Photograph by Chris Rainier
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Waves crash against the rocky shores of Cape Breton, an island in Nova Scotia.
Photograph by Chris Rainier

The names of the communities in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, hint at the French, aboriginal, Scottish, Irish, and English origins of the people who live here: Baddeck, Margaree, Chéticamp, Ingonish, St. Ann’s. The land itself seems undisturbed through centuries, in all the rough and gorgeous glory of rock, sea, sky, and forest. Angelo Spinazzola, a kayak guide and native Nova Scotian (the product of a wave of Italian immigration in the 1900s) sees a symbiotic relationship between the people and the landscape. “There’s a sort of ruggedness that feeds into the people, and a softness and gentleness in the hills that contributes as well.”

When to Go: July and August for the best weather. Both leaves and weather start turning in September and winter weather rolls in by mid-October during the Celtic Colours festival, but the music makes it worth the gamble. Explains Spinazzola, who’s also a musician, “People come from Scotland and Ireland to regain their roots.” Golfers hit the coastal greens at the rugged Cabot Links or the more established Highland Links whenever possible.

Where to Stay: The Keltic Lodge sets the gold standard for location (mountain on one side, sea on the other) while Chanterelle Inn was one of the first, and still few, to focus on organic and local food. Smaller still are the English Country Gardens and the Baddeck Heritage House.

How to Get Around: It’s possible to drive the 300 miles of the Cabot Trail in one afternoon as it loops around the northern tip of Cape Breton for great coastal vistas. (Daredevils drive counterclockwise to be closer to the edge.) Or follow the Ceilidh Trail through the Celtic heartland on the western side of the island. Better still, linger a few days and drive, bike, or hike between towns and campsites. Kayak up the coast to whale watch, camp in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, hike along the newly refurbished Celtic Shores Coastal Trail, and then join a cèilidh (traditional Gaelic music, dance, and storytelling party) in Mabou.

Where to Eat or Drink: At the Glenora Inn & Distillery in Glenville many of the desserts are spiked with their signature whisky. Buy fresh, local seafood to cook yourself or arrange for a lobster boil on the beach.

What to Buy: The artisans on St. Ann's Harbour loop sell photography, pottery, and pewter. In Indian Brook, John C. Roberts’s leather fire buckets are ruggedly handsome.

What to Listen to Before You Go: The Barra McNeils Celtic Colours Collection (2012), a musical collaboration between Cape Breton’s premier Celtic music concert performers—the Barra McNeil siblings—and guest artists appearing at the 2011 Celtic Colours festival.

Fun Fact: Many of the area’s Acadians who were expelled during the French and Indian War in the 1700s moved to Louisiana, where they became known as Cajuns.

Nyka Alexander was born in Ottawa, raised in Montreal, and lives in Toronto when she isn’t becoming more Canadian by traveling abroad.