How to Get The Most Out of Cape Breton
Cape Breton is absolutely breathtaking. The dark green trees covering every inch of red rock; the fog tumbling over the mountainsides; roads twisting around red, jagged cliffside adorned in thick greenery. It’s hard to describe how in awe I was driving around this magical island!
Earlier this summer, I was booking flights to New Brunswick for my cousin’s wedding. As I was already taking time off of work and flying to Canada’s east coast, I figured I may as well go exploring in one of the country’s most underrated provinces – Newfoundland and Laborador. Unfortunately, ticket prices were well over my budget ($1,000 return ticket) and I was left zeroing in on Nova Scotia. I had visited a small community in Nova Scotia when my best friend lived there, but I had never ventured into Halifax, nevertheless Cape Breton. A quick Google image search of Cape Breton was enough for me to book my ticket.
As Cape Breton is relatively unknown internationally- nevertheless to non-Maritime Canadians like myself- I thought I would put together a three-day itinerary on how to make the most of your time exploring the impossibly beautiful Cape Breton.
A Quick History:
Cape Breton is an island that covers about 18 per cent of Nova Scotia. The land was inhabited by the Indigenous Mi’kmaq people until it was claimed for England by John Cabot in 1497. The French also colonized on the island, which they called “Île Royale”, an extension of their Acadian settlement. There were many wars between the French and English over the land, with the Mi’kmaqs generally siding with the French colonizers. The French built the fortification of Louisbourg, which would be lost twice to the English. They also built Canada’s first lighthouse- the Louisbourg lighthouse, one of the first lighthouses in North America. The Scottish would also later colonize in the south-west community of Judique. The Scottish influences in Cape Breton is part of the reason why there is a Gaelic college on the island, and why some of their signs are in Gaelic and English.
Cape Breton was also home to the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell also lived in Baddeck, where he also invented Canada’s first powered flight and the world’s fastest boat. There is a museum dedicated to Alexander Graham Bell and his inventions in Baddeck, which I sadly did not have time to visit before I returned to Halifax.
A 3-Day Itinerary to Cape Breton
Day 1: Take a drive around the Cabot Trail
Familiarize yourself with Cape Breton by driving around its infamous Cabot Trail. Cape Breton has about 100,000 permanent residents, so their public transit system is virtually non-existent. I would recommend renting a vehicle for the best way to views of the island. With stunning cliff sides and greenery surprising you at every turn, it’s easy to be in complete awe driving around the iconic trail. Take time stopping along the trail at the viewing stations. The trail itself is will take you about 3 hours to drive around without stopping. It took me nearly 8 hours to drive around because I was so intoxicated by the scenery.
A major portion of the Cabot Trail falls within the Cape Breton Highlands, which were named after its resemblance to the Scottish Highlands. This is the most beautiful part of the whole trail. Make sure you have a full tank of gas if you decide to drive through the Highlands, as there aren’t any gas stations inside the national park. At a mere $7.80 for a one-day adult pass that lasts 24 hours, it’s almost highway robbery for that price!
Before hopping in your car to rush to the Cabot Trail, be sure to download a map before driving. I took an hour and a half roundabout when I ran out of cell/GPS service when I first drove the Cabot Trail. Thankfully, it lead to one of my favourite stops along the trail at Whale Cove, just outside of Margaree Forks. The water was so clear and so warm (a surprising feature of the West coast of the island) that I wanted to swim in the water. It also made me want to spend every minute of the day reading and writing there, so it was hard leaving this breathtaking and inspiring local gem.
Day 2: Get in touch with nature
Cape Breton’s charm comes from its untouched nature, so why not see it first-hand on the Skyline Trail? Normally, I am a strong advocate of taking the path less travelled. But as I have never done more than an hour-long hike at the most, I thought that taking a trail with other humans would be the safest option for a solo traveller.
The Skyline Trail is just off the Cabot Trail on the West side of the island near Petit Étang, at the top of French Mountain. It’s a relatively easy trail with no major inclines, some boardwalks and only mild rugged terrain. I made it to the trail about mid-day when there were many people still walking the trail. Toward dusk, there were fewer and fewer people on the trail, which was a bit intimidating because there are coyotes in the area. Because I’m a scaredy-cat, I walked around with a rock and stomped/yelled out randomly.
Don’t let me scare you off though! The view was absolutely incredible and the immersion in nature was a welcome change from my day-to-day life in the city. I mean, when else can you watch a moose lay in a field munching on the tall grass around him?
Looking back, I was probably in survival mode because I hadn’t really eaten much that day and the trail was much longer than I had anticipated (despite looking at the signage before entering). For anyone a bit weary about the 9km loop, stay left when you reach the fork in the trail. This will lead you directly to the viewing platform, as pictured above. For the full loop, head right at the fork for some teasers leading up to the incredible view at the iconic viewing platform.
From there, continue along the Cabot Trail to Pleasant Bay for some whale watching.
