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Cape Breton Island/Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia, Canada

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Did You Know … ?

  • In 1784, Cape Breton became a separate colony accommodating Loyalists who left the U.S. after the Revolutionary War.
  • Guglielmo Marconi sent his first transatlantic radio message from Glace Bay (1902).
  • The first female solo westbound transatlantic flight ended with a crash at Baleine Cove (Beryl Markham, 1936).
  • The Fortress of Louisbourg is North America’s largest reconstruction project.
  • Alexander Graham Bell’s estate in Baddeck is still owned by his family.

Island heritage, island wonders

The island in the northeast of Nova Scotia embodies in a small space everything that is fascinating or attractive about the province, with a few extra features into the bargain. This is Cape Breton Island, 3,981 square miles of real estate separated from the mainland by less than two miles.

The island’s major sources of settlers were first, the French, and in the 18th century, the Scottish. It remained under French control until 1763, 50 years longer than the rest of Nova Scotia. Spun off in 1784, it rejoined Nova Scotia in 1820.

Today, visitors are invited to explore and enjoy the aspects of Cape Breton life that reflect the European heritages. Tourists may plan itineraries that take into account French (aka Acadian after the original French colony here, Acadia) and Gaelic (i.e., Scottish) festivals, foods, heritage centers and traditional handicraft items.

In more recent times, the Scotsman Alexander Graham Bell, by then an American citizen and wealthy after inventing the telephone in 1876, fell in love with the island. He built a second residence and pursued additional scientific endeavors on the island.

In addition, Cape Breton’s geography — in the far east of Canada — dictated Guglielmo Marconi’s choice of the island as the place to establish regular radio communications between North America and Europe.

For lovers of nature, the island is a combination of wonders, from ocean views and associated wildlife (puffins, whales and more) and dramatic shorelines and river canyons to the local version of the Highlands and a sprawling salt lake — Bras d’Or, meaning Arms of Gold in French. The lake nearly slices the island in two while providing an inland playground.

The Cape Breton Highlands National Park protects 366 square miles of the island’s northern cape, while providing an abundance of options for hiking, playing at a beach or camping, not to mention photography.

The island’s northern cape also is encircled by one of the continent’s top scenic routes, the 200-mile Cabot Trail, which visitors may follow by car or, if more ambitious, on a bike. A third of the trail passes through the national park.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Bring your motorcycle and participate in the midsummer Cape Breton Bikefest. Participants top off events by “storming” the Fortress of Louisbourg.
  • Join the dancing at the daily ceilidh (that’s kay-lee) in the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou. A ceilidh is a party characterized by traditional Irish or Scottish music, dancing and storytelling.
  • Find a sweet spot for kayaking along the Cabot Trail. Good choices include Ingonish, North River, Smelt Brook and South Harbour. Or, simply go sailing on Bras d’Or Lake.
  • There are 25 hiking trails in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Choose the one that best suits you.
  • At the Louisbourg Fortress, eat authentic 18th century food and join an 18th century wine tasting. Culinary workshops are available, too — as is a nighttime ghost walk. The site recreates a 1744 French town as well as the fortifications of the era.
  • Take fiddling lessons for a day or longer at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique.  Or, join a mask-making workshop at the Mi-Careme Centre in Grand-Etang. Mi-Careme refers to an Acadian tradition for festivities, involving masks, that break the tedium of Lent midway through the Lenten period.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Eat fresh lobster, mussels, salmon or trout, depending on preference. Or, at Cheticamp, tuck into Acadian specialties such as chicken fricot, chiard or pate.
  • Go fly-fishing for salmon in the Margaree River. Regardless of the outcome, have salmon for dinner.
    Another alternative: Attend the Louisbourg Crab Fest in midsummer.
  • Follow the 67-mile Ceilidh Trail for your introduction to the Scottish heritage on the island. You may time your visit for the island-wide Celtic Colours International Festival in October. It is North America’s largest celebration of Celtic music and culture.
    Or, attend the mid-August Festival of Cape Breton Fiddling, at St. Ann’s.
  • At the Coal Miners Museum in Sydney, go underground to tour a now-defunct coal mine.
    Chase that experience with a tour of the Glenora Distillery in Glenville, followed by a taste of the whisky.
  • The Wagmatcook Cultural and Heritage Centre, on the shores of Bras d’Or Lake, highlights the music and other traditions of Nova Scotia’s first inhabitants, the Mi’kmaq.
  • Learn about the Acadian culture the fun way: Attend the L’Ardoise Acadian Days Festival in L’Ardoise.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Drive the Cabot Trail, one of the most famous scenic drives in the world and extending for nearly 200 miles. Look for eagles, moose and whales along the way.
  • Carry the camera, of course, to photograph the scenery, festivities and wildlife. Also, look for a goofy one, Joe’s Scarecrow Village, a collection of 100-plus scarecrows, including some that look like celebrities, in Cap le Moine.
  • Play golf. Cape Breton Island is a beautiful place to be when shouting “fore.” One of Canada’s top courses is the Highlands Links Golf Course at Ingonish Beach.
  • Learn about the man who invented more than the telephone, during a visit to the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada in Baddeck. Kids may try hands-on activities such as flying a kite of their own making.
  • Go on a whale watching cruise, and consider a pre-cruise visit to the Whale Interpretive Centre in Pleasant Bay.
    Alternatively, choose a cruise that focuses on birds, such as bald eagles and puffins.
  • Look for evocative souvenirs, which may include tartans or hooked rugs. Shop at the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts in St. Ann’s, or the Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design in Sydney. Attend a handicraft workshop at the latter site.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Destination Cape Breton at