Biking Canada’s Cabot Trail, a slice of wild!
Cycling Country's self guided bike tour around Cape Breton, discovers that Maritime hospitality and stunning countryside should be a Must Do for every cyclist
Patting my well proportioned belly after the full lobster plate, in which the prepared meal was set before me like a flaming jewel on a lush bed of leafy lettuce, I mentally calculated how many possible lobster meals I might be able to have before leaving the fine province of Nova Scotia and whether I could right now squeeze in a second piece of homemade pie, this one blueberry.
Where winters in Canada’s best loved province of Nova Scotia can be unpredictable and sometimes nasty with storms off the Atlantic, the rest of the year abounds with music, culinary delights and outdoor living with the residents seemingly making up for those harder months in enthusiasm and joie de vivre.
No better place to discover this than around the Cabot Trail, one of the most scenic circular cycle routes in North America, and akin to Route 1 in America in its fame. A fresh air fiend’s paradise, it is situated in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which is reached by travelling 470Km (290 miles) north east from Halifax, a good couple of days cycle around pretty coves and woodland.
Following the rocky coast around the north shore of Nova Scotia, the Cabot Trail and Park boasts wild life, including moose, bald eagles, black bears and coyote with a range of scenery. Containing a huge system of hiking trails, from the challenging to the family amble and camping grounds throughout, it is a wonderful place to explore. Walking, bird watching, diving, canoeing and kayaking are all popular and for colder month athletes, skiers will find it is a winter wonderland with networks of cross-country and downhill runs.
The biggest question, and one that locals will debate heatedly, is the various merits to cycling the trail counter clockwise (“best scenery at the end, wind at back”) vs. clockwise (cyclist gets a great view being next to the view!) and.. Either way, you won’t be disappointed, even in atmospheric rain and fog, like I saw it one visit, where the spruce trees had stark and ghostly silhouettes. Views from the road are breath taking, with magnificent forests (saturated in colour in late autumn), stunning ocean vistas and wild inlets. If lucky you may glimpse porpoises and humpback, minke, and pilot whales in migration. It is a popular attraction with several north coast companies offering whale-sighting trips until mid autumn.
A good 5 days cycle takes you around the Cabot Trail’s entirety and is filled with some awe inspiring (or hernia inducing) climbs of 10% plus and impressive panoramas. This 298km (185-mile) ride will put hair on your chest with some extended 10% climbs but is definitely worth the feather in your cycle helmet.
Not only is there wonderful scenery and outdoor activities, but due to an often rough winter, many Cape Bretoners have opportunity to perfect their talents for crafts. Rug hooking, folk woodcarving, baking and pottery are common traditions and around the route there are piles of antique shops and studios. Cheticamp supports the Dr. Elizabeth Lefort Gallery, which show cases her sumptuous woven tapestries, some owned by the Vatican, past U.S. President Bush and Queen Elizabeth. Also worth visiting, is Baddeck, on the east side.
Alexander Graham Bell, creator of the telephone, lived here with his family at the Beinn Bhreagh estate (Gaelic for "beautiful mountain") and the museum is excellent and comprehensive (who knew that he and his wife, helped perfect oral oration for the Deaf). They both loved Beinn Bhreagh and spent such happy times here that they elected to be buried on the estate. Just outside the museum itself, there is a very pretty picnic spot with views of the Bras d’Or Lakes to relax with.
Cape Breton’s history is one spanning back thousands of years with prehistoric communities and Native Mi'kmaq settlements. In 1497, John Cabot turned up claiming the island and “hey why not all of North America while I’m at it” for the British. Not too big of a problem, except Portuguese and French fishers also settled, and during the 1700’s with English and French fighting to consolidate power in North America, things grew ugly. Many French communities were destroyed with settlers deported to inhospitable areas and dying by the hundreds, a period in Nova Scotian history immortalized with the world famous tragic love story of the Acadian girl “Evangeline” by William Longfellow.
Several Acadians did filter back and many families settled around Cheticamp on the west side. Those who didn´t later when on to establish communities in Louisiana (Cajun comes from Acadian).
And then the Scots came in the 1800’s, over 25,000 of them.
So, you can imagine with such cultural influences how the dialect sounds in this part of the island.
Cheticamp is where I had my mouth-watering meal, overlooked by the elderly ladies of the town.
Being in a French enclave, I tried my best “C’est Merveilleux!”. This was returned with a torrent of Bonhomie, which sounded like, “ my pigs got stuck in the loo”. Let’s just say the French spoken here is a wee bit different. In fact, the English lingo in Cape Breton, is just as confusing, and I had to sometimes scrunch up my eyes in concentration to their singsong accent. However, one can rely on the international language of music to bond with Cape Bretoners, and Acadian gigs with accordions and guitars are prevalent or try perhaps Celtic music with a “fiddling ceilidh”, often heard around Margaree (south of the park) and the coast quite regularly.
And don’t forget the food! Although being a cyclist, how could you!
Experience fresh harvest from the sea, forests and fields from June to October when many community centres hold Lobster, Blueberry, Strawberry and Maple suppers. Delicious large home cooked meals for bargain prices. The real bonus is that if you do indulge, the lobster is one of the least calorific seafood meals there are, low in fat and it is high in amino acids, iron and of course zinc. To think that it wasn’t that long ago that children bringing lobster to school in their lunch pail were teased mercilessly for being too poor to eat normal food. Although the times of them being so plentiful that just throwing a net overboard could drag up many a meal are over, there are many endeavours for controlled stewardship of this important “cultural” aspect.
Maritimers are a close-knit bunch and with an often harsh sea faring life, they feel strongly about community ties and hospitality. This attitude extends to their visitors and people I met were obliging and friendly and being a cyclist, even more so. Cycling this area affords a wonderful way to become acquainted with this lovely part of the world, whether it be experiencing the resident’s quirky sense of humour and good nature or just enjoying the great outdoors this place has to offer. It is not remarkable that the British put up a good fight to secure this area of the world. With its beautiful scenery, tasty food and good ole Maritime hospitality, it is a place that is hard to want to leave.
Trip Tips: Our Cabot Trail self guided trip runs from June to September and is filled with great hotels, beautiful scenery and is a great opportunity to get to know a tiny slice of Canada!
See: www.exploreNS.com for travel options within this great Maritime province.
Way to Go:
Air Canada (see www.aircanada.ca) and WestJet (www.WestJet.ca) fly daily to Halifax from major Canadian hubs with prices in summer months from $CAN 500 – 800.
WestJet also flies from Gatwick, London directly to Halifax several times a week.