Following the Cabot Trail

August 26, 2012

Words by // Photography by Nita Breibish

You’d think that a campsite in the middle of town would be easy to spot, but Whidden Park in Antigonish is completely hidden from the street. After finding the driveway that leads through some cabins, a park opens up with plenty of room for camping. It’s actually unbelievable. There are about 154 campsites nestled discretely amongst peoples homes which makes it unique in our travels.

We set up camp and are visited almost immediately by a couple of young boys who are playing by the creek that runs behind our tent. Stick in hand, one’s curious about us and the bikes and he’s happy to ask a million questions. The next half-hour is spent mostly answering “What’s this? What’s that? Why? Why?” and occasionally interspersed with a “Cooooooool…” here and there. He and his friends play around our site then disappear to a pool for a while. One of the best sounds in the world has to be children at play in a campground – they’re completely out of their minds until the sun goes down (or the sugar wears off) and then, it’s just quiet.

Antigonish is a college town and, while the tourist season is coming to an end, the student invasion hasn’t quite started. The streets are quiet and we find a great meal in a lovely little restaurant.

The next morning we’re excited to hit the Cabot Trail. Completed in 1932, the trail follows the coast along the northwestern peninsula of Cape Breton Island. Connecting remote fishing villages, the trail was named after John Cabot, commonly thought to be the first European to encounter the mainland of North America since the Vikings – and while most folks seem to agree that he landed in Newfoundland, this trail has made his name synonymous with Nova Scotia and Cape Breton.

I’ve driven the trail in a rental sub-compact and always thought it would be a great ride on a bike.  While some people choose to rip around the trail in a single day, we choose to take a few days on it and take in some sights.

The trail is quiet and we only meet up with the occasional slow-mover now and again. Like our time in La Gaspé, the road moves along the coast with a peaceful flow and we find ourselves both present and reflective. Unlike La Gaspé the road rarely seems to touch the water – rather it prefers to rise above it and provide spectacular views of the Atlantic on the east and the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the west. For the long, twisty sections of the trail, taking photos on the move becomes impractical and we’ve been working on adapting our GoPro setup to capture the scenery. The Wi-Fi BacPac & Remote have transformed their usefulness for us – from pushing random buttons and hoping for the best to now knowing exactly what going on. Now we just have to find time to also edit and upload movies :) It’ll happen, we promise.

Our first stop, Ingonish, isn’t a long day by any stretch of the imagination. In fact the whole trail is slightly less than 300km so it needs to be savored. We plan on camping at a rustic campground but we’re unable to get close to water. All along the way we see signs for the Keltic Lodge and the photos are *very* enticing! We turn off of the highway, enter a National Park and begin to realize that this lodge is likely waaaaaay outside of our budget. A brief chat with the host confirms our suspicions with their “entry-level rooms” (her words, not mine) starting at $325 per night. Yikes! We tuck our tails and just spend a moment to admire the building and the incredible views.

Instead, we back-track to a motel we pass en route to the campsite and discover a little jewel! The Glenghorm has rooms and they’re cheap, but best of all, they have a long driveway that leads to the beach. At last we can spend some time listening to the crashing waves of the Atlantic.

Our dinner is a lonely affair as we’re on a schedule that would put seniors to shame – 4pm is our new 7:30. The benefit of the early dinner proves to be a long evening sitting in front of the ocean, me with a pipe filled with a fragrant and unknown tobacco (thanks uncle John!), and Nita with a handful of rocks she’s collected from the shore. Nita disappears only to return 20 minutes later with a lovely bottle of wine and a couple of glasses. We sit in a relative quiet that’s only broken by the sound of waves, wine in hand, until the sun fades completely and the only light is the campfire from a nearby cabin. It’s heaven.

Once the sun has set and the cool air moves in, we head down to the pub for some music and a bevy. A man sings folk songs and fires up the crowd better than most solo acts we’ve seen. A table of women of all ages starts singing along and giving the performer a run for his money. There’s a lot of good times happening in this pub! We buy the table of ladies a round and get a song in return. Well, the song would have happened either way :) Still, they’re having a grand time and we’re happy to just be in the same room as them.

Our bartender is handsome and a beautiful young woman is sharing smiles and brief conversations with him. They’re cute. She catches us watching them and smiles a shy smile and seems to hide her eyes. A moment later she’s at our table and telling us the story of their emerging relationship, her childhood and her impending departure to university. She tells us about how he climbed to her window the previous night to talk. Very romantic. Her nervous energy and underlying anticipation is fun to watch and hear about. It’s early days in love and that’s always an exciting time.

After a while she takes her spot by the bar and returns to smiling at him, and with a new round of younger kids swarming the pub, we take our leave and sleep to the sounds of the ocean.

