We allocated almost half our time in Nova Scotia to explore the Cabot Trail, one Canada’s most scenic roads. After one day in Halifax, a day trip to Lunenburg and Peggy’s Cove, and a travel day to Baddeck, we had two days for our clockwise drive along the coast of Cape Breton.
Why clockwise? It was a simple matter of logistics – our end point destination was Sydney and since we were short on time we wanted to avoid covering any of the same ground twice. For others, counterclockwise might make more sense. For one thing, you’d be driving in the lane closest to the coastline, so you’d have the best views and wouldn’t have to make left hand turns into and out of many of the viewpoint/trail head parking areas. For another, it’s easier to work the timing for optimal sunrise/sunset photography.
High Wheeler Cafe in Baddeck
While doing our pre-trip research, we kept seeing recommendations to stop for breakfast and/or lunch supplies at the Dancing Goat Cafe and Bakery in East Margaree. But since we stayed overnight in Baddeck, we opted to order a sit down breakfast at the High Wheeler Cafe on the main street before setting out, with plans to stop at the Dancing Goat to buy lunch. In the end, the Dancing Goat got bumped to our “next visit” list. Our High Wheeler breakfast was so good we lined up again to order takeout lunches for the trail. 🙂 Open seasonally.
Alexander Graham Bell NHS
After loading trail lunches and everything else into our rental car, we headed the wrong way – just a few kilometers – to the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. Located on Bras D’Or Lakes UNESCO World Heritage site, the Parks Canada-operated facility contains the largest repository of artifacts and documents from Bell’s years of experimental work in Baddeck. There isn’t much that’s directly related to his invention of the telephone, but there is a wide range of interesting exhibits including the Silver Dart, experiments with hydrofoils and Bell’s efforts to find ways to assist the deaf.
Parks Canada has also placed red chairs so that visitors can thoroughly enjoy the gardens and views from the 10 hectare site.
The 298 km (185 mile) Cabot Trail winds its way past stunning ocean views, old-growth forests and fascinating geology, providing access to dozens of hiking trails and plenty of opportunities to stop in the villages of Cape Breton to enjoy local culture and a good meal.
We looked at hiking trail reviews, current earthcache listings, other blogs and tapped our personal network to plan our limited time on the Cabot Trail: three short hikes, some earthcaches, a night at Seascape Coastal Retreat in Ingonish and some flexibility to accommodate road construction delays and make additional stops depending on what we learned along the way.
We’d barely started our drive from Baddeck when we encountered our first of many road construction zones. The solar-powered, temporary traffic lights got us talking their relative advantages/disadvantages compared to flaggers.
There’s some sort of coordinated marketing/identify effort along the Cabot Trail. Each village welcomes visitors with a cute lighthouse-inspired sign.
You can’t drive more than about 10 minutes before another tempting viewpoint comes along, each with a small parking area just off the side of the road.
Some villages are a short drive off the Cabot Trail. In others, the Cabot Trail is the main road through town. We stuck mainly to the Cabot Trail, stopping frequently to photograph quaint fishing harbours, local churches and other points of interest.
A highlight of the day was a chance encounter with a photographer using Olympus gear. He happened to pull into the same viewpoint/picnic area where we decided to enjoy our packed lunches and we got to talking about the area. He recommended a hiking trail or two for our next trip to this area, plus a lovely, lesser-known waterfall that’s one of his favourite stops along the Cabot Trail (and one we added to our next day’s itinerary).
We opted for the highly-touted Skyline Trail for our first hike: a 9.2 km (5.7 mile) loop, fairly flat but for the much-photographed boardwalk stairs off the westernmost point of the loop. Read our full trail report here: two key points are: 1) skip the loop (if you’re not out for a good stretch) and head straight for the boardwalk stairs; and 2) timing this hike to reach the boardwalk at sunset would go a long way to making up for the crowds.
Returning to the Cabot Trail, we made a couple more stops at points of geological interest before making the short side trip to White Point for our second hike of the day.
White Point Trail
White Point is a mostly flat, interlocking network of ad-hoc trails. We ended up covering 2.4 km (1.5 miles) out and back, which was about an hour long wander. We enjoyed some bird watching, some seal watching and a bit of a chat with one local resident. Bottom line? We rate this the top hike we did while exploring the Cabot Trail, mainly because it offered views of the ocean for the duration. Plus, we had it pretty much to ourselves.
We pulled into the Seascape Coastal Retreat parking lot in Ingonish 12 hours and 220 km (135 miles) after starting our day with breakfast in Baddeck. After a short break to unload our rental vehicle, plug in some chargers and enjoy the seafood appetizers left for us in our little seaside cabin, we headed out in search of supper, ending up at Coastal Restaurant & Pub. Of course we had to try the Ringer Burger, as seen on You Gotta Eat Here! on the Food Network. 😉
After a tasty breakfast featuring local ingredients at our hotel (included in the room rate), we headed out to start our second day on the Cabot Trail. Our first stop? The waterfall recommended by the Olympus shooter we’d met the day before.
Black Brook Waterfall
Black Brook Beach is apparently one of the most popular beaches in Cape Breton. But it took us a bit of time to find the waterfall (which is at the far north end). Even the custodian who was on site doing some clean up work couldn’t help us. So we discovered a lovely, quite pool on the freshwater Black Brook, a picnic area and explored the beach before finally following the sound of falling water to the magic spot!
Middle Head Trail
Since we wanted to reach Sydney by mid-afternoon, for our next stop we opted for a short, purportedly scenic hike. Middle Head Trail is a 4.5 km (2.7 miles) out and back trail with about 150 meters elevation gain. Much of it’s in the woods, with peek-a-boo views of the water. A full trail report is coming soon, but the highlight was at the very end of the point, which offered lovely views of the headlands up and down the coast and overlooked a small bird colony.
Back at the parking lot, we headed for Sydney with no further stops – except an unplanned one when we had a few minutes wait to board the Englishtown Ferry, a mode of transportation that took us by surprise because we hadn’t closely studied this part of the drive.
The ferry ride is very short – less that 200 meters – but saves at least a half hour drive to go around by land.
Mid-afternoon, after driving another 167 km (103 miles), we arrived at our destination in Sydney. A day and a half is simply not enough time to take advantage of the many hiking trails along the Cabot Trail and allowed virtually no opportunities to enjoy the local culture, especially the music scene. But it was enough time to leave us wanting more. Have a favourite spot along the Cabot Trail you’re willing to share? Or maybe a trail recommendation? Please let us know by leaving a comment. Thanks in advance – we’ll definitely go back some day!