Nova Scotia's Cabot Trail, As Adventurous As Its Namesake
Photos and article by Eleanor S. Morris
Listen to the sounds of the place names: Baddeck, Skir Dhu, Ingonish, Cheticamp, Margaree--they sing with the romance of new and unknown places. Nova Scotia's Cabot Trail is alive with the Scottish, French and Micmac Indian heritage of the land. The trail, edging the northern tip of Cape Breton Island, is surely one of the most beautiful drives in North America. Wild and rugged, it was named for sailor and navigator John Cabot, who explored these shores of northeast North America for England's Henry VII.
How must the high headlands and crashing surf have looked to that anglicized Italian who sighted Cape Breton way back in 1497? He no doubt gave the rough shoreline plenty of leeway, not willing to risk his bark upon the rocks. Today's adventurer has the advantage, guiding an automobile along a paved road and watching from the lofty trail the wild water beating against the rock-tossed coast below.
The Cabot Trail leads up and over thousand-foot high capes and headlands interspersed with cozy coastal fishing ports and simple villages, where Scottish and French accents make intriguing music for the traveler's ear. The trail begins and ends at Baddeck, on the quiet reaches of Bras d'Or Lake on the southeastern coast of the island, where calm coves and smaller islands here define the shore. From Baddeck the trail loops north around the highlands at the top of Cape Breton and around to the French settlements of the west coast before heading inland east to Baddeck again.
Baddeck's name comes from the Micmac "Abadeck," which means "an island nearby." Alexander Graham Bell spent his summers at Baddeck, and the National Historic Park here contains a fine modern museum overlooking the waters of the Bras d'Or. Exhibits tell the story of Bell as teacher, inventor and experimenter. You'll see fascinating displays, historical photos, and such artifacts as the remains of the world's first hydrofoil.
Onward to St. Ann's, 12 miles north of Baddeck, you'll find the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts, the only institution of its kind in North America. The college preserves Nova Scotia's Scottish heritage by offering, winter and summer, instruction in Gaelic language, song and customs, along with bagpipe music, Highland dance, pipeband drumming, and Scottish violin. Walk through the Great Hall of the Clans, where the tartans hang proud and bright, and see in Giant MacAskill Pioneer's Museum relics of the Scottish pioneers who chose St. Ann's Harbour because a fearful gale blew them into haven here.
Continue north, where the greater shearwater, Leach's petrel (Mother Carey's Chickens), the red phalarope and the puffin wheel overhead offshore and the trail leads through Indian Brook, North Shore, Skir Dhu and French River to Wreck Cove, whose jagged coastline tells its tale as well as does its name. These names, you understand, are barely places on the road-- North Shore's population is thirty-one, that of Skir Dhu, ten. The road winds through land thick with fir tree, oak and maple, birch and beech, across small bridges over small salmon and trout rivers, where tantalizing glimpses of the ocean to the east lure you on. Soon the road begins to climb Cape Smokey, a 1,200-foot ascent along breathless hairpin turns leading to Ingonish. The cape is a high promontory; its crown of white mist gives its name.
The Ingonish area sits between North Bay and South Bay, with rugged Middle Head peninsula separating the two. Magnificent Middle Head holds at its top the Keltic Lodge, a resort operated by the provincial government. The lodge lords it over spectacular views of both the Ingonish coastline and the surrounding Highlands, has access to a mile-high golf course, has a heated salt-water swimming pool as well as a mile-long ocean beach, beautiful flower gardens, and serves fine cuisine into the bargain. Of the land, "There's a bit of the mystical, magical feeling of the Scottish Highlands," says Keltic manager John Hamilton, adding, "and they pay me to be here--can you imagine that?"
Ingonish is one of the oldest settlements on the Atlantic seaboard, where Portuguese fishermen wintered as early as 1521--the name is believed to have Portuguese origins. The French soon followed, and English settlers arrived around 1810. You'll find the scenery breathtaking, with swimming at beautiful beaches in summer and both downhill and crosscountry skiing in the winter, all at Ingonish, Ingonish Centre, Ingonish Beach, South Ingonish Harbour and Ingonish Ferry.
