Discovering Cape Breton

The island off Nova Scotia offers affordable access, stunning scenery and a link to Alexander Graham Bell


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While the beauty of Atlantic Canada isn't exactly a secret, there are few places where that beauty is as pronounced as along the raw and rugged coastline of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

Crashing surf, frolicking whales, dramatic highlands and an abundance of bald eagles are just a few of the sights. Factor in the island's fiddling and Celtic music traditions, along with an authentic Scottish-style whisky distillery and a surprising connection to Alexander Graham Bell, and you'll see why travelers in the know make this an annual destination.

Here's how you can maximize your time there once you arrive:

Nature: Kayaking is a popular way to explore some of the island's inland water access. Wildlife, undisturbed wilderness and the chance to work off a big breakfast are just some of the perks. Kayak on your own or book affordable guided excursions through North River Kayak. Its half-day experiences start at $64 and include instruction, paddling past some historic ruins and a break on a secluded beach with hot chai and homemade rhubarb jam on freshly baked banana bread.

PG map: Cape Breton
(Click image for larger version)

There are also whale watching tours. A number of local companies operate in Pleasant Bay, along the Cabot Trail, a scenic roadway. Prices start as low as $35 per adult. Captain Mark's Whale and Seal Cruise allows visitors to ride on an actual research vessel where children can listen to the undersea whale songs through an on-board device. Wildlife sightings in this area include pilot whales, seals, leatherback sea turtles and more.

On land, Cape Breton Highlands National Park features stunning scenery with eight campgrounds and 26 hiking trails catering to a variety of skill levels. You can also drive around the island's outer perimeter for more sights or to stop at restaurants or pubs.

Attractions: One of note is the historic Fortress of Louisbourg, which features costumed actors and period demonstrations of children's dancing, soldiers' living conditions, cannon firing and more. With an entry fee of $17.60 per person, plan to spend the day. Grandchamps Inn on site offers an affordable lunch; for $5, you can enjoy homemade soup and bread the way it would have been eaten when the fortress was occupied. Large linen cloths tied around your neck and pewter dishes add to the experience.

Many people are unaware of the connection Alexander Graham Bell had to Cape Breton Island. The famous inventor of the telephone spent a great deal of his life here and is buried on a peninsula in Baddeck, where a number of his descendants still reside. There is a national historic site in the village that is a museum of his drawings, inventions and personal artifacts. This is a great educational experience, especially for school-age children.

To save money, consider purchasing a national parks pass (http://www.myparkspass.ca/) before your trip, which will get you into historical sites such as the fort, museums and Cape Breton Highlands National Park. It costs $136.40 for a family, which would end up being less than paying all the separate entrance fees.

Culture: In addition to the indigenous Acadian, Mi'kmaq and Gaelic communities, Cape Breton Island also has deeply-rooted traditions in both fiddling and Celtic music. A good time to schedule a trip would be during the annual Celtic Colours International Festival, held Oct. 11-19 this fall. Cultural events and concerts will be taking place across Cape Breton, with fall foliage as the backdrop.

Dining: There's certainly no shortage of affordable local seafood. There also are vegetarian and vegan options. At Glenora Distillery, North America's first single malt whisky distillery, start off with a $7 facility tour, which includes tasting samples. From there, it's an easy stroll across the storybook grounds to its pub, where you can enjoy fireside treats such as the $6 whisky sorbet and $12 breads and spreads starter with tapenade, hummus and red pepper dip. They also offer a mean homemade lentil burger.

The Dancing Goat Cafe in Margaree has great coffee with soy milk for the vegan crowd and a daily selection of veg-friendly soups and sandwiches. You can easily walk away satisfied for less than $15. Governor's Pub & Eatery in Sydney is loaded with atmosphere and offers a number of affordable vegetarian dishes, including its $9 tomato bruschetta and $16 mushroom and asparagus risotto. If you prefer the live entertainment of the pub upstairs, its bar menu also offers meatless burgers and vegetarian nachos.

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