Exploring the beautiful Cabot Trail – Nova Scotia

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Cabot Trail

We almost had to nix our planned sightseeing along the Cabot Trail.  When we awoke that morning a heavy fog was hiding the Seal Bridge, which we had been enjoying every morning for the past few days.  But knowing how fickle fog can be, we hoped the trail would be clear (or clearing) as we proceeded.  Hey, this is the whole reason we drove up to the northern part of Nova Scotia!

North Sydney KOA Cape Breton

Heavy Fog enveloped the island!

Cape Breton Island has divided its unspoiled land into scenic drives – Fleur-de-Lis Trail, Ceilidh Trail, Bras d’Or Lake and Cabot Trail.  We chose to tackle the longest and most popular Cabot Trail, a 186-mile scenic loop through Cape Breton Highlands National Park.  It connects previously isolated communities consisting of Acadian, Irish and Scottish people.  The trail is named in honor of John Cabot, who discovered Cape Breton Island in 1497.

As we had hoped, the fog began to clear somewhat as we drove several miles from our “HQ” at the North Sydney KOA toward Baddeck. We entered the trail from the west side – traveling counter-clockwise.

There is so much to see and do on this long drive that one could spend several days exploring the area.  Most folks do it in one very long day, but considering the numerous overlooks with beautiful vistas to take in – and many hiking trails to conquer – we prepared for a slower two-day adventure.  We planned for an overnight stop at a B&B near the mid-way point at the top of the island.  I’ll share with you just the highlights of the natural beauty that comprises this gorgeous landscape.

The Cabot Trail

The Cabot Trail

Upon entering the trail, we briefly stopped at St. Ann’s Gaelic College, a school devoted to the study and preservation of the Gaelic language and Celtic arts and culture.  This was the first time we had heard the terms “Gaelic” and ‘Celtic”, and it turns out that Cape Breton is known for its history of living gaelic communities.  The school continues to contribute to its preservation.  After the quick stop we could not utter a single word in Gaelic, even though the woman in the office tried to teach us a few words.  But Steve enjoyed the Celtic music playing in the background!

St. Ann's Gaelic College.

The beautiful grounds at St. Ann’s Gaelic College.

After several miles we spotted the only wildlife we would see on this journey, a majestic bald eagle!  I say “the only wildlife”, since despite several signs warning of Moose in the area, we never saw one crossing the highway or while we were hiking.  Darn!

Bald Eagle

Ocean scenery, steep cliffs and beautiful beaches dominate the eastern side of the trail facing the Atlantic ocean.  We took our first hike on the Middlehead trail in the Ingonish area, which follows a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean.  At the end of the trail we were rewarded with great views of the Atlantic waters crashing onto the rocks at the bottom of the cliff.

Cape Smokey, Cape Breton

Cape Smokey, viewed from Middlehead Trail

Rocky bluffs and shallow coves characterized the eastern side as we trudged along.

We passed homes with whimsical and colorful yard decor in the Neil’s Harbor area.

Neils Harbor, Cabot Trail

Cabot Trail

We ended our first day with mussels and cold beers at Meat Cove, which is at the end of a dirt road and as far as you can go on land to the north in Nova Scotia.  It is highland vista, serene and very remote, but a spectacular place.  The road ends at a small campground that would be a great place to stay in a tent or small trailer, but we wouldn’t bring Betsy out here!

Meat Cove, Cabot Trail

Cold beer at the end of the road

Meat cove, Cabot Trail

Now this is what you call camping!

The following day we continued on with our sightseeing, leaving the northern end of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.  A third of the Cabot Trail runs through the national park along the coast and over the highlands.  We climbed the fog-covered mountain and stopped at some viewpoints to see canyons and plateaus where possible.  High winds were our companion as we drove around the higher elevations of the trail.

Pleasant Bay, Cabot Trail

Overlooking Pleasant Bay

Despite the winds, I took a hike and followed the Skyline Trail, described as a dramatic headland overlooking the rugged Gulf Coast.  But not today – I could barely stand on the boardwalk as the wind was really trying to blow me over!  Steve was smart enough to stay nice and warm in the car, so I asked another friendly tourist to take a picture of me with my hair up in the air.

Cabot Trail

Looking down the northwestern coast of the trail.

As the road twisted along the coast we were brought to Cheticamp, home of the Acadians.  They are direct descendants of the original Acadians expelled by the British from Nova Scotia in the 17 century.  Their preservation of their history and culture gave this area a personality of its own.  The Acadian Flag is proudly displayed at just about every home.

We bought mussels and lobsters at Margaree Harbour, locally called “The French Side.”  While exploring the harbor we noticed some unusual stacked triangular rocks that resembled clams:

Margaree Harbour, Cabot Trail

Margaree Harbour and the yummy seafood we bought to take back home offered a fitting end to our Cabot Trail adventure.

