••• Guest post by Melissa Moore •••
One of Canada’s best kept secrets is the picturesque Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, easily one of the best road trip destinations in North America. The island’s Cabot Trail is a mountainous road that boasts views of both the Gulf of Saint Lawrence from one side of the island and the Atlantic Ocean from the other side. In addition to the miles of scenic road, Cape Breton Island is home to rich blend of Scottish, Acadian and Mi’kmaw cultures complete with art galleries, Celtic fiddle performances, and fresh Maritime lobster dinners.
Of course with miles of coastline and lovely mountainous terrain, outdoor adventures for the family abound from beaches to boating and waterfalls to wildlife. My family, including my sister, mother, six year old son, and seven year old daughter had the privilege of exploring this island for a few days as part of a month long Canadian road trip one summer.
Hike the Skyline Trail
The Skyline Trail is undoubtedly the most popular place to visit in Cape Breton Highlands National Park –though the moose tromping the nearby forest don’t seem to care, and neither should you.
The chances for seeing wild moose just off the trail are quite good, which in itself is reason enough to hike the trail, however, the spectacular views of the sea along the sharp cliffs are what really makes this trail a family favorite.
This section of coastline is surely what inspired Canada to designate Cape Breton Highlands as their first national park in Atlantic Canada more than eighty years ago.
Search for Puffins and Eagles of Nova Scotia
The opportunity to see wildlife, whether it is on land or on the water, is one of the best reasons to travel to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Whales, seals, bald eagles and puffins are just as thrilling to spot as a moose along the trail.
Whale watching tours typically leave from Pleasant Bay. Bird watching tours are based out of Englishtown. Donelda’s Puffin Boat Tours offers a three hour tour where the highlight of the trip isn’t the tiny, impossible-to-photograph, rare Atlantic puffins, but the soaring bald eagles that know Donelda’s boat will throw them a fish or two.
Take a Drive on the Cabot Trail
Some of the most beautiful vistas on Cape Breton Island are best seen from its windy mountainous roads. The road between Chéticamp and Pleasant Bay is the arguably the most beautiful stretch of road, though the road south of Cape Smokey Provincial Park also has plenty of scenic twists and turns.
Primed with kid-friendly audio books and cameras at the ready, I was well prepared for the family to go device-free on most sections of the Cabot Trail, especially inside Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
The Parks Canada Xplorers booklets, available at national park’s visitor centers on both the east side and the west side of the island, have passport-style stamps for the kids to collect along the road; once my kids had a few, they were determined to collect them all.
Off the Beaten Path in Cape Breton
In the peak summer season, the roads of Cape Breton Island can get a bit backed-up with RVs and other tourists; however, there are plenty of places that most tourists haven’t discovered — at least not yet. I promised my kids play time at a beach on our three hour drive from the Northumberland Ferry to Chéticamp.
No, Cape Breton Island isn’t especially known for its beaches, but escaping tourists to jump some waves and walk along the sand is just the sort of thing that my kids will remember for years to come.
The West Mabou beach certainly isn’t anything to write home about especially compared to the California beaches that I frequented as child, but it got my family off the beaten path enough to enjoy some laid back fun with only a few other families around.
Another place that my family enjoyed just a bit of solace was on Chéticamp Island just outside the small city of Chéticamp. At the recommendation of the hostess at our motel, we drove to the end of the road just before sunset and walked to the top of the bluffs. From the bluffs, we watched dozens of sea birds soaring on the breeze as the sun began to set over the ocean.
I’m quite certain that there are plenty more hidden gems to be found on Cape Breton Island from waterfalls and beaches to restaurants and museums – just ask a local.
What if it rains on Cape Breton Island?
Yes, my family enjoyed one and half gorgeously warm, clear days on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia as we drove clockwise around the island; honestly, I can’t believe our luck!
However, it’s quite likely that if you spend more than a few days on the island, at least one day you’ll wake up to find the mountains clouded over in a thick mist of fog and rain. So, it’s best to come to Cape Breton Island prepared with rain gear, and a backup plan.
On our final day on the island, the beautiful mountains we had so enjoyed hiking were shrouded in a thick fog. Instead of hiking in the rain, we made a quick educational stop indoors at the site of Alexander Graham Bell’s home in Baddeck.
I have to admit that being educated in US public schools that I didn’t fully realize that this famous inventor in fact called Canada home, after having been born in Scotland and working in Boston. It was at Bell’s home and laboratory on Cape Breton Island that the inventor commonly known for the first telephone call worked on his successful hydroplane in the early 20th century on the nearby Bras D’Or Lake.
A Bit of Music with Your Dinner
I love destinations where I can photograph the views and my kids can run around and play. So, I had dismissed many a recommendation about stopping to appreciate local music, rug hooking and culture as simply not my thing.
However, when the hostess at our motel in Chéticamp offered to call in a reservation for my family at the All Aboard Restaurant so we could dine at the best kid-friendly restaurant in town while listening to a local fiddle player, I could hardly refuse.
Of course, it turns out that that dinner was one of the most memorable of our month-long Canadian road trip. It doesn’t get much better than lobster macaroni and cheese paired with a foot tapping fiddler just across the room.
Many restaurants from Inverness to Chéticamp along the western side of the island offer live music in the evenings during the summertime; don’t miss out!
Where to Stay in Cape Breton Nova Scotia
As we were just passing through, my family opted to stay one night each in two roadside motels during our visit to Cape Breton Island, the Cornerstone Motel in Chéticamp and Kelly’s View Motel just outside of North Sydney. In both cases, the rooms were basic and dated, but the hostesses were friendly and knowledgeable.
Lodging on the island is limited; thus, you must plan ahead to visit this area in peak season. More than once our motel hostesses commented on the fact that there were no vacancies on the island during our August stay.
Top accommodations at lodges and cabins will often require a multiple night stay during the summer months; for single night stays, travelers are more or less limited to roadside motels.
Canadians in the know, bring their accommodations along with them. There are countless RVs on the road and campgrounds are plentiful.
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So Much More to Do on Cape Breton Island
Cape Breton Island is near the top of my list of places to which I must pay a return visit. On this island of relaxation and stunning viewpoints, we rushed too eagerly from point to point without taking nearly enough time to breathe in the sweet salty air and listen to the local fiddle music.
As much as I recommend all of the places that we visited, I even more strongly suggest that you take your time to explore this beautiful place; two or three days is simply not enough. In fact, you’ll notice that we completely bypassed the island’s top tourist attraction, the Fortress of Louisburg, one of the largest living history sites in North America.
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Melissa Moore is a Coast Guard wife who sees her family’s transient military lifestyle as opportunity to explore the United State and Canada coast to coast with her two kids. Originally, Melissa is from a tiny beach town just down the coast from sunny Santa Barbara, but now calls the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC home — at least for a few years. Melissa contributes to Trekaroo as their Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia Guroo and can be found on Instagram as @DCTravelMom.