This past summer and fall, we had a great time talking to people who visited Cape Smokey. Whether we were talking to people from Canada, the United States or elsewhere around the globe, we noticed people were really curious about the region and loved what they saw and all the experiences Cape Breton has to offer. So, we thought we would compile some of those conversations here to give potential travelers some of the best Cape Breton travel tips!
SLOW is the most important piece of advice we can give you about travelling to Cape Breton. Adopt the philosophy of SLOW when you visit us. SLOW food, SLOW travel, SLOW leisure. We are not a place to be rushed. We are an experience to savor, a place to linger, a place to dwell.
Once you visit here, you won't want to leave. There is a charm and authenticity to Cape Breton that catches people off guard. If you are coming from a bustling metropolis to Cape Breton, it may take you a few days to leave the city behind, disengage and adapt to the slower rhythms of the island.
How long is the Cabot Trail?
The Cabot Trail is 298kms (185 miles) long. It circumnavigates the north-west side of Cape Breton island and is the main point of entry to Cape Breton Highlands National Park. While you could technically complete the drive in 4 hours, at a minimum you should budget a full eight-hour day. But ideally, travelers should plan to spend a minimum of 4 to 5 days on Cape Breton island, with 2 of those days spent experiencing and exploring the Cabot Trail.
Also, there's more to the Cabot Trail than the "official" road! Side roads and detours and unplanned excursions will open you up to all sorts of new experiences. Not all of the iconic spectacular views are on the trail itself. For instance, Meat Cove, which is the northernmost settlement on the island, is a 50 kilometer detour off the trail, with the last 10 km being a well graded gravel road and it has rugged views that are unparalleled on the island. Further down the road, past Pleasant Bay, is tiny Red River, home to a remote Buddhist monastery, Gampo Abbey, which is another amazing detour, that is well worth the extra 30 kilometers off the Trail.
There are beautiful pristine beaches for miles, amazing food in every village and unique artisans around every corner and musicians performing every night along the way. Don't get us wrong, our coastal views are the best in the world, but when you combine them with amazing food, art, music and recreation, you realize that Cape Breton is a full sensory experience.
What time of year should I come to Cape Breton?
While the majority of travelers to Cape Breton come in the months of July and August, the savvy travelers aim for the shoulder seasons, either in May and June on the Spring end, or September and October in the Fall end. While some amenities may not be available at the very beginning and end of these shoulder periods, you will get to experience the beauty of the island on your own terms, with lots of peace and quiet. But even during the height of summer there are plenty of nearly deserted beaches and hiking trails for you to discover.
As you can imagine, we favour winter. Winter is it's own experience. In one day you can go from surfing to downhill skiing to enjoying local foods and snuggling into a cozey cabin. All to wake up the next day for cross country skiing and snowmobiling.
What are some of the Best Hikes?
With the Cape Breton Highlands National Park occupying 1/3rd of the Cabot Trail this is an obvious first choice for dozens of amazing hikes, from short hikes like the Middle Head trail, next to the iconic Keltic Lodge, to longer, more challenging hikes like the renowned Skyline trial, north of Cheticamp. Be sure to stop at the Parks Canada visitors centers, found in Cheticamp and Ingonish, where the helpful staff can give personal recommendations.
Other favorites include, White Point, north of Neils Hartbour or the Kalapa Valley hike, just past the ski hill are also great options.
Cape Breton Music and Culture
When folks from away think of Cape Breton's music and culture, it is filled with images of tartans and bag pipes and melodic Celtic influenced music. Certainly the unofficial anthem of Cape Breton, "The Island", by the Barra MacNeils evokes this imagery in spades and is certainly worth the effort to seek out the song for yourself. The original language of many of the islands' first settlers was Gaelic and though very few Cape Bretoners speak it fluently today, it has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity, with many young people studying the language all the way from primary school to college and university level and beyond.
But it is not only the Scottish people that make up this islands' descendants, before the arrival of the Scottish settlers, there were French speaking people, the Acadians found through out this island and before the Acadian people arrived in Cape Breton, the Indigenous people, the Mi'kmaq, inhabited this island for a millennial before the arrival of the first French settlers.
Where does the Cabot Trail start and end?
There are three points to enter the Cabot Trail:
- The Ceilidh Trail - AKA Highway 19 - This coastal route, which spurs off the Trans Canada Highway, just after you cross onto the island that takes you through iconic villages like Port Hood, Mabou and Inverness, before joining the Cabot Trail at Margaree Harbour.