East Margaree, The French Side

East Margaree- “The French Side”

Two days was barely enough to really experience the unique culture and diverse heritage around the trail, but we think we covered it fairly well.  Although it is easy to compare the Cabot Trail with the California and Oregon coastlines, we think the Cabot Trail just has a character, history, and beauty all its own.

As we reached home, the rain began to approach.  It proceeded to pour almost non-stop for the next three days, a bummer end to our time in Nova Scotia.  The good news is we accomplished everything we had planned before it hit!

Seal Bridge, North Sydney, Cape Breton

Vegging in front of the “big screen”.

Next up:  Back to New Brunswick and then goodbye for now, Canada!

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Out and About at Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

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Fortress of Louisbourg

On this leg of our Maritimes adventure we headed up north to Cape Breton Island, the northernmost island of Nova Scotia.  Cape Breton Island accounts for 18.7% of the province’s total land area.  As we drove along, we noticed that this part of Nova Scotia is pretty much uninhabited, unspoiled and teeming with history and diverse cultural heritage.  And as is common in this part of the Maritimes, the colorful signage grabbed our attention along the way.

The island is connected to mainland Nova Scotia by the long rock-fill Canso Causeway, which on the day of our drive had some traffic due to ongoing road construction.

Cape Breton Island

Our route around Cape Breton Island

The traffic backup turned out to be a blessing, however, because Betsy was mysteriously running a bit warm and we just happened to be sitting in front of a nice big fuel station.  We filled Betsy with diesel while waiting for the next batch of motorists to be flagged through, and wondered why she was running warm just a few days after we’d had the compressor hose repaired.  Steve has an idea what’s going on and will keep an eye on it.  There are no repair shops nearby, and we don’t intend to go back to Halifax unless we have to (as of this writing we made it back to the USA with no more overheating issues, which frustrates Steve as the problem is intermittent with no apparent pattern).  Oops, I got sidetracked with Betsy’s woes.

Back to Cape Breton Island.  As we settled into our campsite with a fantastic view, we calmed down and began planning our activities.  We decided to visit the five cities in Cape Breton: Sydney, Baddeck, Chéticamp, Louisbourg and North Sydney.  The base camp for our week stay was at the North Sydney/Cabot Trail KOA.  Click here if interested in Steve’s review of this nice campground.

Our first excursion was to Louisbourg, where this largest historical reconstruction in North America took us back in time.  The Fortress of Louisbourg is a Parks Canada Historic Site, and this year Louisbourg is celebrating the 300th anniversary of its founding in 1713.  We joined a guided tour and learned that the fortress was built to protect France’s interest in the new world and its massive fishing industry against Great Britain in the 18th century.

Fortress Of Louisbourg

Painting of Fortress Of Louisbourg in 18th century

Reconstructed Fortress of Louisbourg

Reconstructed Fortress of Louisbourg of today

While walking around the streets and going inside period homes, we were treated with the sights and sounds of the 18th century as costumed interpreters, re-enactors demonstrated to us what it was like way back then.  The “maid servant” showed us the layers of her outfit and advised that they usually only bathed annually during those times.  Ewe, can’t imagine that!

Fortress of Louisbourg

Approach to the Fortress

We also smelled gunpowder as we watched musket and  cannon firing during a military demonstration.

We enjoyed our tour of the fortress and thought the reconstruction that took decades to complete was  very well done.  We learned a lot of Canadian history on this day.

Dauphin Demi-Bastion

Dauphin Demi-Bastion

In Baddeck, the most famous resident was Alexander Graham Bell, who built two homes on his estate called “Beinn Bhreagh”, Scottish Gaelic for “Beautiful Mountain.”  We were familiar with him as the inventor of the telephone, of course, but he was much more.  Going through the exhibits at the museum, we learned that he completed many other major achievements while in Baddeck.  They included a hydrofoil which set a long-lasting speed record for watercraft, and assisting with the first manned flight of an aircraft in the British Commonwealth.  He conducted many kite-flying experiments, and invented several devices used in the medical, aeronautical and marine industries.  A very interesting man!

wpid16397-2013-08-27-CBCN-1100234.jpg

Full-scale mockup of hydrofoil co-designed by Graham-Bell.

In Sydney, the port city of Cape Breton, the world’s largest fiddle was on display at the port.  It stands 55 ft. tall and is made from painted steel which brings it weight up to a hefty eight tons.  The Big Ceilidh Fiddle was created to recognize the pre-eminence of fiddle musicians, who have contributed so much to the musical heritage here.  Fiddle music was first brought over by Scottish immigrants over 200 years ago.

North Sydney has a couple of food stops across the street from each other that caught our attention:

The view from our campsite just kept getting better as the sun began to set.

Cabot Trail KOA

Next up:  Exploring the Cabot Trail!

This and a few more posts are catch-up stories of our adventure in the Maritimes – we’re typing as fast as we can!

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