A Piece of Scotland Gone West
Connected to the rest of Nova Scotia by a narrow causeway, Cape Breton Island is as Scottish as it gets on this side of the Atlantic, a place where the cultural influence of the original French settlement was subsumed long ago as thousands of Scottish farm families streamed in between 1770 and 1850. The land’s similarity to the auld sod must certainly have been a draw, with its mountains and plunging shoreline cliffs, but it’s sheer pride that keeps the Gaelic traditions alive today, manifested in music, art, and even a bit of language.
Both natural beauty and island culture get their due on the 184-mile Cabot Trail, named for Italian-born explorer Giovanni Caboto (a.k.a. John Cabot), who sailed from Bristol, England, after hearing about Columbus’s earlier journey, and made landfall on Cape Breton Island in 1497.
Following the picturesque, craggy coastline around Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the trail is one of the most scenic drives in North America, passing Acadian fishing villages, pristine valleys, and viewing points from which you can often spot finback and minke whales feeding in the waters below. Most breathtaking of all is the 27-mile stretch from Chéticamp north to Pleasant Bay, with its remarkable views of the western coast. You can drive the Cabot Trail in a day, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice. Instead, pull off for a hike on any of the 590-square-mile park’s more than thirty trails (most of which are quite mild) or stop at any of the Cabot Trail’s tiny fishing villages, such as Pleasant Bay, population 350.
On the east coast, the town of Ingonish is home to the Keltic Lodge, a gleaming white, red-roofed, Tudor-style resort situated on a spit of land so narrow it feels like an island. The views are a knockout, as is the nearby Highland Links golf course, ranked among the best in Canada. North of here, small, idyllic Mary Ann Falls is probably the most visited waterfall on the island. To the south, at South Gut St. Ann’s (where the Cabot Trail begins officially), the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts hosts an annual Gaelic Mod, a day of traditional Gaelic language and song with workshops, a codfish supper, and a ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) with traditional music and dancing. Its Great Hall of Clans museum depicts the history of the Scots on Cape Breton. In October, the nine-day Celtic Colours festival is celebrated island-wide with dozens of concerts, lectures, and workshops on Gaelic folklore, weaving, and the playing of the pipes.