Our journey through Canada’s Ocean Playground crosses the Canso Causeway into Cape Breton Island which is said to be one of the best islands in North America. Traveling the Cabot Trail roadway, you can explore and discover the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and Bras d’Or Lake along with the many other places along the island’s rugged coastline before making our way back to the mainland to the Eastern Shore with its own historically themed attractions, authentic fishing communities, and its amazing beaches to get the most of your journey through Nova Scotia this summer and beyond.
Crossing the Strait of Canso, I would share a little history on the strait and the causeway itself because getting on and off Cape Breton was not always this easy.
Several thousands of years ago the last great continental glacier carved out a deep and fast-flowing 30-kilometer-long strait connecting the Gulf of St Lawrence to the Atlantic Ocean that separated Cape Breton Island from mainland Nova Scotia.
The name “Canso” comes from the Mi’kmaq word “Kamsok,” meaning “opposite cliffs.” With the European discovery of the area, fishermen flooded into the rich fishing grounds nearby with permanent settlements along the strait beginning in the 1780s.
In 1819 the first private ferries started, by 1847, three ferries operated carrying horses and wagons. The first steam ferry crossed the strait in 1860 and railways service began in 1892. In 1901 a much larger ferry, Scotia I, replaced the SS Mulgrave and allowed for the industrial expansion of Cape Breton Island. The development of steel plants and increased coal production led to more railways being built to get these goods to market, so pressure grew for the building of a permanent link to get them there sooner.
In 1902, Ottawa incorporated a company to build the bridge over the next 6 years. However, due to various delays, the deadline was missed. In 1913 automobiles were carried one at a time until steam ferries allowed for transporting several cars at a time. Scotia II was added into service in 1915, but it would also suffer from similar shortcomings to Scotia I and previous ferries with bottlenecking causing delays in the essential movement of passengers and goods.
In 1926, all car ferries came under provincial government control, and during the 1920s and 30s there were several studies that took place for a permanent link, but nothing ever came of them. Until Nova Scotia Premier Angus L. Macdonald, a Cape Breton native, became a driving force behind the construction of the crossing, and contracts were awarded in the spring of 1952 and work began immediately on both sides of the strait. The causeway that we drive on today opened 68 years ago on August 13th, 1955, giving Cape Breton Island a permanent link with mainland Nova Scotia allowing coal and steel in search of markets to flow one way, and tourists seeking Island charm and outdoor adventure the other.
Originally, there were toll booths at both ends of the causeway, but those on the island were removed after a few years and they were removed altogether in December of 1991 allowing the free passage that we have today.
Once on the Island, you are hit by the beauty of Inverness County known as Canada’s Musical Coast which is a string of beautiful communities and majestic coastline vistas bound together by musical traditions and culture.
During harsh winters and trying times, music and dance were part of a survival strategy for many from this area. The music culture on the island is honest, authentic, and shared directly from the heart, and something that residents are proud to share with visitors as it tells the story of early Cape Breton.
Port Hood offers visitors activities on and off the water from sunrise to sunset.
So, take a charter and enjoy the beautiful views of the amazing marine life giving you the opportunity to photograph whales, birds, and seals. Want to experience the ultimate adrenalin rush, then lock yourself in and fish some of the largest Bluefin tuna in the world, and don’t forget the most important picture of all, the giant Bluefin tuna you caught!
If you are looking for something between the land and the sea, then Port Hood offers amazing sandy beaches that are well protected by Port Hood Island and a rock breakwater. The water is calm and very shallow in places due to sandbars, which allows it to heat up early in the season and stay warm all summer long.
Port Hood Station Provincial Park is a day-use picnic park with a 1km sand and cobble beach. The boardwalk trail leads you around the sand dunes and beside a salt marsh, offering great birding opportunities with all the necessary park amenities like picnic tables, change house, flush toilets, and interpretive signage.