Ingonish Beach is headquarters for Cape Breton National Park, a great tableland lying between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, rising precipitously from sea level to a height of 1,750 feet. At this point the trail begins to outline the park high above the water, and as you drive on the edge you'll see sweeping views of the coastline, where white crested waves chase each other ashore and the water glistens like silver in the sun. Inland, no hunting is allowed in the park, but it's crisscrossed with hiking trails, and hikers often spot fox, coyote, mink, bobcats, moose and white-tailed deer. The elusive lynx hides out here in its last Nova Scotia stronghold.
The trail continues past Neil's Harbour, quaint fishing village where wharfs are piled high with lobster traps and fishermen will sell fish and lobster to you direct. The sands of Dingwall, another fishing village along the way, are great for clamdigging, and there are two lighthouses, one on each side of the sandbar, for those in search of the picturesque. At the base of Sugar Loaf Mountain near Cabot Landing, a historic site is the scene of a yearly (June 24) reenactment of the landing of John Cabot and his son Sebastian, believed to have taken place in 1497.
The northernmost point of the Cabot Trail is Cape North, and there's a community museum relating the history of the area. Then its up out of Sunrise Valley, along spectacular gorges, toward North Mountain with an elevation of 1,460 feet. Lookouts along the way present beautiful views, in particular that from the summit of Big Intervale, of North Aspy River flowing north into Aspy Bay. The trail then descends the slopes of North Mountain to Pleasant Bay, trail halfway point outside Cape Breton Highlands park. Until 1927 the town could only be reached by water, or by a narrow footpath over the mountains that encircle it. Three rivers empty into the bay, and though there is some farming, fishing is what the inhabitants live by. Of Scottish and English descent, they fish for salmon, haddock, mackerel, herring, lobster and cod. The village is surrounded by the largest sugar maple stand in Atlantic Canada, with three-hundred-year old trees.
Heading south from Pleasant Bay to the Cheticamp River, a fine salmon stream, the trail winds through picturesque country of deep valleys and lofty peaks, crossing the summit of French Mountain at an elevation of 1,492 feet. Another entrance to Cape Breton Highlands National Park lies between Petit Etang and Cheticamp. At Petit Etang (which means "little pond") should you want to leave your car and take a stroll, there's the four-hour Acadian Trail, which will take you to the top of the Highlands and a panoramic view of the area, well worth the hike if you're in condition.
The people of Petit Etang and Cheticamp are descendants of those Acadians expelled from mainland Nova Scotia by the British during the Seven Years' War. Les Trois Pignons in Cheticamp is the Acadian fishing village's information and genealogical center, with, in addition, exhibits of famous local artists.
The Cabot Trail, now coming out of the Highlands, continues through Grand Etang ("big pond") to the Margaree Valley, where field and forest are dotted with salmon pools and where a museum, at Northeast Margaree, is dedicated to the history of the river and its delicious denizens. The Museum of Cape Breton Heritage is also located here.
From Margaree Harbor on the coast you can follow the river east off the Cabot Trail onto a local road and wander through East Margaree, Margaree Forks, Margaree Centre, and Margaree Valley. If you stay on the trail from Northeast Margaree, you can fly past Finlayson amid pleasant green farmland and cross the Middle River to reach the little villages of Upper Middle River, Middle River and Lower Middle River sooner. The Cabot Trail then joins Trans Canada Highway 105 back to Baddeck.
The Cabot trail is delightful and refreshing in the spring, with mayflowers and ladyslippers dotting the roadside, and absolutely stupendous in the fall, putting on an almost-garish display of color made the more brilliant by contrast with the evergreens of the forest. The full circle of the Cabot Trail is 180 miles round, and can be done in one day if you don't make too many stops along the way to admire the scenery, which is asking a lot because it is so spectacular. A good plan might be to headquarter at Keltic Lodge, or in Baddeck, and go north one day and west another. In Baddeck the Inverary Inn on the waters of Bras d'Or is a friendly, cozy country inn, with eleven acres of grounds and two restaurants serving seafood and Scottish food such as oatcakes, bannoch and mharagh--and other dishes, too.
Scottish, French, English,
Micmac Indian, all havecontributed to the exciting culture of Nova Scotia,
and nowhere is this more evident than along the spectacular reaches of
Cape Breton's Cabot Trail.
INVERARY INN RESORT at CAPE BRETON LODGES, P.O.Box 190, Baddeck, Nova Scotia, Canada B0E 1B0, 902-295-2674. Toll free within the Maritime Provinces, 1-800-565-5660. Dining room, tennis, basketball, hot tub, sauna, exercise room, boat tours, bikes and boats.