The Road Trip Continues…..Cape Breton Island , Nova Scotia

From the picturesque scrap-book land, Lunenberg, we return to Halifax for one last evening on the Waterfront. Next morning it is onwards to Tuoro via the scenic land locked route NS-103 E and NS-102. There are few stops, breathers to enjoy the scenery and a bite at a seafood restaurant. The agenda was for morning entry into Cape Breton Island and cover half of Cabot Trail before calling it a day. 

More than the towns it was the original names that intrigued me. Truro, the Mi’kmaq ‘Wagobagitik’ or ‘End of Water’s Flow’ due to its proximity to Salmon River floodplain at eastern end of Cobequid Bay, became prosaic ‘Cobequid’ for the Acadians, early 1700. By 1755 the Acadians were expelled with Britishers settling Presbyterians from Ireland via New England who renamed it Truro after a city in Cornwall, England. 

The present Truro is hub of Nova Scotia because of its location at the junction between the Canadian National Railway ( Halifax and Montreal) and Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway between Truro and Port Hawkesbury. There was no stopover as we drive through dense forest lands towards New Glasgow, north of Trans Canada Highway 104, along the banks of the East River of Pictou, and 105 kms from Cape Breton Island.

I wanted to stop at few places but my son reminded me that there was an infant on board. This was a family trip with two seniors (husband and me), three youngsters, daughter, son and his wife and a 1 year and 7 months old grand daughter. Hence it was a leisurely laid back drive-a-thon with no adrenalin flowing adventures. The kids could do that on personal holidays. 

Well, we did stop at Antigonish, between New Glasgow and the Canso Causeway, lured by its intriguing name. It is a college town, St. Francis Xavier University, with a nice downtown worth walking around, a church with a steeple with a clock and as someone mentioned the ‘hands are painted on it’.

Again a Mi’kmaq word, meaning ‘a place where the branches are torn off by bears gathering beechnuts (pretty lengthy) or ‘meeting place of five forked rivers’. The first name is more innovative  but then the agony of being… Antigonish.

There’s only one way to get onto Cape Breton Island, the Canso Causeway, that connects mainland Nova Scotia with its northern island. The Trans-Canada Highway 104, crossing the Canso Causeway, is a two-lane road and at this point it becomes Route 104, 105, or Trunk 19 once on the Cape Breton side of the bridge. The Canso Canal Bridge, is a rotating bridge that allows boats to pass through the Canso Canal. We stop for a photo op at the “Welcome to Cape Breton” sign.

We take the Eastern Route cruising around Lac D’Or. The narrow isthmus at the southern end of Bras d’Or Lake connects the Cape Breton Islands together till a canal was built to provide the Lake a new outlet. Bras d’Or Lake, similar to Canadian Lakes is not a lake but a mini sea (by India standards) never ending, a mixture of salt and fresh water, with two natural connections to the Atlantic Ocean towards the North end near Sydney, Nova Scotia. Previously this was an inconvenience for people down the South end, including for the Mi’kmaq First Nations, as they had to carry their canoes across the isthmus at present-day St. Peter’s. The construction of canal made life easy. A lighthouse at the Battery Provincial Park marks the entrance to the canal, and from here the famous Cabot Trail, a scenic highway of 298 km (185 mi). The Trail is a vibrant, winding mix of roads, paths, stairs, and stunning chimerical ocean vistas, quaint fishing villages, dramatic, rocky coastlines, waterfalls, beaches, creating the world’s of the most exceptional road trips. 

The Cabot Trail is named after the explorer John Cabot who landed in Atlantic Canada in 1497. Some historians are of the view that his arrival was in Newfoundland and not Cape Breton Island and it was Premier Angus L. MacDonald, who in his eagerness to rebrand Nova Scotia as primarily Scottish for tourism purposes, created both names, Cape Breton Highlands and Cabot Trail. 

