Canada’s Cabot Trail

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Seaside splendor and Gaelic influence await at this island outpost on the East Coast.

There is a landmass that juts from Canada’s eastern shores into the Atlantic, the last piece of ground before Newfoundland to the north and Europe to the east. It’s called Cape Breton Island and is part of Nova Scotia, an island separated from the main peninsula by the narrow Strait of Canso, which was joined via a rock causeway in 1955. With the causeway opening the island to automobiles, adventurous travelers were introduced to The Cabot Trail, a two-lane road that skirts the picturesque coasts and interior of Cape Breton. This undulating drive has since become somewhat of an iconic destination for motorcyclists, combining an enjoyable touring route with beautiful scenery, Celtic heritage, and the congenial nature of the Nova Scotians. Cape Breton’s service-based and tourism- heavy economy evolved from its former coal mining and steel mills. The island’s once strong industry was gradually phased out due to competition, with the last mines and mills closing in the 90s. There was a signifi cant exodus of labor, but the island has rebounded with tourism. The outlying coastal fi shing industry was relatively unaffected and many small, independently operated fishing boats remain. Cape Breton also sits on a major whale migration route and has become a popular whale-watching center, with cruises operating out of Baddeck and Cheticamp.

The riding season is short, but glorious along the coastline of Nova Scotia’s remote Cape Breton Island. Next land to the east: Europe.

I participated in an inaugural tour operated by Daniel Ross, a native who shares his knowledge and enthusiasm for Cape Breton and the Cabot Trail with fellow bikers through his website. After years of answering inquiries from curious enthusiasts, Daniel felt it was time to create his own tour to show off the island he calls home. In mid-June, Nova Scotia was emerging from the traditional cold and wet of this northern region and giving way to sunnier, warmer weather. On a sweeping approach to the Sydney, Nova Scotia, airport, Cape Breton Island appeared lush and uncluttered. The first thing a newbie will notice is just how friendly everyone is, and that they really do end a lot of sentences with, “Eh?” There is a strong heritage of Gaelic music here, the fiddle-based music being introduced by Scottish migrants. Cape Breton boasts the most fiddle players per capita anywhere in the world. Cruise ship passengers arriving in Sydney are met by the world’s largest fiddle. The 60-foot-tall monument commemorates the island’s strong Gaelic musical identity. Aside from numerous Gaelic music festivals around the island, there are also several venues that host the lively music. The first destination was the Keltic Quay Lodge in Whycocomagh, one of many quaint villages that populate the island. This introduction to the lush green landscape was little surprise, as it is bordered by plenty of water, from inlets of the Atlantic to many lakes that cover the Cape.

Scottish migrants introduced a culture rich with fiddle music—inspiring the world’s largest fiddle sculpture—a love for the sea and seafood, friendly conversation and a Gaelic influence that permeates everyday life on Cape Breton Island.

Arrival begat introductions to the flesh and blood, as well as steel and rubber companions for the week ahead. The mounts were all Harleys; lined up, washed, topped off and ready to go. For what would be primarily a loping route around and through the island, the bikes were a solid choice. With spirits high for the impending riding adventure, the intimate group of tour participants enjoyed an evening around the fireplace at the Quay, getting to know one another over steaks and locally-produced libations. It was encouraging to discover that of 11 riders (including lead and sweep), four were women. Another interesting aspect was how many riders started later in life and had been motorcycling less than 10 years. I was inspired by individual stories of how they came into the sport, most being variations on always wanting to, then finally biting the bullet and going for it. Yet each person had adopted motorcycles as a focus in their lives, with numerous trips, rallies, tours and miles under their belts. Bravo. The next morning, we woke to decent weather and our merry band of Harleys rumbled into the nearby village of Whycocomagh. I was pleasantly surprised to find the two-lane roads to be blissfully free of traffic. Once out of Sydney, Cape Breton is an island that comprises tiny villages, old-world townships and small, but active fishing harbors. Each possesses the kind of bucolic, picturesque imagery found in calendars and desktop wallpaper, and all evoke a classic notion of Nova Scotia. The cottages and small farms that rim the outlying areas are meticulously maintained, often painted in bright primary colors with white picket fences. It’s as if the tourism board has mandated quaintness of its residents and the entire island rightly prides itself on the riches of seafood taken from these waters. We traversed The Cabot Trail into the interior, through dense forests, observing numerous signs for moose. We’d been warned in pre-ride debrief about the temperament of a 1,000-pound moose, which doesn’t spook easily (not even by the sound of approaching Harleys) and will take its time crossing the road. We did not want to engage one of the island’s famous animal residents. Though not necessarily a demanding or challenging endeavor, The Cabot Trail offers a pleasant combination of winding two-lane roads and scenery, sans any serious concerns for navigating traffic or congestion—the bane of any motorcycle outing. The island is a simple complex of paved thoroughfares, mostly small back roads, although there are several main arteries that allow a more efficient traverse.

