On the far East Coast of Canada is one of the country’s most famous and most beautiful drives. The Cabot Trail is a 300-kilometre loop that circles the northwestern tip of the island of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, swinging past fishing villages, darting into a massive national park, and landing at a number of historic and cultural landmarks. Since the drive itself isn’t very long, you could tackle it in just a day or two—but why would you want to? With some of the best scenery in the country, a thriving arts community, deep-rooted cultural traditions, outdoor adventure, and delectable seafood dishes at every restaurant, you’ll want to take your time exploring every inch of this iconic trail. To get you started, here are some stops to include in your ultimate Cabot Trail road trip.
Listen to live music at The Red Shoe Pub
Owned by the famous Rankin Family, The Red Shoe Pub in Mabou is a low-key place to stop for a pint of local beer and live music. The spot is a favourite for locals and tourists alike, who come in for classic pub grub and traditional treats like Nova Scotian seafood chowder and Acadian tourtière, paired with a musical performance—most typically a fiddler, of course. Performances happen every evening and often for free. Some nights may charge a cover of $8 or so.
Sip the first Canadian whisky at Glenora Distillery
The first single malt whisky distillery in North America is worth a visit for whisky aficionados and teetotallers alike. The pretty property, set amidst apple orchards and maple trees, features daily traditional ceilidh performances in the pub, and the dining room offers a locally sourced lunch and dinner menu. Whisky drinkers will want to book the private tours that take you through the distillery’s history and end with a private tutored whisky tasting. When you’re done, pick up a bottle to take home—either their contentious Glen Breton Rare, which was subjected to a lawsuit by the Scotch Whisky Association in 2009, or their Glen Breton Rare Ice, which is aged in oak ice wine barrels from nearby Jost Vineyards.
Celebrate Mid-Lent at Le Centre de la Mi-Carême
Learn about the historic celebration of Mi-Carême (or Mid-Lent) at this interpretive centre in Grand Étang. The tradition, which is similar to trick-or-treating at Halloween, dates back to medieval Europe, and became ingrained with Eastern Canada’s Acadian culture after the celebration was brought to North America. During Mi-Careme, residents dress up in costumes, disguised from head to toe, and visit their neighbours, who have to guess their identity. Try on costumes at the centre or buy your own mask to take home with you!
Shop for local artwork at Sunset Art Gallery
It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but this gallery and shop in Cheticamp features whimsical work by folk artist William Roach, as well as other featured local artists. Wander the gallery, pop your head into Roach’s workshop, then shop for one-of-a-kind gifts in the store. Once you’ve finished browsing, grab a coffee and snack from the charming Frog Pond Café, which specializes in sourdough breads and pastries. The area is also famous for its rug hooking traditions, so be sure to stop into one of the hooking galleries or shops, such as Proud to be Hookers in nearby Petit Etang.
Go whale watching in Cheticamp or Pleasant Bay
The western coast of Cape Breton is where you’ll find most of the whale-watching tours. Captain Mark’s Whale and Seal Cruise from Pleasant Bay takes you out on a 21-foot zodiac-style boat, so you can get up close and personal with the creatures without disturbing their natural environment. Depending on the time of year, you can expect to see pilot, finback, mink or humpback whales, as well as dolphins and basking sharks on occasion. The company also works with Dalhousie University to research the social behaviour of pilot whales.
Hike Cape Breton Highlands National Park
You can’t miss this national park on a Cabot Trail road trip—after all, one-third of the trail runs directly through it! The park is 950 square kilometres and is one of the largest protected natural areas in Nova Scotia with beaches, hiking trails, campgrounds, and special events and challenges throughout the year. The most popular and spectacular trail, however, is the Skyline Trail, especially when hiked in the late afternoon. Take the nine-kilometre loop through the forest to a lookout point where you can watch the sun set into the Atlantic Ocean (the trail is on the west side of the Cape). Along the way, try to spot hidden wildlife—moose and bears are common sights.
Golf at Highlands Links and hike Middle Head Trail at Keltic Lodge
Golfers won’t be able to pass by Highlands Links without squeezing in a round. The course is ranked not just one of the best in Canada, but one of the best in the world, and is perched on a rocky bluff overlooking the Atlantic. If golf’s not your thing and you’re waiting for your travel mates to finish the course, pop into the Keltic Lodge spa—the treatments are divine. Or, hike the Middle Head Trail (four kilometres round trip) behind the lodge and see if you can spot Newfoundland across the water. Watch fishing boats heading out to sea, possibly in search of your dinner for that night!
Kayak the North River
What’s a kayak trip without a little musical accompaniment? Local guide and musician Angelo Spinazzola owns and runs North River Kayak, and takes kayakers of all levels out onto the North River for single and multi-day excursions. After you’ve worked your muscles on the water, take a break with traditional tea and cake and listen to Angelo’s talents on the guitar and harmonica.
Forage for mushrooms at Chanterelle Inn
Spend a night or two at this cottage-inspired inn and you’ll feel like you’ve escaped to a place where time stands still. Entirely eco-friendly, the resort uses no pesticides and only natural and fragrance-free cleaning products, and has implemented solar-powered water and space heating systems. The big draw, however, are the multi-day mushroom foraging workshops that take you through the surrounding forests to identify and pick fungi, followed by a cooking class in which you cook with your own sourced ingredients.
Learn about Alexander Graham Bell at the National Historic Site of Canada
One of the last stops on the trail (or the first if you opt to go counter-clockwise) is the museum devoted to legendary Alexander Graham Bell. Although not a Canadian, he’s become an honorary symbol of Cape Breton, thanks to the summer home he held in Baddeck. Learn about his most famous invention, the telephone, as well as his other projects in the areas of communication, medicine, aeronautics, and marine engineering. Equally interesting is the information available at the museum on his wife and intellectual partner, Mabel Hubbard Bell.