The Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia

When researching activities in Nova Scotia, driving the Cabot Trail and visiting the Cape Breton Highlands National Park were top of our list. Between cute towns, amazing beaches, great views of the ocean from the cliffs, and lots of hiking trails, there is a lot to see and do. With only 2 nights and one full day, we were not able to do as much as we would have liked, but in the end we agreed that most of the choices we made were the right ones!

Logistical Choices

Direction of Travel

After reading a few guide books and blog posts, we decided that we wanted to drive the Cabot Trail in a counterclockwise manner. This would allow for the best coastal views! We saw some advice that the other way was slightly safer, but didn’t seem to be an issue to us.

Lodging

There are many more choices than these, but for our particular lodging goals, we debated between:

In the end, we decided that shaving off an hour and a half of driving time by staying in Ingonish the first night would give us more time and energy for hiking the next day. For our second night, we were pretty sure that we would be tired by mid-afternoon and would want a cute town with more creature comforts after a long day of driving/hiking, so the more touristy Baddeck made more sense than Chéticamp.

Basic Itinerary

Before arrival, we had sketched out a basic itinerary, and we mostly stuck to plan.

Day 1:

  • 11:15am: Arrive in Caribou, Nova Scotia via ferry from Wood Islands, Prince Edward Island
  • Lunch in Antigonish. Plan was to wander the cute college town, but we were a little tired from overdoing ourselves in PEI.
  • Decided to drive to Ingonish through Baddeck, with a slight “scenic route” detour through Marble Mountain by the Bras d’Or Lake – skip the detour if you are on a tight schedule.
  • 5:30pm: Checked into our cottage at Glenghorm Beach Resort.
  • Had a delicious dinner at the Coastal Restaurant and Pub.
  • Took a long walk on Ingonish Beach.

Day 2:

  • 5:10am: Woke up to watch sunrise over water (wasn’t intentional, but nice after the fact), then went back to sleep.
  • 8 or 9am: Started the most exciting part of the Cabot Trail, stopping at occasional pullout.
  • Skipped a walk down to Black Brook Beach. This messed up our lunch plans!
  • Took the coastal route detour to Cape North.
  • Got excited about taking a picture of a cute church and took a wrong turn that took us north, rather than west.
  • 10:30am: Arrived in Pleasant Bay way too early for lunch. Everything except a small gift shop was still closed, but did manage to buy a couple of candy bars for lunch.
  • 11am: Hiked the Skyline Trail loop.
  • 1:30pm: Skipped the Le Buttereau hike, Skyline Trail was enough for us!
  • Got ice cream at Mr. Chicken in Chéticamp. Great picnic table view!
  • Decided to take the scenic route to Baddeck.
  • 3:30pm: Visited the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site.
  • Checked into Dunlop Inn in Baddeck.
  • Had reservations for dinner at the Cable Room. Delicious!
  • Took a walk by the water.
  • Fell asleep, thoroughly exhausted!

Caribou to Baddeck

While we thoroughly enjoyed the Cabot Trail, the drive from the ferry terminal in Caribou to Baddeck was our least favorite part. Coming from Prince Edward Island (PEI), getting to the Cabot Trail was a bit of a letdown. Everywhere we drove on PEI was exceptionally beautiful, and while the scenery after getting off the ferry in Caribou, Nova Scotia, was ruggedly nice, it wasn’t the same caliber.

Fortunately, that changed around Baddeck, and we were in bliss again:

After departing the ferry, we drove towards Antigonish, a somewhat cute college town that probably would have been nice to wander around for a few minutes given more time.

Just wanting a quick pit stop for lunch, we decided to stop at A&W, one of our favorite Canadian fast food chains (they exist in the US too, but much more common in Canada). Yum!

Back on the road, we were already feeling tired, but knew that we still had a very long drive in front of us, so we picked up some coffee at Tim Hortons. Coffee and donuts always make things better!

We wish someone would have told us to simply get to either Baddeck or Ingonish as quickly as possible. The ferry had a map of “scenic routes”, so we decided to take one that added about 30 minutes to our drive and touched the lower part of the Bras d’Or Lake and went through Marble Mountain.

Sure, there were a quite a few really nice views, but the roads were terrible! If we were driving an SUV rather than our sedan, it may have been better, but the roads felt like they hadn’t been repaved in about 50 years and at one point the road turned to gravel. Our conclusion was that the wide highways probably wouldn’t have been quite as scenic, but we also wouldn’t have sapped our energy trying to avoid potholes.

Fortunately, once we got within about 10 miles of Baddeck (where we would stop again on our way out), flowers started blooming, lakes started popping into view, and we were much happier! Once we passed Baddeck and made it to the ocean, things were even nicer:

One funny point during our travels was when we saw a sign with a caution sign with a picture of a child, a dog, and a chicken. When we saw a pile of rocks for “throwing” over a blind cliff, we were glad we didn’t have the kids with us. Hopefully there weren’t any hikers below us!

In any case, we were feeling more confident in our decision to leave Prince Edward Island and spend most of our time in Canada exploring Nova Scotia.

Entering Cape Breton Islands National Park

Just before Ingonish Beach, we entered Cape Breton Islands National Park. Since we were likely to leave the park within 24 hours, we purchased a day pass, and then talked to a park clerk at the visitor’s center for a bit to see if her ideas for what we should do aligned with our research. It mostly did, plus she gave us a couple more ideas.

Ingonish

Our Cottage

Upon arrival to Glenghorm Beach Resort, we checked in and got keys to our little yellow cottage with sea views. Very rustic, but delightful!