With minimal traffic and other obstacles, there are few interruptions to meandering along the scenic Cabot Trail that skirts the coast along the upper part of Cape Breton Island. One is a stone memorial to fallen Canadian soldiers.

The stretches of remote road are often broken by the welcome appearance of a small café or coffee shop offering up everything from hearty breakfasts to lobster dinners, as well as a plethora of decadent desserts. Being a passionate motorcyclist, Ross worked a special consideration into his tour schedule for the more hardcore riders, called “the morning crew.” It allowed riders to pick up the pace and get more mileage by meeting at 7 a.m. for some back roads rambling. The rides last about an hour and participants are back at the hotel in time to have breakfast with those who have opted to sleep in. Our route circled the perimeter of Bras d’Or Lake, Canada’s largest brackish water inland sea, which connects fresh water to the Atlantic Ocean by natural channels. The first two days of the tour had us skirting Bras d’Or as we wound our way through the island, taking in cultural aspects of Cape Breton. The tour included a visit to “The Spirit of the Mi’kmaq Tour,” at Goat Island, on the shores of Bras d’Or Lake, where L’nu (the people) of the Mi’kmaq tribe (indigenous) share their heritage with a unique trail walk. We experienced their ancient language and saw recreated settings representative of their way of life, which dates back thousands of years. Aside from learning about their practices of hunting and fishing, the hierarchy of the tribe and religious ceremonies, I was surprised to discover that the art of smoke signals was a Hollywood fabrication. As our Mi’kmaq guide demonstrated in a negligible breeze, wind makes sending smoke signals impossible. On the third day, we transitioned to the northern shore, where The Cabot Trail takes on a decidedly more motorcycle- friendly nature. As the road hugs the Atlantic coast, the route winds its way through Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This is a road that can get the heart rate up, with its sweeping twists and turns. The road follows the Skyline Trail, where we detoured to hike out onto the bluffs for an awe-inspiring view. While riding along the northern coast we stopped at a pullout with a war memorial (Canadians refer to these as a “Look Off”). A column of granite situated at the precipice with stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean, the coastline and the distant village of Cheticamp, it was inscribed to honor the fallen. However, the theme was more esoteric and touching than most memorials. The engraved message begins: “They will never know the beauty of this place, see the seasons change, enjoy nature’s chorus.” It goes on to speak of the Canadian men and women who lost their lives serving their country to preserve freedom. The mention of those soldiers had a deeply emotional resonance, even more significant while taking in the natural beauty of the island. It was a different take on honoring the losses of war, tied so poetically and sadly to the beauty we beheld. It gave genuine pause and granted a more profound appreciation for all we had ridden through, seen and felt here on Cape Breton Island. The Cabot Trail eventually turns inland, through more dense forests, to Cape North, where we detoured onto another motorcycle-friendly road that took us to Bay St. Lawrence, past even more of the quaint townships and small private homesteads that seem to be arranged specifically for our sightseeing pleasure. At St. Lawrence, we trekked out a five-mile road of chopped asphalt and gravel to reach the northernmost point of the island, Meat Cove. We picked up The Cabot Trail again and weaved inland to be rewarded with arrival on the east side of the island and more stunning views of the Atlantic. More scenic curvy roads carried us through White Point, Neils Harbour and into Ingonish, where we settled into the upscale Keltic Lodge. Ross then offered up his favorite riding spot on the island: the hilly twists and turns of Cape Smokey. Though only a short section of road, it has enough character to keep motorcyclists entertained. We made enough passes to satiate our desire for adrenaline. The final day of the tour had me riding solo back to Sydney to catch my outgoing flight. A clear, sunny day, I was able to thoroughly enjoy the ride, albeit with pangs of wanting to turn around and retrace the entire route in the opposite direction, a practice many riders partake in when they come to ride The Cabot Trail. After returning my trusty Harley to the dealership, I headed out to the tiny airport of Sydney and boarded the turboprop puddle jumper that would take me to Halifax, then home to Colorado. I read again the in-flight magazine advert seen on the way in, “Cape Breton Island: Your Heart Will Never Leave.” Only now the statement carried the sentimentality with it.

AUTHOR’S NOTES The motorcycle season in Nova Scotia is relatively short. Warm and dry weather do not arrive until June. July and August deliver the sunniest days and warmest weather. The Atlantic Ocean invites the cold back again as early as September.

For information about riding The Cabot Trail: cabottrailbiker.com (contact Daniel Ross).

For Cape Breton rental information: cabotpowersports.com

The Spirit of the Mi’kmaq Tour: eskasoniculturaljourneys.ca

Steve Wadden photos