The Cabot Trail is a 298 km (185 mile) scenic highway that circles the northern part of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. With stunning views of rugged coastlines, sandy beaches and lush forests, it’s no wonder it is considered one of the most scenic drives in the world. On our trip to Atlantic Canada the Cabot Trail was added after our stay in Prince Edward Island and it provided us with a restful few days as we explored this beautiful area.
We travelled clockwise around the Cabot Trail as we wanted to stop for a couple of nights in the Pleasant Bay area on the west side of the trail. I can’t say that travelling in one direction would be any better than the other way as the views would certainly be stunning no matter which way you went. What makes this drive so incredible are the amount of hills that you will be ascending and descending. One minute you are driving along looking down at sweeping views of the coastline and the forest, and the next minute you are down by the water with beaches by your side. You will also find yourself driving in and out of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, a park established in 1936 to protect the unique landscape that exists here.
Pleasant Bay is a popular spot for tourists providing a few options for places to stay as well as a restaurant, a grocery store for basic supplies, and an opportunity for some hikes or a whale-watching trip. We stayed just outside of town and did a short hike to Gampo Abbey to take in the views from that location.
Gampo Abbey is a Buddhist Monastery that was built in 1983 and hosts three-year retreats for those applicants that are invited to attend. The stupa was added later and was the first to be built in Nova Scotia. Visitors are welcome to wander around and enjoy the trails that are within the monastery grounds.
With our one full day in the area we decided to explore the northern section of the Cabot Trail and so took ourselves for a drive to Cabots Landing Provincial Park. The road took us just inside the Cape Breton Highlands National Park where we stopped at a lookout over the Aspy Fault. This fault line was probably created when two plates collided over 400 million years ago, pushing the seabed upwards to create the Cape Breton Highlands, as well as the Appalachian Mountains.
Within the Cape Breton Highlands National Park you will find 26 hiking trails ranging from easy to difficult. There are also campsites, beaches, recreational fishing areas, and snowshoeing trails. Keep in mind you will need a Parks Canada pass when stopping anywhere within the park boundaries. We drove out of the park, continuing along the Cabot Trail to Bay St. Lawrence Road which we turned onto, heading north to Cabots Landing Provincial Park. This small park is situated along Aspy Bay and it is here that John Cabot, the Italian explorer, is thought to have landed in 1497. There is a National Historic Site cairn and a statue as well as some information about the voyage that would have brought him to this location.
Although the day was overcast and quite cool we still enjoyed wandering along the beach area. The rugged cliffs here rise sharply from the beach area and are well weathered from the unpredictable storms that frequent this area. We kept our eyes open for any treasures that may have washed up on the shore, but unfortunately all we found were some buoys and a well used fishing net.
After spending some time at Cabots Landing Park we drove to the tiny village of Dingwall to take a picture of the harbour. We then headed back to Pleasant Bay for one more night.
In the morning we retraced our route along the northern section of the Cabot Trail and then started the drive south down the eastern part of the route. We took a side trip here on White Point Road that allowed us to get some spectacular views of the coastline.
We also stopped in Neils Harbour, a small fishing town that was recently battered by Storm Fiona which devastated homes and businesses in this area. I remember saying at the time what a picturesque place it was with its lighthouse and colourful buildings lined up along the coastal road.
We joined back up with the Cabot Trail, heading once more into Cape Breton Highlands National Park, where we made a stop at Ingonish beach for a picnic. The city of Ingonish is a year round destination for tourists and is famous for its Highland Links Golf Course perched on top of a hill overlooking the ocean. In the summer there is swimming and hiking and in the winter there is both downhill and cross country skiing to enjoy.
We didn’t continue on the Cabot Trail to the city of Baddeck, where the Alexander Graham Bell Historic Site is located, as we were headed to the eastern side of Cape Breton Island. However, we did return the next day to Englishtown…just off of the Cabot Trail…for a boat tour to Bird Island. There are a few companies that run these tours to see the puffins and other bird life that visit these islands during the summer months. It was a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours and I would highly recommend it.
We saw a variety of sea and bird life on the boat tour…seals, bald eagles, cormorants, kittiwakes, gulls and of course the adorable Atlantic Puffin, which are a lot smaller than I realized! They were fun to watch as they launched themselves off the sides of the island from their nests, flapping their little wings as fast as they could to gain momentum as they dove into the water.
Our trip around the Cabot Trail was over and it was time to head to our next stop…Louisbourg. This road trip was not in our original plans for Nova Scotia, but it was one we are definitely glad we did! For more information about the Cabot Trail click the link here.