Canada's Nova Scotia can come off as a sleepy hinterland to the uninitiated. But it's a coveted coastal oasis for those in the know, and it might skyrocket to the top of your bucket list, too, after we extol its virtues. Cape Breton Island, in particular, serves up panoramic views in banquet-sized portions. We're talking world-class cycling and road-tripping along the Cabot Trail, fantastic hiking routes, top-notch golf courses, living history museums, and Grade-A seafood. But that's not all. From Gaelic arts and crafts to immersing yourself in Celtic music festivals, Cape Breton is a treasure trove of cultural experiences.
Fall road-tripping doesn't get more idyllic than the Cabot Trail, a 184-mile slice of lushly forested coastal heaven featuring smiley faces, seafood meals to wax lyrical about, and air as crisp as fresh autumnal apples. Allocate at least a couple of days to meander between Baddeck and Cheticamp on the north end of Canada's best island, and take time to savor one of the most beloved drives on the planet. Really, it's that good. Hop on the Gondola at Cape Smokey for aerial views of the scenery, and stop at the cute cafes that dot the route. You can do the drive in summer too, but expect busier roads.
The French Fortress of Louisbourg is transporting, and you'll be taken back to the mid-18th century before the property was hotly contested and burnt down by the Brits. Two centuries later, the government undertook a partial reconstruction, the largest in North America, allowing visitors to time travel and learn about the period. It's all very well organized with daytime and night-time events, true-to-the-era camping, and a 1.5-mile Ruins Walk.
This easy five-mile loop-de-loop near Cheticamp on the Cabot Trail dangles the possibility of moose spotting while issuing warnings about bears. Keen hikers should be all over it—it offers altitude without the usual toil. The hike culminates in a clifftop boardwalk with benches to take in the sun as it dips dramatically into the Atlantic Ocean. Birdwatchers can make notes on boreal cuties and photographers can shoot their shots.
It seems fitting that the grandness of the landscapes in this corner of the world is matched by its marine visitors. You can take a boat from Cheticamp, Bay St. Lawrence, Pleasant Bay, and the delightful Ingonish Beach. During an approximately two-hour-long tour, you may encounter pilot, minke, humpback, sei, fin, and rare, colossal blue whales, as well as other ocean dwellers. Try and spot cetaceans from panoramic viewpoints like the Skyline trail and learn all about them at the Whale Interpretive Center in Pleasant Bay.
The Gaelic College near Baddeck keeps Scottish Highland culture alive on the opposite end of the Atlantic. Gaelic folks turned up in Nova Scotia in the 18th century and planted their roots firmly in Canadian soil. The passage of time has not deterred locals from putting the Gaelic language on signs, making heritage crafts, or playing Celtic instruments. At the Great Hall of the Clans museum, you can marvel at the preservation of language and culture and maybe even participate in a ceilidh.
Want to stretch your legs without actually being on foot? You can cycle the challenging Cabot Trail. Apparently, "God's country" isn't just primo roadtripping material, but it's bucket-list stuff for cyclists too. You can cycle parts of the trail or the whole thing, and efforts have been made to make the route biker-friendly with bicycle stands and other amenities. Pro tip—do the route clockwise and schedule time for sudden weather mood swings.
Alexander Graham Bell is most famous for inventing the telephone, but the Scotsman had a string of discoveries to his name, and you can find out all about his interests in kites, aviation and helping the deaf (his wife had a hearing impairment and he taught Helen Keller) at this national historic site. Full-scale replicas and fascinating artifacts complement the exhibits. Bell built a summer estate, Beinn Bhreagh, in Cape Breton because it reminded him of his homeland, and died at the estate in 1922.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park is a regional highlight for backcountry camping and sightseeing. Enter at Chéticamp, where you can purchase a park pass. There are five well-maintained campgrounds. If you're willing to hike, the Fishing Cove campsite is rewarding beyond measure. Once you settle in and dusk falls, the sky mesmerizes with glittering orbs. Make the most of starry starry nights with a guided stargazing hike. Nova Scotia's official Dark Sky Preserves include Kejimkujic National Park and Acadian Skies & Mi’kmaq Lands in Argyle, Clare, and Yarmouth.
