East Coast Canada Summer Vacation: Cape Breton

In the last post, I wrote about the first leg of our summer vacation, which was primarily in Prince Edward Island. I left off just as we were about to get on the ferry at Wood Island.

It was a beautiful, sunny day and the ferry ride was incredibly smooth. In the summer, the ferries add extra amenities, I guess to make the ride feel more like an event and not just a way to get to Nova Scotia from PEI. The ferry we were on had live music outside and a Nova Scotia chocolatier giving out samples (and selling his chocolates) inside.

Once we drove off the ferry, we headed to Cape Breton. Before we crossed the Canso Causeway onto Cape Breton, though, we had to stop for gas… and we chose a station that had a Tim Horton’s. It was our first chance to sample Canada’s iconic chain. We were underwhelmed, to be honest, except for my nine year-old, who fell hard for their lemonade slushie.

Our destination for the night was Mabou, a little town with a big reputation for music. The music is why we chose to spend a night there—the famous Rankin family own a restaurant/pub called The Red Shoe that has live fiddle music most nights. I’ll get to the music in a minute, but first I have to say: Mabou would be worth a stop even if you hate fiddle music. It is located where a river turns into a harbor, and walking across the bridge from our hotel (The Mabou River Inn) into town was our one eagle sighting of the trip. We could see that this would be a lovely place to spend a few days. We were sad we didn’t have time to explore the river/harbor by kayak.

Now, to the music. The night we visited The Red Shoe, the fiddler
Chrissy Crowley was playing with Jason Roach on piano, and it was absolutely wonderful. It was the only fiddle music I got to see on the trip, but I can’t complain, because this one evening was so good. The food at The Red Shoe was good, too, even the maple curry beef that my husband felt compelled to try once he saw it on the menu. (It tastes exactly how you’d expect, but somehow it works.) 

We stayed out late listening to music, so didn’t get the earliest of starts the next morning. We had breakfast at our hotel—the baked goods were delicious, and I was particularly taken with “porridge bread,” which is a bread made with oatmeal and molasses. Then we headed out to visit a distillery!

The Glenora Distillery was North America’s first single malt distillery, and it is located not far from Mabou. My husband had picked it as one of the things he wanted to see on this vacation. It was a good stop. The grounds of the distillery are beautiful, and the tour was very interesting. The tour came with a sample of the whisky, too. On a different sort of vacation, I could see spending a night at the inn onsite and enjoying the peaceful location and great hospitality a bit more. But on this vacation, we left after the tour and drove north.

A white building with Glenora Distillery written on it in a Celtic font
The distillery

We had a bit of trouble finding a spot for lunch. We ended up in Inverness, at the Westside Cookhouse. The food was good and the service friendly, but the wait was long. In retrospect, I think we underestimated the impact of the fact that it was the start of a holiday weekend. We should have gone in expecting crowds and a wait! On the plus side, we had a donair pizza. This was our first encounter with the local delicacy “donair,” which is basically beef made in doner kebab style and drizzled with donair sauce. I’ll write more about donair in the Halifax post, because that’s where we learned its history. For now, I’ll just say that the donair pizza was good!

After lunch, we drove on to our lodging in Chéticamp. This was a very pretty drive, particularly the last bit as we entered the Acadian region. Once we passed Margaree Harbour, the road hugged the coast, providing views of the rocky coastline and clear blue water.

Slate grey rocks, blue water
The rocky coast as we headed into the Acadian regio

I’d promised my nine-year-old ice cream for afternoon snack, so we stopped at a place called Flora’s on our way into Chéticamp. My nine-year-old always gets chocolate ice cream, and she said her scoop was good. I tried something called Mariner’s Sea Salt Caramel, and it was delicious.

It wasn’t far from Flora’s to our lodging at the Pilot Whale Chalets. We got checked in, and then the girls and I headed out to check out “our” beach. We walked down there with my mom and sister. It was very close, but was not really a swimming beach. It was rocky, with waves breaking right on the beach. But it was a pretty spot.

Dinner that night was at L’Abri, a restaurant that was a short walk on back roads from our chalets. This is not the place to go if you’re in a hurry—particularly not for dinner on the Saturday of a holiday weekend—but the food was delicious and the view was magnificent. We scored the last outdoor picnic table, and got to enjoy the early evening sun and the sunset.

Sunsetting behind a headlands
Sunset from our table

The next day was our day to drive the Cabot Trail and explore Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The weather forecast predicted rain in the afternoon. That never really materialized, but the threat of it was extra incentive for an early start, which gave us more time to enjoy the park. We limited ourselves to short hikes on this day, along with plenty of stops at scenic viewpoints.

Our first hike was the Bog hike, which was definitely different from all of the other hikes we did in the park. The hike is a walk along a raised boardwalk. The plants were the main attraction on this hike, especially some small insect-eating plants.

Our next major stop wasn’t for a hike, but to visit the Whale Interpretive Centre in tiny Pleasant Bay. It was a nice small museum, and we enjoyed the stop. After that, we headed to lunch at The Mountain View Restaurant.

