Cape Breton And Nova Scotia - My Family Travels

History, culture, and nature in Canada's beautiful Nova Scotia.

One of my favorite regions, the province of Nova Scotia, also known as Canada’s “Festival Province,” lies to the east of Maine in the Canadian Maritimes. Within its 21,425 square miles, there are 4,600 miles of coastline, so you are never more than 37 miles from the sea. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Cape Breton Island, the northernmost part of Nova Scotia, for five days. It is a family-friendly destination.  Here, you won’t find any mega-theme parks or bathtub-warm ocean water. What you will find is a wide range of eco-friendly activities, quiet back-country roads, fine food and one large group of incredibly hospitable people, eager to make sure that nothing on your vacation is left to chance. Cape Breton has a uniqueness that makes it a wonderful part of a very special country.

Throughout history, your fellow travelers to this remote place have included the Norsemen in the 10th century, explorers John Cabot, Jacques Cartier, and Giovanni Da Verrazano, and, before them, the Native Canadian Mi’kmaq, who continue to reside in several places near Lake Bras d’Or.

Unique Cape Breton Island offers many choice activities for family travelers. While getting there by most modes of public transport is relatively simple, if you really want to tour, a car is a must. Your own automobile will afford you a chance to see, hear, feel, touch, smell and taste all that this expanse has to offer. Cape Breton is dotted with tiny, picturesque towns, in both the interior and on the seacoast. The roads, by the way, are first class and, with the exception of the occasional curve, steep hill, and seasonal crosswinds, a pleasure to drive. With regard to the past, the area has a history of coal mining and steel manufacture, along with fishing, and farming. To remind us, there are museums and historical areas devoted to each facet.

Touring the Island

Our first night was spent in the resort town of Baddeck, a shipbuilding area. Gisele’s Inn (902/295-2849, 800/304-0INN) provided a most comfortable night’s rest, and a fine pancake breakfast enjoyed in the sun-filled dining room overlooking Lake Bras d’Or. Baddeck is best known as the summer home of Alexander Graham Bell. To commemorate him, Canada has built the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site (902/295-2069), with many kid-friendly exhibits and hands-on activities, along with films and presentations. Among the more unusual of these are full-scale hydrofoil boats dating from the 1910s along with airplanes from the same era. Mr. Bell was not just the developer of the telephone, but quite the inventor and visionary and this site enshrines his memory in a tasteful, positive way. After seeing the charming town of Baddeck, you will understand why he settled there. The town is also the start of the 186-mile long Cabot Trail, perhaps one of the most scenically diverse in North America.

Just a few miles north of town, is St. Ann’s, home of the Gaelic Arts and Crafts College, where the traditions of Scotland flourish on this side of the Atlantic. Most impressive in the college is the Great Hall of the Clans Museum Interactive Museum (902/295-3411), which showcases Scottish history. The admission fee is modest at $20 for a family of four, and the many different Tartans are displayed in large cases, which make them easier to see and admire. Don’t expect any buildings from the time of Robert Burns; the campus dates from 1938.

The Cabot Trail

Although the Cabot Trail provides scenic vistas, there are many byways worth taking which intersect it along the way. One of those byways found us in the town of Glenville, a small community on the west coast of the Island that boasts North America’s only Single Malt Whiskey Distillery (800/839-0491 or 902/258-2662), perhaps not the usual factory tour, but in it’s rustic setting it is worth a side trip to watch the process. At the site is a small inn and a wonderful dining room, serving most impressive food and drink!

Getting back on the Cabot Trail requires driving through small communities on the west coast of the Island. As you parallel the Gulf of St. Lawrence, you will view towns with populations numbering in the hundreds, people living from the land and from the sea (not to mention the occasional tourist (or busload), connected by one two-lane paved road. You may want to stop a few times just to look at the sheer beauty of the scene, and, as I found out, no matter how things look where you are, on the Cabot Trail, they are bound to improve with each successive curve.

We had the opportunity to stop in the fishing village of Cheticamp, where Acadian French is heard more often than not, and where restaurants feature local Acadian food. It also boasts an 18-hole golf course, and numerous craft shops, with homemade rugs, quilts, sculptures and folk-art. Much of what was for sale was quite affordable, and all of it came from that part of the Island. This wonderful place is worth a diversion.

Cape Breton’s National Park

Just past Cheticamp, you will reach Cape Breton Highlands National Park (902/224-2306), which you can enter for $20 per family. Boasting elevations up to 1,500 feet, nested among 365-square-miles of Nova Scotia’s most dramatic scenery, the park can add on several days to your already busy schedule. Established in 1936, it is the largest protected wilderness area in Nova Scotia, covering one-fifth of northern Cape Breton.