If Northern Emerald oysters, Cajun haddock cakes, seafood broils, and DIY lobster rolls sound like your kinda chow, then Cape Breton welcomes you with open arms. The lobster here is so fresh, it's often cooked within minutes of leaving a boat. Capt. Kat's Lobster Shack in Barrington Passage puts lobster on and in everything, and it's a fabulous novelty for people accustomed to the "cockroach of the sea" being a luxury. It's not strange to find lobster beer and lobster ice cream on this island. There's also a Lobster Crawl every February if you can't get enough.
This annual festival held every October celebrates soul-stirring Celtic music over nine days. It's a world-class affair with a high caliber of performing artists and attendees from more than 24 nations. They descend on Cape Breton Island for concerts, lectures, storytelling, art exhibits, and Gaelic culture in all its forms.
Appreciate the history, arts, and culture of the First Nations with a visit to Membertou Heritage Park. Hospitable and clued-up staff share information about the Indigenous Mi'kmaw community, and you can participate in hands-on workshops that teach participants how to bead, make dream catchers, and weave baskets, for example. The onsite restaurant provides an opportunity to taste Mi'kmaw dishes, and the gift shop gets a thumbs up too. This is a must-see attraction in Sydney.
It's easy to dismiss a coal mining museum as boring, but the retired miners here share their stories so sincerely that you might find your eyes getting a little wet while they speak. This museum in Glace Bay takes visitors underground to understand the labor conditions, so if you're claustrophobic, you've officially been warned about the cramped space and low ceilings.
This is the home of the Great White North's first single-malt whiskey. With a cozy inn around the corner, you'd be hard-pressed to find such a postcard-perfect distillery. The grounds are manicured, and the pub grub has flair. Join one of the informative tours to learn how Glen Breton Rare is produced.
Things get a little raucous around Mi-Carême or Mid-Lent. If Mardi Gras had a soft launch, it would be this winter event where Nova Scotians don masks and try to confuse their neighbors. So where does the Centre de la Mi-Carême come in? It displays a collection of these handmade masks, and expounds upon Acadian culture. You can even make your own quirky face covering.
Feed and pet the fluffy alpacas. Check out snuggly products made from soft alpaca fleece. And learn more about these endearing Peruvian camelids from the owners, Bob and Norma Silverstein, who take care of them daily and are finely attuned to their needs and personalities. Albert Bridge Alpacas offers fun for the whole family, and you can get some tips on rug hooking too.
Cape Breton is popular for sea kayaking, but you can also take to the salty waters of the Bras D'or Lakes. They're ideal for beginner and experienced kayakers alike. The estuary's waves are gentle, providing the right conditions for those learning the fundamentals of paddling. Plus, there are coves aplenty. Come here for peace and quiet, a solid upper-body workout, or to giggle at the gawky double-crested cormorants.
Cape Breton has dozens of cascades, and the Highlands are full of hidden waterfalls to stumble across or intentionally seek out. Mary Ann Falls, Beulach Ban Falls, MacIntosh Brook and Falls, and Corney Brook and Falls, are just some of the curtains of water worth checking out. The drops have different heights, the pools have different depths, and the hike lengths vary, but these semi-secret spots are all awesome in their own way.
Birdwatchers will be lighting up their Audubon Society group chats after a trip to Bird Island. This island delivers on the feathered friend content. You'll find puffins between May and August, and some tours take you to the puffins' nesting grounds. Bald eagles, kittiwakes, razorbills, black guillemots, and herons are also commonly spotted, and so are grey seals. Covered boats allow for an all-weather experience.
Fans of the fairways are spoilt for choice in Cape Breton. Le Portage Golf Club, Cape Breton Highlands Links, Cabot Cape Breton, and Cabot Cliffs Golf Course, are but a few of the options at your disposal. The ocean provides a stunning backdrop, with unrivalled views. Think sand dunes, the Musical Coast, and an inspired swing. P.s. Cape Breton Highlands Links cracks Top 100 Courses in the World rankings.
Fly fishing is a favored pastime in these parts. Margaree River, a Canadian Heritage River, is a top pick for a bout of fly fishing, and the Margaree Salmon Museum confirms this. Kids will enjoy the Margaree Fish Hatchery, which fills the river with brook trout and Atlantic salmon. The Bras d'Or Lake offers up cod, flounder, and striped bass, amongst other fish. Whatever your experience level, you'll be at your leisure.