A year ago, it’s quite possible that if someone gave me an outline of Canada and asked me to point to Cape Breton Island, I would have failed, at least on my first attempt. Now, its shape, topography and waypoint remain indelibly emblazoned on my heart.
It is also quite possible that Celtic Colours – an annual gathering of more than 200 local and internationally renowned musicians, performing 49 concerts in 32 communities– helped to kickstart Cape Breton’s tourism industry 20 years ago.
What started in 1996 as a small ripple of 27 musical performances taking place over nine days during the peak of fall colours and showcasing Cape Breton’s homegrown musical talent celebrated its 20th season this fall. It was Joella Foulds, Co-founder and Executive Director who took a glimmer of an idea and grew it into one of Canada’s Signature Experiences through community involvement, innovative partnerships and an impressive list of sponsors. Not only did Celtic Colours help put Cape Breton on the map, it also extended its tourist season into the fall and attracted thousands of visitors from more than 24 countries around the world.
In 2011, the opening of Cabot Links and more recently (2016) Cabot Cliffs, both notably listed in the World Top 100 golf courses to play, landed this island as one of the world’s “go to” destinations for golfers. Although not a scratch golfer, I can personally vouch for the majestic ocean views from every hole on Cabot Links, six of which hug the Gulf of St. Lawrence and are separated only by the beautiful 1.5 km Inverness beach boardwalk. My first foray into Cape Breton golf was met with 30-knot winds…weather I dream for on the water (sometimes) but simply didn’t know how to handle on land. Luckily, despite the high calibre skill of my fellow golfers, it was not only my personal performance that was shadowed by the wind.
But scoring became secondary to the camaraderie and the surroundings on this extraordinary walk-only links course that gives me such bragging rights. And despite my disappointing score, I was ready to tackle Cabot Cliffs. More views. More camaraderie. More bragging rights.
Lively music and world-class golf – these are only the bookends for an island so widely diverse in what it has to offer.
You know by now that sailing is my favourite pastime. It’s hard to believe it took me nearly 50 years to discover Bras d’Or Lake – an inland saltwater sea– that provided me a chance to witness the beauty of this island from my favourite perspective –a sailboat.
For visiting sailors, Bras d’Or Lake can be accessed from the north Atlantic at Boulanderie Island by the Great Bras d’Or Channel or the Little Bras d’Or Channel. At the southern tip of the lake, boats can access it via the Strait of Canso and through St. Peter’s Canal.
My first sailing adventure started at Ben Eoin Yacht Club – a charming club only an hour from Sydney on the south shore of East Bay. Less than five years old, this club offers a little bit of everything for both locals and visitors. It has a full-service marina with available transient slips.
Captain Paul Jamieson, owner of Sailing CBI and the Alpha 42 Cape Bretoner– our home for the next few days – greeted us at the dock and introduced us to crew, Tracy, his daughter and Jamie, now son-in-law. The first leg of our trip took us up East Bay past Big Pond, home of famous Cape Breton singer/songwriter Rita’s (MacNeil) Tea Room. Rita grew her wings in 2012 but her ashes are safely tucked in a teapot there! East Bay offers few options for stopovers however good anchoring can be found in the McPhee Islands near Eskasoni on the north side.
Or you can continue southwest through St. Peter’s Inlet to St. Peter’s Marina – where docking, moorings, a service dock with gas and diesel, pump-outs, Wi-Fi access, lounge area, and washrooms with showers are offered. A short walk gives you access to all the amenities of this charming town. If you have time, turn left at the main street and follow it to the bridge. There is a great hike along the canal.
If you’re already fully provisioned and not yet ready to hop off your boat, there are several lovely anchorages along the way! For a fully protected spot, head behind Beaver Island off Sampsonville but make sure to enter through the western end of the island. Corbetts Cove, MacNabs Island and Damion Cove also offer pleasant and secluded anchoring spots.
From St. Peter’s, we headed southwest to West Bay with a stopover in Dundee before heading north to Iona and finally Baddeck – which was to be my base camp for the land portion of my stay. Despite a somewhat overcast sky, and unreliable winds, cruising in West Bay, spotted by several islands (and some potentially safe moorings) provided some great scenic landscapes including the iconic Marble Mountain near Clark Cove. There is a large area void of trees and visible from anywhere in West Bay that marks the former marble quarrying operation that thrived there nearly 100 years ago.
