Home Inverness colorado A road trip around Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia

A road trip around Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia


Getting to Cape Breton Island is always thrilling. It’s a 2.5 hour drive from where I live in rural Nova Scotia. Coming from the city of Halifax — as many do — there are more distinctive changes, as the city streets give way to rolling hills.

Wherever you start, the most striking change hits you at the end of the mile-long Canso Causeway, which connects the mainland to Cape Breton. When my view fills with windswept shores and lush forests, that’s when I know I’ve arrived.

The classic way to see the best of the island is the Cabot Trail, a two-lane highway that circles the north of the island and connects its wilderness areas and many of its historic towns. The Gaelics of Scotland arrived in the 1700s and the region’s Celtic roots can be seen throughout. Live music always includes fiddle and drum, and road signs appear in Gaelic and English, except on the Acadian part of the island, where they are in French. Traditional and indigenous Mi’kmaq fishermen live in small villages, some of which are backed by world-class resorts.

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But Cape Breton remains a sleeping delight Canadians turn to when they need a break. It still feels rural and remote, though these qualities are mostly preserved in what locals and people “from afar” offer visitors: quaint cafes and bed and breakfasts, boat trips and breweries. I always discover something new, especially in the fall, once the summer rush has passed.


On my last trip to Cape Breton Island in October 2021, I started with a visit to Big Spruce Brewery, Nova Scotia’s first organic craft brewery. In 2009, Jeremy and Melanie White, who had honeymooned on the island years earlier, bought a ramshackle farmhouse near Bras d’Or Lake – online, out of sight. They discovered that hops were a good crop for the soil, so why not try making beer? I sampled their Kitchen Party Pale Ale, which pairs perfectly with fried pepperoni, a regional pub specialty.

Then I drove northwest, following the winding Cabot Trail, then took Route 19 until I reached Inverness, a historic mining town which, with the opening of the Cabot Links Golf Resort in 2011 found a new purpose as a leisure destination. My target: Inverness beach, known for its abundance of sea glass, pieces of which I have hidden in every pocket of my coat.

Overlooking the beach are the luxurious private villas of Cabot Cape Breton (doubles from $245), designed by famed Halifax architect Omar Gandhi. This golf resort — which includes Cabot Cliffs, the best golf course in Canada — is perhaps the most spectacular stay on the island. Across the street, in the relaxed brasserie of Route 19 Brewing (dishes $14–$32), I had the biggest lobster roll I have ever seen.

From left to right: A view of the Gulf of St. Lawrence from L’abri, a café in Chéticamp; Cabot Cape Breton Executive Chef Malcolm Campbell prepares a waterside dinner on Inverness Beach.
Left to right: Courtesy of L’abri, Courtesy of Cabot Cape Breton


On the way to Chéticamp, Acadian pride becomes palpable as the historic flag appears with increasing frequency, either painted on buildings or hung from colorful, faded homes. I headed straight for the gypsum mine, a flooded quarry with pristine white walls surrounded by spruces, birches and firs. A dip in the frigid lake is well worth it, as is the steep climb up the side of the quarry (assisted by ropes tied to the rock face) that ends in gorgeous water views.

Mr. Chicken (main dishes from $8 to $11) in Cheticamp is a local fast food favorite for chicken poutine, but I was looking forward to eating at the shelter (dishes $16–$35), which had been booked on my previous trip, despite the fact that it had only opened 18 months earlier. The shelter belongs to Basil Doucet and Jaron Félix. After growing tired of their busy careers in Toronto and Halifax, the friends returned to their hometown to open an upscale restaurant featuring Cape Breton cuisine. I savored the superb Cajun haddock cakes as soft French music sang through the air.

It was great fuel for my next excursion: the Cape Breton hike. Skyline Trail, a five-mile loop through brushy terrain that leads to a headland walk. After living in Nova Scotia for nearly 15 years, I spotted my first moose, majestic as it browsed on shrubbery.

Dinner that night was at Rusty Anchor Restaurant (main dishes $13 to $30), in Pleasant Bay, known for its hearty seafood and friendly service. I gorged on Northern Emerald oysters and a juicy bacon cheeseburger. Later I checked into a spacious geodesic dome just down the road at True North Destinations (doubles from $200), where I found a perfect post-hike reward in my hot tub overlooking the choppy Atlantic.

Salty Rose’s & the Periwinkle Café, which doubles as a craft shop and two-bedroom hostel.
Shannon MacIntyre / Courtesy of Salty Rose’s and Periwinkle Cafe


From Ingonish Beach, I crossed the ocean on a whale watching tour with Keltic Express Zodiac Adventures. I was hoping to see minke whales or the odd humpback whale, but despite Captain Kinnon MacKinnon’s best efforts to find them, I saw neither. I was too impressed with the three huge bluegills I spotted to be disappointed. Ingonish is one of the most rewarding stops on the Cabot Trail, with stylish shops along the stretch of road that runs through town. To Groovy Goat Farm & Soap CompanyI snuggled up the rabbits and the baby goats, and to Leather work by JoleneI bought a very soft sunny yellow handbag.

Lunch was a snow crab sandwich at Salty Rose’s and the Periwinkle Café (sandwiches $11–$22), a gallery-bakery combo owned by cousins ​​Caitlyn Purcell and Sarabeth Drover, which offers decadent egg sandwiches and orange-flavored granola topped with edible flowers, plus arts, crafts and jewelry . I slept upstairs that night, in one of the cafe’s two vintage-chic bedrooms with 70s-inspired wallpaper. (doubles from $175). After check-in, I took a long walk along Ingonish Beach, a strip of fine sand lined with piles of pink and gray rocks, and enjoyed the view of the historic Celtic Lodge (doubles from $260) located on the cliffs above, where I then ordered a Dark & ​​Stormy in the elegant Highland Lounge.


I drove to Cape Smokey Provincial Park hike to the top of the cliffs and take a look at the highlands before heading home. On my way out of town, I stopped at Wreck Cove General Store for a final lobster roll – the best in all of Cape Breton, say the islanders. Co-owner Jenn Partland credits the shop’s 40-year-old recipe: a no-frills blend of shank and claw meat, Miracle Whip, salt and pepper.

When I took my last bite, I felt a deep sense of appreciation. There’s something immensely satisfying about places that know how to keep things simple and unfussy. And that’s exactly what Cape Breton does best.

A version of this story first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the title A natural course.