Story by Kate Robertson
INGONISH, NOVA SCOTIA — I’m swimming in the Atlantic, just off-shore of Ingonish. The water is cold, but the waves are gentle, and I float lazily on my back. (Cue “Jaws” soundtrack.) Suddenly, I glimpse a greenish flash in the water. My adrenaline surges, but I try to stay calm — I’ve been assured by locals there are no sharks in these waters.
I give an ear-piercing scream when I spot a lobster as big as my childhood dog, who weighed 50 pounds. This gigantic arthropod is coming toward me fast, gnashing his mandibles and clicking his outstretched claws like a nutcracker-cum-jackhammer. His bulging eyes resemble glistening black marbles and they stare intently at me.
Then I wake up. You’re probably thinking Freud would have had a heyday with this mania. Fortunately, I know what events led to my anxious dream.
A week earlier I had arrived in Sydney, the largest city on Cape Breton Island, the Nova Scotia jewel known for its Celtic culture and natural beauty. I should have guessed where things were going when the next morning, before our Cabot Trail tour, breakfast was eggs Benedict with lobster.
A day of winding along the picturesque coastal highway past signs in both Gaelic and English, over mountains, and alongside so many bodies of water that I couldn’t keep straight what was lake, gulf, or ocean, led us to our lodging, Castle Rock Country Inn at the Ingonish Ferry.
We ate on-site at Avalon. A strong nor’westerly blew so we didn’t sit on the deck. Inside, the dining room featured floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing for ample views of the Atlantic and Cape Breton Highlands. If your timing is good, you can see whales in the bay (we didn’t), or a moose on the front lawn (we did).
On Cape Breton, Lobsters Are Aplenty
A lobster dinner was a special at Avalon, along with a grilled chicken with lobster sauce. A brave member of our group announced her personal challenge was to eat lobster every day of the tour. But two nights hence we were visiting an official lobster boil restaurant, so I vowed to save myself for that experience and ordered a delicious seafood tasting plate of grilled salmon, haddock, scallops and shrimp.
On the road the next day, our guide, Nona MacDermid, a proud “Caper”, told us her great-great-great grandfather emigrated here and started lobster fishing, and her family remains in the business. The season starts mid-May and a 10-week lobster license costs $250,000, although you can get fresh lobster year-round from holding tanks. Lobsters can grow up to 45 pounds and live 100 years. “The culinary world currently considers Nova Scotia lobster the best in the world due to the colder water and ‘meroir,’” says McDermid, noting the unique qualities of the regional marine environment that affects taste, “and because China has arrived on the fine-dining scene, lobster prices have sky-rocketed this year to almost $10 a pound.” It’s pricey but so delicious and on this trip there was no end to the delicacy.
We stopped to hike a Parks Canada coastal trail, meandering through jack pines, wild azaleas, and bunchberries, before we hit our next accommodation, the Island Sunset Resort at Belle Cote on the west side of the island, an aptly named establishment, as the sun setting over the Gulf of St. Lawrence is spectacular.
Dinner was at the Lobster Pound Bistro, which offers: lobster alfredo spaghetti, haddock and lobster, even lobster poutine (like bacon, everything is better with lobster), and a signature lobster boil with a lemon beurre blanc sauce. The urges were strong but I recalled my vow. I felt devotional when I went light (and boring) with a Caesar salad.
Fast forward to the next night, and I was finally at the lobster boil at Baddeck Lobster Suppers, a family-owned business that was packed even on a rainy Tuesday night. I ordered lobster with sides of potato salad and coleslaw and put on the plastic bib — essential with the pots of melted dipping butter. The chef made strategic cuts for easier shelling of the lobster, but for landlubbers like me written instructions were also provided.
Being served a whole lobster is not for the faint-hearted (I had only eaten lobster tails before), and when I snapped off the tail and saw the green goo, fat mixed with guts, and some inky substance (which is roe that connoisseurs mix as a dip) I was uncertain, but I listened to the locals. I tried a bit while eating the melt-in-your-mouth claws and tail meat, enjoying each buttery, salty sweet bite.
But pause for a minute — you’re probably wondering, “Why the nightmare; who complains about eating too much lobster?” Let me explain.
During the next days in Sydney, the lobster fest continued. Under the stars at the Fortress of Louisbourg, I was eating more lobster whilst listening to toe-tapping renditions of Celtic fiddle tunes, seated next to a woman from New Brunswick who grew up regularly indulging in copious amounts of oysters. Recently she ended up in the hospital, severely ill after an oyster feast, and now is allergic to them. Someone else told me his wife developed an allergy to lobster after eating it for several days in a row. Can there be too much of a good thing? I glanced at my colleague who had kept true to her challenge of eating lobster every day to see if she was developing a rash or respiratory distress. She wasn’t.
On my final night of the tour, my group was hosted by Parks Canada at a lobster boil at La Bloc Beach, just outside of Cheticamp, an Acadian community where the people are so friendly I wanted to move there. For a fee of $44 per person, two employees brought ingredients and walked us through preparation. Miranda Dodds of Parks Canada showed us how to look at the swimmerets to see if it is a male or female lobster (a male’s are bonier). “The lobster can move five miles per second by scraping along the bottom with its claws,” she informed us.
Then we filled a large pot with water directly from the ocean, just like the Capers do, and Dodds invited us to choose our live lobster from the haul she had carried in. I picked a male and affectionately named him Sebastian. I crossed his arms to take the elastics off safely as instructed and placed him upside-down for two minutes.
“This is supposedly more humane,” Dodds says, “as they are stunned before you drop them in the boiling water.”
As I lowered Sebastian into the pot, I regretted naming him. But I sat back, took a deep breath, and recognized that eating a lobster that was freshly harvested that morning, while chatting and watching one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen with new friends, was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that travelling is all about.
It was later that night I found myself swimming in the Atlantic. ..
MORE ABOUT VISITING CAPE BRETON
Tourism Info: For more info on lobster, Cape Breton, and Cabot Trail visit the website of the island’s tourism board or call 1-888-562-9848 (toll free).