It’s simply fascinating to watch the landscape change as you drive across Nova Scotia. Almost as soon as you cross onto Cape Breton Island, you can’t help but notice the shift in scenery that is so unique to this part of the province. Teeming with Scottish influences, there are nods to this proud heritage everywhere – the town names (Inverness, New Glasgow, Loch Lomond), the themed shops and restaurants, and the road signs that are in both English and Gaelic. Nova Scotia in latin translates to ‘New Scotland’ and Cape Breton Island, especially, lives up to that name, its landscapes beautifully reminiscent of the Scottish Highland’s rolling, green hills. The island is full of history and tied to many incredible technological discoveries, not something commonly mentioned when talking about this province. Cape Breton’s crowning glory may be the Cabot Trail and the Highlands, but its role in history is quite significant and yet, so easily overlooked unless you seek it out.
Cape Breton Highlands
After making our way past Halifax and through Guysborough, we headed towards Cape Breton Island, starting our trek along the Cabot Trail. The fishing town of Baddeck is located between the Highlands and the city of Sydney, and is home to the Alexander Graham Bell Heritage Site. A fair sized museum, it highlights much of Bell’s work, focusing mainly on the research he did in Nova Scotia. It walks you through his history and personal life, his work with the deaf and his collaborations on communication, flight and sea craft technology, much of which he worked on at his Baddeck home, Beinn Bhreagh. The exhibit includes early telephones and wiring devices along with numerous models of kites, flying machines and watercraft he helped develop and design. The walls are decorated with his sketches and notes, personal photographs and many other artifacts from his time Nova Scotia. We weren’t sure what to expect with this heritage site, but it was actually really interesting. It definitely reiterates that this great inventor should be remembered for far more than just the telephone.
Cape Breton Highlands & Meat Cove:
The Cape Breton Highlands seems almost like a world of its own within Nova Scotia. The first views of the huge forested hills are breath-taking and it only gets better the further you drive. We chose to take the Cabot Trail in the reverse direction (counter-clockwise as you look at it on a map) as we had heard it made for better views, since you drive along outside edge of the road. We had read that the roads were narrow, winding and a little nerve-wracking to drive, but even in a wider vehicle we felt these concerns were definitely exaggerated (unless you’re driving a larger RV or towing a fifth wheel, then they’re completely justified). The roads definitely weave and climb, but still offered plenty of space and were lined with guard rails, so we found them easy enough to maneuver. We were in no rush and had planned to stretch the trip out over 3 days, so we took our time exploring lookouts, taking in the scenery and hiking a couple of the trails.
Meat Cove isn’t technically located within the borders of Cape Breton Highlands National Park and it does require a side trip off of the Cabot Trail, but the views are totally worth it and some of the most beautiful in the Highlands. It isn’t a trip we’d recommend in anything larger than a campervan. Many of the roads to Meat Cove are narrow or poorly maintained dirt roads with some incredibly steep hills. After hiking the Jack Pine Trail early that morning, we met a couple who recommended a lookout spot, just off the main road, that gave an amazing view of the cove. It looked to have been a structure of some kind, but now all that remained was a concrete platform at the edge of the cliff, down at the end of an overgrown pathway. It really was the best view of Meat Cove and would have made for an amazing free campsite if we were in a smaller vehicle and didn’t have a small, fluffy dog that has earned a reputation for falling down things…and off things…and out of things…
Any guidebook or website for the Cape Breton Highlands National Park we looked at recommended that the Skyline Trail is an absolute must. However, due to safety concerns and wildlife that frequent the area, dogs weren’t allowed. So we decided to go early so that we could leave them in the van for the 90 minutes we needed before the day got too warm. One thing we’ve learned is that if you’re planning to visit any popular attraction, its best to get there outside the hours of 11 am to 3 pm if you want to avoid the crowds. This trail was no different – even by 8:30 am, the parking lot was filling up. Not wanting to leave the dogs for too long, but still wanting to get the views, we found a website that recommended rather than completing the full loop trail (which is about 7 km and can take around 3 hours) to instead make it a linear, return trail out to the lookouts and back (shaving about 45 minutes and a bit more than 2 kms off of the full trail). The Skyline trail is well-maintained and fairly flat until we got to the lookouts, which was all stairs. The climb down and back up was most definitely worth it when we were rewarded with some of the best vistas in the park. The lookout here is the perfect amalgamation of everything we’d hope to see in the Cape Breton Highlands – sprawling green mountains with winding roads to one side and blue ocean waves crashing against the cliffs on the other.
After completing the Cabot Trail drive, we made our way towards Sydney to spend a couple days while waiting for our ferry to Newfoundland. We had originally planned on taking in the tour of the historical fort of Louisville, but after learning that we couldn’t take the dogs with us, and that it was a site best explored over most of a day, we opted to skip it. Something to see next time we come out this way! Instead, we stopped at the Cape Breton Miners’ Museum. Graeme’s Grandfather had spent most of his working life in the Scottish mines, and he felt it was important to get a better sense of what that life was like. The museums guides are all former miners who spent their working lives toiling beneath the ground, some in the very same mine that is now home to the museum. The guide for Graeme’s tour, now in his eighties, had started working in the mines as a child alongside his father. He retired when the local mines were closed, and began working as a tour guide only a short time later. He can boast that he’s worked the mines, in one form or another, for more than seventy years. The tour takes you on a short walk in to the actual mine, 4-foot ceilings and all, where it was explained that some of the coal seams were as thick as twelve feet (meaning the ceilings and work areas were around twelve feet high), or as narrow as eighteen inches (it’s almost impossible to imagine that!) and extended at points eight miles out under the ocean floor. Graeme found out afterwards that his grandfather had spent his working days, on his belly, mining two to three foot coal seams, before being promoted to overseeing explosives.
The next morning, we made our way to the ferry at North Sydney to board the Blue Poutties for the 7-hour crossing to Newfoundland, our last big adventure before making our way back to Ontario.
Things We’re Enjoying (or that are keeping us sane in less than 100 sq feet):
Cally’s Reading: Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines…by Tim Ferriss
Graeme’s Reading: Tastes and Techniques – Naomi Pomeroy
What we’re listening to:
The Rich Roll Podcast – Danielle LaPorte on Becoming Your Own Guru
Meet the Composer (Podcast) – Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Composing is Second Nature
Spotify Playlist of the Moment: NPR Tiny Desk Concerts