To get your bearings, a stop at the Information Center at either Cheticamp (West) or Ingonish (East) is a must for an informative film about the park, a snack, or for general information. It is about 70 miles between each end of the park. With moose, eagles, rabbits, and coyote, bear, deer, bobcat and fox viewed sometimes, it’s up close and personal with the Animal Kingdom. From these rocky shores, you will be able to observe beaches of sand, mountain trails, forests and even waterfalls! There is little that is man-made nature here, allowing you to reflect on the wonder of this place we live in.

Leaving from the west end offers you a gradual rise into the mountains along the coast. Some scenic lookouts provide breathtaking views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As the Cabot Trail turns towards the east, the Bog Trail is a pleasant, accessible boardwalk trail that gives you an introduction to the Highland Barrens Ecosystem. Signs show how the plants growing there survive the variations of temperature throughout the year (it gets cold up there-trust me). Plus the trails are wheelchair accessible, a perfect for strollers.

Through the park, we were lucky to have Mr. Dave Doyon of Sea Spray Tours (902/383-2732 ) as our nature guide, host, raconteur, and livery driver. Family rates are available. At the extreme northern part of the drive along the highway, it majestically scales down from the cliffs to sea level through an ingenious array of hairpin curves – not for the faint-hearted, but, in a most Canadian way, well engineered and more scenic than scary.

Along the coastline are many small fishing villages, most notable being White Point and Neil’s Harbour. For most of us, this is an entirely different way of life and to see these small towns makes us think about the ways others earn their living.

With the continuing reticence of many families about traveling long distances by plane, Canada is a great alternative for people living in the northern United States. With 10 provinces and three territories, its almost 4,000,000-square-mile size makes it a perfect destination to contemplate nature at it’s best.

“Are we there yet?”

After what seemed like a long drive (actually about the distance from New York to Philadelphia), we were tired, hungry, and a little road weary. At just the precise moment that each one of us, in our own fashion, asked “Are we there yet?,” we were! Our destination was the Keltic Lodge ( 800/565-0444, 902/285-2880) at the tip of Middle Head Peninsula.

But what a place! The main building, completed in 1950, has a wonderful timeless air to it, complete with a scenic-viewed, large-windowed dining room, where the excellent food barely wins over the scenery — a tough battle indeed! Needless to say, the Purple Thistle Dining Room serves fish that is as fresh as you can get, meats, and vegetarian dishes to please all palates. But man (and woman) does not live just to eat. To work off all this wonderful food, kayaks and a golf course beckon, along with sandy Ingonish Beach, and an outdoor pool.

The resort is off the highway, which provides a great family-oriented outdoors where children can let off steam. Most of the rooms have an ocean view, which adds to its uniqueness, as the water views are quite different from what you may have seen in the tropics. This would definitely be a must for any family traveling along the Cabot Trail.

Planning Our Return

After a hearty breakfast, our trusty guides drove us back to Sydney Airport by way of the Old Cabot Trail, stopping at the town of Jersey Cove, where a ferry took us across St. Ann’s Harbour to Englishtown. The ferry ride, short in duration, is named after Angus MacAskill, who is buried nearby. Angus was a 7’9″ giant who toured with P.T. Barnum in the 19th century. At that point, we were less than 25 miles from Sydney, but this being Cape Breton, our trip was still filled with great views of the low-lying coastline.

As all things great come to a finish, so did this journey, with a departure from Sydney Airport, which offers frequent service to Halifax where you can connect to the rest of Canada and the U.S.A. Other options would be to take the bus, or driving by your own car or rental.

But, to be quite honest, this wasn’t enough time to see this land of enormous scenic splendor. Our journey lasted almost five days, which was too short, and the part of Cape Breton that we covered was only about 20% of the island. Next time it will be about the Fortress of Louisbourg, the Glace Bay Miners Museum, and many other cultural and scenic attractions. And in October of every year, there is the Celtic Colors International Festival (902/562-6700), a wonderful, island-wide showcase of Celtic heritage and culture featuring over 300 musicians, dancers and storytellers from Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, Canada and the United States.

But How Do I Get There?

One of the advantages of Canada’s geography is that all of it, save two provinces, is on or relatively near the United States border. In many cases, you can drive, take the train or even a ferry to our northern neighbor, as well as fly there.

Within Canada itself, its web of well-maintained highways (all four seasons), ferries, airlines, and trains connect all parts with seamless efficiency. Notable among this group is VIA Rail Canada, which operates over 450 trains per week throughout Canada over more than 7,000 miles of track connecting Canadian West and East Coasts and interior points, offering deluxe service and equipment. VIA Rail also offers connections for trains from New York City, Chicago and Seattle for U.S. originating passengers.

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