I’m standing on top of the world, where rugged mountains plunge into shimmering ocean. Closing my eyes for a moment or two, I take mental notes of my surroundings and the journey that led me to this spot. I take a deep breath, and then open my eyes, looking over at Mary Tulle, my hiking companion and the CEO of Destination Cape Breton. The “what did I tell you?” look on her face says it all.
In that quiet and contemplative moment, I understand what native Cape Bretoners have known for centuries and first-time visitors quickly come to realize – that there are few places of such awe-inspiring natural beauty as along the wild and beautiful coastline of Canada’s Cape Breton Island.
The journey that led to my epiphany starts and ends with a hike on the magnificent Skyline Trail through the thick boreal forest of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. As we make our way back down the trail, descending some 1,300 feet from dramatic lookout to sea level, Mary and I ponder the precious (yet often elusive) luxuries of time, space and tranquility which the cape has in spades.
I’m reticent to get back in the car, fearing the scenery flashing by my window may erase what I’ve just experienced and surely pale in comparison, but the breathtaking vistas continue along every twist and turn of the Cabot Trail scenic highway which hugs the coastal perimeter of this heart-achingly beautiful island.
From Cape Breton Highlands National Park, on the northeastern tip of the island, we continue on a short drive north to the iconic Keltic Lodge Resort and Spa in Ingonish. A Cape Breton landmark, perched on Middle Head Peninsula overlooking the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, the hotel offers the perfect escape after an invigorating day of hiking and wildlife spotting.
The Lodge has the warm vibe of a country inn and the sincere hospitality of the people of Cape Breton – a roaring fireplace and live local music makes me feel at home immediately. Comfortable accommodations are offered in the historic lodge, the adjoining Inn at Keltic, and in cozy two- or four-bedroom cottages with open fireplaces and verandas. Even if you’re not a guest, the lodge is worth visiting for award-winning cuisine in the Purple Thistle Dining Room.
Cabot Links Resort & Lodge
Ingonish is also home to one of Canada’s best golf courses, Highlands Links, which dates back to 1939. Cape Breton has made a name for itself among golf enthusiasts, earning accolades as a premier destination thanks to Highland Links and, most recently, Cabot Links Resort & Lodge in Inverness.
To reach Inverness, we continue two hours counterclockwise on the Cabot Trail, up and around the top of the island and back down the other side. I’m greeted at Cabot Links by the General Manager Andrew Alkenbrack who is eager to share news about the property’s recent nods from both “Golf Digest” and “Golf Magazine” as a Top 100 course, a remarkable achievement for the Rod Whitman-designed course that opened just two years ago in mid-2012.
Canada’s first and only true links golf course, Cabot Links offers challenging fairways and breathtaking water views from every hole, five of them playing right alongside the beach. The links distinction is a point of pride for the property, but also a key reason why golfers are flocking to Cape Breton from North America and beyond.
You may come to play, but you should also stay, as the guest accommodations are by far the most luxurious on the island. The lodge and clubhouse, designed by Susan Fitzgerald, is daringly untraditional, its sleek and boldly contemporary design in sharp contrast to the rugged coastline beyond the fairways.
Inside, the guest rooms offer top of the line furnishings and fittings from Ralph Lauren Home lighting to Paul Smith chairs, Beltrami linens, Frette bathrobes, L’Occitane bath amenities, Nespresso coffee makers, and Dedon patio furniture – in short, no detail is overlooked.
A picturesque, two-hour drive from Cape Breton’s main Sydney Airport will have you on Cabot’s doorstep. For those flying privately, Port Hawkesbury is just 50 miles from Cabot and the resort offers private transportation from there to the resort via luxury Mercedes Sprinters.
While most people stay at Cabot for its award-winning links course, a visit to this part of the island is not complete without a stop at another local award-winning facility.
A short drive from Cabot in Glenville is Glenora Inn & Distillery where a warm and friendly welcome is always on tap. A guided tour of the distillery – showcasing how Glen Breton, Canada’s only single malt whiskey, is made – is a must.
After a fascinating history lesson about why whiskey is not scotch, visitors can sample a range of Glen Breton casks. And for those who want to stay overnight or longer, hillside chalets overlooking the distillery offer comfortable accommodations and beautiful vistas.
Another Cape Breton highlight is the quaint town of Baddeck, once home to Alexander Graham Bell. The eminent scientist, credited with inventing the first practical telephone, spent much of his life here and is buried on a peninsula where a number of his decedents still reside. A national historic site in the village is home to a museum showcasing his inventions and personal artifacts.
More history abounds at the Fortress of Louisbourg, on Cape Breton’s Atlantic Coast. The fascinating historic site takes visitors back some 300 years to when this imposing fortress town was settled by French colonists and features demonstrations of soldiers’ living conditions and cannon firings by costumed actors.
After stepping back in time, it’s time to make the hour-long journey to Sydney, the island’s air and cruise ship getaway. This charming seaside town boasts the world’s largest fiddle, a symbol of Cape Bretons Island’s cultural traditions.While I’ve felt like a Cape Bretoner of late, I cannot resist a giant fiddle photo opportunity.
With its gracious and proud people, rich Gaelic and Gallic heritage, and sweeping coastal landscapes, Cape Breton Island leaves me longing to return.
Image Credits: Photos by Ben Cowan-Dewar & Michael Hall .