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Hello from Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island

Posted by on November 11, 2016

Hello! It’s been way too long since we last blogged (or vacationed, for that matter) so we thought we’d share our experiences in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.

You may wonder, why Nova Scotia? Honestly, I have no idea how we ended up here! The recent end of long work projects (and that November is not really peak season anywhere), resulted in us picking rather randomly. So Nova Scotia it is!

Along those lines, the only thing we had planned was accommodation at a beachside VRBO for 8 of the 10 nights of our stay. We COMPLETELY winged the rest!


We’ve been here several days now and the strongest impression I have is this:

I thought I was visiting Canada. I had no idea I was visiting (New) Scotland.

I know, I know. Its name is Nova Scotia (read: New Scotland) – but that had never occurred to me before this trip!

In fact, we saw this sign during one of our drives and it cracked us up, so we thought we’d share!


We’ll talk more about the Scottish influence in a later post, but I wanted to go ahead and frame the scene early!

So, in case you are like me and need a map to (re)acquaint you with Nova Scotian geography, here you go…


We stayed in a VRBO near Cape George (northwest of Antigonish on the above map), so that we could have (1) beachfront accommodation (2) a wood-burning fireplace in case the weather was crap and (3) a sunset view over water. You don’t often get that on the east coast, so we wanted to take advantage.

Like I said before, we didn’t have much time to plan (or even contemplate) this trip before we got here, so everything was new and unexpected! I should also note that November is off season in Nova Scotia, so we were aware that many things would be closed.

No worries. We don’t like other tourists anyway!

Cape Breton Island

Cape Breton Island is in the northeast part of Nova Scotia, and the part we’d heard the most about. Thus, we had to check it out. We spent 1 night/2 days there.

The most popular part of Cape Breton Island is the Cabot Trail – an ~300km (~185mi) scenic drive that loops around part of the island.

Our plan was to see as much as we could of Cabot Trail during our 2 days. To get there, though, instead of taking the highway, we chose to take the coastal road called the Ceilidh Trail, and I’m really glad we did.

Ceilidh Trail

The Ceilidh Trail is a 100-km long scenic coastal drive on the west side of Cape Breton Island that spans several small towns and overlooks the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

It’s also a Celtic haven in Canada. (I didn’t realize we were looking for a Celtic haven, but well, we found it!)

Ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) means “gathering” and honestly, I can’t tell if it’s Irish, Scottish, Gaelic, or all three, but nevermind. The Celtic presence in this area was SUPER STRONG.

And I must say, I think I’d like these Celts. From what I can tell, their “gatherings” consist of singing, dancing, and generally loving life. What’s not to love? One sign even called this Canada’s “Musical Coast.” Sign me up!

Sadly, their music centre was closed for the season…


…as was the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou that is famous for its singing and dancing. Boy do I bet those walls could tell some interesting tales! I would SO LOVE to dance a jig there!


In addition to music, there was also a hiking/biking trail (Celtic Shores Coastal Trail) that had once housed a railway line.


This reminded us a lot of the Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand.


Since most things were closed, we spent a bit of time driving the back roads, as we love to do. We came across this Celtic marker for a pioneer cemetery.


We also happened upon some nature…as we spotted this bald eagle eating his prey. They really are majestic (though we got better pix of them in the Grand Tetons. This eagle was apparently quite full and happy to just rest…)


One of the biggest draws for me was the Mabou Lighthouse. (If you recall from our Maine post, I’m a bit of a lighthouse fanatic!) And while the Lighthouse was beautiful…


…the funniest story was of the 2 fisherman who were chatting there when we pulled up.

Given that we’d barely seen anyone on our drive, our first reaction was just to be shocked to see them there. But imagine our surprise when we realized that one of them was wearing a UNC ball cap!

So of course, we had to ask them about the hat. “Do you like UNC?” “We are shocked to see a Tarheel up here!” His response was priceless. He had no idea what hat he was wearing. Some kid his daughter dated gave it to him.

Hmmmmph. Well, that was that. But it gave us a good chuckle.

Before we moved on, we asked him where he was from, since he had quite a thick accent. He pointed and said he’d lived his life on this hill and his buddy lived 2 hills over. With that accent, we thought he was straight off the boat from Scotland. No lie.

Still amused at this interaction, we then found a small cafe open on our way out of town. We talked to the young girls in there while they prepared some poutine for us to go. (We couldn’t just use the bathroom and leave, so why not purchase a Canadian delicacy [wink, wink!]) They were mesmerized by the Kiwi.

Given the lack of tourists this time of year, I have no doubt we were providing fodder for the locals to chat about!