For you land lovers, located across the road from the beach is the Port Hood trailhead part of the Celtic Shores Coastal Trail, Nova Scotia’s first destination trail for cyclists. For the history buffs, check out the Chestico Museum & Historical Society, established in 1978 to preserve Port Hood’s history and heritage. Highlighting the history and heritage of the Port Hood area for locals and visitors.
Once you are done looking at the past, it is time to focus on the present and head northeast for about 36 km (22 miles) on NS 19 route to Inverness.
Once an active coal mining town, today the town of Inverness is better known as a golfer’s dream destination with two courses situated prominently along the warm waters of the Northumberland Strait.
Beach lovers will feel the warm salty breezes of Inverness Beach, a long stretch of sandy coastline that is popular with ocean swimmers and beachcombers alike. Walk the boardwalk that overlooks the beach from the sand dunes above. On a clear day, you can catch a view of Prince Edward Island, and if you time your stroll right, then you’ll catch one of the gorgeous sunsets over the ocean.
If you are looking to spot a pod of Minke, Pilot or Humpback whales then jump aboard a charter tour along the shores of Sea Wolf Island which is the largest colony of grey seals found anywhere in the region! Other frequent sightings include dolphin and harbour porpoises, giant bluefin tuna, leatherback turtles, ocean sunfish, herring gulls, great blue herons and bald eagles that nest on the rocky sandstone.
But if water is not your thing, you have the Inverness Miners’ Museum located in the Canadian National Railway Station (1901). Established in 1977, the Museum presents the coal-mining history of the area in a series of engaging displays.
Once done learning of days past you will be happy to find the many options you have in town offering a fine dining experience spotlighting the highest quality, seasonal ingredients, fresh fish and seafood, and grilled meats, in a bounty of Maritime-inspired dishes. Looking for something a little more casual like delectable chowders, inviting salads, and inspired pub fare, well they have that also. There is also a local craft brewery, Route 19 Brewing, where all are welcome for a pint or two.
For all the cyclists out there, The Inverness Shean Trail section of the Celtic Shores Coastal Trail offers a rideable coal dust-covered treadway offering an amazing adventure experience for those who prefer to peddle power to get around.
Spend any spent time on the island and it makes an impression on you and is something that you do not leave behind, you take it with you where every go. But if you literally want to take a piece of Inverness and Cape Breton home with you make sure that you stop into The Corner Stone and say hello to Brenna and her team. They have a complete selection of Cape Breton-inspired merchandise along with many other local artisan items in this throwback to the old community general store, which to be honest we would love to see more of.
Now that you are loaded up on Cape Breton merch and maybe a few tasty treat for the road, it is off to your next adventure as you continue northeast for about 56 km (35 miles) on NS 219 route to Chéticamp.
Cheticamp is known for its Acadian culture, music, and dance along with its beautiful natural surroundings. The town is home to several craft shops and galleries featuring the work of local artisans.
As you approach Cheticamp, you’ll see Saint Peter’s Church with its silver spire towering high over the town. Saint Peter’s is one of the few stone churches on Cape Breton Island with similar architecture to churches found along Quebec’s St. Lawrence, which was not by accident, as Saint Peter’s was designed by an architect from Quebec City and built by Quebec tradesmen in 1893.
While the sandstone exterior lacks excitement, the interior is beautiful; it includes Corinthian columns, an upper gallery, and an ornate 1912 altar. In the lower part of the church the beloved founding priests entombed in a crypt. While a stained-glass rose window above the front entrance welcomes those who come to worship or visit the church.
Like fly fishing. Then grab your gear and test your skills fishing for Atlantic Salmon on the famous Margaree, Cheticamp River, and other Cape Breton rivers on the Cabot Trail.
If swinging a rod is not your thing maybe you like to swing a club instead. Either way, you are in luck as only a short 20-minute drive from Cheticamp are two golf courses that are ranked as bucket list golfing destinations.
If getting outdoors means getting off the beaten path, then the Blueberry Mountain hiking trails offer advanced hikers over 7km of unmarked trails offer amazing views of mountains and coastline. You can even see the Magdalen Islands on clear days. The trail winds up what was once part of the old Cabot Trail from the Cap Rouge to the Skyline trail. Be on the watch out for moose and deer and they often like to share this area with hikers.
