Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
CHETICAMP, CAPE BRETON ISLAND, NOVA SCOTIA — When she was 14, Marieve Therriault stood atop the Skyline Trail overlooking Cheticamp in the distance and vowed that it was the spot where she would be married. This month that schoolgirl wish made more than a decade ago will come true. It’s a turn of events that took some serendipity, since Therriault was born and raised 1,000 kilometres from the Cabot Trail, in Saint-Louis Allaire, New Brunswick.
A Parks Canada guide stationed at the Cape Highlands National Park, Therriault arrived in the Acadian village of Cheticamp nine years ago, intending to stay for three months and then having “a physical reaction so strong that I knew this was where I had to live.”
Cheticamp, at the southwestern entrance of the national park, is the most eye-catching community on the Cabot Trail because the colourful houses, many of them painted in the blue, red and white symbols of the Acadian people, stand out and invite you to stop. The history of the Acadians dates to 1566. Their influence can be felt throughout North America, reaching to Louisiana, also a former French colony. On Cape Breton, Cheticamp is trying hard to hold on to its French-Canadian heritage, which includes a unique fete in March that is similar to the mummering festivals in Newfoundland and Philadelphia, a very tame form of Mardi Gras or a less celebrated version of Halloween where participants dress up and try to surprise friends and relatives by their costumes.
“It is part of the heritage here and we’re doing what we can to keep the traditions alive,” says resident Lisette Aucoin-Bourgeois of the Festival de la Micareme. Aucoin-Bourgeois is the executive director of Les Trois Pignons museum, devoted to the work of Acadian artist Elizabeth LeFort.
Like many French-Canadian communities, Cheticamp has difficulty building upon its heritage. It has seen a drop in population and a rise in English-language households. According to the 2011 census, there were 2,822 people living in the municipality, a 10.3 per cent decline from the previous count in 2001. The total of 856 English-only households equates to 43.7 per cent of the community.
Celebrate Acadians’ French Heritage in Cape Breton
“French, English, we all get along in Cheticamp, but we know the Acadian traditions are an important part of history, for Cape Breton and for Canada. We are working to protect them and ensure they’re here for generations,” says Aucoin-Bourgeois.
The village is one of those places that has been untouched by big commerce and that’s a good thing. You can find enough to keep you occupied for a day and a night, including a hike to Therriault’s wedding site that is graced with one of the most picturesque viewpoints in Canada. Like everywhere in Cape Breton, interactions with community members is the surest way to realize the depth of the soul and decency in Cheticamp.
“The people here care so much. They’re so welcoming that they take an interest in you and where you’re from and what brings you to their island,” says Therriault, whose first language is French, having been raised in an Acadian part of New Brunswick.
Although the Cape Breton term “come-from-away” describes those residents who have relocated to the island, it is mostly used for good-natured fun or as an endearment. Talk to the younger Cape Bretoners and you will find a group eager to hear about life elsewhere and to relate what it’s like to be from a place where the median age is 44.3, compared to the national average of 40.6, according to the 2011 census. “Most people have to leave for school or for work. That’s the way it’s been here for a long time, but a lot of people still want to come back,” says Stephane Goosens, a boathand who was working to pay for his university tuition in Halifax.
On the docks at Cheticamp, you’ll find fishing boats, several manned by university-age students like Goosens. They unload fresh-caught lobster and crab. Before you delight in some of that bounty at a nearby restaurant, you can get to know the people who brought in the catch.
“This is hard work, but it’s good money, especially for a student,” says Goosens, showing me his hands that were bruised and bleeding from snatching crabs all morning. The boat had brought back more than 2,000 pounds of Atlantic snow crab, each selling for $2.50 a pound, about $1.50 less per pound than the lobster in tow. “This is a fishing town, always has been. Pretty much everyone who grows up in Cheticamp has a connection to it.”
Fishing and French: The two unique aspects of this community that make it a fine destination to see.
Where to Stay in Cheticamp
Maison Fiset: A terrific little B&B with large, comfortable rooms, a verandah, a welcoming host and a nutritious breakfast, Maison Fiset is a three-year-old gem of a location that is loaded with modern amenities and contemporary style. Lyne Lagarde, the host, is helpful and her orientation of the property is detailed, touching on all of the things a visitor would need to know. Too many other hotels and B&Bs leave it to guests to decipher such things as operating the TV’s remote control devices and Keurig coffee maker. A polite and friendly walk-through saves time and makes a difference in enjoying your stay. Nightly Rates: From June 16-September 30, rooms are $169.
What to Do
Les Trois Pignons: Aside from driving the trail and hiking the Skyline, you’ll want to drop in on Les Trois Pignons, which has to be the most interesting museum devoted to hooked rugs in the world. Don’t think the topic is a bore. In fact, the museum would do well to market itself as a showcase for “tapestry,” a more attractive term. The museum displays the work of Elizabeth LeFort, a self-taught Cheticamp artisan whose work is housed in such places as Buckingham Palace, the Vatican and Rideau Hall in Ottawa. LeFort’s work from the early and mid-20th century was commissioned by many dignitaries and institutions, including the US government. It requested tapestries featuring the US presidents up to the 1960s and one to honour the first astronaut’s in NASA’s Apollo program. Hours: The museum is open Monday-Friday, 8:30 am-4:30 pm. For special appointments and rates, contact 902-224-2642.
Where to Eat
Harbour Restaurant: You’ll enjoy fresh fish and a beautiful sunset at this dockside restaurant. You can’t go wrong with lobster and snow crab brought in off the boat from the adjacent harbour that day. For those dishes, prices are seasonal, but you can expect to pay $25-$30 per platter.
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