We didn’t stop in Iona this time, but it was fun sailing under the Barra Strait “swing” Bridge that separates Iona and Grand Narrows and marks the entrance to St. Andrews Channel. The Barra Strait Marina on the Grand Narrows side welcomes visitors and also offers basic amenities. If your galley cook wants a break, stop by the Wheelhouse Café for lunch or dinner.
The second we crossed under the bridge, the sun came out and the breeze became fresh and steady. In order to make Baddeck on schedule, we had motor-sailed to this point but a unanimous vote for arriving later allowed the ultimate Bras d’Or sailing experience. For some crewmembers, this was a first-time rush. For the seasoned, it was just another day in the life of wind, water and wonder.
In keeping with the Captain and crew’s decision not to rush our idyllic afternoon sail, a small detour around Gillis Point marked by the lighthouse (no longer in operation) into Maskells Harbour provided the perfect spot for a cooling off swim. The water in Bras d’Or never gets warm – not like the Caribbean – but the temperature did not prevent even the faint of heart from taking a quick dip. Once you navigate the sandbar that stretches across the entrance here, you enter a world of lush green rolling hills, and a truly quiet setting for mooring overnight. No buildings. No services. Just peace and tranquility.
Refreshed and ready to start the last leg of the day, we call ahead to our dinner hosts to give them the revised ETA!
Baddeck is the largest community on the Bras d’Or Lake and therefore a major tourist destination. It is home to the Bras d’Or Yacht Club and Baddeck Marine and is a must-stay stop on any boating itinerary. Twenty-two moorings are available within this picturesque harbour with less than a five-minute rib ride to the main dock, home to the Bluenose for a stopover this summer.
Cape Breton has the ability to whet anyone’s appetite with its never-ending menu of attractions and experiences, many of which cater to my very own heart. On this visit, I spent most of my “on land” time along the Cabot Trail with a small detour to the south to Inverness and another east to Louisbourg – mandatory detours, in my humble opinion.
Admittedly not a big history buff – I got a D in History in Grade 10 – I found myself more curious than usual while visiting some of the historic sites so beautifully restored to showcase Cape Breton’s magnificent past. Louisbourg took me by storm. Although declared an historic site in 1928, it took another 30 years before the government, in partnership with Parks Canada and the Fortress of Louisbourg Association, initiated the multi-million reconstruction of a small portion of the original town.
Today, a one-day tour will allow you to experience life in 18th Century Louisbourg along with historical costumed animators representing wealthy merchants, servants and soldiers – tasting Fortress™ Rum, eating home-baked bread, dressing in period costume, re-enacting a local feud or firing a cannon. You can even opt to stay overnight in a canvas tent or period house.
History aficionado or not, I highly suspect and hope that everyone knows about Alexander Graham Bell and his discovery of the telephone. In Canada, we are reminded of this everyday despite the pending extinction of phone booths rapidly being replaced by charging stations for electric cars.
What many don’t know (except, of course, for the Scots) is that Bell was born in Scotland. However, he was living in the US when that first banter between Watson and Bell took place. So who has rights to the invention?
To learn the answer to that question, I strongly encourage you to take the white glove tour of the Alexander Graham Bell Museum. Even then, the answer may be unclear. However, the welcoming volunteer guides, supported by the many exhibits, videos and interactive experiences will bring you up to speed on all things Bell. You’ll learn more in this one visit than you likely learned in an entire term of history classes…at least for some of you.
The building, designed by architect Osborne Howard Leicester, chief architect of the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources at the time was built specifically to hold Alexander Graham Bell artifacts and actually overlooks the Bell estate Beinn Bhreagh (Gaelic for beautiful mountain) estate just across the bay of Baddeck (derived from the Mi’kmaq word abadak meaning place with an island nearby).
Fifty kilometres down the road in Iona (home of the Barra Strait swing bridge), Highland Village offers a living history museum to help you hone Cape Breton’s Gaelic culture. In the summertime, you can follow the scent of the lupines – bordering the rickety horse-trodden path up to the main house – all vying for the best view of Bras d’Or. Stop, rest, enjoy a cuppa and one of Cape Breton’s famous oatcakes while listening to a young musician strutting with her violin singing a Gaelic shanty.
