Story by Janine Kennedy
Vacay.ca Food Columnist
BADDECK, CAPE BRETON ISLAND, NOVA SCOTIA — The Celtic Colours International Festival draws visitors from all over the world to Cape Breton each October. The island’s iconic coastal scenery comes alive this time of year as the tree-covered mountains alight in waves of orange, red and yellow. It’s the perfect time to host an internationally renowned music festival and, this year, you can add the launch of Canada’s newest heritage trail to the roster.
“The three things I always tell visitors they must experience while in Cape Breton are: the Fortress of Louisbourg, the Miners Museum in Glace Bay and take a few days to really immerse yourself in the Cabot Trail,” Dan Coffin of Destination Cape Breton explains.
But now he’s adding a fourth must-do to the list.
“Now more than ever visitors are coming to Cape Breton to have a true Celtic experience. Yes, they want to explore the island and drive around the Cabot Trail, but most importantly, they want to experience first-hand the thriving Celtic culture here that is unique to North America.”
You could say that Cape Breton has always held that Celtic allure for visitors (and you would be right). That said, the constant outmigration of Cape Bretoners over the past few centuries has now led to many North Americans claiming Cape Breton roots and more visitors than ever are arriving to search for long-lost ancestors and distant relatives.
There are ways you can trace and explore your Celtic background in Cape Breton, much like you could in Scotland or Ireland. This is what led to Coffin’s creation of the Celtic Heart Heritage Trail.
“The attractions on this trail will take you through the course of Cape Breton’s Celtic history, from the first settlers in the late 1700s to what evolved into our current living Celtic culture,” he says.
It makes the perfect travel itinerary for those not only wanting to immerse themselves in Cape Breton’s culture during Celtic Colours, but especially for those visiting for the purpose of exploring their heritage.
Along this trail you’ll see some beautiful scenery you might otherwise miss (particularly along the Bras D’or Lakes shoreline). You have an excellent chance of running into a few fiddlers and Gaelic speakers along the way and, most importantly, you’ll have an experience unique to your own personal journey (though, perhaps equally important: you’ll sample some truly excellent single malt whisky).
Finding Your Scottish Heritage in Nova Scotia
The trail begins at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in the village of Judique. Judique is home to some of the island’s most well-known musicians, including Natalie MacMaster and her late uncle, Buddy. Aside from hosting regular ceilidhs and concerts, the interpretive centre features a small museum that tells the story of Cape Breton music with installations such as introductory fiddle and step-dancing lessons.
The interpretive centre is funded solely by public donation and government funding, so while there is no entry fee you are welcome to leave a donation and have a poke around their gift shop (especially if you’re a musician yourself — the music book collection here is second to none).
From Judique, it’s a 30-minute drive to the second stop on the heritage trail — Glenora Distillery in Glenville. Here, you’ll find North America’s first single malt whisky distillery – and it’s good stuff.
Made from the mountain spring water, Glen Breton Single Malt Whisky is traditionally made and, over nearly 20 years, has developed into an intensely flavourful spirit with lots of depth. The well-aged whisky is available for purchase at the gift shop, but you’ll want to enjoy a glass (or seven) at the on-site pub.
The pub also provides a full lunch and dinner menu featuring fresh seafood and tasty bar snacks. Local musicians play there each day, so you’re in for a good time if you choose to spend the night in one of Glenora’s mountain chalets (starting at $140 per night).
The next morning, drive to the Gaelic College (Colaisde na Gàidhlig) on St. Ann’s Bay, 10 minutes from the town of Baddeck. Here, you’ll go to the Hall of the Clans for interactive lessons in kilt-wearing, milling frolics and the Gaelic language. You’ll also learn about the Scottish migration of the 18th and 19th centuries and hear stories of some of the first settlers of Cape Breton.
If you have Scottish heritage, you can learn about your clan history and even buy a kilt with your clan’s tartan for special occasions. The Gaelic College is one of the main venues for the Celtic Colours International Music festival, so October is an excellent time to visit.
You can stay in nearby Baddeck, or explore the North Shore of Cape Breton for the rest of the day.
The next morning, take the Bras D’or Lakes Scenic Drive to Iona. Here, you’ll find the Highland Village Museum — an outdoor living-history museum that takes you on a journey from Scotland to Cape Breton from a Scottish settler’s perspective. Expect to hear many Gaelic greetings and anecdotes, see highland cattle and work horses and learn about the hardship that came along with immigrating to a country with intensely long winters.
The views alone are worth a trip to this reconstructed village, but the local actors will be sure to make your visit a special one. The Highland Village is definitely a highlight of the Celtic Heart Trail.
From Iona, it’s a short drive to Féis an Eilein on Christmas Island. Féis is the Gaelic word for a festival, and the féis community in Christmas Island promotes Gaelic culture with festivals and events throughout the year. The big féis takes place in August, but visitors with an interest in the Gaelic language and culture are always welcome.
It makes sense to stay the night in Sydney, the largest city in Cape Breton, after spending your day in Iona and Christmas Island. The next morning, take some time to learn about Cape Breton’s treasured artists and craftspeople at the Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design in downtown Sydney. This is the final stop on the heritage trail and a great opportunity to plan the rest of your time on the island.
The artists represented at the centre often have their own shops and workshops around the island and many use their art to help preserve Cape Breton’s Celtic heritage through leatherwork, glass-design, weaving and pottery, among many other mediums. Ask if there are any special exhibits on the second floor of the centre and have a chat with the staff – they are a great source of information and are usually happy to give you a small tour of the facilities.
Cape Bretoners may not have the financial successes enjoyed in other parts of Canada, but they more than make up for it in natural beauty, friendly locals and their thriving culture as proven by this journey along the Celtic Heart Trail.
Click here for an interactive tour of the Celtic Heart Trail.
MAP OF SOME OF THE LOCATIONS ON THE CELTIC HEART TRAIL