Driving the sublime Cabot Trail

Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail really is a must-drive. Kaye’s itinerary covers many of the highlights, with ample time to feel the serenity, sip a coffee or stare at the stars.

The Cabot Trail is named after John Cabot or Giovanni Caboto, a Venetian explorer who sailed in 1497 from Bristol, England in search of a passage to India. Instead, he discovered the eastern region of Canada. Cabot met with the original inhabitants of Cape Breton Island, the Mi’kmaq people, at Aspy Bay on the northern-most point of the island.

The Cabot Trail is a 300km scenic drive that can be completed in eight hours – but it really should be savoured slowly over five or seven days.

The trail, which was established in 1932, takes in eight major communities as well as stunning coastal scenery and the Cape Breton National Park. There really is something for every visitor to enjoy.

Any time is a great time to explore what has been described by Travel & Leisure magazine as the most beautiful island in North America. Summer is easy exploring, with fine weather, long nights and the ability to wander in comfort. Spring is full of colour, as well as the chance to view the elusive aurora borealis (Northern Lights). It’s also lobster season. But visiting during the northern fall is a total winner with unforgettable red and gold foliage and the internationally famous Celtic Colours Music festival.

The beginning of the trail is a few short kilometres after crossing the Canso Causeway from mainland Nova Scotia to Cape Breton, at Baddeck or St Ann.

Day One – Baddeck
Baddeck is a pretty town on the edge of the inland sea known as the Bras D’Or Lakes.

Eat – There’s only one place in town, really, Baddeck Lobster Supper, which offers either ‘all you can eat’ or ‘just the main’, with detailed instructions on how to get that last piece of flesh out of the claw.

Learn – Sited atop a hill overlooking the former summer home of Alexander Graham Bell, a museum bearing his name is a fitting tribute to this visionary man and his wife. In nearby St Ann’s, the Gaelic College of Arts and Crafts is also a wonderful showcase.

Stay – The Inverary Resort
With a main lodge built in 1850, this 11-acre property has stunning views over the Bras d’Or Lake.

Day Two – Ingonish
Ingonish is actually five small communities (Ingonish Ferry, Ingonish Harbor, Ingonish Beach, Ingonish Center and Ingonish), clustered in a 16km range, bordering the ocean and the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Here you can enjoy superb coastal and wilderness views, fresh and salt water swimming (Yes – in the Atlantic!), scenic cruises, whale watching and hiking.

Eat – the Chowder House at Neil’s Harbour
World famous chowder and superb lobster club sandwiches with wasabi mayonnaise, washed down with local beer.

Stay – Keltic Lodge
Spectacularly sited on windswept cliffs, the Keltic Lodge has full suites or cliff-side cottages, a Highlands Links Golf Course and fine dining.

Day Three – Pleasant Bay
Today’s drive is largely spent within the Cape Breton National Park, so there is plenty of opportunity for hiking, kayaking or merely strolling and enjoying the fir, birch, spruce and ash trees that tower overhead.

Learn – The Pleasant Bay Whale Watching Interpretive Centre
A must-visit for those interested in the mightiest creatures of the ocean.

Breathe – Gampo Abbey
A Western Buddhist monastery in the Shambhala tradition established on the rocky coast of Pleasant Bay in 1984. In summer, visitors can enjoy a guided tour of this spiritual retreat and learn about the mission and achievements of the monastics who live there.

Stay The Mountain View
Affordable motel, cottages and restaurant near the centre of town.

Day Four – Cheticamp
It’s a relatively short drive from Pleasant Bay to Cheticamp, an enclave of French-Canadians (Acadians) who were expelled from other provinces during the 18th century. French is still spoken here and the culture, arts and crafts are also influenced by French culture.

It’s easy to spend a day exploring the harbour-side activities and dining in this historic fishing port.

Stay – Auberge Bay Wind suites
Super clean and comfortable rooms, with traditional cuisine in the restaurant and bar.

Day Five – Tatamagouche
Set off early as you will need a lot of time at the Celtic Music Interpretation Centre in Judique before leaving the Cabot Trail and heading west back across the Canso Causeway to Tatamagouche to finish your journey in an historic train carriage.

Learn – Celtic Music Interpretation Centre, Judique
Exhibits, walking tours, lessons and demonstrations are just some of the fun you can experience at Nova Scotia’s official centre for Celtic music. The lunch and supper ceilidhs also offer the chance to enjoy traditional Celtic music while dining on fine local produce.

Consider finishing your journey in Tatamagouche where a craft brewery, historic creamery gallery, and the Jost Vineyards await.

Stay – The Train Station Inn
This train station was purchased in 1974 by Jimmy LeFresne, then aged 18, to prevent its demolition. It’s now a museum, shop, restaurant and fun accommodation option in one of the refurbished box cars or cabooses.

Kaye’s Cabot Trail tips

Affordable touring
Staying at B&Bs will help keep double room accommodation down to less than AUD $150 per night, including hearty, cooked breakfasts. We have included two ‘splurges’ in the above itinerary, the Keltic Lodge and Auberge Bay Winds Suites, but at $220 or so per night, they are still far less expensive than many similar properties in Australia.

Car hire plus insurance
A Budget Rental VW Passat for eight days, covering two drivers and full insurance, cost $686. Driving across Nova Scotia is relatively hassle free; the roads are good, with the only major hazards being wandering moose or breathtaking scenery, which forces you to slow down or stop to take in the amazing views.

Timing your trip
Not all attractions are open year-round, so be sure to check your preferred activities and accommodation are available well in advance.

Best website to start your planning

Written by Leon Della Bosca

Publisher of YourLifeChoices – Australia's most-trusted and longest-running retirement website. A trusted voice on Australia's retirement landscape, including retirement income and planning, government entitlements, lifestyle and news and information relevant to Australians over 50. Leon has worked in publishing for more than 25 years and is also a travel writer and editor, graphic designer and photographer.

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