Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
ST. PETER’S, CAPE BRETON ISLAND, NOVA SCOTIA — Remember all those Americans who were moving to Nova Scotia should Donald Trump become their president? Not all of them made the protest run to the border, but I recently conversed over a beer with a pair who did and they are overjoyed by their decision.
“We feel like we’ve hit the jackpot,” Tess Schneier elatedly said while celebrating her first Canada Day.
On the night of the US election in November, she gave in to her husband’s desire to head north.
“Jeff has wanted to move up here for thirty years. After Election Day, I told him, ‘You still thinking about Nova Scotia?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘I’m in.’” On January 20th, Trump’s Inauguration Day, the Schneiers finalized their purchase of a property in Port Bickerton, a small community on the Atlantic Ocean. The couple from Maine soon started their relocation efforts and are spending the summer exploring Nova Scotia.
Soon after I met them, we chatted about Isle Madame, an Acadian community in the heart of Cape Breton, which is about 90 minutes by car from the Schneiers’ new home. We were drinking with others in this off-the-beaten-track community full of history and scenery.
“The people are incredible,” Tess Schneier says. “There’s surfing, really delightful places to see and the right way of looking at life, all around Nova Scotia.”
While Cape Breton is best known for its premier attraction, the jaw-dropping Cabot Trail, a world wonder of a road trip that hugs the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean for 297 kilometres (185 miles), it is also full of splendid little areas worth checking out.
The Cabot Trail is not a fabricated attraction, so the beauty that draws visitors from around the world doesn’t suddenly appear and disappear after you’ve driven the route. As will be quickly apparent to any traveller, the Cabot Trail is part of a dazzling landscape that covers much of Cape Breton, an island on the northeast coast of Nova Scotia. While the Cabot Trail provides dramatic coastal scenery, other regions mesmerize with their rivers and lakes, including the Bras d’Or Lake, an inland sea of 450 square miles.
The communities aren’t as popular with tourists as Cabot Trail hot spots Ingonish, Cheticamp, Inverness and Baddeck, but they are gems themselves. Here are three to visit next time you’re in this charming part of the Maritimes. You just might envision a relocation plan for yourself.
Lisa Boudreau can trace her roots back 350 years to Isle Madame and now she is helping others do the same. Boudreau operates a delightful coffee shop, La Goélette à Pépé, that celebrates Acadian culture while also revitalizing it, too. Its lounge area features large photographs of families — including Boudreau’s — who are pioneering members of the community on Isle Madame.
“I know my roots. I’ve been here for 350 years. I can trace back that far. I find it sad when I meet someone who may not be able to do that; some people can’t name their grandparents even. I can go back seven generations. That’s just a difference in culture and we find a lot of people coming here to chart those roots for themselves,” Boudreau says.
Along with serving fine coffee, with beans from the popular Java Blend operation in Halifax, made from what Boudreau says is the only espresso machine in Cape Breton’s Richmond County, La Goélette à Pépé also has tamarin, which are delicious Acadian pulled toffee treats. Handmade craft, pottery, soaps, books and music, all with Acadian culture at the forefront, are for sale as well. Some books help visitors research their ancestry, as well.
The distinctiveness of the French culture makes Isle Madame unique from a historic standpoint. A more contemporary find is not far away. A young Englishman, Damian Phillips, bought the Groundswell two years ago and has turned it into a popular watering hole for locals and visitors. He serves food and beer for the times. All eight taps feature brews from Cape Breton — which has two outstanding breweries, Big Spruce and Breton Brewing — and the kitchen operates without a deep fryer. The food relies on local produce and healthy cooking.
Like the Schneiers, Phillips was attracted to this part of Nova Scotia for the surfing and stuck around because of the ambience.
“People here are so friendly and I just really like the vibe. There’s no stress,” says Phillips, who ran a restaurant in London before moving across the ocean. “Everything can be done tomorrow. Whereas in London, the pace of life is so hectic. Almost frantic, really.” He gestures in the direction of the water and adds, “Here, I surf. The ocean’s just there.”
One of the most important communities in Nova Scotia’s history is St. Peter’s, home to a canal that was built in 1869 and was positioned on the site of a road where boats from the Atlantic Ocean would be hauled over to the Bras d’Or Lake — and vice versa. The canal opened up more shipping and passenger movement. A Parks Canada National Historic Site, the St. Peter’s Canal continues to churn, allowing boats to ferry between the Atlantic and the inland sea. About 15 boats pass through the 800-metre-long canal each day during its operating season from May to September. When large yachts come through, crowds gather for a peek as the waters rise and the locks open, sending the crew and their passengers on the continuation of their voyage.
Settled in the early 1700s, around the same time as Europeans began to bring industry and weaponry to nearby Fortress Louisbourg, St. Peter’s has lots of history that’s preserved. Some of it is tied to explorer Nicolas Denys, who built a settlement in St. Peter’s — called Saint-Pierre while under French rule. A fascinating museum bearing his name houses artifacts you would be surprised to find in a tiny town in what many people might describe as the middle of nowhere. Among the most astounding (and gruesome) pieces is a copy of a medieval book whose cover is printed using the skin of a human being. Studies by a university in Barcelona confirm that the book’s cover contains the DNA of a female European. The practice of covering books in human skin is one that was thankfully short-lived. That fact makes the rarity in St. Peter’s even more enticing to some scholars and history buffs. According to the curators of the Nicolas Denys Museum, only 20 such books exist in the world.
Another museum worth checking out is from photographer Wallace MacAskill, who captured the image of the Blue Nose schooner that adorns the Canadian 10-cent coin. MacAskill was a widely acclaimed photographer and sailor whose work is lovingly displayed by the volunteers to maintain his former residence.
Meanwhile, Dawn Ostram is hopeful of growing more of a youthful, contemporary arts scene. She recently moved from Edmonton with her family and this summer helped to launch a crafts market in St. Peter’s former fire hall. “For me coming from the outside to St. Peter’s, there is so much potential with the artists and with event planning,” says Ostram, whose artisan guild is aspiring to host productions and curate art shows. “With the Cabot Trail area, that part of the island gets a lot of traffic and a lot of attention. On this side of the coast, we have a lot of little special things that are really like hidden gems.”
The first city most visitors encounter when they enter Cape Breton by car is Port Hawkesbury. It’s about 15 minutes from the Canso Causeway, the thoroughfare that was built over the Strait of Canso in 1955, connecting Cape Breton to the island of Nova Scotia. With a population of 3,000 people, Port Hawkesbury is small, but it is still the centre of a lot of activity in Cape Breton, including festivals and a variety of events.
A stop here with a visit to its port will be a pleasant way to kick off your journey into exploring the rest of Cape Breton, one of Canada’s most lovely and welcoming places in which to spend time.
MORE ABOUT VISITING CAPE BRETON
Getting There: If driving from Nova Scotia, the Trans-Canada Highway leads across the Canso Causeway and into Cape Breton. Follow Highway 104 to Highway 4 eastbound to visit the small towns en route to Louisbourg or Sydney. (Highway 105 leads you north to the start of the Cabot Trail.)
Where to Stay: The Bras d’or Lakes Inn includes comfortable rooms with rustic decor and a fine restaurant known for its desserts. Order the Gateau St. Honore ($8), a treat featuring puff pastry, profiteroles, whipped cream and caramel. It has been on the restaurant’s menu since the day it opened. Room rates begin at $149 per night.