The destination for the next day is Chéticamp, an Acadian town on the west side of the peninsula that sits alongside the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It’s strange to think that we’ve been with the St. Lawrence in one way or another since Montréal. As we head north we get closer to the Highlands National Park and our elevation continues to rise. The coastline is getting more dramatic with cliffs dropping down to the water below.

We’ve heard about a campground at Meat Cove and decide to check it out. The owner doesn’t take reservations, likes bikes and has incredible views – not to mention that it’s also the northernmost community on Cape Breton island. The trip from the Cabot Trail is about and hour and the road quickly turns to dirt. The gravel often gives way to stretches of red dirt that’s slick, and the road twists as it climbs up, then dips into a series of tight corners just before a final, long climb and descent. The weather is changing and the idea of camping here is quickly fading. Waking up soaking wet and starting the day off with a long climb up slick, twisty, red, mud roads doesn’t strike either of us as a good time. While I check the upcoming descent, another rider pulls up to see how we’re feeling about the road ahead. When I point to the sky a look of relief comes over him – I think we’re all okay with the decision to move on. The view from where we stand is beautiful but it’s time to play it smart.

My stomach is rumbling and my coffee quotient is low so we find a place to relax in the nearby Bay St. Lawrence Community Center. Mark, the rider we ran into on the road to Meat Cove pulls up and joins us for a bite. He’s out on freshly-tuned GS and having a blast. Over lunch, and in a hushed tone, he tells us about Coywolves – something we’ve never heard of. Apparently, there are wolves in the area that have bred with Coyotes and have resulted in the nasty combination of a dog the size of a wolf with the fearlessness of a Coyote. He also tells us that it’s a bit of a hush topic in the area since it would hurt tourism – and that in 2009 an 19 year-old woman was killed, during a daylight attack by two Coywolves. It’s quite a story.

After lunch we say goodbye and head our separate ways. As we enter Highlands National Park the rain starts falling. We wind our way higher and the road weaves it’s way through the most wonderful terrain. It’s a landscape right out of a Brontë novel. The road is flanked by short-growth trees, and stretches of moss-covered rocks. The weather just seems to add to the ghostly feel of the place.

The climbs, wet roads and sheer cliffs are getting to Nita. I think I’m just beginning to understand the level of fear she has with cliffs. She’s a great rider and fully capable, but her fear of heights overrides her ability to enjoy some of these moments. I talk her through some of the sheer parts, and I can hear her coaching herself through others. The visibility isn’t great and our helmets are fogging up continuously which doesn’t help the situation.

As we begin the descent out of the park the clouds begin to break and the rain finally lifts giving us a fantastic view of the trail as it winds between two rock out-croppings. Nita’s voice is steady again but I think the days been a bit stressful.

We make our way to Chéticamp but find everything’s booked – campgrounds, motels, you name it. We press on to Margaree and find an old motel nestled on top of a hill overlooking the Margaree River and settle in for the night. Nita and I spend some time talking about the day – it’s a good one with some challenges. Still, this is how it is on a bike – we’re always being challenged in one way or another.

The next morning, we take a short inland jaunt along the final part of the Cabot trail to Baddeck. It’s a fun rollick on the twisty’s and we’re both able to just let go. We arrive at our motel early and spend the day walking the beautiful streets and boardwalk. Baddeck is the home to the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site and is, by far, the busiest place we’ve been too in Cape Breton. Alexander Graham Bell made Baddeck his summer home on the northern shore of the stunning Bras d’Or Lake and is most certainly it’s most famous resident.

With the angry clouds gone (except for one sulky guy) the light along the lake is deep and golden. We walk along the boardwalk until we find a lovely place to rest our feet and watch the sail boats drift by. This is a truly beautiful place and we feel like a day doesn’t do it any justice at all. But we have a ferry to catch to Newfoundland in North Sydney.

The ride to North Sydney is short so we take a lazy morning, checking out late and grabbing a hearty breakfast. The Seal Island Motel looks desolate as we pull up and it’ll almost certainly be one of those derelict buildings you see along empty highways if no care is given to it in the near future. Still the room is clean, the view is nice – even if it does feel like we’re in a ghost town. After unloading the bike we take a trip two-up to scope out the ferry port. It’s still only 1pm. We head north along the peninsula just to see what’s there and I can see on the map that Point Aconi looks to be at the northern tip. We both feel like sitting by the ocean.

We get lost and end up by a power-plant of some type. Hmmm. Not the most ideal place, but then we see a hand painted sign that simply says “<–Beach” In two minutes we’re looking out onto a beautiful hidden beach with plenty of locals taking in the sun! We sit on a cliff overlooking the sand and just sit quietly taking it all in. One young girl can only travel on all fours or by cartwheel it seems! Her energy is endless and beautiful. Some older women sit with their legs forward in the water, while the teens are more interested in co-ed swimming games. It reminds me of days by the beach in the southern UK. It’s one of the best afternoons yet.

