Traveling With Kids | Cape Breton Island
Last summer my family and I spent three glorious weeks visiting my hometown province of Nova Scotia, Canada. We spent time enjoying the white sandy beaches, visiting quaint little fishing villages, hiking along the rocky Atlantic Coast and eating some of the best and freshest seafood around. I wrote all about our time on the province’s South Shore here and today I’d like to write a bit about our time spent on the famous Cape Breton Island.
Cape Breton Island is located northeast of the mainland and is connected by a stone causeway. It boasts a rich and varied history which includes aboriginal, French Acadian, English and Scottish Gaelic roots. On the island you’ll meet some of the most open, generous and kind people in the world and have the opportunity to enjoy coastal views that are so stunning that you’ve probably already seen them featured in more than one car commercial.
Here are a few of my family’s favourite spots and things to do on Cape Breton Island…
One of the main attractions for visitors to Cape Breton Island is the famous and stunningly scenic Cabot Trail. This twisting panoramic route loops around the northern part of the Island along coastal roads, through charming fishing villages and a thickly forested national park. The trail is named after the explorer, John Cabot, who landed in this area in 1497. It offers many scenic look-off points, heritage sites, hiking trails for every level and even opportunities to whale watch from the shoreline. My kids were thrilled to see lots of eagles as well.
We drove the entire trail in one day (in a counter clockwise direction, starting at the town of Baddeck). I was a bit nervous that the kids would be bored spending an entire day driving but in the end they were as enthralled with the views and vistas as we were. We made sure to make lots of pit stops and even managed a 2 hour hike in the middle (more on that below).
Make sure to stop and visit some of the folk art galleries and shops along the way. We discovered a colorfully painted wooden shack that sold traditional folk art made by a local lobster fisherman. It was so much fun talking to the artist’s wife and hearing all about their life in Cape Breton.
Along the Cabot Trail on the west side of the island you will find the Skyline Hiking Trail which offers a bird’s eye view of the most stunning vistas over the rugged coastline (including the winding Cabot Trail road) and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (perfect whale watching spot).
It’s possible to walk the 7.5 km return trail or do a 9 km looped trail. Due to time constraint we did the return trail and it took us about 2 hours. It’s an easy trail to walk thanks to the fact it’s relatively flat and is equipped with wooden boardwalks.
Upon arrival at the headland cliffs we were in awe at the views (and the winds!). It really was one of the most stunning sites we have ever seen. The kids loved running up and down the wooden staircases and platforms and we appreciated the fact that there were many wooden benches where we could catch our breath and relax.
One interesting point to note: at the beginning of the trail there is a large warning sign explaining the dangers of coming across coyotes, bears and moose and offering instructions/advice on how one should react in such situations. While two of my kids found this extremely exciting, the third child didn’t and we had some tears and a few panic moments when she was sure she could hear a moose sneeze behind some trees. So, make sure you do indeed read these warning signs carefully as there have been a few incidents that didn’t end well in the past.
Almost one year later my kids are still enthusiastically talking about our day visiting Fortress Louisbourg. And to tell you the truth even I still have many fond memories of visiting there as a child.
Fortress Louisbourg, run by Parks Canada, is a reconstructed French fortress where you step back in time and see how people lived on one of the busiest harbours in North America back in the 1800s . All of the buildings and homes have been reconstructed to their original state and the small town is bustling with “animators” of every age dressed in period costumes and going about their day as they would have centuries ago.
We spent the day learning how they used to make bread, watching the women weave baskets, participating in a mock public hearing and helping plant a vegetable garden. For lunch we booked into their traditional restaurant where costumed wait staff served us a traditional “peasant class” French meal of pea soup, local bread and meat pie served in pewter bowls.
The park also offers special tours, workshops and a popular summer camp which apparently has a wait list of several years to get into.
Alexander Graham Bell Historic Site
Another of our favourite day trips was our visit to the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in the small town of Baddeck. Alexander Graham Bell, who was a scientist, inventor and engineer, is best known for inventing the telephone. Even if he was born in England he fell in love with Cape Breton where he spent many summers and his retirement years. This museum chronicles Bell and his family’s life and many of his most famous experiments. The museum is full of many spectacular photographs, artifacts, documents and models from his career including a full sized version of the first hydrofoil boat.
My kids participated in the museum’s Kid Quiz which got them enthusiastically involved in reading and learning about everything from his invention of the telephone to his extensive work with the deaf (his wife Mabel was deaf from the age of 5). Now my kids even know what a tetrahedron is!
Make sure to finish off your visit by borrowing one of the many kites available at the front desk and heading out into the gardens to give it try. Luckily, as it is a windy location, ideal kite flying conditions are frequent.
You can also attend a Cape Breton Ceildhi (pronounced Kay-Lee) which is a musical gathering (they used to be held in people’s kitchens) that involves traditional Gaelic songs, fiddles and bagpipes (see list of concerts here). If you like fried chicken, head to the interestingly named Lick-A-Chick diner-style restaurant that has become world renown for it’s name just as much as it’s chicken (t-shirts available). If fried chicken isn’t your thing head to any local wharf and wait for a fisherman to return from a day at sea. They will often sell you fresh lobster and sometimes even cook it for you.
For some local folk art don’t miss the hand carved and brightly painted animals by the lobster fisherman at Timmons Folk Art Shop. Or the beautiful hand crafted leather buckets at Leather Works Workshop. And for Mom and Dad, the Glenora Inn and Distillery is a great pit stop for tours and 10 year old single malt whisky tastings.