If Cape Breton Island was a person, it might be chef Daryl MacDonnell. He’s the creator of Woodroad, a 32-seat fine-dining restaurant on a lonely stretch of coastline between Inverness and Cheticamp. Now in its first full season, Woodroad offers a seven-course set menu experience. It’s also a retirement project for MacDonnell, one of Nova Scotia’s preeminent chefs.
MacDonnell’s brother, Peter, spent four years searching out and milling just the right trees to build the two-storey timber frame house that now serves as both a restaurant and part-time lodgings for staff. The second-floor dining room and deck offer sweeping views over the glassy waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Two of four siblings, the brothers grew up in a Cape Breton home where good food was the norm — their father worked as a butcher and their mother as a cook.
MacDonnell leads me from the restaurant through a wild meadow down to a cliff-edge gazebo. It’s here where he sometimes watches whales and their calves glide beneath the clear surface of the ocean and where he plans to expand Woodroad’s dining experiences. The two-level gazebo will soon be transformed into an extension of the restaurant, the top equipped with an outdoor kitchen to serve a dozen guests seated around a rustic, solid pine table below.
Inshore lobster fishermen set their traps so close to shore here, their boats sometimes duck out of sight beneath the cliffs. “But we can still talk to them,” MacDonnell says. Local fishermen and farmers supply the restaurant with fresh ingredients. Tonight’s menu features halibut with mussels in a saffron sauce. MacDonnell himself enjoys foraging for the kitchen. “I usually go picking mushrooms every morning — chanterelles in summer, pine mushrooms in the fall.”
The future has MacDonnell musing about his past and how his career, which reads like a roundup of Cape Breton’s most prominent dining experiences, led him to this new venture. “I’ve been cheffing on the island for 25 years, mostly in just three places. I stayed long — 15 years at the Inverary Inn in Baddeck. Then I did a couple years at Membertou Trade and Convention Centre before the last seven years at Keltic Lodge.”
Who better than MacDonnell to lead Cape Breton in a bold, new culinary direction? It’s the exquisite French-inspired farm, forest, and sea-to-table menu that sells out reservations months in advance, but it’s as much the location that makes Woodroad the poster restaurant for the new Cape Breton on its western coastline. It’s just 20 minutes south of Cape Breton Highlands National Park adjacent to the French Acadian community of Cheticamp and 15 minutes north of two of the world’s highest-rated golf courses, Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs in Inverness.
Hot Delights for Travellers in Inverness
“This side of the island is changing,” MacDonnell says. “The golf courses drew us here.”
Since they opened in 2011 and 2015, respectively, Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs have consistently placed among the world’s top courses, including the latest ranking by Golf Digest of the World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses, Cliffs at 11 and Links at 35. “The golf courses keep staff here year round. A lot of young people are moving home, spinning off businesses and living on this side of the island,” MacDonnell adds. To add to the already impressive mix is The Nest, a 10-hole, par-3 layout that just opened a few weeks ago, that spills across the rollicking terrain, on the bluffs overlooking Cabot Cliffs and the ocean.
MacDonnell notes that beaches such as the long stretch of golden sand that fronts Cabot Links also pull people to Cape Breton’s western coast.
One of those new businesses is Route 19 Brewing, Tap & Grill. The shiny new brewhouse opened in 2019 across from Cabot Links. A partnership of mostly local residents, the three-level, 300-seat restaurant and taproom offers views over Cabot Links and the beach to dreamy Cape Breton sunsets. Beers are dubbed with names like Coal Dust Stout and the Nineteenth Hole Pale Ale to recognize Inverness’s transition from former mining town to world golfing destination.
Route 19 follows in the footsteps of Glenora Distillery, perhaps the earliest major attraction on Cape Breton’s rejuvenated western coast. Just 10 kilometres (six miles) from Inverness, tucked beneath the rolling, wooded hills of the South Cape Highlands and built over clear running MacLellan’s Brook, Glenora was the first single-malt whiskey distillery in North America when it opened in 1990. Given that Glen Breton Rare is distilled using pristine Cape Breton highland waters and aged from 10 to 25 years, this wee dram is one of the finest anywhere.
