I’ve long been meaning to write down the story of the most magical road trip I’ve ever taken. Cape Breton is an island at the tippy top of Nova Scotia with an iconic 185 mile coastal loop road to help you explore it. Here be bears, wonderful wild landscapes and really excellent chicken wings.
TRAVEL DIARY: THE CAPE BRETON ROAD TRIP
ACROSS THE BRIDGE TO CAPE BRETON – 17 Sept
Here we go! The boot is packed with camping hammocks, hiking boots and plentiful snacks. My wonderful grandmother lives in Nova Scotia, and after a week of staying with her and eating all her food it’s time for Jake and I to hit the road and head for somewhere I’ve always been desperate to see – Cape Breton, an island off the eastern Canadian coast. The only thing between here and the Atlantic is Newfoundland, and the best way to explore the island’s wild, rugged coastline is the 185 mile-long coastal The Cabot Trail one of the most iconic road trips in the world.
We drive over the narrow causeway that separates Cape Breton from the mainland and head clockwise around the island. We’ve been driving for less than an hour when we pass a huge meadow of wild flowers and I insist that we stop so that I can run amok in them, Heidi style. They are just as glorious close up but also transpire to be a hellish breeding ground for midges that have clearly been waiting their entire (if short) lives for an idiot like me to walk into their domain.
After an emergency evacuation of the meadow and into the car, covered in midge bites, I’m quickly cheered up by the astonishing beauty of our drive. We follow wide, empty roads through deep forest and past wild meadows (no more frolicking in those!) and then emerge on one side of the ocean, climbing high above it, the road curving along the cliffs ahead.
Our first port of call is one of the loveliest Air BnBs I’ve ever stayed in. Hawthorne House is a remote wooden cabin down a dirt track with a tiny but extremely cosy room for us, complete with a wood panelled bathroom with a deep rolltop bath. The very best bit is Earl the dog, who races down the track to meet us and then acts as an enthusiastic tour guide (if quite demanding of cuddles) for the rest of our stay.
On the recommendation of Ron at Hawthorne House we seek out the Red Shoe Inn in the extremely cute town of Mabou for dinner. Inside is buzzy and busy and they do hands down the best junk food I have ever eaten in my entire life – hot chicken wings with a blue cheese and celery sauce. It’s the stuff of your chicken dreams. You should go to Cape Breton just for these wings.
GOING ON A BEAR HUNT – 18 Sept
The next morning, after really good dreams about blue cheese and a slobbery goodbye from Earl, we hit the road again. Our eyes are peeled for coffee, but instead we spot a tiny jetty and a swimming platform floating on a placid lake, deserted in the early morning. We can’t resist stopping for a morning swim, jumping off the jetty and paddling out to the pontoon. It’s the best shower ever (even if my brain is still singing out for caffeine).
Coffee fix sorted from fantastic Dancing Goat cafe in Margaree, we plan a long hike for the afternoon. My map of the island (there main loop road stays close to the coast, making CB a doddle to navigate) shows me that we’re now in Cape Mabou Highlands National Park, and that there are trails of all sizes to follow. The ever-correct Ron had also recommended hiking the Beaton trail (it’s not easy to find online but joins up with the shorter McKinnon’s Brook trail, which is mapped here. It turns out to be one of the loveliest hikes I’ve ever walked, taking us up through woodlands of silvery trees and then spitting us out onto cliffs high above the ocean. When we get to the bluff we find a box with a trail book to sign inside. Jake and I are only the second people to sign it in days.
I’ve been talking endlessly about wanting to spot a bear on our trip, but so far we’ve only encountered a few nosy chipmunks. From the trail box, we take a tiny path to the lookout point and sit to eat lunch, watching the ever-changing ocean below and looking back at the winding road we’ve been driving. And when we pack up to leave, we see it – a large, fresh bear print on the path, just yards away from us. I’d swear it wasn’t there before…
We haven’t thought too much about where to sleep, except that we have hammocks handy (having deliberated and decided that tents were too bulky to bring along), so when evening falls we set them up on the edge of Cheticamp campground. Multiple signs warn of inquisitive bears in the area, so we carefully pack away all of our food into the boot of the car and carry our hammocks a mile into the woods. I am just drifting off to sleep when I suddenly realise that in my rucksack, which is literally right below my face, is… a half-eaten Snickers bar. Surely peanuts and caramel are the stuff bears dream about? Jake is less panicked than me. “Just go to sleep, it’ll be fine”, he reassures me in the darkness. Instead I lie awake for hours, startled by the slightest rustles of the forest at night.
