Canada, with its sweeping mountain ranges, dense forests, and ample coastline, has no shortage of scenic drives. But, the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island kind of blows all of those other routes out of the water. It's not just a jaw-droppingly gorgeous road around the island and through the incredibly special Cape Breton Highlands National Park, either (although the park's unforgettable, edge-of-the-world scenery doesn't hurt). The cliff-hugging, white-knuckle switchbacks on the road make for some insanely fun driving. Oh, and there's some weird history and a one-of-a-kind culture that's unlike anything anywhere else in the world to discover along the way. Cruise up to this eastern corner of Canada for a unique island escape.
Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: the Cabot Trail's name is something of a misnomer. It's named for John Cabot, the Italian-born, British-backed explorer who landed on Canada's Atlantic coast in 1497. Except... he probably landed in Newfoundland and not Cape Breton. The name came from Nova Scotia Premier Angus Macdonald, who wanted to rebrand his home of Cape Breton Island as Scottish. (It should come as no surprise that his parents were from Scotland).
The Cabot Trail was originally constructed in 1932, back when roads weren't just meant to be the most direct route from Point A to Point B. It winds its way through the landscape, becoming one with the coast and the cliffs. It's remained a popular attraction for Cape Breton Island and a favorite way to experience Cape Breton Highlands National Park (established in 1936) ever since it opened. While the attractions along the way have changed since then, the heart-stopping beauty of the scenery has not.
Start the journey near Baddeck. You can get a good taste for just how rugged and beautiful the island is with a hike at Uisge Bàn Falls Provincial Park. (It's pronounced 'ish-ka-ban', for those wondering.) The park's main feature is, of course, the 50-foot, multi-tiered waterfall in a granite gorge. The trail to the falls is only about a mile and a half, and you can even do some swimming in the pools at the base. Or, hike further up the North Branch River along cliffs that offer some stunning woodland scenery. This can be a quick stop or an afternoon adventure.
You probably know Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the telephone... but did you know that the Scottish inventor had a vacation estate, complete with a laboratory, on Cape Breton Island? The Alexander Graham Bell Museum is dedicated to the many works and interests of this fascinating historical figure. Learn all about his inventions (the Silver Dart airplane that completed Canada's first powered flight, the world's fastest boat, recording technology, kites, and more), see artifacts and photos, watch the documentary film on his life, and take part in hands-on activities and programs that provide an in-depth look at why his work was so important.
For a quirky, local museum experience, check out the Margaree Salmon Museum. Even if you aren't planning on salmon fishing in the Margaree River (which is a popular draw for the town), you'll learn a ton of stuff you never knew you never knew here. While it's mostly dedicated to the history and finer points of salmon fishing, you can also learn a ton about the local area and about Cape Breton Island itself along the way. In a lot of ways, it's a well-curated tribute to the salmon. Vintage fishing gear, collections of salmon flies, and photos of trophy salmons caught nearby are among the curiosities in their collection. And who knows? Maybe you'll leave inspired to cast a line.
Cape Breton is also known for as an artists haven, with galleries, shops, and inspiration all across the island. Les Trois Pignons, in the town of Chéticamp right outside the National Park, is a museum and gallery that provides some insight. Its unique display of world-renowned Chéticamp hooked rugs (they're like tapestries and the subjects of the rugs range from ornate floral patterns to detailed portraits to landscapes) is incredibly impressive. The museum also features loads of antiques, a genealogy library, displays on Acadian culture in Cape Breton, tourist information, and an awesome souvenir selection. You might even get the staff to teach you the craft yourself!
Cape Breton Highlands National Park is pretty much the climax of the Cabot Trail. It's one of Canada's most astounding landscapes, and there's no better way to experience it than on the route, which winds its way through the park and along the coast. There are tons of scenic overlooks just off the winding road, and you'll find some famously beautiful hiking trails along the way as well. Home to rare plant life as well as moose, whales, bald eagles, even puffins, there's a lot that makes the park special. Whatever you do, don't miss out on Skyline Trail. The easy, 5-mile trail features an overlook at a dramatic headland cliff. Off in the distance, you'll be able to get a wild view of the Cabot Trail hugging the mountains above the water.
Treat yourself to a stay at the Keltic Lodge Resort and Spa right in the heart of the park. The historic property is the perfect spot for some serious relaxation (there's a spa, a golf course, restaurants, and a heated pool) and has everything you need to fully experience everything the park has to offer. Wilderness trails, whale watching, and easy access to Ingonish Beach are added bonuses to a stay here. Oh, and the views! It's located on a peninsula, so there's no pretty much no such thing as a bad view here. There are plenty of comfy Adirondack chairs across the property where you can lounge and soak it all in.
The coastal scenery doesn't stop when you leave the park. Keep cruising the trail out of the Cape Breton Highlands and it won't be long before you reach Cape Smokey Provincial Park. Whether you just pull off to enjoy the views of the ocean and the town, or you decide to tackle the 3-mile out-and-back trail that takes you up the cliffs of Smokey Mountain, it's a pretty dreamy stop. Fall is an especially stunning time to visit.
Whether you're in need of a snack, a few last-minute souvenirs, or just gas and a cup of coffee, Wreck Cove General Store has you covered. And don't think that this is your average gas station! Would any ol' convenience store serve lobster sandwiches, massive cinnamon rolls, hunting/fishing/camping gear, local crafts and books, and groceries? They keep later hours and provide more services in the summer, which is the busy season, but they remain open all year round.
The Dancing Moose Cafe is one of those quirky little local joints that really makes tourists on the Trail feel right at home. They serve breakfast and brunch with a Dutch flair. Think bacon and eggs with Pannekoek (Dutch pancakes) or Belgian waffles. They also use homemade bread on their lunch sandwiches, craft delicious baked goods that are perfect to take on the road, and brew a great cup of coffee. There's also a little gift shop onsite as well.
As you make your way back towards Baddeck, make one final stop in St. Ann's. The small town is known for their Colaisde Na Gaidhlig (Gaelic College), an institution dedicated to preserving the Gaelic heritage of the Scottish people who settled Cape Breton. The Great Hall of the Clans is the College's museum. It features an interactive look at the history of Scots on the island, and the culture, traditions, and stories that the College preserves. Check out their calendar when you visit and you might be able to attend a demonstration or a class as well.
Summer and fall are the best times to cruise the Cabot Trail, but they're also the most popular and therefore more crowded. Many local spots close in the off-season, although winter sports in the mountains draw in enough people that the island doesn't totally shut down. The road itself remains open all year round, so there really is no bad time to go.
Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books. -John Lubbock