For the full distillery experience, many visitors to Glenora choose to stay a few days in the chalets, the inn, or the new Brookside rooms. With the tidy courtyard and abundant gardens outside the pub where the brook babbles past the distillery on its opposite bank, Glenora has the feel of a Swiss Alps’ retreat, except most nights Cape Breton fiddle music wafts from the pub. The accomplished musicians who frequent Glenora are a reminder that every fall the Celtic Colours International Festival — offered online in 2020 because of the pandemic — fills the entire island with music from Celtic cultures around the world.
Cape Breton is awash in unique new lodgings like the chic Brookside rooms at Glenora. True North Destinations in Pleasant Bay — an enclave village inside Cape Breton Highlands National Park — and Archer’s Edge Luxury Camping near Judique south of Inverness both offer geodesic dome glamping experiences with a sunset view over the ocean. Inland at Baddeck, the trio of Vicar’s View Lighthouses are inspired by the lighthouse down the hill on the inland saltwater Bras d’Or Lakes. Baddeck is also the home of the Savour and Sail Bras d’Or Lakes adventure with a chef-hosted lunch aboard Sailing CBI’s luxury catamaran.
Hiking the Wild Nova Scotia Highlands
Those looking for rugged adventure rather than luxury accommodations and a getaway from digital distractions head to the national park and backcountry campsites like the handful at Fishing Cove where there’s no cellphone service. The only sound is the rolling of the rounded beach rocks in the gentle surf and the cry of a passing bald eagle.
Getting to Fishing Cove is a challenging 13-kilometre (eight-mile) roundtrip hike that descends 355 metres (1,165 feet) from a mountaintop through mature, lush forests of oak, maple, birch, and hemlock to a tiny coastal inlet wedged between steep cliffs. Most of the trail follows a fast stream that in spring surges and bellows down the narrow valley.
For a relatively easy day hike, the seven kilometre (four-mile) looping Skyline Trail is the most rewarding with views from boardwalks and viewing platforms some 400 metres (1,300 feet) to the sea below. In the distance, the world famous Cabot Trail highway hugs the edge of the ancient tableland mountains.
MacDonnell says hungry hikers and campers from the national park often book an evening of fine dining as a treat. Dinner at Woodroad is a perfect ending to a Cape Breton wilderness hike, a round of golf on an elite course, or just a day at the beach. To help create those perfect endings, MacDonnell brought on Michelin-quality pastry chef Anne Marie Woodgate. She prepares Woodroad’s three-course dessert. MacDonnell says, “People aren’t quite used to this style of dining,” but he adds that his customers are learning to appreciate Woodroad’s French-inspired, seven-course experience, and who wouldn’t? When a day ends with macarons and chocolates, it’s easy to embrace the appeal.
MORE ABOUT VISITING CAPE BRETON
- True North Destinations in peak season is $250 a night.
- Archer’s Edge Luxury Camping starts at $199.
- Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs in peak season ranges from a double room at $395 to four-bedroom villa at $2,325.
- Cape Breton Highlands National Park campsites and oTENTiks in peak season range from $18 to $102 per night.
- Glenora Distillery rooms and chalets in peak season range from $210 to $372.
- Vicar’s View Lighthouses rates range from $199 to $219.
- A round of 18 holes at Cabot Cliffs or Cabot Links ranges from $120 to $280.
- The Savour and Sail Bras d’Or Lakes experience, which includes a half day sail, lunch and stand up paddle boarding ranges from $245 to $775.
- Dinner at Woodroad costs $90 per person, excluding beverages.
- A 20-ounce glass of Coal Dust Stout at Route 19 Brewing Tap & Grill costs $7.24, and a plate of fish and chips is $17.
- Atlantic Lobster Gnocchi at the Glenora Distillery costs $23.
Note: Vacay.ca is partnering with Tourism Nova Scotia on a series of articles featuring journeys to enjoy in the province in 2020 and 2021. Check our previous articles on road trips across the province, exploring the South Shore, and discovering the quaint charms of the Northumberland Shore.