Construction of the initial route was completed in 1932. Usually travellers and tourists follow the trail clock-wise but somehow we did it anti-clockwise. The direction does not matter as the iconic Cabot Trail traces the island’s west and east coasts, follows the North shore, has dozens of vantage points revealing panoramic views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic and the beaches throughout Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Whale watching is confined to the West coast, the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Baddeck: Our first stop or starting point on the Cabot Trail and finally a village that keeps its original Mi’kmaq name. Situated in centre Cape Breton, where the river empties into Bras d’Or Lake, Baddeck’s claim to fame is that in 1885 Alexander Graham Bell and family had a vacation here. Bell went on to commission a complex of buildings including a laboratory named Beinn Bhreagh (Gaelic: Beautiful Mountain) after his ancestral Scottish Highlands. He spent majority of his time here conducting experiments including the AEA Silver Dart’s first controlled powered flight in Canada in 1909. From 1885 to 1928 the Bell Boatyard made both experimental and traditional boats. The place is referred to as Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. We spent an hour walking around the campus and the Museum and indulging in kite flying on the shores of the Lake.

From Baddeck we drive north along the East Coast through picturesque scenic landmarks, the coastal vistas, towards Ingonish, a fishing village and one of the first areas settled on Cape Breton. Ingonish is the eastern entrance to Cape Breton Highlands National Park, home to Cape Smokey Provincial Park and the Broad Cove Campground. Between Baddeck and Ingonish we stop at a popular restaurant, CLUCKING HEN CAFE AND BAKERY, more for the name and the weather stone at the NORTH SHORE

Ingonish is an all weather coastal town with equal share of beach and mountains. The sweeping picturesque bay along the Atlantic Ocean with both saltwater and freshwater and the pebbles all over the place are big temptations. My grand daughter freaked out on seeing so many pebbles, big and small, shiny and polished and we had a hard time prying her away. She did manage to gather the smallest ones in her tiny hands. Ingonish is popular with golfers from around the world and its famed Highlands Links is considered one of Canada’s finest courses.

Whatever time spent admiring the rocky peninsula juting out from the northern end of the bay is well worth it. Turn away from the waters and there are the verdant mountains, equally welcoming for strolls and watching wildlife

The Eastern Cape Breton Highland Park is gentler on undulating shores while the West is rugged cliffs and mountains kowtowing to the waters of Gulf of Lawrence. The centre of this 950 square kilometre Park is a dry rocky plateau, 400 meters above sea level with Nova Scotia’s highest point, 532-meter White Hill. This is a windswept hump, far from the nearest road, and with no formal access trail reaching it. But what impresses is the interplay of mountains, waters, Acadian forest lands of hardwoods and conifers, with sugar maples, yellow birches, and rare alpine-arctic plants—a designated international biological preserve. Wild orchids blossom under thick spruce, paper birch, balsam fir. A mini nature wonderland with the Grand Anse River gorge near MacKenzie Mountain, the Acadian forest’s showpiece. Wildlife flourish with white-tailed deer, black bears, beavers, lynx, mink, red foxes, snowshoe hare and more than 200 bird species, including eagles and red-tailed hawks.

Cape Breton Highlands National Park is open year-round, though campgrounds and the two information centres operate only mid-May-October. Passes can be purchased at both ends, Chéticamp and Ingonish campgrounds, or at the two Park gates. For details on hiking the bookstore within the Cheticamp Visitor Centre is a good source. The northern section of the Trail passes through the Park and the road is referred to as Trunk 30 by the Department of Transportation and Public Works.

The most spectacular scenic phenomenon is supposedly the 110 kms through the park between Chéticamp and Ingonish. We were doing it anti-clockwise and from Ingonish proceeded to Pleasant Bay for a night halt at Mountain View Motel. It was nearing our deadline of 6 pm and a happy but tired lot made way for a break at the Motel, passable for an overnight stay.

Pleasant Bay is halfway point on the Cabot Trail, a nature-bag of hiking trails and the Whale watching capital of Cape Breton Highland, (The Whale Interpretive Centre.)

Next day an early start and a stroll around the harbour of Pleasant Bay or Scottish (Gaelic) Am Bagh Toilichte, on the shores of the Gulf of St Lawrence,141 kms from Port Hawkesbury, reveals a fishing town famous for lobsters in spring and snow crabs in summer. 

Stopped at Lone Shelling, a Scottish-style sheep crofters hut (also known as a bothran or shieling) one of the earliest structures inside the Park. This historical and architectural structure, constructed in 1942, is a Federal Heritage Building.  We walk the short trail, named after the building, towards the Canadian replica of the hut of irregular field stone with timber and thatch roofs that pays homage to the area’s Scottish roots. One can take a look inside the hut meant as shelter for farmers and their livestock. This awesome section of the Highland Park is a protected area because of the largest old growth of hardwood forests in the Maritimes. The showpieces of the Grand Anse Valley, are the 350 year old Sugar Maple trees and the Moose.