Looking for something a little larger than a moose, then book a whale cruise to see Finbacks, Humpback, Pilot, Minke along with Dolphins and Porpoises in that natural habitat. And if you are lucky enough you might even get a rare glimpse of a Blue, Sperm, Killer, Beluga or Right whale taking your Cheticamp experience to the next level.
Now after a day of these activities, you need to get your rest, so you are ready for your next day’s adventure. If you are hauling your own trailer or traveling the island in your RV then Waves End RV & Campground is the ideal home base for you for its convenient location and its focus on service to ensure you have a memorable experience for all the right reasons. If you are traveling and need a tent, they also have tent packages available for rental. If you want to take camping under the stars to the next level, they are offering their first eco-friendly geodome rental this year. The geodome offers a queen-sized bed, bedding, solar fan, solar lights, privacy curtains, plus phone and computer recharge capabilities plus you get an amazing ocean view plus you can lay in bed at gaze up at the stars through the skylight.
The Cornerstone Motel offers nature lovers a peaceful and tranquil environment to unwind after an enjoyable day of exploring the “World Famous” Cabot Trail. With their breathtaking views of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, and private walking trails along the Cheticamp River, you can just take it easy and relax after a busy day. Their newly renovated rooms offer you great value and excellent comfort. The primary goal at the Cornerstone Motel is to provide you and your family with an amazing experience that will create lifelong memories of your trip that will have you wanting to come back again and again, like the Island itself!
Now that you are well rested, head northeast 76 km (47 miles) through the Cape Breton National Park toward Dingwall and whatever adventure awaits as you travel through the highland with picturesque moments around every twist and turn of your journey.
Nestled in the Cape Breton Highlands Mountain range, are Maple Ridges’ 6 cozy cabins, located at the halfway point of the scenic Cape Breton Island’s Cabot Trail.
Maple Ridge Cabins are open year-round beautifully decorated cabins with modern décor with a full kitchen stocked with all the essentials (pots, pans, cutlery, dishes, etc.) everything needed for this to be your ‘Home Away from Home’, with a full bathroom, a comfy queen-sized bed in the bedroom, and a queen-sized sofa bed in the living room for a peaceful night’s sleep. They are pet-friendly accommodations and have gorgeous mountain views.
Whale watching, boat tours, kayaking, fishing, swimming, cross-country skiing, cycling, hiking, snowshoeing, and sledding are some of the many activities that can be enjoyed within minutes of the cabins. Winter, spring, summer, and fall – there are opportunities for adventure for everyone!
Dingwall’s St. Paul Island Museum & Lighthouse allows you to step back in time to when seamen and vessels relied on lighthouses for navigation. Climb the stairs of Canada’s first heritage lighthouse and take a guided tour in the adjacent century-old house now serving as a place to hold and maintain our historical treasures of St. Paul Island and the many shipwrecks surrounding it.
You can also explore the pockets of sandy beaches nestled between the piles of boulders and grassy dunes that are backdropped by the highlands. Sit and listen to the waves crash against the breakwater while watching the sunset fade on the horizon as the sky turns to black. If you think the sunset is amazing, then after a night or two at Maple Ridges Cabins wait until you see the spectacular sunrise, with the warmth of the yellow sun breaking up the cloudy blue sky. There is no better way to start your day and head on to your next discovery in Cape Breton.
Heading southeast on Highway 30 for 32 km (20 miles) you will come to the seaside community of Ingonish. Ingonish and the surrounding area have become a year-round playground destination where the mountains meet the sea and outdoor adventurists can take advantage of activities in all four seasons.
Ingonish is also home to Atlantic Canada’s first and only gondola allowing visitors and residents alike to experience the amazing views of the ocean to the backdrop of Cape Breton Highlands National Park with beautiful surrounding beaches, boat tours, and so much more.
