Cape Breton, a beautiful crag of land at the tip of Nova Scotia with amazing scenery and friendly people. August is the optimal month to visit (IMHO) to enjoy the beaches, outdoors and farmers markets. However, October is also beautiful with the fall colors in full bloom and the first of July to catch lobster season.
Here are 5 of our must visit spots for a great taste of the island.
Most people visit the West side of the island but they are missing out on a gentler but equally magnificent seascape and a stunning historical site that uncovers 18th century French occupation and village life in Nova Scotia.
Definitely visit the Fortress of Louisbourg. The drive out to the reconstructed fortified town at the edge of the ocean is breathtaking. It is truly interesting for all ages and just a pristine site to see. Fire an 18th century musket, mingle with the actor townfolk and eat deliciously simple baked goods of another time. No designer donuts here. Does anyone really like those things or do they just look good on Instagram?
Hike to the lighthouse outside of Louisbourg for a more rugged shoreline, eat lobster at the Lobster Kettle or pretty much anything at the Grubstake, and end with a visit to Main-a-Dieu to stroll on the beach boardwalk and enjoy being the only soles on an empty, sprawling beach.
(2) Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Let’s be clear, you could spend a whole week just exploring all of the beautiful trails in this National Park. We were pretty proud of ourselves ordering our free park passes for Canada150 but we discovered that all of the parks are just open and free. So we didn’t really need it.
If you only have a little time on the West Coast of the Cabot Trail then the Skyline Trail is the most popular hike. After a few minutes on the well-groomed trail you might be asking yourself what makes it so special. Wait for it, wait for it. The end justifies the means.
Imagine being on top of the world at the end of the earth. It’s blue as far as the eye can see, the scent of scrubby beach roses, and a backdrop of the winding Cabot Trail in the background. Basically Canada’s version of the Pacific Coastal Highway. I’m also a sucker for boardwalks and if you are peckish on the way back you can pick wild blueberries and raspberries all along the trail. We didn’t anticipate staying so long drinking in the view so we snacked our way back to the parking lot.
After your hike, head South to the cute little Acadian (Maritimers who are descendents of the French settlers) town of Cheticamp. Go whale watching in a zodiac from the harbour, take your pick of seafood restaurants and shop local handicraft.
We specifically recommend The Happy Clam Cafe and Grill. If you can coincide with their beach lobster boil all the better, but they have some great menu items and a simple but great patio. Our whale-watching tour was cancelled due to rough seas but take a chance and book it - they guarantee whale sightings or your money back. Although I’m pretty sure they provide enough other value that you won’t ask for your money back after spending 2.5 hours on their boat!
The kids will also like sliding down the lighthouse in the mini town park. Good times.
Best. Beach. Ever. And the water was surprisingly warm. You have to be a bit careful of riptides here as the waves can get big (it was a bit nerve-racking seeing the lifeguards sprint down the beach so many times!) but the view and pure beach vibe is worth it. Nova Scotia is very good at protecting the land around their beaches, mostly for the animal habitats. So it does give you the feeling of being in an untouched part of the earth. People do also come from all over the world to golf the links courses found here and in Ingonish, but that’s pretty much all we know.
Post beach you can enjoy yummy wood fired pizza in the casual but cool atmosphere at Downstreet Cafe on the main street. It’s where free Internet and great coffee lure all of the city peeps visiting the area. True story: we had a mid-vacation conference call with our Toronto company with someone who was also in the same cafe. So weird and small world-ish.
While you are in the neighbourhood, visit the Mabou Farmers Market. The freshest oysters for $1, the best German sausages we’ve had in awhile, and melt-in-your-mouth potatoes and fat local veggies. Don’t miss the hand-carved wooden spoons from Terron Dodd. It’s hard to choose just one. So we chose three!
- The Dancing Goat. This is what cinnamon buns should taste like. And coffee. And breakfast. And lunch.
- The Normaway Inn. You’re welcomed with a gorgeous tree-lined drive and shiny horses grazing in the field. The cute white cabins, tennis courts and Wednesday night barn ceilidhs make up the cutest version of a country resort. We didn’t see anyone resembling Patrick Swayze at the square dance though.
- Ingonish. Beaches, golf, views. We just didn’t get that far.