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Review: The Cabot Trail


Cape Breton Island, Canada

A popular tourist drive with good scenery and walking trails

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2468 reviews

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  • Sep 2010
  • Husband

129 people found this review helpful

The Cabot Trail can be driven in a few hours but we spent two days driving it with a stop at Cape North. There are differing opinions as to which way to do the drive. Some people recommend clockwise so you are then on the side away from the edge of the road. This probably goes back to the days when the road was narrower, less well made and the drive could be scary. Now this is no longer a problem. We decided to do the drive anticlockwise, starting from Baddeck.

We picked up the Cabot Trail at St Ann's. It was a nice run round the coast with some good views of the shore which was quite marshy. The water was very still so there were good reflections. Although settlements are marked on the map, they were not obvious as we drove along the road.

We did a detour along the gravel Oregon Road through forest with scattered houses to North River Provincial Park with the intention of doing the Little Falls Loop. The track through white aspen and maple was rough and muddy. We could hear, but not see, the river below us. The path suddenly began to drop steeply and became very slippery. As this was the 'easier' path, we decided this wasn't one of my better ideas and gave up. I had hoped this would get us into the Wilderness area which covers the central part of Cape Breton Island.

Back on the Cabot Trail, we drove through woodland and dropped down a valley back to the coast. Indian Brook is geared up for the tourists and nearly every building is a craft shop (leather, wool, glass, pewter). This was the point we began to wonder about our decision to visit Cape Breton as we 'don't do' Tourist things.

The road ran along the hillside and began the steep climb to Cape Smokey. There was no sign of the mist cover, which gives it its name. We parked in the Provincial Park car park and joined the other tourists to walk to a viewpoint with views along the coast. There was a network of paths running through the low stunted vegetation. There is a longer walk which takes you out to the end of the headland but at 10km return over rough and possibly wet ground this takes a big chunk out of the day.

The road dropped down to Ingonish Harbour and through more or less continuous development to Ingonish. There is a lot of tourist accommodation and whale watching tours but little else. There were two more long sets of road works which blocked access to the Freshwater Lookout Trail, which had been on my 'todo'list.

Beyond Ingonish, we ran out of the settlement and it was a nice run up the coast with small lagoons cut off from the sea by shingle bars. There were viewpoints along the road, some better than others. The rocks along this stretch are pink granite so it is very pretty.

We parked at Green Cove and did the short boardwalk across pink and grey granite and gneiss showing differential erosion with bands of harder pink minerals. The trees were very stunted with leathery leaved bayberry which gave off a lovely smell when crushed.

At Neil's Harbour we did the scenic detour round by White Point and rejoining the Cabot Trail at South Harbour. This is quiet and unspoilt, as most people stay on the main road. We enjoyed the drive.

Neil's Harbour is a delightful small settlement of brightly coloured houses around a small harbour with crab and lobster pots, two churches and a small lighthouse. Scenically it felt very similar to Newfoundland and we liked it. This would be a nice place to drop out.

We had lunch at the Chowder House. This is a no frills, basic cafe which served huge, good value helpings. We had a big bowl of sea food chowder and bread for $6.95, eaten looking at the view across the sea.

New Haven is a smaller settlement with little fishing. The road then went through low deciduous and coniferous forest before dropping down to White Point, another delightful settlement with some fishing.

There was little parking, so we parked in front of some old fishing sheds. A rough track takes you across the coastal barrens with good views to the end of the point, where it continues round to the deserted settlement of Burnt Head. This would have been a lovely walk if we had had longer to do it.

We then drove through Smelt brook to South Harbour. We were back in the trees but there were views to the tip of Cape Breton Island, with the mass of North Mountain with steep slopes and some 'U' shaped valleys. South and North Harbour were cut off by spits and the lagoons were silting up with small islands and marsh vegetation.

We did the short and scenic drive down to Dingwall, a pretty little settlement which is still fishing and has a small, locally run museum. Wooden wharves were built along the side of North Harbour.

By then it was getting late so it was time to head for Cape North. We ate in Angie's Kitchen, which is the only place serving meals. It had a reasonable choice of fish, roast dishes, sandwiches, burgers, pizzas. Meals were freshly cooked. It was fish and chips again ($9.95 and $11.95).

We were booked in Oakwood Manor B&B for the night. This is very much at the end of the road but is well signed off the Bay St Lawrence Road. It is a big 1930s farmhouse with considerable style, with a large wooden barn and smithy near by (see separate review).

Next day the weather let us down. The cloud came down and it began to rain steadily. This was a great pity as I think scenically this section of the Cabot trail from Cape North to Cheticamp is better scenically. However we didn't see much of it, which explains why there are so few pictures of this bit.

