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How to Travel through Cape Breton, Nova Scotia . . . By the Book

By Stacie Berdan | Published: August 9, 2021

The five books mentioned in this article

One of the last international pre-pandemic trips I took before borders began closing was to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, a place I had wanted to visit for years. With its remote and wild beauty in which green forests and mountains sweep down to the vast Atlantic Ocean, it is consistently ranked as one of the top 10 most beautiful places on earth.

Over the course of the last 18 months or so, I found comfort in leafing through the beautiful photos and reliving our week there, a no-frills trip of “glamping” in rustic+ cabins designed to immerse ourselves in the spectacular scenery.

Now that the US border with Canada is scheduled to open up in early August, followed by a broader opening up in September, consider a trip to Cape Breton. Come explore with me as we drive the stunning scenic highways, hike dramatic coastal trails, and delve into its distinctive culture and history.

A tourist map of Cape Breton Island
Cape Breton Island is separated from the rest of Nova Scotia
by the Canso Strait, with its west and north coasts fronting the
Gulf of St. Lawrence and its east and south fronting the
Atlantic Ocean.

We began our week-long exploration by crossing the Canso Causeway from mainland Nova Scotia and driving up the 62-mile Ceildih Trail, so named for the Gaelic music for which the west coast of Cape Breton is world famous. En route we listened to Rockbound, Frank Parker Day’s epic depiction of the backbreaking and dangerous life of North Atlantic fishermen, and a timeless saga of deception and betrayal. Originally published in 1928, the novel, which is set along Nova Scotia’s South Shore, surged back into popularity in 2005 when it won a Canada Reads award. The novel sparked conversation about possible parallels with today’s fishermen hauling in the lobster and salmon we ate daily.

A poster for
The Cape Breton fiddler we
heard in Baddeck was a student
of one of the masters, Alex
"Lewis" MacDonald, featured
in the book The Cape Breton

The Gaelic culture and language lives on in ceilidhs (pronounced “kay lee”), lively evenings of music and dancing, traditionally at house parties, but now at public venues for the benefit of appreciative tourists. We experienced ours in a parish hall and caught a glimpse of the passion, energy and importance of the cultural preservation of music now endemic to the descendants of Cape Breton’s original Scottish settlers (hence the name Nova Scotia). We learned even more by reading Allister MacGilli’s The Cape Breton Fiddler, which explains the history and artistry of the music and profiles some of the most important fiddlers over the years.

We continued north onto the famous 185-mile Cabot Trail, considered by some to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world. This is where the book, Scenic Driving Atlantic Canada by Chloe Ernst, came in handy as we circumnavigated the dramatic Cape Breton Highlands. We took our time doing the trail in small sections, which enabled us to hike throughout the peninsula-dominating Cape Breton Highlands National Park.  

A cabin overlooking the water.
Glamping on the western coast: wild beauty
and gorgeous sunsets.

The extensive and well-maintained hiking trails provide enough options for weeks from ¼-mile vista strolls to 26-mile backcountry overnights. The famous Skyline Trail is definitely worth doing (although quite popular) for its sweeping views of the North Atlantic, but my favorite was Middle Head peninsula near the Keltic Lodge in Ingonish with its competing northern and southern views of knotty pine roots covered by a canopy of weather-beaten trees that allowed just the right amount of dappled sunlight in. The scent of the air was so fresh: a mixture of crisp northern ocean breezes with hints of wild juniper and pine.

Overlooking the ocean from a rocky ledge on Middle Head Trail
Hiking the Middle Head Trail, one of the hundreds of trails in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

The Cape Breton Trail ends near Ingonish, on the eastern side of the island. From there, we continued into Sydney, the island’s only true city and the center of its 20th-century industrial base in coal mining and steel production. The history here is not so pretty. Particularly eye opening is the book That Bloody Cape Breton Coal: Stories of Mining Disasters in Everyday Life by former coal miner Rennie MacKenzie, which gives the gruesome particulars of dozens of deaths and accidents. The book is a good complement to visiting the Miners Museum in Glace Bay to better understand just how difficult and dangerous life was working underground. Nor was it much better above ground as revealed in Frederick Street by Maude Barlow and Elizabeth May, which tells the sordid tale of private and state-sponsored culpability in creating one of the world’s worst environmental contaminations in the Whitney Pier neighborhood.

Travel can reveal so much, and I recognize that Cape Breton is much more than the natural beauty the tourist board promotes. But I can say unequivocally that Cape Breton is one of the most magnificent places I have ever visited—and worth the wait.

About the Author

Stacie Nevadomski Berdan is a seasoned global executive and award-winning author of six books, including Raising Global Children. Follow her on Twitter @stacieberdan.

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