You get to experience the small-town charm and hospitality, along with amazing accommodations and restaurants that are usually only available in the larger communities as the area focuses on becoming Eastern Canada’s premier all-season resort and family destination.
Located at the Ingonish Ferry, is Castle Rock Country Inn a four-star, boutique hotel overlooking the magnificent vista of Middle Head Peninsula, the Atlantic Ocean, and the mountain range of the Cape Breton Highlands. An ideal location for day trips to all other points of interest on Cape Breton Island. The Castle Rock Country Inn offers guests newly appointed and professionally sound-proofed rooms year-round with Cape Breton hospitality and service that is second to none. Plus, their Avalon restaurant and Executive Chef Kim Magistro prepare local and organic produce, with fresh local lobster, mussels, oysters, and other seafood to create Asian-inspired dishes alongside Cape Breton classics to elevate your dining experience.
There is no better way to end your day’s travel than to sit with your favorite beverage and relax on their large patio while and treat yourself to a wonderful meal while you enjoy the breathtaking views. Before or after dinner take a stroll along the pathways on the property and experience the sights and sounds of the mountains and ocean while getting a glance at some local wildlife in the area.
Just a stone’s throw up the road in Little River is the Avoca Birches Campground. If you are the outdoor type and love camping, whether it be in a tent, trailer or RV this is the perfect place for you. With spacious and private sites offering the best, the outdoors has to offer.
The property consists of 60 acres, which is split in half by the famous Cabot Trail. The shoreside, where the campground sits, has 800’ of ocean frontage and borders the Little River with river sites available. So, you can let the sounds of the ocean waves and flowing river wash your cares away.
You can spend the day at the shore swimming, soaking up the sun, or relaxing in a beach chair with your toes in the water while the kids splash about.
Why not head over to the Little River wharf and purchase fresh from-the-ocean lobster (in season) to cook up for dinner? Then after supper, end of the day by a crackling fire, sipping a beverage, or maybe strumming a tune. Minimal lighting throughout the camping area will provide amazing views of the night sky so you can lay back and wish upon a shooting star as you make memories with your family and friends, old and new.
Offering a unique blend of both fresh and salt water, subtle tides, sheltered coves, and secluded beaches make the Bras d’Or Lake ideal for boating, sailing, kayaking, and canoeing.
Local tour operators, charters, and launch sites throughout the area allow visitors to experience the Bras d’Or Lake firsthand. On the water view grey seals, bald eagles and Atlantic Puffin. The Bras d’Or Lake is one of the few places outside of Newfoundland where you can find the Atlantic Puffin on the Bird Islands, just off Cape Dauphin. The islands are uninhabited and have 20 metre (65+ feet) tall cliffs and ledges, with small amounts of vegetation, which are the ideal roosting spots for puffins and other many other seabirds.
The diversity of the area doesn’t stop at the waters’ edge. The extensive watershed is home to Mi’kmaw First Nations and descendants from early French, Scottish, and English settlers that live in harmony with nature and work to promote a healthy environment, economy, and culture. Whether you charter a sailboat in St. Peter’s, paddle the inlets of Baddeck Bay or hike to Uisge Ban Falls, residents and locals alike embrace and protect the beauty of this tranquil area located in the heart of Cape Breton.
On land, there are several trails with sweeping views of the Bras d’Or Lake and surrounding hills, and hikes through gorges to towering waterfalls offer an amazing experience or you can hit the links at a local golf course or the slopes at the local ski hill for some of the best views.
Baddeck is a small town situated on the shores of the Bras d’Or Lake, which is known for being a popular tourist destination because of its beautiful scenery and boating. And for being the home to the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, which commemorates the inventor’s contributions to science and technology.
Just a short 25-minute drive from Baddeck southwest on NS 105 and TCH route find you in Whycocomagh.
Whycocomagh Provincial Park occupies a dramatic hillside overlooking the Skye River Valley and the Bras d’Or Lakes. This is a quiet scenic setting for camping and hiking, or as a base from which to take in the area’s many attractions. Fall colours make the park a “must-visit” location in October.
