It’s all about finding the right destination to recommend to your BFF, client or swimming buddy. Not everyone looks at nights in a luxury penthouse suite as the ultimate escape. While friends and family may spend 9-5 in corporate cubes or managing platinum-level restaurants, when it comes to time-off – frequently there is a definite yen for the great outdoors.
So – if it is time to hit the open road and bike, hike and learn a new skill (like fiddling) – the only destination that fits the order (perfectly) is Cape Breton Island in the Nova Scotia (NS) province of Canada.
Search for Air Canada flights to Halifax or Sydney to start the exit. It may be necessary to rent a car from the airport to get to the forested parks, seaside kayaks, museums and other cultural activities – as public transportation is scarce and tour operators are even scarcer – but do not let that deter your determination to go….because once you arrive, the infrastructure is well-developed and the roads are wide and the views are awesome.
Where Are You Sending Me? Is there zip code?
Cape Breton is part of the province of Nova Scotia, Canada. Separated from the peninsula by the Strait of Canso it is connected to mainland Nova Scotia by the Canso Causeway. Originally part of New England it became self-governing in 1848 and joined the Canadian Confederation in 1867.
Before the British employed Italian explorer John Cabot to “discover” Cape Breton in 1497, it was home to the Mi’Kmaq and First Nations people. Through the centuries, this very desirable real estate has been responsible for wars and skirmishes between the French, Scottish and British – they all wanted access to the incredible fishing grounds and its strategic military and trade location on the Atlantic coast. The British finally won, the island was settled and the British destroyed the French fortress at Louisbourg.
In the 18th century immigrants from Scotland found their way to Cape Breton. A cultural and economic change in Scotland forced the farmers from their land and their livelihood. To this day it is the only place in North America where Gaelic is still spoken.
The next wave of immigration in the 19th century was motivated by the coal industry and the demand for energy created hundreds of jobs. A British duke was given the sole right to the coal resources for all of NS and he leased the land to companies who mined as cheaply as possible, selling it at the highest possible price. The extracted coal was shipped to Montreal, Upper Canada and New England. The steel industry, located in Sydney, developed in tandem with the coal industry expanding manufacturing. Since this active period trade has diminished and there has been a decline in the population of the Cape Breton province (from 102,250 in 2006 to 100,823 in 2013).
Alexander Graham Bell, Scottish by birth, brought his family to Baddeck, Cape Breton, at the end of the 19th century. He set up a summer retreat here because the landscape reminded him of his native Scotland. He built research labs and worked with individuals who were hearing impaired, including Helen Keller. Not one for idle periods – he spent his time experimenting with Hydrofoil technologies and the Aerial Experiment Association – developing the first powered flight in the British Empire. He also built the forerunner to the iron lung. For an incredible look at Bell and his family-life in Baddeck, visit the Bell Museum.
Cape Breton is also famous because Guglielmo Marconi who used the island’s geography to transmit the first North American trans-Atlantic radio message from Table Head in Glace Bay to a receiving station in Poldhu, Cornwall, England. This marked the beginning of modern radio technology and linked the old world with the new. The Royal Canadian Navy used the Marconi station as the chief communication center in WWI and through the early years of WWII. For more about Marconi and Cape Bretton.
Since the 1950s there has been a push to develop tourism and visitors are in for a totally pleasurable experience. The establishment of the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts and formal Gaelic language courses in public schools encourages residents and visitors to embrace the heritage of the area. The 1960 partial restoration of the Fortress of Louisbourg (thanks to the efforts of Parks Canada) has been part of the ongoing private and public efforts to encourage tourism as an economic foundation for the region. Between hiking, biking and fishing, the pristine outdoor opportunities, combined with an intriguing history, the Cape Breton area is waiting to be explored.
What Cape Breton does not have? Large resorts and mega-shopping malls. This is a destination for people who support ecotourism, delighted to buy from local entrepreneurs and enjoy dining at small family owned restaurants, drinking locally-produced wines that are unavailable anywhere else and yearn for homemade jams, jellies and hand-knitted sweaters.
Getting to Know You
How do you get to know such a vast area in a limited amount of time? Yes, you can drive through and the road system is good and there is limited traffic; however, the best way to cover the terrain is by bike. The 185 mile Cabot Trail circles the northern sector of Cape Breton Island cutting through the Highlands National Park. It is believed to be one of the best places in North America for exploring forests and beaches by bike.
Some of the people who settled around the Cabot Trail arrived as refuges from the American Revolution as British Loyalists had their lands confiscated, were socially ostracized and many were killed. To reward the Loyalists, the British government offered land grants in Cape Breton. Other groups finding refuge around the Cabot Trail were the French and Scottish. Fortunately for visitors, communities reflecting this cultural potpourri still flourish along the trail and include Baddeck (museums), St. Anns (Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts), Ingonish (fishing village and locale for Keltic Lodge Resort), Belle Cote (fishing), Ceticamp (fishing village, hooked rugs and fiddle music), Pleasant Bay (whale watching capital for the region), Dingwall (fishing) and Cape North (North Highlands Community Museum and Arts North Gallery/Cape Breton Crafts). There are also opportunities for horseback riding, birding, golfing, kayaking, fly-fishing for Atlantic salmon and boat/fishing tours plus artisans and crafts shopping, light houses and museums.