- The Trans Canada Highway - AKA Highway 105 - This inland route that takes you through the rolling hills of rural Cape Breton, joins the Cabot Trail at the iconic Red Barn before turning towards Middle River and the world renowned salmon fishing hotspot, the Margaree Valley.
- The Sydney Route - While most travelers drive to Cape Breton from "the Mainland" of Nova Scotia, some folks fly into the airport at Sydney, where you will skirt the city before meeting up with Highway 105 and taking the cable ferry at Englishtown, or the inland route at St.Ann's, with a quick visit to the Gaelic College.
Can you drive the Cabot Trail in a day?
Yes, you can drive the Cabot Trail in a day. But, would you down a fine meal like it was fast food? Would you drink a vintage wine in one fell swoop? Yes you could do all of these things, but you'll end up with a belly-ache of regret. Every corner and side road takes you to new adventures and discoveries and you will quickly realize that the highlights only will just not suffice!
How long does it take to drive to the Cabot Trail from Halifax?
It takes roughly 4 to 5 hours to get to the closest of the starting points of the Cabot Trail described above, from Halifax.
Of course, if you drive straight through and choose to ignore all the amazing things along the way from tidal bores to vineyards, beaches, surfing, hikes, waterfalls and food for days. But, that's another post, for another day.
While most people either drive to Nova Scotia or rent a car when they get here, with some advanced planning, you can get to the Cabot Trail and experience the Trail using public transit.
What are the best places to stay at Cabot Trail?
As you make your way around the Cabot Trail and it's surrounding community there are a wide range of places to stay. From luxury hotels, to simple inns and everything in between, there is something to suit all tastes and budgets. Here's a sampling of some of the many choices you have:
- Keltic Lodge (Ingonish): This classic resort hotel is over a century old and in addition to having a stunning ocean front location, it is also home to the Highland Links, one of the finest golf courses in Nova Scotia.
- The Markland (Dingwall): These cottages, located at the tip of Cape Breton island are a short detour off the Cabot Trail. Their sandy, beach front location is a hidden gem.
- Cabot Shores Wilderness Resort (Indian Brook): One of the one places to stay along the rugged "North Shore", with exciting dining choices and a myriad of choices when it comes to where to sleep for the night, with yurts, cottages, tiny homes and lodge rooms all on offer.
- Sidanna Retreat (Aspy Bay): If privacy AND oceanfront is what you seek, this luxury "A" frame has a sauna and hot-tub ready to help you relax after hours spent walking on the nearly deserted beach in your backyard.
- Cabot Links Resort (Inverness): For a golf experience that is second to none, the Cabot Links Resort offers not one, but two world-class golf courses, that consistently rank among the very best in North America. Accommodations range from lodge rooms, to hill-side and cliff side chalets and cottages scattered throughout the courses.
What should I not miss on the Cabot Trail?
This could be the topic of two, or three or even more blogs and you might never catch all of the sights and sounds and experiences that comprise the Cabot Trail. So treat this list as just an appetizer to whet your appetite for more adventures, so in no particular order:
- Cape Smokey Provincial Park: After you have successfully navigated the 14 percent grade and multiple switchback that took you from sea level to a thousand feet in a few miles, this is an amazing (but windy!) view that takes in the entire North Shore as far as Sydney.
- Neils Harbour: In this age of prepackaged tourism and manufactured quaint and rampant gentrification it is refreshing to find a place that really is living, breathing fishing village, with few concessions made to tourism - though you may be able to buy a lobster trap, that may have to get strapped to the roof of your car.
- White Point Road: A welcome detour off the "official" Trail. Why take a long, albeit, very smooth road over a vast stretch of boreal forest, when this twisty and bumpy seaside road awaits?
- Bay St. Lawrence, Capstick and Meat Cove. Still off the main road, this trio of tiny settlements takes you right to the actual end of the road and a trip well worth making.
- The Lone Shieling and Grand Anse. Back on the Trail after all those detours, we find the Lone Sheiling, a faithful reproduction of the primitive shelters made by the Highland Scots some 300 years ago. The shelter is nestled in the Grand Anse section of the Park, which is the largest intact Acadian forest in all of eastern Canada.
- Pleasant Bay. If time doesn't allow for a trip to walk the grounds of the local Buddhist monastery, still take the time to take a quick drive through the village, home to the last remaining one room school in the province and several whale watching tours.
- Cheticamp. After yet another climb up to a barren plateau and hair pin drive back down, you find your self in the largest French speaking settlement in Cape Breton, Cheticamp and it's surrounding villages are the thriving heart of Acadian culture in this part of Cape Breton. Stop to enjoy unique Acadian cuisine, on offer throughout the village.
