“Great Canadian Weekends” feature customized itineraries of the nation’s finest destinations prepared by Vacay.ca, the Concierge to Canada. Travellers looking to get the most out of their stay will want to follow these tips and ideas from our travel experts. We begin the series with one of the country’s most beloved thrill rides, the Cabot Trail.
Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
ST. ANN’S HARBOUR, CAPE BRETON ISLAND, NOVA SCOTIA — For years, the Cabot Trail has been one of the world’s most famous roads to drive. It runs about 300 kilometres, looping around the edges of the island settled centuries ago by French and Scottish immigrants. Many travellers approach the trail with a single-minded strategy: To spin around it in one day, allowing six to eight hours to cruise through the vistas and stop along the lookouts carved out by engineers. As too many who venture onto the road have discovered, however, the trail is deserving of much more time than what a simple day trip affords.
Here is an itinerary you should follow when you trek to Cape Breton this summer to see the glorious sights on the Cabot Trail.
DAY 1 ON THE CABOT TRAIL
FRIDAY, 2 PM, FIREHOUSE IRONWORKS, WHYCOCOMAGH
Driving distance from mainland Nova Scotia: 50 kilometres (35 minutes)
What you should know: Owner Grant Haverstock, Canada’s leading artisan blacksmith, moved from Vancouver to Cape Breton two years ago to build a workshop and devote himself to rejuvenating this antiquated craft. His plan has gone from a spark of inspiration to a roaring flame of creativity. His ironworks are stunning and an eyeopener of the artistic change happening in this part of Nova Scotia that’s traditionally only been known for its music culture. One of the most fun and entertaining characters on the island, Haverstock is among the new wave of entrepreneurs heading to the region to take advantage of the low cost of living and high quality of life.
Cost: Although your visit to his blacksmith shop on this weekend visit will likely be brief, you will be enticed to return for one of his two-day workshops ($350), where you can learn the art of blacksmithing, and perhaps bring home an ornament of your own creation.
FRIDAY, 5 PM, CHECK-IN, CHANTERELLE INN, ST. ANN’S HARBOUR
Driving distance from last destination: 72 kilometres (55 minutes)
What you should know: The Cabot Trail officially starts here, in this beautiful, lightly populated harbour town where owner Earlene Busch has operated her inn for more than a decade. She relocated from Colorado, having used the funds received from the sale of her high-tech firm to start this inn that is focused on leading the way in environmental practices in hospitality. The main inn is spotless and neatly decorated with wood antiques and Busch’s personal art collection.
Cost: Nightly room rates start at $145. There are several packages available, including culinary and foraging deals. Check the inn’s website for details.
FRIDAY, 7 PM, DINNER AT CHANTERELLE INN, ST. ANN’S HARBOUR
What you should know: Chef Bryan Picard has elevated the Chanterelle Inn to star status since coming aboard a year ago. Picard, who recently completed a stage at Michelin-starred Kadeau in Copenhagen, delivers beautiful plate after beautiful plate of east coast cuisine prepared with only local ingredients, including the chanterelles found within the expansive property of the inn. All of the food suppliers and their distances from the inn are listed on the menu. With a quality wine list and an extensive scotch selection, you will want to linger in the homey dining room that seats 34. The inn has been serving a chocolate potato cake for years and Busch continues to keep it on the menu. There’s a good reason for that, it’s delicious, without being either sweet or heavy. The inn was named the 93rd-best restaurant by Vacay.ca judges earlier this month.
Cost: Entrees are $25 or less; opt for whichever fish is in season. Picard’s tasting menu is highly recommended and changes daily. Inquire at time of check-in for the number of courses and the price. Note: The inn serves water from its well. It may or may not agree with you, so you should bring your own bottled water.
DAY 2 ON THE CABOT TRAIL
SATURDAY, 8 AM, BREAKFAST AT CHANTERELLE INN, ST. ANN’S HARBOUR
What you should know: Make sure you order the free-range organic eggs. Busch sources them from a farm and they are never more than two days out of the nest; you will never have fresher eggs at a restaurant in Canada except at maybe Eiginsinn Farm. You’ll taste the difference.
Cost: Included with your stay.
SATURDAY, 9:30 AM, START YOUR DRIVE
Driving distance on this stretch: The distance between this part of the trail and your next destination is only 60 kilometres, but you will want to stop and take in the views as you enter the Cape Breton Highlands.
What you should know: After checking out of the Chanterelle Inn, head north on the Cabot Trail (Trans-Canada Highway No. 105) toward Ingonish, driving through St. Ann’s Harbour and toward the entrance of the Cape Highlands National Park. As you approach the park, you will encounter lookout spots where you will want to pull over for photographs.
SATURDAY, 11:30 AM, ENTER THE PARK, INGONISH
Cost: Visitors must pay an entry fee to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Depending on the number of visitors, the waits may be 10 minutes or more to finalize your purchase of a pass.
What you should know: Adult fees in the peak season are $7.80. Family passes are available for $14.70 (off-season) or $19.60 (peak season). Individual camping rates start at $17.60 per night. In the off-season, prices fall to $5.80 per adult from November to June 1. For full rates, check the park’s website. Telephone: 902-224-2306.