At some point I must have dropped off, because I suddenly realise that hours have passed and that I am awake, but with eyes tight shut, and that the distinct noises of a wild animal nosing about sound disturbingly close to me. A bear! Eating my Snickers bar! When I finally muster up the courage to open my eyes, ready to flee from a huge mama bear, in front of me is a furry, beady eyed… chipmunk. He sees me, squeaks in alarm and runs for it.
Just a note on bears here – packing a Snickers bar and hoping for the best is not a good way to spot these magnificent beasts. If you do want to see bears, book a wildlife-specific tour with a company such as Naturetrek.
IN SEARCH OF MR CABOT – 19 September
So after yesterday’s spoiler alert, you know that we wake up alive and well and unnibbled by chipmunks in our hammocks. We decide that given how glorious Cape Breton is, and the fact that we haven’t been eaten yet, that we should leave the main Cabot Trail and follow a little road all the way to the very top of the island, to remote Meat Cove (far lovelier than its name suggests).
Did you notice we’ve been on the Cabot Trail, oh clever reader? One reason I want to head this high up the island is that the road winds past Cabot’s Landing. This is the very beach where Italian explorer John Cabot, or Giovanni Caboto as he was known, is said to have landed with his men after his epic voyage across the Atlantic in 1497. He left from Bristol, where I live, and reached this beach, crossing endless miles of ocean in 35 days.
It’s an amazing, and rather eerie place – the beach is empty, wild and beautiful, all red sand and grey waves. We walk along it and what makes me feel rather strange and timeless is that Bristol, Cabot’s home, has changed so much since he left that I wonder if he would recognise it. This beach, on the other hand, probably looks exactly as it did when he waded through its waves and onto its shores all those years ago.
From Cabot’s Landing we drive up the coast to Meat Cove. It feels like arriving at the end on the earth – the tarmac gives out to dirt and you eventually arrive at a lovely little campsite perched on the cliffs, with three very basic wood cabins – more like Scottish bothies, just with sleeping platforms inside – looking out to sea. They still seem luxurious after our chipmunk-infested hammocks. Jake and I dump our stuff and head straight down to the beach for a swim in the last of the evening light. I’m standing facing the beach, feeling the water rush in and out and suck at the pebbles under my feet, and then I turn back to the sea. A seal has come right up into the shallows to have a look at me and is about an arm’s length from my face. We both shriek in surprise and then he throws a flipper dramatically over his face and dives back into the water. It seems to be my lot on this trip to terrify the Cape Breton wildlife.
THE EAGLE HAS LANDED – 20 September
We hit the road back south, and as we start heading back down the eastern side of the island wish we had weeks or months to camp and hike here. We pass clapboard cottages in candy colours, remote stores with antlers mounted above the doors, tiny, half-forgotten fishing hamlets. As it’s our last night, we book the rather smart-looking cabins at River Nest, a kayaking centre (well, a wooden shed by the water) on the river Murray. The cabin is wonderful – tiny and perfect and handcrafted by owner Angelo, with a little sleeping platform up a ladder. Outside there’s a fire pit, and we get a crackling flame going as the sun starts to set. The cabins are so remote that there’s nowhere for miles around where we can buy dinner, so we resign ourselves to sharing the salami, cucumber and single beer we have left over from lunch. The cheery fire and glorious stars mean it doesn’t bother us too much.
ONE MORE SWIM – 21 September
The sun rises over the water and – joy of joys – Angelo makes us steaming cups of coffee, which we drink whilst swinging in hammocks by the water. It’s almost time to drive back to Nova Scotia and away from this wonderful island, but there’s room (there’s always room) for one more swim. We run down the rickety wooden jetty and jump into the clean, cold water of the Murray river, and get into the car with wet hair and big grins on our faces.