Gaelic culture is alive and well all over Cape Breton. The Gaelic College, the only institution of its kind in North America, offer programs in culture, music, language, crafts, and customs. Students can learn to play the fiddle, piano, guitar, step-dancing, piping, highland dancing, weaving, and speak Gaelic. If you visit, make sure to stop by the gift shop and check out the concert schedule. If I had only followed my own advice, I would have attended several of the KitchenFest! events that take place in July.
No matter where you are on the island, somebody will be hosting a Cèilidh – a traditional Scottish gathering – and everyone is invited. Entrance fees are nominal but I assure you the entertainment and the Gaelic spirit is alive and well. Cider and oatcakes are guaranteed along with laughter, singing and great music.
Long gone are the days where I fill my suitcase with trinkets and trash and airport pressies. Personally, I’d rather invest in and support the local arts and crafts of everywhere I visit. Imagine my delight to discover that more than 25 of the 80 local artists – members of the Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design community – lived along the Cabot Trail. Trump that with a fellow golfer/travelling companion who loves to shop and we were off on a three-hour tour: cashmere mittens by Pam MacKay for my girls, a Larch Wood cutting board for by brother, a few Teena Marie Fancey prints for friends and, last but not least, some pottery from Linda Wright/Big Hill Pottery for me.
I was somewhat limited by what I could bring home (thank goodness for Canada Post) but I assure you my Christmas list was done and dusted before the end of July – a first for me.
I was visiting Cape Breton during lobster season but sadly this was lost on me. One of my very few allergies is shellfish and lobster ranks #1 in bad reactions so I wasn’t even tempted. Having said that, however, I was delighted to watch friends shucking lobster with great aplomb everywhere we went.
For one week during my stay, I rented a lovely little cottage through VRBO just outside Englishtown, and overlooking St. Anne’s Harbour. Its location on the Cabot Trail allowed for many wonderful day trips, each with a main focus whether it be shopping, golfing, eating or beaching.
Baddeck is a truly inviting walking coastal town filled with cafes, restaurants, galleries, and shops as well as a CO-OP for groceries, a liquor store, and laundromat. Stop by Our Seaside Home Décor for all things nautical. Although not all locally created, it is a great place to pick up a hostess gift or a personal treat. Two Buoys Home & Gifts also offers an eclectic selection of arts, crafts and clothes and if you stop by during the right hours, you can indulge in its Café’s mouth-watering lobster rolls – sadly hearsay, but reputable hearsay all the same.
For adventure gear, a stop by The Outdoor Store is a must. Owner/entrepreneur John Pino, a long-time Baddeck resident also runs the Broadwater Inn down the road – well-appointed casual cabins, all with a great view of the bay. Of course, the Bras d’Or Yacht Club offers the best view and visitors are more than welcome to stop by for a drink. Right next door off the pier, is the Baddeck Marine – a fully operational chandlery and boat maintenance facility. For guaranteed live entertainment, you can either walk up and down the main street and follow the music, or I suggest you grab your friends and enjoy a pint and some great local talent in the Thistledown Pub at Inverary Resort – part of the Cape Breton Resorts group.
Ingonish, a year-round resort town located just north of the eastern entrance to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park is home to the Keltic Lodge Resort and Spa. If you can’t stay overnight in one its newly renovated rooms, definitely stop by for a drink in the Highland Sitting Room or devour a delicious meal in the Purple Thistle Dining Room prepared by Chef Daryl MacDonnell, another local Cape Bretoner.
Cheticamp – easily spotted from both the north and the south by the spire of Saint Pierre Church – is a lively waterfront community that thrives on fishing, farming and rug hooking. The Acadian Museum, right in town, offers demonstrations in spinning, weaving and rug hooking (as well as displays of French-Canadian antiques and glasswares). If you like what you see, head just north to Petit Etat’s Proud to be Hookers storefront.
Inverness, a slight detour south off the Cabot Trail, is yet another charming seaside town boasting a 5 km. white sandy beach and boardwalk, cafes, galleries and some great hiking. Take in a live harness race nearby or visit the Glenora Distillery – North America’s first single-malt whisky distillery – for tastings. Back stage passes will have you visiting the Whisky Warehouse where you’ll draw a sample directly from the barrel!
Although still building a market for its winter tourism activities – snowmobiling, skiing and ice-fishing – this magical island will no doubt have you coming back time and time again to discover what itself does not yet know it has to offer you and the world.
Fill your boots, laddie. Again, again and again.