SATURDAY, NOON, INGONISH BEACH FOR SWIMMING AND LUNCH
Driving distance from last stop: Two kilometres.
What you should know: A natural barrier at this beach separates the salt water from the Atlantic and the fresh water streaming in from rivers on the island, allowing swimmers the unusual choice of dipping into either the ocean or a lake. The beach is about two kilometres in length and is extremely popular with Nova Scotians because of the warm water and spaciousness.
Packing tip: Purchase snacks and sandwiches from one of the convenience stores or eateries you will see in Ingonish, or consume the snacks you picked up with you along the way in Cape Breton. Also, have towels and swimming gear easily accessible in your luggage. Perhaps set them aside in separate bags before you leave the Chanterelle Inn in the morning.
SATURDAY, 3 PM, CHECK-IN, KELTIC LODGE, CAPE HIGHLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Driving distance from last stop: Two kilometres.
What you should know: New general manager Matthew Mackenzie is restoring both the lodge’s furnishings and its reputation. A stunning property that is owned by the Nova Scotia government, the Keltic Lodge had fallen in stature because it was desperately in need of upgrading. A $1.3-million renovation is continuing and Mackenzie, who relocated from British Columbia, has invigorated the lodge with passion and a sensibility for modern accoutrements. The lodge offers a mix of 19th-century charm, eternally beautiful views, local flavours and Cape Breton’s friendly personality. A jewel of a place whose return to prominence should please all Canadians.
SATURDAY, 6 PM, DINNER AT KELTIC LODGE
What you should know: Prior to Mackenzie’s arrival, no Cape Breton-born chef had led the kitchen at the Keltic Lodge. That changes with Daryl MacDonnell, who has worked at Fairmont hotels and elsewhere in the country. He brings a concern for the importance of the property and a desire to showcase the best of the island’s culinary ingredients. The menu features “Just Caught Lobster” of 1.25 pounds ($32). Try turning that down.
Cost: Entrees range from $18 to $32 and are served in the stunning Purple Thistle Dining Room.
After dinner: Try one of the lodge’s range of activities, including the spa, and then head for drinks in the pub that’s a short walk from the property’s main building.
DAY 3 ON THE CABOT TRAIL
SUNDAY, 9 AM, HIKE THE SKYLINE TRAIL
Driving distance from last destination: 70 kilometres (45 minutes).
What you should know: Following breakfast at the Keltic Lodge, head for the thrill of the Cabot Trail’s most popular hike. More than 26,000 people walk the Skyline Trail each year and that’s because it’s a fairly easy trek — although the stunning views from 405 metres (1,330 feet) above sea level might convince you otherwise. Because hikers begin their walk at the top of the mountain, the trail is flat, making its 7.5-kilometre stretch an easy challenge that is doable in about 45 minutes. Once you make it to the viewpoint — brilliantly laid out with steps and benches — you’re sure to linger for a while. Carry water and snacks — and a camera.
Cost: Free with park admission
SUNDAY, 1 PM, LUNCH AT DANCING GOAT, NORTH EAST MARGAREE
Driving distance from last destination: 65 kilometres (48 minutes).
What you should know: Expect line-ups out the door at this popular coffee shop and bakery off the Cabot Trail. Along with cappuccinos and lattes, you’ll find fresh-baked treats, as well as soups and sandwiches.
Cost: $2.95 for cappuccinos; $1.95 or less for baked treats; $6 to $10 for most sandwiches.
Address: 6289 Cabot Trail, North East Margaree. Telephone: 902-248-2308 (no website).
SUNDAY, 3 PM, ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE, BADDECK
Driving distance from previous destination: 43 kilometres (35 minutes).
What you should know: A replica of the Silver Dart, the first plane to take flight in Canada, was put into place this month in the Graham Bell museum, a Parks Canada facility devoted to the astounding work of the telephone’s inventor. Made of spruce, bamboo, canvass and wire, the Silver Dart took off and landed more than 200 times in 1909. The original was lost after it flipped over in Petawawa, Ontario when its front wheel sank on the runway’s soft sand. The replica hovers above one of Bell’s other great inventions, the HD-4 hydrofoil watercraft that he would drive on the Bras d’Or Lake. The museum is a treat and also offers a White Gloves tour where visitors can handle some of the delicate pieces not on display, including some of the graphphile cylinders that are similar to the one that recently produced a recording of Bell’s voice in the Smithsonian.
Cost: $7.80 per adult; $19.60 for families of four.
SUNDAY, 6 PM, CHECK-IN, INVERARY RESORT, BADDECK
Distance from last stop: One kilometre.
What you should know: If you would like to extend your stay, the Inverary is a family-run resort that has been catering to visitors to the Cabot Trail for decades. With an accommodating staff and range of activities, there is plenty to do to keep you occupied or help you wind down. Though the beds are comfortable, the Inverary is dated, with bathrooms and decor in need of updating.
Cost: Nightly room rates start at $129 in the main lodge (the recommended location on the property).
SUNDAY, 7 PM, DINNER, INVERARY RESORT, BADDECK
What you should know: The Inverary serves cuisine for mainstream palates. While you won’t find many choices for adventurous eaters, you will enjoy well-prepared, pleasing food with a touch of culinary panache.
Cost: Entrees in the $25 range.
More Coverage of Cape Breton on Vacay.ca