The Cabot Trail
There’s some debate as to whether it’s better to ride the Cabot Trail clockwise or counter-clockwise. Most people seem to prefer clockwise, so I decided to take it counter-clockwise to cut down on traffic. It also put me closer to the shore and many of the pull-offs. The general consensus seems to be that it’s best to try it in both directions and decide which you like better.
I don’t function well without coffee in the morning, so I stopped at a Tim Horton’s to get some. (It’s Canada. There’s always a Timmy’s nearby, just like Dunkin Donuts back home.) A Harley parked next to me, and the rider turned out to be a local school teacher who enjoyed riding the Cabot Trail during summer break. He advised me to stick to the posted speed limits. Most of us are used to doing 60mph around highway on-ramps posted at 25, but when the Cabot Trail posts a corner at 40km/h (25mph), they mean it. It really is that tight. And it has nothing to do with police. In fact I saw a grand total of two cruisers during my entire week on the road in Canada, and neither was running a speed trap. The main concern is wildlife. Taking a corner too fast and finding a moose standing at the apex will ruin your day, as well as your bodywork (both your bike and yourself).
In stark contrast to most of New Brunswick, the entire Cabot Trail has excellent pavement. This amazed me, since Cape Breton Island sits at the same latitude as northern Maine, which does not have good pavement. My native Massachusetts has terrible roads, and so did New Brunswick, yet somehow the Cabot Trail remains delightfully intact despite being further north and open all winter.
Soon after heading north from Baddeck, I made a stop at Colaisde na Gàidhlig / The Gaelic College in Saint Anns. I’m a history buff. My persona in the Society for Creative Anachronism is Scottish, and since Nova Scotia (literally “New Scotland”) was the destination for many Scots during the Highland Clearances, there is a vast amount of Scottish culture cherished and preserved here. After a nature walk and exploring the Great Hall of the Clans I was back to riding.
The Cabot Trail’s complexity hits the sweet spot between enjoyable and technical. The steep climb up Smokey Mountain was one of the most technical climbs I’ve ever made, but the vast majority of the Cabot Trail is curvy and hilly without taking your attention away from the awesome scenery around you. But there are also plenty of places to pull off, take a break, and take in the scenery.
As I parked at the top of Smokey Mountain, the guys from Quebec I’d met in Pictou stopped in. We talked a bit more, and compared notes on various parts of the trail. They were riding the trail the opposite direction as me, clockwise instead of counterclockwise. They assured me I had a lot of great riding ahead.
The Cabot Trail passes through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. You are not required to pay park admission if you’re passing straight through, but if you so much as set a foot down in the park you’re expected to pay admission as you enter. There are convenient little booths just off the side of the road so you can pull off and pay easily. I highly recommend that you do it. There are many beautiful places to check out in the park, and it’s worth not having to worry about getting ticketed for not having a pass (the rangers do check). It was $7.80 when I went. And in 2017 it won’t cost you anything, celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary.
After a tasty sandwich at the Coastal Restaurant and Pub in Ingonish, I stopped to explore Green Cove. It’s a rocky outcropping into the Atlantic Ocean, covered with scrubby looking trees and bayberry bushes. The reddish granite caught my eye as being quite similar to what I’ve seen at Acadia National Park in Maine, hundreds of miles away.
There are some enjoyable scenic detours off the Cabot Trail as well. I missed one down to Neil’s Harbour (when in Canada, spell as the Canadians do), which would have taken me on an enjoyable twisty cruise along the shore, as well as fed me a good cup of chowder at Murdoch’s Rock. I did take Bay St. Lawrence Road all the way to the end, and watched some lobster boats come and go from the bay. I was too chicken to try Meat Cove Road because it was gravel, though my skills have improved since then and I might try it today.
After rejoining the Cabot Trail, it soon dives back into the park, leading to even more swerves and curves among the lush green forests. You end up along the coast again in the aptly named Pleasant Bay, then gain altitude rapidly through a series of switchbacks up the side of Mackenzie Mountain. Unlike the somewhat chaotic climb of Smokey Mountain, which tends to follow the terrain, the climb (or descent, depending on your direction) up Mackenzie is organized and methodical with regular well designed switchbacks.
Though the road doesn’t take you to its 1,366ft peak, it takes you plenty high enough to look back for miles from whence you came. While admiring the view myself, a BMW motorcycle with a distinctive exhaust note went by. Though reasonably quiet, I could still hear it nearby for the next five minutes or so, and saw it emerge from the trees not very far from me as far as horizontal distance was concerned.
As you cruise down the east coast of Cape Breton Island watch for whales mucking about in the water nearby. I didn’t see any myself, but according to the park ranger I talked to this is a very popular area for them. Indeed, as I left the park and rolled into Chéticamp, I noticed numerous whale watch rides available. Clearly they didn’t have far to go to give their customers a good show.
Speaking of Chéticamp, this area of Cape Breton Island has a strong Acadian population. The island bounced like a ping pong ball between France and Great Britain through treaties and wars until finally being reunited with British Nova Scotia in 1820. (I told you I’m a history buff.) French replaces Gaelic on road signs in this area, and the Acadian flag is as visible as the Canadian flag, if not more so. This fishing village is quite proud of their French culture. The Cabot Trail becomes less twisty and curvy, so just slow down and take in the culture for a while before turning back inland at Margaree Forks and returning to the trees. Alternately, you can take the Ceilidh Trail south through Inverness (why yes, Scottish culture takes over again) and all the way back down to Port Hastings and the Canso Causeway.
But instead, I retraced my steps from the previous day and made my way back to the campground in Baddeck. After sitting by the lake for a while, a couple who had set up camp across the field from me said hello as I walked back. We got to talking, and I ended up hanging out with Bob and Carolyn for most of the evening. They’re from Florida, and had just gotten back from Newfoundland (just like the couple from Ontario the previous night). They offered me some homemade rhubarb pie they’d picked up at a bake sale in Newfoundland, and although I’ve never been to Newfoundland, they made sure I’d been properly “Screeched in.” I shared some of the Propeller Pale Ale I’d picked up. We talked while the sun went down until, once again, the bugs became too fierce and we retreated to our respective tents for the night.
The Cabot Trail is at least as awesome as all of the posts and articles online had led me to believe, if not more awesome. As you can see, there are many things I would’ve liked to have done and didn’t have time for – not to mention riding the Cabot Trail in the opposite direction, clockwise. I really didn’t want to leave Cape Breton Island, but I had a reservation at Fundy National Park the following night, and I couldn’t afford to stretch the time or expense of this trip out too long. I vowed that I would return someday to explore it some more. There are many places, like the Alexander Graham Bell Museum, right along the Cabot Trail that I’d like to see, and others, like the Fortress of Louisbourg, not far off the trail. I’ll have to go back someday and try to see some of the things I missed this time around. I love this place.