Trailhead: On the Cabot Trail at the base of North Mountain; Significant Feature: Old-growth Acadian forest, Scottish heritage; Length: 0.6 km (0.4 mi) loop;Hiking Time: 15 minutes and suitable for all levels.

West Coastal Highland Park: From here it is the spectacular West coast with reddish boulders and shoreline with mountains sliding into the Gulf of Lawrence. From Pleasant Bay, the park’s northwestern corner, the highway turns inland and upward to 455-meter-high French Mountain. We follow the Map….the level stretch passing narrow ridges overlooking deep valleys, undulating over mountainous stretches and valleys formed more than a billion years ago. A popular hiking trail is the Skyline Loop, the seven kilometre hike, two hours one way for whale watching , Bald eagles, bears and deer. The trail begins where the Cabot Trail heads inland at French Mountain.

The northernmost point on the Cabot Trail is Cape North, a small service town outside the Park. From here the Trail traverses complete wilderness before reaching the open ocean at St. Lawrence Bay. On way is the Cabot’s Landing Provincial Park, the supposed landing site of English explorer John Cabot. The sandy beaches and picnic area are welcoming and one can do the hike to the 442-meter-high Sugar Loaf Mountain.

We cross through Acadian country side, past Chetticamp, the most impressive stretch of this spectacular drive, with the highway clinging to the shoreline and then climbing steeply along oceanfront cliffs. Cheticamp, an Acadian fishing village with restaurants, camping sites, cruises and festivities, is famous for its hooked rugs and fiddle music. Summer shindigs were still to begin and we missed out on the music and the dances including visits to the Museum of Hooked Rug and Home Life at Les Trois Pignons to watch rug hooking demonstrations, and to Le Centre de la Mi-careme with its unique display of locally crafted masks and exhibits showcasing evolution of one of the oldest Acadian traditions. Photo ops and ice cream are compensations before driving on towards south end of the Island.

A full circle and though the Cabot Trail justifies four days, we did in two days and a halt at Inverness completed our round trip.

 

Inverness, located on the West coast facing the Gulf of St Lawrence, sits atop a small coal seam exploited from late 19th century to mid-late 20th century. The locals had tried capitalising on the coal riches but their attempts at mining and transportation were haphazard. It was William Penn Hussey of Massachusetts who put Inverness on the coal map. He opened a mine with financial backing from European investors and dredged a portion of the sand dunes to connect MacIsaac’s Pond to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He constructed piers and wharves, laid a small railway and was able to ship coal to export markets. Ten years later the infrastructure fell into disarray and Hussey sold off his interests. 

Lunch at Coal Miners restaurant was a pleasant surprise. It was the decor that was eye stimulating with photographs showcasing the history of coal mining in Inverness. It is a step back to the time when coal, rather than present day Golf, was the main economic motivator.

A satisfying break and we made a beeline for the Beach and a leisurely stroll on the Broadwalk. Mid-afternoon, there was hardly anyone around, a peaceful haven to romp in the warmest ocean waters north of the Carolinas, (Cape Cod and Long Island) that stretches four kilometers starting from southernmost tip of Cabot Trail all the way upto Cabot Cliffs. A walkers paradise and we did just that on the planks running parallel to the Beach.

The final stop was at The Christy’s Look-Off, Craigmore, near Port Hawkesbury for a last glimpse of St. George’s Bay near the Strait of Canso. There is an interesting tale about the early years, when relatives on both sides of the Bay communicated by lighting bonfires on the hilltops, sending celebratory messages of old Gaelic festivals, change of seasons and of bereavements in families. The Christy’s Look-Off is a small park gifted to the public by a lady who had lived across the road. It is now under the care of the Cèilidh Coastal Trail Association. There is a sign at entrance to the Park.

Learn that the famous Indo-Canadian writer  Robin Sharma of THE MONK WHO SOLD HIS FERRARI book series is a resident of Port Hawkesbury. I would not mind being a permanent resident of this region. 

At last in Pictou with time to spare before the last ferry across the Northumberland Strait to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Pictou has easy highway connections to all of Nova Scotia’s major destinations, including Halifax, New Glasgow, Antigonish, and Cape Breton Island. Pictou is also a few minutes away from Caribou, which is a terminal for the ferry to Prince Edward Island.

Pictou to Prince Edward Island journey continues ……….

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