Getting to Like You
Celtic Colours in October
If you want to learn about the Scottish heritage of this area – the best way is to participate in the Celtic Colours program October 9-17, 2015. For nine days the area applauds and honors the music, dance, cuisine, culture and crafts of Cape Breton with concerts, workshops and community suppers creating the perfect opportunity to experience the beauty and uniqueness of the area. For over 19 years, this program has introduced artists from Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the USA, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec – all joining with Cape Breton’s singers and dancers to produce over 47 concerts throughout the Island.
Fiddlers (and wanna-be fiddlers) and dancers join Celtic Colours and Cape Breton University at the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention. From workshops to live performances there can be no better way to spend a few days and evenings.
Colours is an important annual event for Cape Breton. It is estimated that visitors spent over $10.4 million during the festival (2014), generating approximately $1 million per day. Over 50 percent of the visitors were from the US, all Canadian provinces and territories and 20 other countries.
After listening and learning about the Gaelic culture it is highly likely that visitors will want more…more opportunities to learn the language, music, art and design of the region and there is only one place in North America that offers this opportunity: Gaelic College. An adult immersion language program enables adults (and their families) to learn the language and classes are available on weekends, throughout the summer, and YouTube/Skype distance learning is planned.
The Gaelic College Pipe Band (Colaisede na Gaidhlig) creates awareness of the traditional dance style of piping – which is core to the traditional Gaelic language and culture of Cape Breton. In addition, there are daily demonstrations on how to make a Great Kilt, Gaelic/Milling Frolic, Cape Breton Music/Dance and Weaving. For a list of things to see, do and learn.
This is a destination historical site and should be a role model for other heritage – focused venues to follow. What could be another boring day looking at decaying stones and ruined artifacts (that makes me very sad), Fortress Louisbourg is an interesting and informational exploration into the Cape Breton community of the 18th century. Neglected for over 200 years, Parks Canada and private sector support took this important piece of Canadian history and turned it into a major tourism magnet. In this case it is a situation where you “come for the Fortress” and stay for everything else.
Even if you do not think you like historical reenactments and a day trudging through old buildings and forts sounds like punishment – you are in for a very big surprise. A stroll through this historically significant and superbly directed interactive program can make you either envious of the simplified life-style of the 18th century, or delighted that you are living with Wi-Fi and air conditioning in the 21st century.
Originally the capital for Ile Royale colony, the Fortress borders the Atlantic coast of Cape Breton Island near its southeastern point. The original objective: defend against the British ships entering or blocking commerce on the St. Lawrence River. It was also a way to protect the French North American fishing industry and Quebec City from British invasions. No thought was given to protecting the land-side of the Fortress. The original settlers – 116 men, 10 women and 23 children organized the area into a commercial district, residential zone and military area along with a marketplace, inns, taverns and suburbs. Whether it was the naiveté of the French or the brilliance of the English, the Fortress was finally destroyed by land and not by sea.
Today, actors dressed in period costumes represent shop owners, military guards and tour guides and engage in conversations with tourists – with the purpose of sharing history in a non-didactic manner. Through this personal engagement, visitors get involved, engrossed and enlightened as they learn about this important part of history.
Have to Stay
Because it is so easy to spend an entire day at Fortress Louisbourg, there is every reason to stay a night or two in the area. A recommended rest and dining option is Point of View Suites located on the Louisbourg waterfront. It is also near fishing, boating and hiking opportunities. While the suites come with kitchens – there are no nearby markets for grocery shopping. So- heads-up if you plan to cook.
Gotta Eat. Gotta Eat Very Well
The lobsters and snow crabs grow to be large and healthy in this region. Short of getting a boat and a license there is no better place on the planet to eat these treasures than at the Lobster Kettle, located near Fortress Louisbourg. The lobsters and snow crabs served are very personal to the deVries family as Jimmy and his dad Jackie (who was the first snow crab fisherman in Louisbourg Harbor) personally snatch them from May 15- July 15 for their restaurant which is open from June to mid-October.
No – there is no celebrity chef in the kitchen, and no- the interior was not done by Philip Starck; however, if you are looking for what is likely to be the best fresh Atlantic lobster and snow crab on the planet – this is the place. In addition, with Poutine moving to center stage, this is the place to indulge the growing trend with Lobster Poutine made with shredded mozzarella and lobster meat smothered in a creamy seafood sauce. I am told that the brain blocks all calorie counts for this potentially addictive foody moment.
Look to your stomach when planning a retreat? Say yes to the Lobster Kettle. It is a magnet for local foodies and international visitors and should be at the top of the to-do list.
Get Out of Town
If your get-away plan calls for the beauty of nature (along with biking, hiking, fishing and golf) combined with French, Micmac and Celtic cultures plus Gaelic songs and fiddling along-side incredibly delicious dining opportunities, this is a destination that will not wreak havoc on the budget while delighting friends and family.
email Dan Coffin
I have traveled around the globe. I have seen the Canadian and American Rockies, the Andes, the Alps and the Highlands of Scotland, but for simple beauty, Cape Breton outrivals them all.” – Alexander Graham Bell