In this lakeside village, it is not all about life on the water. Skye Glen Creamery, a farm-turned-business owned by Matt and Meghan Brosens offers tasty milk and cheese treats you can try and buy. Everything they sell at the creamery comes from their own Jersey milk! We recommend making a visit and trying their squeaky cheddar cheese curds, Chedd’Or, Fromage Blanc and non-homogenized milk for yourself. You will not be disappointed.
The village of St. Peter’s has a fascinating history. This area was one of the first sites in the New World to be settled by Europeans. Portuguese fishermen established San Pedro near the canal in 1521, however unaccustomed to the severe winters, they departed in 1525. Continuous occupancy dates back to 1650 when it was settled by adventurer Nicolas Denys. Today, the remains of forts, which were the first line of defense and a source of supply for the Fortress Louisbourg, are waiting to be explored in Battery Provincial Park, where a series of walking trails take you through the park and around the village.
The famous St. Peter’s Canal, a National Historic site that joins the Atlantic Ocean to the sparkling Bras D’Or Lake, winds its way through Battery Provincial Park, creating a popular spot for fishing, picnicking, swimming, and site seeing. The Nicolas Denys Museum, adjacent to the canal, tells the story of this famous explorer and fur trader who founded the community.
There is no better place to experience Cape Breton from the water with a unique sailing adventure on Canada’s largest inland sea. Take the helm, handle the sail, maybe get an intro or refresher lesson or just kick back and relax on the beautiful and majestic Bras d’Or Lake!
After a day of outdoor activities and adventure, there is no better place to settle in for the evening than the Bras d’Or Lakes Inn. Their cedar log Inn is perfectly situated to give you stunning views of the lake and the historic swing bridge and a man-made canal connecting the Bras D’Or Lake with the Atlantic Ocean. Rooms are comfortable, quiet, and well-appointed with either king or double beds. But your room is only the tip of the iceberg when you stay at the Bras d’Or Lakes Inn. As their culinary team will tantalize even the most experienced foodie with fresh, local seafood and other top-quality local products from both land and sea for a culinary experience that you will soon not forget and have you planning your next stay and choosing your next dish before you are finished your first!
Our next stop takes us 38 km (23 miles) northeast on NS 206 route to Arichat on Isle Madame.
Isle Madame is home to approximately 4,300 residents located mostly in the island’s communities of Arichat, D’Escousse, and Petit de Grat. Isle Madame’s culture and heritage have been shaped by the sea. Fishing, shipbuilding, and coastal trade brought prosperity to the island. Little remains of the many wharves that were throughout the Isle’s harbours during a time in history when the oceans were the world’s highways.
When visiting Isle Madame, the adventures are endless with so much coastal beauty to take in whether listening to seagull songs, exploring the gentle tides, kayaking tranquil coves, cycling through fishing villages, or spending the day on the sandy beach with your toes in the sand as you beach comb and get some rays and play in the water – there’s so much to do during your stay!
Conveniently located in the heart of Isle Madame, in the quaint seaside village of Arichat is The Clairestone Inn, a newly renovated 17-room boutique hotel, with classic drive-up rooms and luxurious ocean-view suites that offer a bright, airy beach house vibe and make you feel at home. Whether you’re drawn to the Arichat’s beautiful shorelines, the deeply rooted Acadian culture, and vast seafaring history, or just want to relax on their spacious licensed veranda overlooking the harbour.
After a day of adventure and immersing yourself in the island’s culture and natural beauty, unwind in the guest lounge, which has a piano if you like to play or cuddle up at the firepit with campfire chats about your day’s adventure with other guests or just enjoy a little alone time and gaze up at the starry night skies before retreating to your cozy room the choice is yours as you’re welcome to make your stay your own.
In the morning you wake up to the sound of the waves and seabirds and start your day off right with a delicious breakfast at the on-site restaurant. We are confident that after experiencing the best of island living at The Clairestone Inn you’ll be planning your next visit to the Isle Madame before you start making your way back to the mainland.
