Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Cape Breton is the Cabot Trail. What I totally didn’t realise was that the Cabot Trail runs through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, and that there was anything other than a scenic drive. I also had no idea that the whole scenic drive could be done in maybe three hours — but there’s plenty to keep you around for far longer, as I realised — and after Newfoundland, that’s a pretty short drive!

Going counterclockwise from Ingonish, just after the steep ascent and descent of Cape Smokey, I made stops for some beaches (too cold to swim that day, sadly), coastal scenery, and several hikes on my way to Pleasant Bay, my base for the next few days.

I had very high hopes for moose sightings: the manager of my hostel, Dawn, recommended some trails where she had seen moose five out of five times. I went one evening and saw nothing. Determined to try again, I left my car aside the next morning and joined two North Carolinans, Maureen and Martha, to do the hike again. Still nothing.

But then, lo and behold, after weeks of waiting, we saw a crowd of cars parked on the side of the road a few kilometres past the hiking trail: a grazing female moose! She totally seemed to ignore everyone and just minded her own business, which was awesome. (Sure, I still haven’t seen any moose with antlers, but I’ll take any sighting I’ve got!)

We hit the Skyline trail shortly after, with an incredibly rewarding view: the coastline, sure, but also the incredible engineering feat that the Cabot Trail itself is — a giant, windy road hugging the side of some dramatic geography.

We continued down the road past the end of the Cabot Trail to visit Chéticamp, an Acadian town. Aside from the novelty of seeing and hearing everything in French again all of a sudden, the area is known for rug hooking, a hobby of Martha’s. I’m glad I hopped along with her, because this is easily something I would’ve bypassed completely and missed. Starting out as a poor women’s hobby, hooking scrap materials from their husbands’ uniforms into burlap sacks, it’s since become a refined craft using wool yarn. There are some cutesy small designs, but some of the large tapestry-sized rugs (which I sadly don’t have pictures of) were jaw-dropping in their scope and detail.

It would have been nice to stick around for some Acadian folk music, but sticking around and driving up a windy, unlit, moose-ridden mountain road at night didn’t particularly appeal to us. We “settled” for a sunset back in Pleasant Bay instead! (I mean, sure, it would’ve been nice to instead join the other hostel guests who chose to go to the Skyline trail for sunset and saw a male moose close-up, but hey, hindsight is 20/20, and a beachside sunset ain’t too shabby…)

I had one more morning in Pleasant Bay, after saying goodbye to everyone, and chose to really make the most of it. Whales are an extremely common sight around Cape Breton, but at this time of year, they’re further off shore. So I joined a very affordable two-hour tour!…which was incredibly choppy. Everyone got soaked, even on a big boat. After an hour and a half of misery and no sightings, we were all perpared to be disappointed and turn back, but alas, our endlessly chipper Dalhousie marine biology students-cum-guides yelped in excitement as our boat was surrounded by multiple pods of pilot whales and dolphins! All seasickness and misery melted away as we lurched from one side of the boat to another, pointing out to everyone yet another pod, and we returned to Pleasant Bay beyond satisfied.

And there was one more thing in Pleasant Bay — Nova Scotia’s first (and not only) monastery! Several kilometres up a gravel road to Red River is the Gampo Abbey, most recently famous for a possible Ben Affleck sighting, but anyhow, it’s in the Western Buddhist Shambhala tradition, one I’m entirely unfamiliar with. Unfortunately, I was a week late for their tours and introduction of their history, but I got to wander their grounds, and I can see why they chose their location. They’re isolated, they’ve got the edge of a cliff, a river, a forest, and a stupa. It’s Buddhist alright, but I saw three dead giveaways to the Cape Breton location: a humble but atypical building, antlers for decorations, aaaand… an old Cape Breton man in monk robes and a baseball cap. Heh.

Leaving the Cabot Trail for good this time, I still wanted to see more of Cape Breton, so I stayed at the next HI hostel next to the Bras d’Or lake, a giant, shimmery expanse bisecting Cape Breton Island. With the weather not exactly being ideal for a swim in the lake though, I chose to use the hostel as a home base to go in opposite directions.

