. Being Canada’s first true links course, this layout will put a golfer’s shot making skills to the test, while distracting them with some of the best coastal views in the entire country.
Once you are in the Cape Breton Highlands, be sure to play 18 at the Highland Links as well. Located in Ingonish Beach on the eastern side of the highlands, this course has been ranked consistently as one of the best courses in Canada, in terms of difficulty and views that accompany the player as he/she strolls each painstaking crafted hole.