From the lakes, hills and valleys of the southwest to the ripe, forested mountains of the north, CAPE BRETON ISLAND offers the most exquisite of landscapes, reaching its melodramatic conclusion along the fretted, rocky coast of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Encircling the park and some of the adjacent shore is the Cabot Trail, reckoned to be one of the most awe-inspiring drives on the continent. The Trail begins at Hwy-105 (Exit 7) before weaving its way on a scenic loop of 298km around the northern tip of the island, passing through Cape Breton Highlands and ending in Baddeck, back on Hwy-105 (see w cabottrail.com). Allow time also for a whale-watching cruise: these are big business hereabouts and they are available at almost every significant settlement from May to October when fin, pilot, humpback and minke whales congregate off the island.
Cape Breton Island is also a major locus for Scottish culture; it attracted thousands of Scottish Highlanders at the end of the eighteenth century, and many of the region’s settlements celebrate their Scots ancestry and Gaelic traditions in one way or another – museums, Highland Games and bagpipe-playing competitions.
Cape Breton’s weather is notoriously unpredictable, even in summer. The Cabot Trail is pretty miserable in mist and rain, so if possible you should build a bit of flexibility into your itinerary.
The extensive Cape Breton Highlands National Park, beginning 9km north of Chéticamp, offers some of the most mesmerizing scenery anywhere in the Maritimes – a mix of deep wooded valleys, rocky coastal headlands, soft green hills and boggy upland. Although visitors get a sniff of the park travelling by car – 120km of Cabot Trail trimming its northern edge – the essence of the place is only revealed on foot.
Though much of the park is actually off-limits to the public, land bordering the Cabot Trail can be explored by 25 hiking trails signposted from the road, some of them the easiest of woodland strolls, others offering steeper climbs to small lakes, waterfalls and rugged coastal viewpoints. One of the most popular is the 9.2km Skyline Loop Trail (2–3hr), which clambers up the coastal mountains north of Corney Brook, a few kilometres up the coast from Chéticamp. Another rewarding trail is the 7.4km Franey Loop Trail (3–4hr), a steep walk up through the mountains and lakes north of Ingonish Beach. Most of the wildlife inhabits the inner reaches of the park: garter snakes, red-backed salamanders, snowshoe hares and moose are common, while bald eagles, black bear and lynx are rarer. The only artificial sight is the Lone Sheiling, a somewhat battered 1930s replica of the stone shelters once built by Highlanders beside their mountain pastures. The hut is on the northern perimeter of the park in a valley that was settled by Scots in the early 1800s; it is accessible along a short and easy footpath from the road, providing a rare taster of the hardwood forests that make up the park’s central (and strictly protected) zone.
Cape Breton is not just about scenery and sights: the Scottish Highlanders who settled much of the island in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (many as a result of the Highland Clearances, where they were forcibly evicted by landowners) brought with them strong cultural traditions and today these are best recalled by the island’s musicians, especially the fiddle players. Buddy MacMaster (1924–2014) was one of the greats, and current names to watch out for include his niece Natalie MacMaster, her cousin Ashley MacIsaac and the remaining members of the Rankin Family, not to mention Glenn Graham, Rodney MacDonald and Jackie Dunn – though it’s impossible to pick out the “best” as each fiddler has their own particular style. Local tourist offices will gladly advise you on gigs, whether it be a ceilidh, concert or square dance, and listings are given in the weekly Inverness Oran (w invernessoran.ca), a local newspaper available at tourist offices and convenience stores. During the summer there’s something happening almost every day – the Saturday night Family Square Dance at West Mabou Hall is especially well regarded (10pm–1am; $8). The largest festival is Celtic Colours (t 902 562 6700, w celtic-colours.com), with performances all across Cape Breton held over ten days in early to mid-October.