CAPE BRETON ISLAND —No matter how well I think I know Cape Breton Island, there seems to be an unofficial rule that this magic, mysterious and ethereal land found off Canada’s East Coast still has lots of surprises.
That’s what’s happening as I walk a forested trail in Whycocomagh Provincial Park, a camping and hiking gem that spreads out grandly across a substantial hillside where visitors picnic, sleep in comfortable yurts and clamour up a series of trails to reach the summit of Salt Mountain, a prime locale for spotting soaring bald eagles. It also offers astonishing views of the Skye River Valley and the gentle, fog-free waters of the Bras d’or Lake, Canada’s inland sea.
Cape Breton is constantly lauded for its natural beauty, its thrilling coastlines and vibrant Acadian and Mi’kmaq cultures, the world-renowned Cabot Trail and the majesty of Fortress Louisbourg National Historic Site.
But to me it’s home. And it’s quieter moments like this that I cherish.
Above: Historic lighthouse and pristine beaches await travellers in Cape Breton.
I grew up 25 minutes from here, and have passed through this small village dozens of times with nary a second thought. I daresay it’s a trip, playing tourist, seeing the same place with new eyes, as we explore along the shores of the Bras d’Or, a vast UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
We’re staying at Keltic Quay, a cheerful complex of 12 cottages mere steps from the lake’s northeast shores where guests canoe, kayak and watch the constant play of colours in the hills. All the while, eagles sweep along the horizon.
The name Bras d’Or — translated, means “arm of gold” — was probably inspired by the sight of the sun hitting its barrier beaches, rocky headlands, ponds and wetlands.
True or not, there’s no doubt the scenery impresses. And it’s mixed everywhere with heaps of Cape Breton hospitality. Keltic Quay is a series of one- and two-bedroom spacious, self-catering cottages that fan out in a line around the wood-panelled, laid-back main lodge. Effervescent innkeeper Renie Rogers, with the resident hound, an affable black lab named Hank at her side, has much to do with the warm welcome and is always there to offer touring advice and suggest a novel from the bookcase she personally supplies.
Just five minutes down the road, hospitality comes in the form of hearty portions, down-home fare and a legendary seafood chowder (replete with seven—yes, seven!—types of seafood) at Charlene’s Bayside Restaurant, a beloved local eatery.
After lunch, point the car towards the village of Baddeck, where the Cabot Trail either starts or ends, depending on the direction you choose to experience the nearly 300-km road regularly named one of the world’s most beautiful drives.
Above: There's plenty of heritage trails to follow on Cape Breton.
Baddeck, though, deserves time of its own, whiling away a pleasant afternoon browsing gift, curio and ice cream shops, many concentrated along Chebucto Street; admiring the sloops and watercraft docked at the wharf; arranging a paddle with North River Kayak Tours run by outdoor guru and singer-songwriter Angelo Spinazzola; or taking to the water aboard a graceful schooner with wishbone rig with Amoeba Sailing Tours where, from the water, you can glimpse Alexander Graham Bell’s summer mansion.
To fully realize Bell’s genius, don’t miss a visit to the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, where visitors discover his contributions go far beyond the telephone. You can take part in making and flying kites from the museum’s hillside location overlooking the Bras d’Or, or take a behind-the-scenes tour into a storage room filled with fascinating artefacts, like the notebooks filled with musings that Bell kept tucked in his pocket.
From here, options abound. A one-and-a-half-hour return hike into Uisge Bàn Falls Provincial Park near Baddeck rewards with a gorgeous waterfall and endless photo opportunities. Craft beer fans will want to visit the on-farm brewery at Big Spruce Brewing to sample some of their unfiltered and unpasteurized beer. Cape Breton and Gaelic pioneer life comes to life at the Highland Village Museum in Iona. It’s another grassy hillside museum with envious views over the Bras d’Or. The 43-acre property with 11 period buildings engages all senses from the clip clop of horse hooves pulling a wagon to the smell of a peat fire.
Above: Cape Breton is famous for it down-home seafood suppers and charming hotels like Keltic Quay.
To discover more about the living culture, plan a stop at the Great Hall of the Clans Museum at Colaisde na Gàidhlig or The Gaelic College in St. Ann’s, where instruction is offered in disciplines from step dancing and piping to the Gaelic language.
Mi’kmaq culture is also rich here, with four First Nation communities hugging the shores of the Bras d’Or. It’s possible to stand in a circle at Eskasoni First Nation, the largest Mi’kmaq community in the world, as the scent of buffalo sage, cedar and tobacco wafts through the air in a smudging ceremony performed by representatives of Eskasoni Cultural Journeys.
Heritage interpreters present opportunities to learn about storytelling, music and dance, and in season, visitors can experience a cultural journey while hiking the 2.4km Goat Island Trail that takes you back to pre-settlement days, to learn about how Mi’kmaq people lived.
Of course, the island is a musical mecca, and over our weekend getaway we were lucky enough to catch performances by both singer/songwriter Keith Mullins and fiddler Colin Grant, whose lively jigs had us dancing with an unfettered smile of joy that Cape Breton seems to so well inspire.