A practical thing to note here – if you are ever driving Nova Scotia and get a chance to buy gas or use a restroom, take it! I’m not sure how it works, but it’s almost like small towns designate 1 place to stay open off season and non-locals have to keep their eyes peeled in order to find them! We packed sandwiches and snacks to keep ourselves fed, but we were at the mercy of towns for restrooms and gas…

As we were driving to find a place to eat our poutine, we saw a sign for Glenora Falls, and decided lunch by a waterfall sounded perfect. How idyllic, right? I’ll spare you the details, but

  1. we never found the falls [turns out a neighbor had put a no trespassing sign up, to stop the tourists] so
  2. we went 6-7 km out of our way on a bumpy gravel road to nowhere (while dodging/fording massive mud puddles) when the falls were actually 300m off the main road, and
  3. we ended up eating lunch next to some cows who looked at us like we’d lost our minds (by this point I was getting hangry and Jeff knew it was best if we stopped!)


Not too long after, we finally hit a point where Jeffrey was willing to turn around…(it was a rental car after all…)


Ah, the glory of unplanned adventures!

Once back on the main highway, we were disappointed to learn that the nearby Glenora Distillery was closed for the season. Phooey. After our driving shenanigans, I could have used a taste of that. But anywho…


Further along, we came upon Margaree Harbour, the last town of the Ceilidh Trail before hitting the Cabot Trail. As with most other towns, it seemed like a ghost town, with few people about and even fewer stores open.

So imagine our delight when we saw this faded “Open” sign on Laurence’s store.


We couldn’t miss the opportunity, so we had to go in!

It was a small general store, and empty as far as we could tell. We perused a bit before the storekeeper made his way out from a back office. We bought a postcard and sodas (we had to buy something, since we made him come out!) and began to chat with him.

He was clearly used to locals and was intrigued by tourists this time of year, especially Americans. “So, how about that election?” he says (this was before election day).

He mentioned how Cape Breton Island had gotten famous this year when it created a website welcoming Americans to Cape Breton, should Trump win. It was all created in jest (I think), but turned out to be a huge marketing coup for them! It will be interesting to see if they have an influx of Americans post-election…

We chatted a bit more about the election and world politics before telling him we had to go. I have no doubt he will be telling locals about us crazy Americans who were fleeing the election madness…The idea of it amuses me greatly. Clearly we made his day. And he ours.

Around the corner from his shop, we passed one of the many (many!) white clapboard churches in Nova Scotia. This one was unique in that it looked like it was on fire due to the backlighting from the sun. Cool.


My oh my. Bottom line from this tour of the Ceilidh Trail is that this is what you get when you don’t plan!

Disrupting fishermen, discussing world travels with impressionable shop girls, lunching with cows, and debating the state of world politics with an elderly Canadian gentleman.

And you know what? I wouldn’t change one single thing.

Moments of authenticity is what I’ve called them before — you know, those little moments of magic that happen when you’re traveling. When you get to connect rather than just see, and remind yourself that we’re all human, just sown and grown differently across the globe. I love it.

But enough of that, now it’s on to the Cabot Trail!

Cabot Trail

Like I mentioned, the Cabot Trail is famous across Canada (or maybe even the world, per their claim below). Everyone we’ve spoken to touts it as the “must see” attraction in Nova Scotia, so of course, we had to see it!


At one of the many scenic overlooks (below), there was a memorial to Canadians who had perished in war. The red poppy is a symbol of remembrance (with the saying “lest we forget”) and many Canadians were wearing them throughout the week, in advance of Remembrance Day (11/11). [Equivalent to the US Veterans Day on the same date.]

You can see a bit of the Trail in the background of this pic…


As we drove on, we began to see the rocky shoreline…


This was just enough to whet our whistle, before we bunked in the French/Acadian town of Cheticamp for the night. Nova Scotia seems to have pockets of different nationalities – fascinating!

After our B&B hostess gave us oodles of helpful information (we needed it!), we went to bed early so we could get an early start on the Trail.

This boat was one of the first things we saw when we woke up, on a crisp and still -2degC morning, with frost on the ground. Brrrr. Winter is coming.


Skyline Trail

Our B&B hostess was insistent that we do the Skyline Trail – an ~7km (~4mi) easy walk that could be done in ~2 hours. The Skyline Trail is one of the most popular walks in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, so we decided to do it. We needed to stretch our legs after a day of driving…

The first thing I’ll say is – we were the only people on the trail (aside from the 2 Parks Canada groundskeepers at the beginning). Woah! We had to walk through 2 completely empty (large) parking lots to get to the start of the trail. In peak season, these lots (and trail) are packed with people.

Yet we had it all to ourselves. Ah, the glory of off-season traveling!