We began the day by driving to Bay St Lawrence which I had seen described as "like the Cabot Trail before it was discovered" and this is probably an accurate description as there was no evidence of tourist attractions. This is a very pretty area and we would have liked to explore it more.

The road climbed up through big, rounded mountains covered with deciduous trees. There were a few scattered settlements which had probably been old farmsteads.

The road goes past Cabot Landing Provincial Day Park, a small park with picnic tables on a bluff overlooking the sandy beach of Aspey Bay. There is a National Historic Site plaque with a bust of John Cabot who was believed to have landed here in 1497.

Bay St. Lawrence is a delightful small settlement round a large landlocked harbour. It is very sheltered as there is a very narrow entrance to the sea. There were a few boats in the harbour but not many pots around.

We then drove to Capstick at the end of the tarmac. It was still raining so we decided against driving to Meat Cove. The area had suffered from a big flood earlier in the summer which had taken out the bridge. There is now a bailey bridge over the river and we could see evidence of the flood in various streams. Capstick is a small settlement built on an old raised beach (large flat area at the base of steep mountains) well above the present shore line, with nice views of the coast.

Back on the Cabot Trail at North Cape, it was a disappointing drive as there was a lot of rain and low cloud all day and we couldn't see the scenery. In good weather this would have been a good drive, probably better than the east coast.

The road climbed up the North Aspy Valley and up North Mountain on a ledge cut out of the hillside. There were several scenic laybys on the opposite side of the road. As there was no advance warning, we missed many of them. The massive mountains had flat tops, rounded sides covered in deciduous trees and deep valleys.

We did the Lone Shieling Trail through an area of 350 year old sugar maple forest which has never been cut. It was a pretty little trail. The ground vegetation was very different with lots of maple seedlings, ferns and fungi. The maple seedlings are able to grow up through the thick layer of dead leaves and survive in deep shade for decades waiting for the old trees to fall.

The maples prefer the rich soils of the valley bottoms and their roots can grow all winter. White spruce is found on the stony river banks. Elm prefers more sunshine. Birch is found on the upper better drained soils and beech on the mid slopes.

The Lone Shieling is a reconstruction of a summer shieling similar to those found on the Isle of Skye. It was built of stone with a grass thatch roof. One end was open to let in light but could be closed with lumps of peat in stormy weather.

The road dropped steeply from North Mountain.

Pleasant Bay was packed with gift shops and whale watching tours. It felt a dump and is a good example of how tourism can destroy what the tourists initially came to see. We drove through without stopping.

It was a dramatic climb up Mackenzie Mountain back onto the flat tops of the Cape Breton Highlands with conifers and peat bogs. It was raining steadily with low cloud so there seemed little point in stopping for the Bog Trail or the scenic Skyline trail.

We dropped down into French Valley, a steep 'V' shaped valley with a nice view back up from the bottom. The road then ran along the coast, well above the sea and back into the trees again.

Petit Etang, Cheticamp, Point Cross and Grand Etang all run into each other. The houses are well spread out and surrounded by beautifully manicured lawns. There were no flowers, fences or walls. There is no real centre to the villages and not as many craft shops or eateries as I'd expected.

There is a secondary plateau further inland running along the bottom of the highlands with houses scattered along it.

Belle Cote is a pretty settlement along the Cabot Trail with a road down to the sheltered harbour.

Across the bridge we took the side turn to Margaree Harbour, with church and small shop. By now the rain had eased and the sun was trying to come out. We parked at the end of the road and walked across the sand dunes onto a lovely sandy beach, protected on one side by huge boulders used to make a breakwater. Two bald eagles were sitting on the end. Across the bay was a farming settlement with house, barn and a few cows; the first we had seen. There were low cliffs and rocks and a nice view back to Belle Cote.

We continued on the coast road to Dunvegan. There were good views of the cliffs as far as Whale Cove, with a small cemetery on the hillside, but then it was back into the trees with no views.

Dunvegan is a few houses at the road junction. Inverness is much bigger with a definite centre with gas, good co-op, a few shops and a small fishing harbour.

We then cut inland to West Lake Ainslie. The fairly narrow road running along the lake had seen better days and was sinking in places. There were major road works repairing a long stretch of road. There were a few houses off the road and it was a long rough drive off the road down to Tulloch Inn, where we were booked for the night.

I am glad we did the Cape Breton Trail although I am not sure that it lives up to some of the hype. However that could be because of the weather on the second day. There is a lot of walking that can be done from the drive but time does need to be allowed for this. This was part of a longer holiday in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia so we could only afford two days for the drive. Ideally we could have done with another day – possibly based around North Cape to explore that part of the trail more. This top section is less touristy than the rest.

Our pictures begin here to the end of the gallery:

and the first 8 pictures of this gallery:


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