One of the highlights of my trip to Cape Breton was the wildlife I saw while I was there. Although I was lucky to see a moose up close on the Cabot Trail, I was even more excited to see a pod of pilot whales on a whale watching tour! There is a large selection of whale watching companies on the island. I went with Capt. Mark’s Whale and Seal Cruise in Pleasant Bay, which I found had a fair price and had an ethical approach to the animals. (Using the engine minimally or cutting it completely when approaching a pod.) For more information on how I picked my whale watching tour, click here.
For whale watching photography tips, click here.
Day 3: Get cultured!
Although the main draw of Cape Breton is its incredible landscape, it also has an interesting culture. Mi’kmaq, Irish, Scottish, English and Acadian influences are prevalent throughout the island and have greatly informed its local art scene. Though I would be too exhausted going back to my AirBnB at the end of the night in Baddeck to go out in the evening, my host informed me that the few bars downtown would have live music featuring Celtic artists from the area. If the bar scene isn’t for you, I would recommend visiting either the Gaelic College or the Celtic Music Centre.
Colaisde na Gàidhlig: The Gaelic College
Address: 51779 Cabot Trail, Saint Anns
Admission: $8 CDN per adult
Hours: 10:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. (varying)
This internationally known Gaelic College is the only institution of its kind in North America. With courses in Cape Breton fiddle and the Gaelic language, Colaisde na Gàidhlig prides itself in its role in preserving Scottish culture. For daily visitors, there’s the option to join a cultural demonstration where one lucky participant is fashioned a kilt out of 9 metres of fabric! You can also listen to Gaelic music and learn traditional dances, like the strathspey, jig, or reel “step!”
Ionad-Mìneachaidh a’ Chiùil Cheiltich: Celtic Music Interpretive Centre
Address: 5471 Nova Scotia Trunk 19, Judique
Hours: Mon-Fri 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. (varies seasonally)
Admission: up to $8 CDN per adult (varies per activity)
The Celtic Music Interpretive Centre is the place to go if you want Ceilidhs every day of the week and interactive exhibits. It’s the lively way to immerse yourself in Cape Breton’s music culture! Located in Judique, the Centre is a beautiful drive off of the Cabot Trail into a less ‘touristy’ area of Cape Breton. I would recommend going for a lunch Ceilidhs (pronounced kay-lee), as they are available every day from mid-May to mid-October.
More can’t-miss activities:
Fortress of Louisbourg
Address: 259 Park Service Rd, Louisbourg
Hours: 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Except October until third week of May: 9:30 a.m. – 4 p.m.)
Admission: $17.60 CDN per adult
As one of the main battlegrounds between the French and the English in Nova Scotia, the Fortress of Louisbourg is a quintessential part of the province’s history. Although I wasn’t able to drive to Louisbourg on my way back from Cape Breton, my visit to Halifax’s Citadel made me wish I had gone. The Fortress is North America’s largest reconstruction project, thanks to Parks Canada and Fortress Louisbourg Association, and shows off the fortress in its Victorian-era heydey. With more than a dozen buildings open to the public, three authentic 18th-century restaurants and on-site historical actors, it’s an incredibly fun and immersive way to understand the cultural dynamics and history of Nova Scotia.
Address: 13727 Route 19, Glenville
Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Admission: $7 CDN per adult
If you love whisky, the Glenora Inn & Distillery apparently makes some of the best malt whisky in Canada. Two friends of mine took the tour of the distillery, which is in located between Inverness and Judique. The distillery tour was the highlight of their trip, with the owner showing them the intricacies in making malt whisky.
Note: Not suitable for those with gluten allergies or Coeliacs disease.
Last-minute tips if you’re considering a trip to Cape Breton:
As mentioned above, Cape Breton has a permanent population of less than 100,000 people. With such a small population, it’s advisable to travel to Cape Breton during peak tourism season. From mid-October until about mid-May, there are no restaurants, bars or activity centres open otherwise. Another aspect of small populations spread out over a large chunk of land is the lack of public transport. I recommend renting a vehicle for your time in Cape Breton to fully see the island.
During my stay, I made sure I had access to a kitchen by booking through AirBnB. With few restaurant options, I didn’t want to risk having limited gluten-free, plant-based food options.
Gluten-free/Vegetarian/Vegan options in Cape Breton:
I had some luck finding gluten-free foods at Yellow Cello Cafe in Baddeck, but otherwise I was stuck having french fries as a snack along the road. There are some vegetarian options in Cape Breton, but most dishes are seafood-based, as that is one of the lead economic drivers on the island. I don’t recall seeing any vegan dishes in Cape Breton, but please leave a comment if there are any restaurants or towns that cater to a more plant-based and/or gluten-free diet!
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Have you ever been to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia? What was your favourite part during your visit?
Share your stories and gluten-free/vegetarian/vegan tips in the comments below and let me know if I’ve missed any fun activities in my 3-day itinerary of Cape Breton! For more photos and stories from The Full-Time Tourist, please follow all my travel adventures and recipes on social media- Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram!
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