We arrived in Cape Breton after more than a 1200km-long drive from Quebec City. Sure, we could fly but part of the fun when visiting North America is the driving. Especially as our route was largely along the famous Trans-Canada Hwy. The road was wide, the weather was good, traffic was light and speed enforcement virtually non-existent. In other words, perfect conditions for a road trip.
We chose the city of Sydney as our first stop. Now, don’t confuse it with Sydney in Australia as one Dutch student did when he was booking his flights (he had to call his dad to book his flight home after landing there in winter with only light clothes packed). It is a much smaller place, just over 30 thousand people call it home, with some historic architecture and a small pleasant downtown on the waterfront. But ultimately it was just just a convenient base to start our exploration of the island of Cape Breton and especially to visit Louisbourg, where we headed the next morning.
The small town of Louisbourg is located about 40km from Sydney and the main reason (actually the only reason) to visit it is the Fortress of Louisbourg. This was in its heyday (between 1720 and 1758) one of the most extensive (and expensive) European fortifications in North America. It was built by the French to protect their colonial interests, especially the cod fishing grounds, and it was actually a whole fortified town. It didn’t last very long as it was destroyed after being captured by the British in 1758. The Brits didn’t need the fortress as they already had Halifax.
That was its short early history, now let’s move to the 20th century. The fortress and the town were partly reconstructed in the 1960s and 1970s (using some of the original stonework), which provided jobs for unemployed coal miners from the area. Apparently the site stands as the largest reconstruction project in North America, even if only quarter of the original town was rebuilt. The rest was left as ruins so one can still see the actual historical remains.
We are both history, architecture and archaeology geeks so we spent the whole day exploring the site. All the buildings look very realistic as during the reconstruction the original techniques and materials were used as much as possible and the whole project was based on careful research of plans, maps, sketches as well as physical remains. For example the glass for window panes in the King’s Bastion was sourced from a company in France which still use the historic glass making techniques. According to one of the guides it happened to be the same factory that produced the glass for the original building. How cool is that?
The site is manned by costumed interpreters which bring the place to life. They answer everybody’s questions, they man the gates, they shoot muskets and even occasionally fire a cannon (or train paying guests to do so). It is all quite fun but the most fascinating thing about the place is the sense of its unique history. One of the weirdest aspects of the whole thing is the fact that the reconstruction from the1960s now stands longer than original fortress ever did. Does it make the current reconstructed buildings more “historic”?
Anyway, the day was coming to an end, the fortress was closing, so it was time to move on. From Louisbourg we drove north towards the Cape Breton National Park, past Sydney, before stopping for a night in a small family-run motel in some tiny community. It was one of those classic small motels where you park the car right in front of your room and where the owner lives on site. We sat on the deck chairs outside our room, watched the sun setting behind a mountain, just across a small bay, and sipped local craft beer which we bought in the liqueur store in Sydney. By the way, alcohol is not easy to buy in Nova Scotia so always buy supplies when you have a chance. It was a fantastic setting for a budget motel. I will take places like that over any fancy or hip hotel in the likes of NYC or LA.
The next day we finally entered Cape Breton National Park and started following the famous Cabot Trail, a scenic road which encircles most of the national park. We started on the east side of the park and travelled in a counter-clockwise direction. In the morning the weather was glorious so we kept stopping in numerous picturesque coves and in some small settlements. This part of the coast, with its pink granite, reminded me of parts of the coast of Brittany. I can imagine the original French settlers to the region could have had the same impression. I can see why they settled in this part of the world. Moving at rather leisurely pace by the afternoon we finally reached the west coast of Cape Breton. Unfortunately at that stage the weather was turning worse. Which is a pity as the west coast of Cape Breton happens to be more spectacular than its eastern counterpart.
Here Cabot Trail hugs the coast, in places climbing dramatically around promontories where it offers some amazing views. This part of the road reminds me of the famous Pacific Coast Hwy in California. The only difference is that the spectacular stretch is much shorter here in Nova Scotia. When we stopped at the first viewing point it was still sunny and we could admire a fantastic panorama. But in a few minutes clouds and fog closed in and the views were pretty much gone. In some stretches, where the road climbed higher, I could barely see in front of the car as the low clouds limited visibility to a few metres.
Annoyingly it was then when we approached the most spectacular part of the coast and the starting point of the Skyline Trail. It was so foggy and drizzly around the parking area that we decided to skip it and continue our drive along the Cabot Trail. However after a few minutes we reached a lower elevation and noticed that there were some clear spells in the clouds and banks of fog covering the trail. We immediately returned to the trailhead. It didn’t look much more promising than before but we decided to head for a walk regardless, hoping for some good luck with the weather. The trail length is just over 3km (6,5 km return) and it ends at a dramatic headland which is supposed to offer some breathtaking views. Unfortunately as we kept walking things looked pretty bleak. I mean we really couldn’t see much. Fortunately towards the end the trail goes down to the cliffs and at this lower elevation we could see at least some nearby rugged coast, even if only for brief moments between rolling banks of fog (or low cloud, depending on your perspective). Maybe it wasn’t the picture-postcard perfect moment but at least we saw something. Were we disappointed? Well, I guess to some degree we were, but on the other hand it was actually interesting to see the place as it often looks. The weather in Nova Scotia is generally a bit less glorious (or some would say more dramatic) than the travel posters would want you to believe.
From the Skyline Trail we continued our drive south along the west coast of Cape Breton. Once the road reached closer to the sea level the visibility improved and we could see more of the picturesque coast which in places really looked just like the world famous Big Sur in California. It was however still rather grey and gloomy which made everything look wild and mysterious. It was actually really fun to drive it in such conditions.
After leaving the national park we continued past numerous small communities dotted along the coast, places with names like Inverness or Dungevan. Just in case anyone has doubts about the origin of the people who settled here most places along the road welcome travellers with bilingual signs, in Scots Gaelic as well as in English. There is even a single malt distillery along the way. You would think that you can’t make things any more Scottish without heading to Scotland itself. Well yes, but only partially. The heavily forested landscape as well as the architecture really resemble New England rather than Scotland. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the fact that Cape Breton is a really interesting part of the world, offering spectacular landscapes and fascinating history.
We ended our tour of the island by stopping in yet another small, family-run motel, which was located right next to a local restaurant. How convenient. Anyway, the next day we will be heading back to the “mainland” Nova Scotia, but more about it soon.