CAPE BRETON ISLAND, N.S. - This magical island that juts out of the Atlantic east of Nova Scotia, is a Canadian treasure, offering one the most awe-inspiring looped drives in the world. It’s no wonder Cape Breton is often singled out by respected publications like National Geographic as one of the world’s must-see places.
My fiancée Stephanie and I travel the legendary Cabot Trail with its breathtaking ocean vistas where massive cliffs drop off into the pounding surf. Each turn in the road reveals more stunning scenery and Stephanie can’t seem to stop saying: “It’s so beautiful,” before reminding me to “keep your eyes on the road!” It’s difficult to focus amid such splendour.
At each stop, we’re treated to the island’s legendary hospitality: strangers are treated like friends and the genuine smiles from the locals are a stark contrast to what we city-dwellers are used to.
Near the tip of the island, we pull into the historic Keltic Lodge Resort & Spa in the spectacular Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The Lodge opened in 1940 and operates from June until mid-October and plays a major role in Ingonish’s economy, both as a source of employment and a tourist attraction. It’s a quaint place with hints of history all around.
Left: The Cabot Trail is one of the wonders of the world. Right: Keltic Lodge was one of the first golf destinations on the island.
While I enjoyed a tour of Highlands Links golf course, designed by the famous Canadian architect Stanley Thompson, my fiancée relaxed and indulged in the on-site Aveda spa.
“Such a restful way to end a long day of travel,” she said after her hour-long massage.
The Links opened a year after the hotel. Originally a wartime project, it took 200 men using horses and raw muscle to create a course which still ranks among the best in the country.
Thanks in part to contemporary golf designer Ian Andrew, the course has recently been returned to its original design, much to the approval of players. The finest part of the course remains the walk between the 12th, a long par 3, and the 13th, a difficult par 4.
“It’s a Stanley Thompson pause,” explained Graham Hudson, the long-time manager of operations at the course.
No one’s in a rush to leave this scenic course, which Hudson describes as a “day of golf, not just a round of golf.”
We end our day in the resort’s famed dining room — where an open fire keeps the night chill at bay — enjoying our seared Atlantic salmon while being serenaded by a Cape Breton singer.
Above: After golf there is the rugged Nova Scotia shoreline to trek and discover.
Up early the next morning, we watch the sun rise out of the Atlantic before taking a hike along the Middle Head Trail, which starts at the hotel and winds through four kilometres of stunning wilderness before opening up at the ocean’s edge.
It’s a shame to leave Keltic Lodge, but there are other golf courses ahead. Cape Breton has some of the most spectacular courses in Canada and our next stop is one of the best, Cabot Links at Inverness.
Locals calls Inverness the “forgotten” side of Cape Breton; the town is so small, it’s easy to miss. But they say that good things come in small packages.
A former mining town (although the mine closed nearly 60 years ago), Inverness was revived by the Cabot Links project. Designed by Canadian Rod Whitman, the course opened in 2012 to much praise from industry pundits. Golfers have since flocked to this town of 1,500 to experience what many describe as “pure golf.”
As I putted out on the 18th in the dark, after finishing the last five holes with a magical sunset at my back, it was easy to see why the Links is so highly touted and why the 48-room Cabot Links Lodge is always filled. There’s even talk of extending an airstrip in nearby Margaree to accommodate (and attract more) the Americans who make up 40 per cent of the lodge’s guests.
Everyone agrees the course and resort (designed to mimic the old mind shafts that once ran under the town) have been a boon for Inverness. The resort’s three restaurants employ lots of townsfolk, while others work as caddies.
My caddy, Vince, is a semi-retired dentist who says his house overlooks the course, which drops off into the surrounding ocean. He can play the course for just $10.
Above: Cabot Links is one of those must play courses that is well worth the drive.
The resort’s restaurants — Panorama, the Bar and the Public House — serve some of the freshest seafood anywhere, most caught just a few hours earlier offshore, and the Links’ head professional Ryan Hawley boasts about the chowder served here.
Next day, Hawley takes me on a tour of Cabot Cliffs, a sister course to the Links being built just down the road. It’s set to open for limited play in July and already is being touted by The Golf Channel as one of the best courses on the planet. High praise indeed — maybe they should expand that runway so it can handle 747s!
Designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, one U.S. pundit goes so far as to say the Cliffs will debut in the Top 10 of world rankings.
Saying goodbye to the people of Inverness and Cabot Lodge is like saying farewell to old friends — the place feels like a high-end summer camp.
“See you soon,” Hawley yells as we drive off.
I can’t wait to come back.