- Inverness. While Route 19 is off the Cabot Trail, this thriving town offers numerous dining options and incredible long sandy beach that has a boardwalk that runs its length and makes for a glorious stroll any time of day.
What are the best things to do on the Cabot Trail?
Well, this can really be answered with two separate answers. There are lots of things to do that require a little bit of physical effort (ok a few that require a lot of physical effort) and then there are a lot of things to do that don't really take a lot off effort.
- For the really more actively inclined, but time conscious people the Skyline Trail, a ridge-line trail between Pleasant Bay and Cheticamp is an iconic hike that gives a maximum amount of thrills and views with out a huge time investment (okay, a couple of hours, but its worth it!). The more ambitious of you may also consider the Fishing Cove hike, near the Skyline trail. A rugged 12km return hike with the only back country camping in the National Park. And if you are really ambitious, the Pollet's Cove is a 14km out and back hike with pristine beaches, wild horses, waterfalls and more!
- For the less actively inclined, the gondola ride at Cape Smokey affords amazing views and whisks you a thousand feet from sea level in a matter of minutes. Maximum views, with minimum effort. And for collecting drift wood and lazy beach walks, there are more choices then I could list here, but Ingonish, Aspy Bay, White Point and Cheticamp Island are all top contenders.
- And don't forget to keep your eyes open for countless artisans, makers and creators and visionaries of all kinds. The North Shore, past St. Ann's is particularly rich in artisans and the rug "hookers" in Cheticamp offer a unique glimpse into Acadian arts and crafts.
What are the best places to eat on Cabot Trail?
At the risk of causing offense and keeping in mind that these are only a few of the many culinary gems in the area, here are a few recommendations:
- Periwinkle Cafe (Ingonish): Some of the best lattes, baked good and sandwiches to be found on the entire trail. Be sure to get there early. Take out or eat in.
- L'Abri Cafe (Cheticamp): What do you get when you combine great food, funky interior decorating and a location mere meters away from a seaside cliff? L'Abri of course.
- Panorama Restaurant (Cabot Resort, Inverness): A stunning view over the 18th hole and views out toward the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, coupled with a elegant minimal interior and top notch food and wine make for a fitting end to a day on the Trail.
Why is it called the Cabot Trail?
Technically it should be called the Caboto Trail, as it is named after John Cabot, as he was known in England or Giovanni Caboto in his native Venice, Italy. But since it was England's Henry VII that funded his 1497 trip to present day Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, we'll go with the Anglicized version of his name. Though accurate records are in short supply, it is believed that Cabot came ashore in Cape Breton near present day Aspy Bay.
When is the best time to do the Cabot Trail?
As we mentioned above, the later parts of the Spring and Fall shoulder season offer a perfect mix a quieter roads, good weather and plenty of amenities available. Certainly early to mid October is becoming the second busiest time of year (after July and August) to visit the Trail. With the mix of breathtaking fall colours combined with the world famous Celtic Colours Musical Festival occurring throughout rural Cape Breton, it is when the savvy insiders know to come.
Is the Cabot Trail worth it? Why is the Cabot trail famous?
In a word "yes". Yes it is worth it. Every important country has those one or two iconic drives that define that place, that people think of automatically when they hear about that place. Even if they may not know the "official" name of the road, they can picture it in their mind. California's Big Sur Coastal drive, the Canadian Rockies Icefield Parkway, the Grande Corniche in Cote d'Azur, France, the Great Ocean Road in southern Australia or the Tateyama Alpine Route in Nagano, Japan. All of these define the place where they are found.
This is what the Cabot Trail is not just for Cape Breton, or even Nova Scotia, but arguably all of Eastern Canada. It is THE iconic road for eastern North America and no trip to Nova Scotia would be complete without driving the Trail in its entirety.
Where is the best place to see the sunset on the Cabot Trail?
As we alluded to above in the great "Clockwise-Counter Clockwise Debate", the hills coming down off the plateau from Pleasant Bay towards Cheticamp is a truly picture perfect sunset. And for the more ruggedly inclined, if you happen to have pitched your tent at the Meat Cove campground you will also have some breathtaking scenery to watch the sun set over.
Do you have to pay to go around the Cabot Trail?
In short, usually, but not always. The slightly longer answer, is that because about a third of the Cabot Trail passes through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and you have to pay to enter the park, from the end of May to the end of October, it is accurate to say that at most times you have to pay. If you travel through the park from November to May, park admission is not charged.