With Michael, Stephanie, and Anne from my hostel in tow, I drove in the dark to Mabou on the Ceilidh Trail…or, as I called it at first, the “see…lid?” trail. Heh. Given that Nova Scotia literally means “New Scotland”, it’s no surprise that it’s got major Scottish heritage. Gaelic is actually the second language taught in schools, and most road signs are bilingual in English and Gaelic, outside of Chéticamp (French and English). It comes to follow that Gaelic folk music and culture is also a major thing, with prominent Canadian musicians like the Rankin Family and Ashley MacIsaac often found playing in local pubs.

If you’re unfamiliar with what music those artists play, or what Gaelic music is in general: fiddle. A ceilidh (“kay-lee”) is a night at a local pub or hall with music and storytelling — essentially a social gathering. These are common all over Cape Breton, and I was intending to go check one out, but my timing was such that I ended up instead at…drum roll…a square dance!

Every Saturday night at West Mabou Hall, locals of all ages — young kids, flirty teens and adults, seniors — come out to socialise, drink soda (this one’s an all-ages dance), eat pizza, and arrange themselves in circles and dance to seemingly-endless fiddle and keyboard music. It sounds so hokey, considering that a square dance was something I did only in high school for two classes a year, but this is serious stuff. No callers are involved, and everyone just seems to know *exactly* what to do.

The four of us were initially too shy to join in, but after a little goading from some locals at hour table (“Just hop in! You don’t need to know what’s going on!”), we decided to just join in the merriment anyway. While Michael, from Northern Ireland, took to the whole thing with ease and guided Anne through it, Stephanie and I were more of a laughing disaster, tripping on each other and other people, often swinging the wrong way when switching partners in a circle. So yes, I ended up unintentionally paired with men and her with women before we circled back to each other, but us and all the locals had a laugh as we jokingly apologised to each person we encountered. It was, in all seriousness, super super fun.

And tiring! We took a break and watched the show. Eventually, the floor was cleared for soloists and duos, and the kids who came out couldn’t have been older than 13. You can’t even see their feet. It’s crazy how good they are, and seeing something so often derided elsewhere as “uncool” being taken up by the current generation as a regular pasttime was awesome.

I spent my last day driving the scenic route around Bras d’Or towards the Fortress of Louisbourg, another national historic site. While it started out as the French capital of the colony of Île Royale (now Cape Breton) in 1713, it was taken by the English twice, who kept control of it from 1758 onwards.

Well, fast forward to the 1960s. The Canadian federal government saw that there were a bunch of newly-unemployed coal miners, and spent $25 million on an elaborate reconstruction of the fortress to provide new jobs. They attempted to hew as closely as possible to the original construction: using old-French masonry, smithing, furnishing, and costume-making techniques; blueprints of the original fortress and various buildings; consulting historians, engineers, architects, and archaeologists. And of course… a big cast of costumed Parks Canada employees as very, very dedicated actors.

Oh, they’re dedicated alright. There are soldiers showing us their barracks and how to fire their muskets, criminals put on public trial in chains while the rest of the “townsfolk” look out the windows and scream at them, restaurants where you can eat with old plates and cutlery and be served by costumed actors (who will wield credit-card machines, of course), a baker who’ll offer up some giant and heavy loaves of bread if he’s not sold out of them, musicians and cannon-firing soldiers, a shipbuilder building a ship indoors, old ladies making lace or crocheting, a “dance party” at an aristocrat’s house… It’s all incredibly fun, and they really do stick to their characters and their stories.

Some of the (historically accurate, and bilingual) anecdotes they offered were pretty hilarious too. My favourite? Soldiers were essentially slaves and former prisoners, and if they ever misbehaved, they would be made to sit on a giant wooden horse — essentially the equivalent of a dunce cap, but one that hurts your crotch. Heh. Close second? The very elaborate construction of gears, chains, and weights in front of a fireplace… used for rotisserie chicken.

I have to say, I didn’t actually expect that Cape Breton would have so much more than just the Cabot Trail. Three languages, two distinct musical cultures, all this hiking, a giant lake, and multiple national historic sites (I missed the Alexander Graham Bell one) to boot! After four days and reaching the tail end of my trip, I felt pretty exhausted, but more than satisfied.

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