In the months leading up to this vacation, my boyfriend Chris and I went back and forth several times before picking a destination. Our options were Scotland or Nova Scotia (New Scotland!) Would we brave the Scottish Highlands, or traipse along the Cabot Trail? In the end, the battle came down to the Canadian dollar versus the British pound. The loonie was the obvious winner, and so we embarked on a two-week roadtrip to Nova Scotia, with a special focus on Cape Breton Island.
Our first stop was Quebec City, where I had lived in 2008 while working as a co-op student at Parks Canada. The city was just as beautiful as I remembered. I loved taking Chris out for a burger at Chez Victor, my favourite restaurant in the area. We stayed right in the heart of the old town and spent a lovely evening wandering through the streets and along the Plains of Abraham.
After bidding farewell to Quebec City, we drove almost 1,000 km to Pictou, Nova Scotia. Well, Chris drove. I don’t like driving, and he doesn’t like being the passenger, so our arrangement worked perfectly. We kept ourselves entertained mainly by listening to books on tape.
A hurricane had just hit Nova Scotia a few days earlier, so we started seeing the damage (mostly fallen trees) as we approached Pictou. When we arrived in the town, half the streets were dark as a result of power outages. Fortunately, our hotel got electricity back about an hour before we arrived.
Cape Breton Island and the Cabot Trail had been on my list of places to visit basically my entire life. When I was little, the Rankin Family was one of my favourite bands. My family used to listen to the Rankins in our car and dance around the living room to their fiddle music. I had always wanted to explore the scenery featured on the album cover of Fare Thee Well Love. As such, I was terribly excited to finally reach the trail after driving all day from Pictou. It felt like my childhood dreams were coming true.
After so many hours on the road, we were raring to go on a hike. The Acadian Trail, just outside the town of Chéticamp, offered the perfect respite for our cramped legs. We hiked up a winding path to the lookout points, where we were treated to incredible views of Cape Breton Island and Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Parks Canada had set up chairs on some of the trails, and they made for an excellent place to relax (not to mention excellent photos!)
The trail was mostly clear, but we occasionally needed to scoot over or under trees that had fallen in the hurricane a few days before.
We stayed for two nights at the Normaway Inn, in the Margaree River Valley. The inn is a beautiful old house and is known for its delicious meals and barn concerts. Unfortunately, there weren’t any concerts scheduled during our time at the inn, but we did enjoy the food tremendously.
We stopped by Les Trois Pignons cultural centre in Chéticamp. The centre featured many old artifacts from the Acadian settlement, and an amazing collection of hooked rugs (pictured below). It was definitely worth the visit.
I adored listening to the locals speak French in the town. I’m accustomed to the French spoken in Quebec and France, but I had never heard the type of Acadian French spoken in Chéticamp. I couldn’t quite catch all the words. The language lover in me would be keen to spend more time in the area learning the dialect.
From Chéticamp, we drove to Dingwall, the very tip of the trail. We stopped often to take pictures, and we also did a short hike to an inland waterfall.
Since we are both chained to our desks at our jobs, we wanted this vacation to be as outdoorsy as possible. We even briefly flirted with the idea of camping, but then I remembered that I only willingly camp these days in guaranteed perfect conditions (not too hot, not too cold, NO RAIN). “Glamping” is a much better fit, especially in a place with such notoriously unpredictable weather. And what better way to glamp than in heated geodesic domes complete with comfy beds and an en-suite toilet and shower? We had all the fun of being in nature, with none of the inconvenience.
We doubled back on a road a bit the next day to explore the amazing Skyline Trail, the most popular tourist attraction in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The scenery was quite spectacular. We walked along the edge of the cliff and reached the famous boardwalk.
As we headed back to our domes in Dingwall, we stopped at yet another waterfall trail. You can never go on too many waterfall hikes!
Our amazing day was capped off with a trout dinner at the Markland in Dingwall. We were treated to a beautiful sea view as we ate our superb meals. I ate seafood for almost two solid weeks on the trip, and I loved every bite of it.
The best part of the Markland was the local fiddler who came to play in the lobby of the hotel. We sat for a long time watching him, and I was completely mesmerized. Fiddle music has been one of my favourite types of music for as far back as I can remember. Whenever I hear a fiddle tune, my soul goes SQUEEEEEE. I’ve even entertained the idea of taking violin lessons as an adult life project.
Cape Breton has excellent whale watching, and normally September is a great time of year to see whales. I’d been whale watching once before in Tadoussac, Quebec, in May 2006 … and I didn’t see a single whale. Well, I did see one, but it was about 100 m away, so it didn’t really count. I figured I would give a whale tour another go in Nova Scotia. Chris isn’t a huge fan of boats or water, so he gave whale watching a pass. I, on the other hand, love boats and water, but they don’t love me. I usually get terribly seasick, so I was taking a bit of a risk by going on a zodiac. At least the water was calm.
We scoured the ocean for whales, but because of the hurricane, none had been spotted in about a week. They had all ventured farther out to sea, and they hadn’t returned yet. We did, however, see some leatherback turtles, which are apparently less frequently spotted than whales. The turtles are such beautiful creatures, and I was thrilled to see them right up close.
