Cape Breton - Old World charm in the wind-tossed North Atlantic (31 May)
Interesting Facts about Cape Breton
“ON THE FIRST DAY God created Cape Breton,” locals proclaim. “On the second day, he threw rocks at it.”
Though geologists demur, this could go a long way to explaining the wild, remote landscape of this island off Nova Scotia’s northern tip. The Cabot Trail, named for the 15th-century Italian explorer John Cabot, encircles this spectacular, 3,981-square-mile (10,310 km2) jumble of rocks in the North Atlantic. For 186 miles (299 km), the road swoops and rolls and climbs along the edge of vertiginous granite headlands that fall away into piles of boulders far below, washed by the ocean. Along the way are dark forests, fishing villages, lighthouses, highlands, and, inevitably, a moose or two. Much of the island is preserved as a national park, and hiking trails amble through sweet-smelling boreal forest and offer views over shimmering, whale-dotted St. Lawrence Bay.
Cape Breton’s natural beauty alone would render it one of the world’s timeless places. But there’s much more to it than that. On certain evenings in tiny Ingonish on the island’s eastern side, or even tinier Mabou on the west, locals gather in parish halls and pubs to step dance to stirring Celtic tunes with fiddles and bagpipes. These are ceilidhs (KAY-lees), one of many Scottish traditions (whisky distilling, clan tartans, and Gaelic are others) still very much alive on Cape Breton Island. Many of today’s residents descend from 18th-century Scottish immigrants. On the island’s western side, the town of Chéticamp is home to French Acadians descended from families who migrated here after the British deportation of Acadians from Acadia in the late 18th century. Their ancestral culture comes alive through a French patois (vernacular dialect), a unique late February or March Acadian carnival called Mi-Carême, a rug-hooking museum, and roadside restaurants that whip up traditional food such as chiard (grated potato pie) and fricot (chicken stew).
Elsewhere around the cape, the Mi’kmaq, descendants of the island’s original inhabitants, live in five different communities. They celebrate their ancestors with traditional art, storytelling, music, and handicrafts that have been handed down from one generation to the next. Wagmatcook Culture and Heritage Centre in Wagmatcook provides excellent insight into their customs.
Cape Breton has transfixing natural attractions, but visitors should be sure not to miss the distinctive character of the towns and people. Nestled between Canada’s largest inland sea (Bras d’Or Lake) and the island’s ocean-side cliffs are vital communities that still embody the long-ago cultures that preceded them.