First of all, don’t do this. I am a lunatic and tend to push myself farther than any good sense allows. I am stubborn and I don’t know any better. Do not do Cape Breton Island quickly. Allow yourself time to discover all the nooks and crannies of this beautiful isle, the easternmost section of Nova Scotia. Hike many trails, eat many lobsters and talk to many locals. Linger along the ocean views and slowly breathe in that salty, fishy Atlantic air. But, if only absolutely necessary, you can hit Cape Breton Island and be back to work before too many people miss you.
I was in a bit of a pinch with limited time off work, but I was determined to see Cape Breton. For years, people have tilted their head in that confused way when I had mentioned that I’ve never ventured over to the island. “But you love the east coast,” they’d say. However I am partial to a little island in the Bay of Fundy, so I was unconvinced. I was also fully unprepared for what lay ahead. It was jarring. My brain was inundated with more beauty than it could process all at once, leaving me incapable of forming sentences, limiting me to “ooooooh’ and ‘aaaaaah’ noises. It was as though Scotland and Newfoundland had produced a love child.
After an epic drive, I found myself crossing over to Cape Breton Island. It was a gloomy, rainy day late afternoon yet I still found my jaw dropping. I had done little homework for this adventure, for once simply doing what I was told by others who had been there. “Go to Baddeck,” they declared, understanding that this was the unofficial start line for the Cabot Trail. This is where you should not follow my lead: Baddeck deserves more exploring time than just the cute sandwich shop where I stopped to feed. Baddeck is home to the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site which apparently is a must-see. Not just phone stuff, this stop celebrates all sorts of experiments and research that Bell was working on, including the hull of a boat that broke the world speed record of a whopping 70MPH in 1919. But alas, I was on a speedy mission of my own and had to hustle on.
I made my way out of town in search of the Cabot Trail. I must admit, I assumed there would be more hoopla than a simple road sign considering all the raves I had heard about the loop route. But, as I soon learned, no sign would do this journey justice, so they keep it simple. I was off to see what this Cabot Trail was all about, my first stop was Cheticamp – more specifically Cape Breton Highlands National Park. (Disclaimer: that job I mentioned earlier? I work for Parks Canada, so I might be a bit biased here. We care for some pretty impressive places.)
Arriving at dusk and off season, the visitor centre was closed for the day, but they know us campers are a trusty bunch. I simply set up camp at a site tucked next to a babbling river under trees sporting a fresh coat of new spring leaves and promptly passed out. Or perhaps it was hypothermia, there were frost warnings that night. I recommend going a wee bit later than the first week of June, unless you like shivering. In the morning I popped into the visitor centre to pay for my campsite and grab my park pass, loading up with a map and hike recommendations.
I opted to hike the Skyline Trail. As a solo hiker, the nice lady at the visitor centre assured me I’d have company if my wimpy ankle gave up on me. At just over 9km, this popular and fairly level trail offers vistas unparalleled to anything I had ever seen. With sweeping views of the ocean, the trail meanders through scrubby meadow where moose had been spotted shortly before my arrival, and of course rewards you with the postcard shots of the winding coastal Cabot Trail. Bring snacks, water, and lots of room on your camera’s memory cards.
I did this trip solo – another thing I don’t recommend. It’s not overly safe – not because of bears and other toothy creatures that might come sniffing around, but if you’re the hapless soul who has to drive through the park, you have to resist the overwhelming urge to burst into applause while you drive along. You have to actively remind yourself that you’re driving, and not supposed to be gaping out at the scenery the entire time. Find a sucker to do all the driving and you can take in all the views you can handle, while trying not to go into sensory overload. Besides, you won’t feel so foolish constantly shouting “Holy crow, did you just see that?!” to the empty passenger seat. If you do happen to be solo, pull over at all the lookout points that are well signed along the way, each offering you gob-smacking scenery.
One small confession: I had never eaten lobster before. Sure, I’ve eaten alligator, eel, moose, lungs and even a honey bee, but lobster freaks me out. I have difficulty eating anything that looks like it did while it was still alive. It was my personal mission for this trip – eating a large, creepy water bug. My cheat: lobster rolls. I can eat anything drizzled in butter on fresh bread. I stopped in at the Rusty Anchor (of course) in Pleasant Bay and gobbled one down. And then another. Apparently water bugs are delicious. Or maybe just the ones at the Rusty Anchor are – I have no frame of reference. Go, and let me know?
My next sleep was another hypothermic venture at a campground further along in the National Park, an unserviced nook in Broad Cove. The campground was lovely – tucked along Warren River where it joins the ocean, you are serenaded by crashing waves as you shiver yourself to sleep. I could have spent a week there in sheer bliss. But again, I am a loon, and left shortly after breakfast.
I dilly-dallied my way down the rest of the Cabot Trail, stopping in coastal towns along the way to snap pictures and chat with the locals. I watched a crow dive bomb a bald eagle, who in turn just shook his head and laughed at the crow’s childish ways. When you’re a bad ass bald eagle, you simply can’t be bothered. That’s the sort of entertainment you get along the Cabot Trail.
I was aiming for the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. All sensible travelers should see this – everyone I mentioned Cape Breton to insisted that this be a stop on my make-it-up-as-I-go-along itinerary. Apparently it takes a good chunk of your day to see the full site, and it’s entirely worth it. However, us lunatics miss out on such things. Instead, I listened to the advice of another friend who gently suggested that if I was in the area I might want to check out something called Membertou. I’ll confess, I had no idea what he was talking about, but I am thoroughly pleased that I listened to him.
Membertou Heritage Park is a community/cultural centre celebrating the Mi’kmac community. I ended up doing three laps of the centre – once with an interpreter who shared the history of the Mi’kmac people – from beautiful artwork to prominent politicians and activists. My second time through – I happened to run into an aunt of my friend who recommended the place – small world, or simply fate? Aunt Jackie took me around sharing her personal stories and going into further detail about the vibrant colours and materials used in the artwork, the origins of the Mi’kmac language, and so much more. When I asked about music, she scurried off to find the manager of the centre who took me on yet another tour of the facility, and finished off with a gorgeous song about communities coming together. My heart was simply full.
I was there for a couple of hours. The facility had long closed and the lights switched off. Aunt Jackie slipped me some sweet grass and sage, asking me to burn it at my next campsite as I pray for a good day ahead and for the spirits to look out for me on my travels. I’m quite sure they already were.
The next morning my heart broke a little as I turned my car westbound and left the island. Three sleeps are simply not enough for Cape Breton Island. It is only enough to whet your appetite and fill you with an absolute longing for a return trip. I’m already plotting my next visit – one with much more time for lingering, and maybe even some more lobster.