After lunch, we did the MacIntosh Brook hike. This was probably my favorite of the short hikes, and also marked our first encounter with a busload of Mennonites who we would run into again and again and again over the course of the day. The hike was an easy walk to a stream with a pretty waterfall and fun rocks for the kids to clamber around.

A small waterfall surrounded by rocks and trees.
The waterfall

The next stop was the Lone Shieling hike, which took us through a grove of sugar maple trees to a replica of a Scottish crofter’s hut. The hut was built on the site at the wish of the man who willed the land to the province to be part of the park, and it was interesting to see. The hike itself wasn’t as nice as the previous one, though.

We went from this hike to Neil’s Harbor, for ice cream at the lighthouse. The ice cream was very good and the spot very picturesque, which was lucky since we had to wait for the busload of Mennonites to get their ice cream before we could get ours.

Fortified by ice cream, our next “hike” was really a clambour over large rocks, at the Green Cove stop. The view from the rocks was spectacular, and the rocks were big enough to feel safe climbing around (particularly since it was a very calm day, so there were no waves crashing at the bottom and spraying water all over the rocks). My kids loved this stop, and so did we all, really. So did the Mennonites, I think.

Pinkish rocks with green trees by the ocean.
The Green Cove stop on the Cabot Trail, with Mennonites enjoying the view

Our final stop in the park was at the Freshwater Lake Look-Off. The park map advertises this as a “[s]hort, steep climb up steps to panoramic ocean view.” This is an accurate description. The climb is indeed short, but exceedingly steep. But the view was worth it.

View of a lake with a wooded island and cliffs in the distance.
The view

From here, we left the park and split up. My parents and sister had dinner at a restaurant on an inlet south of North River, called The Lobster Gallery. They said it was nice, and it certainly had a nice location. Our car drove on to Baddeck. We arrived late and at least one of us (me) was a little grumpy from hunger. We walked into a well-rated pizza restaurant near where we parked and found… a wait of over an hour and a restaurant full of Mennonites. So we walked on, down to the lake. We ended up at a pizza restaurant called Yellow Cello. It was good, and we were treated to a bagpiper who walked from the pier to our restaurant (playing his pipes), came in for a bit of refreshment, and then walked on up the street (again, playing his pipes).

It was fully dark by the time we finished dinner and headed back to our chalet, which was a little more than an hour away. Driving those country roads in the dark wasn’t our favorite part of the trip, but we made it safely and went straight to bed.

The next morning, my husband, my twelve-year-old, my sister, and I decided to do the most famous trail in Cape Breton Highlands, the Skyline trail. My nine-year-old stayed at the chalets with my parents. The Skyline is mostly an easy hike, but much longer than the ones we’d done the day before. I say it is “mostly” easy, because at about the midway point, you head down a bunch of steps to get a view out over the cliffs. And of course, the only way back from that view is to walk back up the steps. If you ever find yourself contemplating whether or not to do this hike and are put off by the steps, take it from me: You can skip them. The view from the top of the steps is almost as good as the view from the bottom.

Wooden staircase leading down to a viewpoint looking out over a cliff to the ocean.
There were a lot of stairs

As nice as the view was, the highlight of this hike was a moose sighting! We stood and watched the moose eat for several minutes, until it seemed like it might be heading in our direction, at which point we decided it was time to finish our hike.

A moose
Moose! (Taken with a zoom, but it was pretty close)

We got back from our hike at about lunch time. A couple of our group headed over to the nearby bakery, La Boulangerie Aucoin, and bought a meat pie and some pastries for our lunch. The meat pie was very good, but quite different from the antipodean meat pies we’re used to. For one thing, it is a full size pie, and not a small single serving pastry. We cut the pie up and shared it among five adults. It is also does not have much gravy or sauce in it at all, and no cheese or anything else: just meat. It was a very satisfying lunch after a long hike.

After lunch, we drove back to Baddeck to visit the Alexander Graham Bell museum. This was probably the biggest “fail” of the trip, not because the museum isn’t good, but because it wasn’t what I was expecting. It is very good for older kids and adults who are interested in reading the descriptions of the exhibits. However, I’d put it on the to do list because my guidebook indicated it had a good hands on area for younger kids and I thought that might be fun for my nine-year-old, who loves to build things. The interactive area turned out to be for much younger kids, though. My nine-year-old fell in between the two target audiences and was not all that impressed with this visit.

None of the drivers wanted a repeat of the drive back to Chéticamp in the dark, so we drove back before dinner and ate at Wabo’s on the boardwalk in Chéticamp. The food was pretty good, and I enjoyed the chance to see the boardwalk area, complete with a cute lighthouse painted in Acadian colors.

Lighthouse painted red, white, and blue with a yellow star
A charming lighthouse on the boardwalk in Chéticamp

There was live music after dinner, and my husband, sister, and I hung around for a little while enjoying it while the sunset. It got cold, and we needed to get packed up so that we could get a reasonably early start the next day, so we didn’t stay for very long, but it was a nice end to our stay in Chéticamp.

I’ll pick up at the drive to Halifax in the next installment!

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