As the sun fades and the people leave, we ride back to the motel – Nita resting against my back as we roll through the fields and finally back out to the highway. The wind has started to pick up and it feels as though something is blowing in. Little do we know its a glimpse of what’s to come! We settle in for the night and prepare for the short run to the long ferry ride tomorrow. It’ll be an adventure.

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  1. Comment by Sara & Daniel

    Sara & Daniel September 18, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    As usual a beautiful post and pictures.

    • Comment by Issa

      Issa September 20, 2012 at 8:03 am

      Thanks guys!

  2. Comment by Bryce Beresh

    Bryce Beresh September 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    Looks awesome and brings back fond memories of NSCAD and the east coast. I still miss the music and pubs, hopefully get out there in the next couple of years. Safe travels and thanks for sharing.

    • Comment by Issa

      Issa September 18, 2012 at 12:42 pm

      Thanks Bryce! We have a post on Halifax coming up – just playing a bit of catch-up :) Love this city though… We’ve seen so much great music and the pubs have been kind :P

    • Comment by Bryce Beresh

      Bryce Beresh September 18, 2012 at 12:48 pm

      Can’t wait to see the pics. If you head downtown, there’s a fun pub connected to the art college and we used to hit it Thursday nights for cheap draft. My friend used to play in there and we’d buy each other Prairie Fires loaded with tabasco. Have one for me if you drop in:

  3. Comment by Jan Thain

    Jan Thain September 18, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    The Atlantic, the little beach – brings back so many memories of family times digging for cockles. Love the pics of the 2 of you quietly taking it all in :) xo

    • Comment by Issa

      Issa September 20, 2012 at 8:06 am

      That beach *really* reminded me of those days spent on the beach as a kid! Especially those great days down in Southsea on the water :)

  4. Comment by Chris and Dave, the oldies behind your Calgary home

    Chris and Dave, the oldies behind your Calgary home September 19, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    I am reading a book at the moment that is called “Fall on your knees” it is a story of the Piper Family in the early 1900’s and written by Ann-Marie MacDonald. It is a poor coal mining community in Cape Breton and mentions Sydney and Wreck Cove as well as New Waterford, there seemed to be a lot of Catholics and Jews there. Good story and great to hear that you are in those places today.

    • Comment by Issa

      Issa September 20, 2012 at 8:09 am

      Thanks guys! I’m going to pick that book up – someone else recommended it for us too. There are lots of folks who are Scottish, Irish and Acadian descendants in the area and they seem to celebrate that heritage very well here! It’s been a wonderful part of the country to visit…

  5. Comment by Dave

    Dave September 24, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    You guys are really going to make it difficult to decide where to make my trips on my bike!
    But I’ll try to see it as a good problem to have.

    • Comment by Issa

      Issa September 24, 2012 at 2:59 pm

      Ha! It’s a *great* problem to have :) Are you planning next years adventures?

    • Comment by Dave

      Dave September 24, 2012 at 3:03 pm

      Thinking of a trip from Denver up the west coast, through Vancouver to Alaska and then back down through Canada to visit family in Edmonton and Calgary and then through Montana @ Glacier Nat. Park / Wyoming and back home.

      The trick is finding the time and making it happen.

    • Comment by Issa

      Issa September 25, 2012 at 4:55 pm

      That sounds like a great trip Dave! Are you looking at highway 50 through Nevada? That road was absolutely stunning – though completely empty… also, coming back down from Alberta you should totally take the Chief Mountain Road to cross the border – so sweet!

  6. Comment by Ray Whidden

    Ray Whidden August 31, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Good article.

    However, you obviously didn’t have a map handy when you said you’d spent most of your time along the St. Lawrence when referring to Cheticamp as any place along the west coast of Cape Breton would have to first cross the Baie de Chaleur and the Gaspe Peninsula before you got to the St. Lawrence River. I know as I drove to Murdochville/copper mine we weren’t able to tour and the west coast of the Gaspe, around the tip and back to home base in Chandler, Quebec.

    Always helps to have a map.

    Cheers, Ray
    Edmonton AB

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish August 31, 2013 at 12:07 pm

      Hi Ray,

      I’ll never argue that having a map is a good idea – you shouldn’t leave home without one. Of course I’m talking about the *Gulf* of St. Lawrence which does in fact run alongside Gaspé, PEI, NFLD, NS and Cape Breton. We crossed the St. Lawrence *River* north of Tadoussac at Les Escoumins which you can read about here:

      So the map we had seemed to work just fine :)

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