With its salt-tanged fishing villages and mountainous interior cloaked in dense woods, Cape Breton is the prize of Nova Scotia, a green getaway splashed with lakes and lapped by the blue waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean. Besides the natural beauty to be found here, the Cabot Trail immerses you in the still vibrant Gaelic and Acadian cultures of Cape Breton.
On the island's Atlantic side, towns like Ingonish preserve the influence of the early Scottish settlers, while on the gulf side, French-speaking towns such as Chéticamp still celebrate their Acadian heritage. The Cabot Trail makes a 185-mile (297-kilometer) loop around a sizeable chunk of the island, passing through Cape Breton Highlands National Park at its northernmost point. A 367-square-mile (950-square-kilometer), flat-topped plateau cut by deep river valleys, this wilderness is home to moose, black bears, and bald eagles. Mostly, the Cabot Trail skirts the edges of the park, at times clinging to steep oceanside cliffs. The town of Baddeck, on Bras d'Or Lake, is a good starting point for the drive. From there, you can make the Cabot Trail loop in either direction, stopping to feast on fresh seafood, stay in hospitable inns and B&Bs, hike some of the 25 trails in the national park, and enjoy the scenery from the many roadside "look offs."
Begin in Baddeck
Learn about all the other things created by the inventor of the telephone at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck (559 Chebucto St.; tel. 1 902 295 2069; www.visitbaddeck.com/attractions/bell.html; fee). The museum brims with photos and memorabilia, including a full-scale reproduction of the pioneering hydrofoil Bell built during World War I. While in Baddeck, boat around Bras d'Or Lake for a view of the Bell mansion, as well as nesting bald eagles and the lush Baddeck shoreline. Amoeba Sailing Tours offers daily 90-minute sailing trips on its 67-foot (20-meter) handcrafted vessel that Captain John Bryson's parents built nearly 30 years ago. (Baddeck Wharf; tel. 1 902 295 1456; www.amoebasailingtours.com).
Take a splurge and spend the night at the classy Keltic Lodge in Ingonish Beach (Middle Head Peninsula; tel. 1 902 285 2880; www.kelticlodge.ca), located on a rocky cliff above the Atlantic Ocean just inside Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Highlights include excellent food at the Purple Thistle Dining Room and the scenic Middle Head Trail, a 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) round-trip path leading from the lodge to a windswept headland with views looking off toward Scotland. Nearby, golfers will enjoy playing the 18-hole Highlands Links, rated the best course in Canada in 2000 by Score Golf magazine.
Take the alternate scenic route between Neil's Harbour and South Harbour, which follows the coastline where the Cabot Trail veers inland. The road may not be as good, but the scenery—and the unvarnished seaside hamlets along the way (those stacks of lobster pots aren't just artists' props, you know)—more than make up for it.
Wheel over for lunch at the Rusty Anchor restaurant in Pleasant Bay (23197 Cabot Trail Rd.; tel. 1 902 224 1313) for some of the best lobster rolls on the Cabot Trail—pure lump lobster meat with just a little butter (no celery or salad dressing, thank you) served on a toasted roll. If you ask where the fresh oysters come from, restaurant co-owner Donna Timmons will tell you, "Twenty minutes down the road." On a warm day, enjoy your food out on the terrace, with its killer ocean views. While you are in the area, check out the Whale Interpretive Centre (224-1411; 104 Harbour Rd.; fee) for insight into the lives of these fascinating sea creatures.
Cape Breton Highlands Bog
For a short (20-minute) stroll to see a real Cape Breton Highlands bog, take the—ta dah—Bog Trail (park signs for most of the hiking trails along the Cabot Trail are marked with numbers corresponding to those on the official park map). Besides orchids and insect-eating plants, you might see a moose. The boardwalk trail accommodates wheelchairs and baby strollers.
Grab some fresh baguettes at Aucoin Bakery in Petit Étang (14 Lapointe Rd.; tel. 1 902 224 3220), where the bill of fare is an illustration of the cultural differences between this Acadian region and the Scottish towns on the Atlantic coast just an hour away: When asked if they had Scottish oatcakes, which are supplied with dinner at the Keltic Lodge, the young man behind the counter furrowed his brow and said, "Scottish oatcakes? What are those?"
Just outside the park, take a whale-watching cruise out of the Acadian village of Chéticamp (Whale Cruisers Ltd., Government Wharf, Cabot Trail Rd.; 800 813 3376; www.whalecruisers.com; fee). Many cruise operators guarantee a sighting or your money back. Pods of pilot whales are common, as well as bald eagles and moose feeding on the near vertical slopes where the park headlands drop into the sea. Back in Chéticamp, the boardwalk overlooking the harbor is a great place to watch the sun go down while listening to live Acadian music.
Finish With Some Celtic Fun
South of Margaree Harbour, the Cabot Trail swings inland, and the rolling farmland of the Margaree River Valley cradles the road back to Baddeck. If your timing is right, stop in for Celtic music at The Barn on the grounds of the Normaway Inn (691 Egypt Rd.; tel. 1 902 248 2987). Fiddle concerts by top Cape Breton performers are followed by dancing, with everyone welcome to join in.
Summer is the best time to drive the Cabot Trail. For local weather conditions, see www.weatheroffice.gc.ca. For general information on the route, see www.cabottrail.com or www.novascotia.com; for park information, see www.pc.gc.ca/ pn-np/ns/cbreton. The area code for Nova Scotia is 902. The attractions described above reflect a counterclockwise trip around the Cabot Trail, starting in the town of Baddeck.
—Text by Paul Martin, adapted from National Geographic Traveler