We returned to shore without having seen a single whale, but it’s all good. I figure that whale watching will be a lifelong project for me. I’ll keep paying for tours and supporting the industry, and one day I’ll get lucky. And I learned that I can survive a tour without getting sick, so that’s certainly promising.
A local company ran a zipline tour right near our glampsite, so we spent the afternoon zipping away. I love how my trips almost invariably involve an activity where I have to sign a waiver 😀
We also visited the North Highlands Community Museum, where we learned about the history of the area. I got a huge kick out of reading the rules for the local school teachers in 1915. How times have changed (thank goodness!)
We went back to the Markland for a marvelous pub night. We spent the evening listening to two incredibly talented Cape Breton musicians. Buddy MacDonald, a singer-songwriter and guitar player, teamed up with Rachel Davis, a fiddler, to give us a fantastic performance. In between tunes, Buddy MacDonald would tell us hilarious stories about his life on the road. To make the show even more awesome, the locals got up during some of the numbers to perform reels and step dances. Music wise, it was one of the greatest nights of my travelling life. I want to come back to Cape Breton again and again just to hear the musicians.
In the morning, we left our dome behind, and drove to the Franey Trail, at the east side Cape Breton Highlands National Park. We hiked up the trail to a summit with terrific views of the eastern coast of Cape Breton Island.
We stayed in the charming down of Baddeck, where local musicians host nightly ceilidhs for tourists. We were treated to a toe-tapping show featuring a piano player and fiddler / step dancer. They taught us how to tell the difference between a jig and a reel. For a jig, the rhythm is jig-e-ty / jig-e-ty / jig-e-ty / jig-e-ty. For a reel, the rhythm is this-is-how-a-reel-goes / this-is-how-a-reel-goes / this-is-how-a-reel-goes / this-is-how-a-reel-goes. Now you know 🙂
Baddeck is also home to the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. We wandered through the museum, admiring his inventions, especially the planes. In the main hall of the museum, who should we come across, but a fiddler! A local musician was giving a demonstration to a tour group. Again, I was in fiddle heaven.
In grade school history, we learned all about Louisbourg, the oldest French fortress in North America. Part of the site has been fully reconstructed, and it’s a fascinating place to visit. We drove over to the fortress, which is near Sydney. We spent an afternoon wandering down the streets and through the buildings, and speaking to all the costumed interpreters. I peppered them all with questions because I’m the history nerd type of tourist. I really made them work that day!
We ended up at a Travelodge in Sydney, mostly because it had reasonably priced rooms and an indoor pool. After dinner (lobster rolls!), I chilled in the hot tub and chatted with the locals, who pay a decent monthly rate to use the pool and gym equipment. I spoke to a truck driver who used to haul shellfish all over the eastern United States, and a young couple who settled in Sydney because they liked the pace of life in the town. I appreciated everyone’s friendliness toward me, a perfect stranger. I didn’t say a word to anyone other than a polite hello, and before I knew it, they were telling me their life stories and asking me for mine.
The following day, we left Cape Breton Island and made our way to Moncton, New Brunswick. I had some unfinished business to attend to in Moncton. I had visited the city in 2002 as a 15-year-old for a rhythmic gymnastics event, but we didn’t have much time for touring. This time, I made sure that we stopped at Magnetic Hill, one of Canada’s zaniest tourist attractions.
Magnetic Hill is actually an optical illusion. It looks likes it slopes downwards, but it actually slopes upward. When you drive to the bottom of the hill and put your car in neutral, your car starts to roll up the hill as if it’s being pulled up by a magnet (hence the name).
The experience was everything I had hoped for and more. We watched another car go first, then took our turn. I thought it was absolutely hysterical. We even went for round two, just because we (well, mainly I) had so much fun the first time. No one else was waiting, so why not? 🙂
We ended a fabulous day with a delicious lobster dinner in Shediac, New Brunswick. It was my first time having an entire lobster to myself, and it was absolutely divine.
After a cozy night in Shediac, we retraced our steps from the previous week and drove back through New Brunswick. We had an easier pace, since we were only driving as far as Quebec. We stopped in the town of Hartland, New Brunswick, home to the world’s longest covered bridge. I remember taking a picture in front of the bridge on my 2002 trip out east, but our bus couldn’t fit under the arch. This time, we were able to drive on the bridge and into the town, where we enjoyed a tasty lunch before heading back to the highway.
Another stop of interest was Grand Falls, New Brunswick. At certain times of year, the waterfall in the town is quite powerful. In May 2002, for instance, it was raging. However, in September, the falls are mostly dry. I was a wee bit disappointed, but it was still a great spot to stretch our legs
We spent our last night of the roadtrip at a hotel in Lévis, Quebec, then drove back home to Ottawa. It was weird seeing heavy traffic again after experiencing the practically empty roads out east.
I loved this roadtrip as much as I have loved any of my travels abroad. I’m so glad to have fulfilled my dream of visiting the Cabot Trail, Louisbourg, and all the places I missed for whatever reason during my childhood trips.