It was an out-and-back walk culminating in a view overlooking the sea and Cabot Trail. The last part had a boardwalk, which made an easy viewing platform…


From which we saw this view of the Cabot Trail, a feat of engineering, no doubt!


I have been incredibly fortunate in my life to see such grandeur as Glacier National Park in Montana, Mount Aspiring in New Zealand, the Swiss Alps, among others.

This is not meant to take one single thing away from the beauty of Cabot Trail, as it is truly lovely. But it’s lovely in an understated, less showy kind of way. Had we not had the serene experience of having the Skyline Trail completely to ourselves, my reaction may have been one of disappointment. (Blasphemy, I know! But I’m just keeping it real, folks…)

That said, this particular walk was ANYTHING but disappointing. Because once we had taken our pictures and were starting to head back along the trail, I turned the corner and almost ran into…

A BULL MOOSE!!! (my first!)

(Aaaack, my heart is racing even as I type this!) If I hadn’t been looking up – we had been watching our feet a lot, since there was some ice on the ground – I would have run right into him.

Thankfully, I didn’t. But he did scare the bejeezus out of me. My fight or flight system went into hyperdrive (flight, not fight!) but my mind simultaneously told me not to spook him, so I backed up gingerly, like you see them do in cartoons.

I croaked “bull moose” to Jeff, as I tippy-toed backwards.

Double gulp.

Jeff was immediately intrigued and had to go check it out. My reaction was 100% opposite. I had just looked up at a 1000-1200lb beast that stood 7-8 feet tall with huge paddles/antlers, soft eyes, and dopey ears. It never once occurred to me to try to get a picture.

My only thought was – we are on this trail alone, with a beast that could kill us, and likely bad cell reception. How quickly one’s perspective changes, eh???

In hindsight, the moose couldn’t have cared less about us. That said, he did wander parallel to the path for a bit, so we had to stalk him to keep an eye on where he was until we could get around him and out of the park.

What I couldn’t believe was how graceful and quiet he was. Given his size, I would have thought he’d make noise (if by nothing other than his antlers hitting tree limbs) but he didn’t. We had to really pay attention to keep him in sight. Nature is amazing.

Here is Jeff’s pic of Mr. Moose. I’ll still see him in my dreams. I think I am still recovering my adrenaline stores.


Back to Cabot Trail

Honestly, nothing nearly as interesting happened the rest of Cabot Trail, for what could top my first bull moose encounter!?!??

But we did see some other beautiful sights along the way, including…

A Lone Shieling – a small Scottish crofters shed. There was nothing notable in that, except that it was in a completely picturesque setting (that could almost make you believe it was still fall in Nova Scotia)…and that there were signs for coyotes.


No thanks, one beast is enough for me today. Yowzers.

This beautiful stream was also in this area.


Our next stop was the Beulach Ban Falls, but apparently waterfalls were not meant to be on this trip. The closed sign below gave me flashbacks to our New Mexico trip during the government shutdown (shudder).


Our B&B hostess had warned us that this may happen, as there was currently a controversy about possibly culling the moose population in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. She had heard word that there may be some protests going on in parts of the park. We aren’t positive that was the reason for the closure, but we suspect as much…

In way of explanation, the moose population in the park has exploded since an insect invasion took out the softwood trees (mostly spruce), allowing hardwoods to grow in their place (which moose love). They are considering culling the moose population to get their native vegetation back.

We asked the Parks Canada groundskeeper about it (since they had set up an enclosed area along the Skyline Trail to keep out moose and study how the native trees would grow back), and interestingly, he said he couldn’t share his views with us. We didn’t press him, but later in our drive it was clear that this is a sore issue among Cape Bretoners…


Further along Cabot Trail, we began to see some of the gorgeous coastline…


…as well as the picturesque fishing villages, including this one at tiny White Point…


and nearby Neil’s Harbour…


And, of course, another lighthouse (this one with a Canadian twist) at Neil’s Harbour…


Jeff had a great time photographing the waves as they crashed onto shore in New Haven. (I loved the small red cottage in the background.) This area reminded us very much of Maine.


That was about all we had time for before hightailing it back to our VRBO. With sunset at 4:30, we tried to minimize how much driving we had to do in the dark, so we missed the Alexander Graham Bell museum in Baddeck, along with some other Cabot Trail attractions. Maybe another time.

Overall, we had a great time exploring the Ceilidh and Cabot Trails. I think it would be fascinating to experience the musical culture of the Ceilidh Trail during peak season and to see the Cabot Trail at its most beautiful in the fall colors. Mmmm.

There was also a whole separate side of Cape Breton Island that we didn’t make it to – again, maybe next time. But until then, we hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to what we saw of Cape Breton!!!

Gus an ath-thuras! (that’s “until next time” in Scottish Gaelic)

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