With a little time before dinner, we decided to walk on the private beach associated with the resort.

Dinner

When looking up dinner options, we realized that most restaurants closed at 7:30pm. Yikes! We needed to get a move on! We settled on the Coastal Restaurant and Pub and I ordered a special with seafood chowder topped with crab, muscles, and a half lobster. Delicious, although eating a lobster sitting on top of clam chowder is almost as messy as it sounds!

Ingonish Beach

After dinner we decided to take a long walk on Ingonish Beach. Beautiful!

We were a little worried that the rising tide was going to push us into the rocks on our walk back to the car, but it all turned out okay and we made it back as the first raindrops started falling. Great timing!

We decided to head back to our cottage and enjoy the views of the water from  our kitchen table.

Sunrise

In the morning, Jeremy thought it was a great idea to wake me at 5:10am to watch the sunrise over the beach. He debated waking me. I grudgingly decided it was a good idea, but then went back to sleep until a more normal hour of the morning.

We got our very-basic continental breakfast, then headed out to explore!

Various Lookout Points

Initially, we started pulling into every lookout point that we saw, but then realized that it was a bit much and slowed it down a bit.

We had though about walking down to Black Brook Beach, but decided to skip. This ended up putting us a little ahead of schedule.

Coastal Route Detour to Cape North

The woman at the visitor’s center had suggested taking the coastal route to Cape North, so we followed her advice. There were some pretty views. I wish we would have stopped at the lighthouse to take a picture.

Upon reaching Cape North, we saw a “church” that turned out to be a “cultural center”. I convinced Jeremy to stop and take a picture, not realizing that it was at the junction that would take us our intended direction, or further north.

After snapping our picture, we continued north and didn’t realize our mistake until reaching Sugarloaf. Ooops! At least it was a pretty drive!

Lunch Fiasco

As we drove, we continued to pull into random lookouts, but we arrived into Pleasant Bay much earlier than planned. 10:30am on a Sunday isn’t a great time to try and find food for lunch. Luckily, a small gift shop was open, so we grabbed a couple of candy bars and decided to call it a picnic lunch! If it would have been a little later in the day, we would have stopped at one of the cute looking restaurants.

Skyline Trail Loop

From here, we were ready for the highlight of our day: the Skyline Trail loop!

Not being sure if we wanted to do the full 5.1 mile loop or the 4 mile round trip hike, we started walking the short way to the main lookout point. The trail was wide and flat; it felt like more of a walk than a hike, but the scenery was breathtaking. The trees, ferns, and grasses were brilliantly green. The lushness of the boreal forest was incredible.

At one point we came to the “keep the moose out” pen. Apparently the moose have been destroying the vegetation – think new growth trees – and someone is doing an experiment to see if the land will recover if they still allow the smaller animals to come in, while keeping the moose from eating all of the new growth.

As we approached the main lookout, the flat path turned into a long staircase down the mountain.

I was unsure if the views would be worth the ascent back up, but we decided that we should go. In the end, I’m still not sure that it was worth it, but we did get a nice picture!

The hike back to the trailhead was on the longer part of the path, so there were fewer people and it was more pleasant. What a great hike! We definitely recommend it if you’re in the area!

Chéticamp

We had thought about hiking the 1 mile Le Buttereau loop, but as we looked at the climb up the side of the mountain, we decided that our candy bars were not quite enough.

We decided to head into Chéticamp for something a little more substantial. At some point, you will get “lookout fatigue” and decide that another scenic view isn’t worth the trouble. In the end, substantial lost out and ice cream sounded great, so we stopped at Mr. Chicken, which had a nice looking ice cream stand and some fabulous picnic tables with a sea view!

Driving Back to Baddeck

From here, we debated driving the most direct way back to Baddeck, or taking the scenic route through Inverness. It was only about 15 minutes longer to take the scenic route, so we opted for that. I guess our “lookout fatigue” was fixed by a few calories!

Baddeck

Alexander Graham Bell Museum

Arriving into Baddeck, we decided to stop by the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. There are also beautiful views of the lighthouse from here!

We were surprised to learn how much more he did than simply invent the telephone. None of it was near as successful as the telephone (big surprise), but some of it was quite interesting and other things were laughable.

What was Alexander Graham Bell’s association with this town? After inventing the telephone, he spent most of his time in Washington D.C., but without air conditioning in that era, he wanted to escape DC’s summer heat. So he made Baddeck his summer home, as it reminded him of his native Scotland. The locals embraced having this famous character build a summer lab in their town.

Beyond his interest in sound, he was also very interested in aviation (he initially thought that a kites were the way of the future), sheep breeding (hilarious to read about his ideas), and more!

The museum greatly exceeded my expectations and is well worth a stop!

An Evening in Baddeck

We decided to stay at the Dunlop Inn, which was right on the water, just a short walk from the spot in the picture below.

Checkin was at a different hotel, which also housed the Cable Room restaurant, where we ended up making dinner reservations. The food was quite tasty, even if the portions were on the small side. Expect to order several courses. My lobster risotto, salad, and maple ice cream with merengue were all delicious! I also tried a local Tidal Bay wine from Benjamin Bridge, and it may just be a new favorite!

After dinner we took a walk by the water. You can never get tired of lighthouse spotting!

In the morning, I teased Jeremy about taking the hotel’s kayaks out at sunrise – he had woken me up the morning before at 5:10am to see the sunrise – but both of us were way too tired for that. We did enjoy eating a continental breakfast and drinking our coffee at a picnic table in front of the hotel.

On to Halifax!

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