Located on the northeastern coast of Nova Scotia, east of Halifax, the Eastern Shore is a beautiful rural slice of Atlantic Canada that’s home to charming villages, incredible beaches, outdoor adventure, history, and more. It also sees far fewer visitors, which makes it a great place for those wanting a quieter “off-the-beaten-track” destination.
From Canso to Sheet Harbour and onto Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore is full of pristine wilderness, historically themed attractions, authentic fishing, and historic communities, like
Canso which was established in 1604, along with the original Port Royal in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. The town is of national historic importance because it was one of only two British settlements in Nova Scotia prior to the establishment of Halifax in 1749. In fact, Canso played a key role in the defeat of the French at Louisbourg.
Today, Canso attracts people from all over the world for the annual Stan Rogers Folk Festival and is home to loads of stunning natural attractions. Visitors and locals alike can paddle to hundreds of islands, surf the waves, grab an ice cream, or just relax in one of the many lodges and heritage homes while enjoying a sociable or two from the local award-winning craft distillery.
Sheet Harbour was named “Port North” on a Royal Navy Chart that was published in 1778. It was decided that “Port North” was not descriptive enough and its name was changed to Sheet Harbour because of a white, flat rock that looked like a sheet (named Sheet Rock) that can be found at the entrance of the harbour.
Sheet Harbour has been a must-visit destination on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore since back in 1784 when Loyalist refugees and British veterans of the American Revolution settled in the area. Today the Sheet Harbour area is comprised of 29 communities spanning from East Ship Harbour to Ecum Secum so there is always something happening.
You can drive to Sheet Harbour on one of three highways: Highway 7, NS-224, or NS-374 or you can arrive by boat and take advantage of the six moorings with floating docks nearby that are free to the public. Allowing you to stock up on provisions or maybe have a bite to eat or take in some of the local entertainment before heading back on your journey.
Sober Island Brewing is one of the more popular stops in Sheet Harbour and local and visitors
drop in for a for a beer or maybe a flight of the locally made craft beer or maybe grab some to go including great merch like their new Nova Scotia tartan fleece blankets, which are great for days at the beach or for snuggling up for a bonfire with friends.
Not to be confused with Sober Island Brewing, Sober Island Boat Tours offer boat tours from Sober Island, just south of Sheet Harbour. Their two-hour tour aboard ‘No Hurry’ take you around some of the 100 Wild Islands, past the stunning Sheet Rock Island and lighthouse, then all the way to Taylor Head Provincial Park and back again. If you are lucky, you might see porpoises, minke whales, and various seabirds.
Build an appetite out on the water, then once you’re shore side head to the Henley House Pub and Restaurant that sits along the beautiful Eastern Shore, offering delightful bites and fun-filled nights for locals and travelers alike. With fresh local seafood and other local ingredients, an attached craft brewery, and over one hundred years of history, this family-run pub and restaurant offers dine-in, patio and take-out services with a menu that truly offers something for everyone from chicken nuggets and fries to seafood linguine. They also offer a menu for the Sober Island Brewing Company Beer Garden.
Now after the fun, food, and festivities are done and you are calling it an evening, settle into the fantastic Marmalade Motel located just outside Sheet Harbour in Port Dufferin. Inspired by the owners’ love of travel, they started the Marmalade Motel with one goal in mind and that was to create a high-quality, memorable stay that doesn’t come with a 5-star price tag. You will be planning your next Eastern Shore adventure and stay before checkout.
The Eastern Shores of Nova Scotia is a great road trip or weekend getaway option for visitors to the province and Bluenosers alike, as it lies between Halifax and Cape Breton, giving you plenty of opportunities for adventure or the perfect destination to just kick back and relax.
Our next issue will spotlight the must-visit small seaside towns and villages of the South and Acadian Shores along the Atlantic Coastline as we continue to share our must-visit destination as explore the best Nova Scotia has to offer.