CAPE BRETON, NOVA SCOTIA – I pulled into the Nova Scotia tourism centre on the tip of this island and got to chatting with a woman about my two-day visit.
We talked about where I was going and what I was writing and where I should stop. And then she paused for a minute.
“Have fun,” she said. “Do us proud.”
No problem on that front, my dear. Short of landing in a hurricane, I can’t imagine anyone not having nice things to say about this slice of Canadian paradise.
Over the course of a little more than 48 hours, I had listened to magical music, talked with an avid hooker about her rug-making skills, filled my belly with some great food and soaked up some of the most stunning scenery on the planet; ribbons of road that rise and fall on sheer cliffs over waves of blue water, fishing villages tucked into perfect coves, pristine lakes and marshes with nary a soul around and long strands of golden beach with nothing but me and the wind and the water and the sky.
Most folks, I think, come up from Halifax way or via New Brunswick and the “mainland” of Nova Scotia and make the trip from left to right, crossing the distinctly unlovely Canso Causeway before heading up the west coast of the Cape.
I honestly don’t think there’s a less attractive beginning to such a world-renowned, beautiful spot as this. I mean, you hit the area around Port Hastings and you get that ugly mound of rock and gravel from the mining operations, and then drive across a boring causeway with nary an ounce of charm. Which is too bad. But all is forgiven very quickly.
Within minutes of leaving the tourism centre I spot signs for streets like Mildred’s Lane and see ads for mom and pop motels or whale-watching expeditions as I note endless mailboxes with names like MacEachern and MacDonald on a section of road called the Ceilidh Trail.
Around Creignish I spot a great view of St. George’s Bay, part of the massive Gulf of St. Lawrence, and pull over. Stella Maris is a pretty white church on a hill overlooking the bay. The views are great and you also can peer inside and see an unusual and striking white and gold altar in the church. There’s a small cemetery with a beautiful, blue and white statue of the Virgin Mary.
Further up to the road I spot a place to pull over called Christy’s (or Christie’s) look-off (see photo at left). They don’t call them look-outs here, they’re “look-offs.” Which probably makes sense, as you’re not looking out for danger but looking off in the distance.
I also spotted a sign for Long Point. In Gaelic, which they’ve had on the signs in these parts for a few years now, it’s called An Rubha Fada. Maybe I was tired and worn out and feeling giddy, but I immediately thought of someone ordering a sandwich at a local deli and asking for a ham sandwich on Rubha Fada.
At the urging of my buddy Randy Brooks from Tourism Cape Breton, I stopped at the Celtic Music Centre, which is a lively and fun spot that explains how Gaelic people on the cape were isolated for so many years and stuck to traditional music.
You can learn about reels and waltzes and polka and other types of local music and they even have an 8-minute video on how to play the fiddle, which I gave up on after three minutes in order to save the hearing on my tour guide.
They also have old record players, a Hawaiian guitar and great displays on famous musicians from the region, including native Canadian Jay Cremo, the Rankin family and Natalie MacMaster.
Centre director Cheryl Smith explained that local dancing isn’t at all like Irish dancing, where it’s all kicks and a lot of show.
“We call it ‘close to the floor dancing,’ she said of the local style. “They say around here that if you can dance on a tree trunk you’re a good dancer.’”
Smith said square dances can be found up and down this part of Cape Breton, called the Ceilidh Trail, all the time.
There’s also a fiddle school in October, part of the Celtic Colours festival.
As wonderful as this area is, things were pretty depressing back in the late 1960s. A CBC documentary mentioned in the centre talks about how the music and culture were dying and that something had to be done.
It was. The Cape Breton Fiddlers Association was formed a festival of fiddling was held in July 1973. Some 130 musicians played for 10,000 people, they say.
Local music is now a huge part of the attraction in these parts, and the culture is back.
“More and more people are speaking Gaelic,” Smith told me. “I was at a party in July and more spoke Gaelic than English.”
As you drive north from Judique, look for Joe Effie Road on your left and take it down towards the water. Then turn right on a parallel route running along the bay for nice views of the gulf and small boats tied up at Little Judique Harbour.
The road takes you right back to Highway 104 so there’s little chance of getting lost.
Around Port Hood I turned into the Lighthouse cottages and was treated to remarkable views of red rock and blue-grey water.
I made another sudden decision to go off the highway south of Mabou. I saw a sign for Mabou Beach provincial park being just 6 km away and couldn’t resist. And I was glad I went as it’s simply amazing. You pass pretty marshes on a small bridge along the way and then some cute homes before a turnoff for the park and the beach.
The beach goes on for two or three km’s, I’d say, and there wasn’t a soul in sight. Just me, waves of green and gold grass, a long stretch of golden sand flanked by deep green hills and an immense expanse of water.
I could see rain and a slice of golden sun off in the distance and it was tranquil and still and stunning. All of this and there was hardly a sign.
I drove north from there and pulled into The Red Shoe Pub for a local pale ale and some music. The pub is owned by Rankin sisters and was packed on a Wednesday at 5 p.m., with a husband and wife team playing guitar and fiddle and doing a bang-up job of it.
The music might have been even better up the road at Glenora Distillery, where I stayed the night. I had a lovely seafood chowder with tons of shellfish and a plate of salmon, pita, chutney, prosciutto, olive spread and herbed cheese and veggies, plus a dram of the local malt, which I found a bit lacking in depth to be honest.
Anyway, the beer was great and the food was great and I had lovely room. And the music was sublime. I forgot to get their names but there was a young man on piano and a young woman playing the fiddle, and it was glorious. They played a mournful tune called Lonesome Eyes that almost had me crying. But they picked things up when a local guy, probably close to 70, got out his spoons for some rhythmic accompaniment.
The guy was a master of clacking and clicking and stomping as he pounded away on his things and arms and even his chin and forehead, the crowd clapping along in appreciation.
A fabulous, fabulous day. And I hadn’t yet touched the Cabot Trail.
TUESDAY: The wondrous Cabot Trail, Keltic Lodge and Baddeck.
Cape Breton Day One: awesome beaches and views, great music
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