The 186 mile Cabot Trail is truly one of the most scenic drives we’ve ever taken. The road twists and turns, and, as you round the corners, you encounter one stunning vista after another. This is especially true once you enter the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The Trail can be driven in six very exhausting hours, but, happily, we had the opportunity to drive on various sections of it and through the National Park several times.
One third of the Cabot Trail runs through Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which covers 367 square miles. The ocean scenery in the highlands is some of the most eye-popping, with steep cliffs diving straight into the ocean, and also has three forest types: canyons, plateau and headlands.
Because of these various habitats, however, the weather on the island is unpredictable. And whoever writes the daily forecast for Cape Breton Island clearly has a sense of humor, here is an example of one week’s forecast: Monday – mostly cloudy with a shower, Tuesday – clouds and sun with a shower, Wednesday – sunny and delightful, Thursday – a couple of thunderstorms, Friday – a thunderstorm possible, Saturday – humid with variable clouds, Sunday – mostly cloudy and humid.
The funny (and wonderful) thing is on several of those days it never rained.
So even though at first we found it challenging to plan our days, we figured out that the best thing to do was check weather at our destination (likely to be different from the weather at our campground) in the morning right before we left, and then generally ignore the forecast anyway 🙂
Our drives up the eastern part of the Cabot Trail were combined with our whale watches. There are a number of communities along this part of the trail, including Ingonish. Ingonish has resorts, restaurants, more art galleries, and the Highland Links Golf Course, which has a combination of seaside and mountain holes.
There are also some smaller communities and lots of coves and beaches with colorful fishing boats along the way.
At the northern tip of Cape Breton Island, there’s a village called Meat Cove that has a campground for tent camping and a few cabins. We walked along a nice little beach there after our morning whale watching tour.
There were lots of Northern Gannets feeding using their dive bomber technique. Fun to watch.
Driving over to the west side, we visited Chéticamp, in the Acadian section of Cape Breton Island. The Acadians, as I mentioned in my post on Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, settled here in the late 1700s, as well as in some sections of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and give a distinctly French flavor to this area.
Chéticamp is another larger community with more art galleries, restaurants and one VERY large Catholic church.
A museum that interested me in Chéticamp was Centre de La Mi-carême. I’ve always been fascinated by festivals involving masks and costumes and La Mi-carême is one I wasn’t familiar with.
It is a carnival that began in Europe sometime during the 7th or 8th centuries, when men and older boys dressed in disguise and traveled the countryside during Lent. Women, children and the elderly stayed at home to be visited and entertained by the masked merrymakers.
French settlers brought the custom to North America in the late 18th century. At this time, Catholics ate only one meal each day during the seven weeks of Lent, and were not allowed to include meat, eggs, milk and cheese in their diet.
The name Mi-carême comes from the French word for Lent – Carême – combined with the word for half – demi. And the traveling masquerade takes place on the middle day of the seven weeks of Lent – a one day return to the Carnival festivities that preceded Lent. The costumes for this festival are not supposed to be beautiful, but rather comical and/or hideous. And they also served to hide the merrymakers’ identities from the local priests.
The tradition has been revived in recent years, with the host homes and establishments listing themselves as open houses so the masked groups of people will know to visit them. The hosts prepare food, have music and entertain their visitors with the goal of guessing their identity. The masked visitors cover their entire body to make themselves unrecognizable. Once someone guesses the visitors’ identities, they move on to the next open house and begin the process again.
We leave the French Acadian area to return to the Scottish/Irish area of the island. It’s so interesting to see signage in English and French and a few miles later see signage in English and Gaelic.
We’d planned a couple of hikes in the area that is known as a moose habitat as Hector was still searching for his first Canadian moose. As we headed for one of the trails and parked in the parking lot, a couple drove up, stopped and asked us – where are you going? Which was a weird question, but we told them we were about to hike the trail across the street.
They said they’d spotted a moose and had been watching him for a while, when we asked where, they said it was by the moose crossing sign down the road. So we got back into our car and there she was – it was a cow, right by the bright yellow moose sign!
Hector took some photographs until the cow ran off and then we drove back to hike the trail. Benji’s lake was a short trail – 2 miles – to a lake known to be moose habitat. On the way back from the lake Hector spotted another cow and took some more photographs.
But, alas, when he got home, the memory card on his camera crashed so we don’t have the moose photos 🙁
Another moose sighting; one late night as we headed back from the national park, Hector nearly had a heart attack when he spotted a moose right by the side of the road just in front of us. Fortunately, the moose didn’t cross in front of us. So we doubled back VERY slowly to where Hector had spotted the moose.
Heading out to the west side of the park on another day, we stopped to see some folk art by Josef, the artist, at his home. He’s actually a fisherman who’s been creating folk art for 20 years and has some pretty cool stuff. And for the second time, we’re asked if we’re art collectors. Must be common around here.
Then we headed to a hike that we most looked forward to, which is the famous Skyline Trail. One of the signature hiking trails in all of Canada, which is saying a lot. This trail takes you through a forest (also moose habitat) to a dramatic headland overlooking the rugged Gulf Coast.
It’s a wide nearly level and very well maintained trail which leads to an enormous boardwalk/stairway leading down through a cliff overlooking the Northumberland Strait. This boardwalk not only provides an opportunity for some who may not be able to climb down rocks to access the overlooks at the end, but also protects the mountain from being stomped on by all of those people. There are multiple levels of overlooks so those who don’t want to climb down the entire stairway can still have a beautiful view of the water.
We met a cute couple here, he was carrying a little boy on his back and she was carrying a baby in a papoose. They were both very fit but she didn’t walk down the stairs, as they have no handholds, and I imagine she couldn’t see down because of the baby. But she still got a nice view. And he is the one that took the nice photo of both of us. I love to see young couples taking their kids hiking from such an early age.