National Geographic called it “Canada’s best-kept secret.” Travel and Leisure and Codé Nast Travel readers have consistently ranked it as the number one island in North America. Some years it was ranked #3 in the world. It’s beaten the likes of Vancouver Island and Prince Edward Island. Alexander Graham Bell considered it one, if not the most beautiful place he’d ever visited.
Where’s this place, you ask? It’s Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, of course.
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Cape Breton Island
Somehow, the island balances vibrant trees, mountainous vistas, rollicking oceans, and an intense local culture without being overrun by tourists.
Alexander Graham Bell wrote, “I have travelled the world over, I have seen the Rockies, the Andes, the Alps and the Scottish Highlands, but I have never seen anything to match Cape Breton.”
The travel enthusiasts of the world agree with the American inventor, voting Cape Breton the Best Island in North America four years in a row. Every year, travel and Travel and Leisure readers cote for the “Worlds Best”. Islands are rated on natural attractions, activities and sights, restaurants and food, people, and value.
If you’re itching to visit Cape Breton Island (and you should be), here’s what you need to know.
One of the best road trips in Canada, if not the world, Cabot Trail meanders through the island giving you an overview of everything there is to see. Over 300km, the coastal highway weaves its way along Cape Breton’s rocky northern shore, looping inland through Cape Breton Highlands National Park, and crossing the salmon-loaded Margaree River, linking eight major communities in the province.
Taking you down the island’s rugged coast along a mountainous road high above the sparkling Gulf of St. Lawrence, there are many sights to see on the Cabot Trail. You might even spot some wildlife. Bald eagles overhead or migrating whale pods in the sea from spring to fall. You can see fin, minke, humpback, pilot, and other large water mammals navigating the waterways all from the comfort of dry land.
The trip can take as long or short as you like. Stop for fishing in the Margaree River. With large fish ranging from 6 to 20 pounds, you’ll spot anglers throughout the spring and summer.
Explore the Cape Breton Highlands Park with one of the many hiking trails. Not only will you witness stunning ocean views, but jaw-dropping waterfalls, crystal lakes, and pristine rivers. There is a waterway for everyone in Cape Breton.
Be sure to stop and camp or explore one of the many vibrant towns along the way. Staying in quaint bed and breakfasts or private seaside Airbnb as you experience the varied and lively culture of the Maritime island.
Next to the awe-inspiring landscape, visitors to Cape Breton remark on the friendliness of the locals. Hospitality is important to these Maritimers, and many are excited to show you glimpses of their culture. Three major communities dominate the scene in Cape Breton.
The Mi’kmaq, along with other First Nation communities, were the first inhabitants of Cape Breton. Ancient traditions and millennia-old folklore of the island are just some of what you can learn from the local leaders on the island.
Acadian history also runs deep in Cape Breton, with many festivals, music venues, and activities celebrating the culture.
It also wouldn’t be Cape Breton without the tradition of the Gaelic communities. Foot-tapping fiddle and bagpipe music. There’s even a weekly Ceilidh with traditional Scottish or Irish music, dancing, and storytelling.
Visiting the towns in Cape Breton is a wonderful way to learn more.
Towns and Culture
You’ll be winding through colourful fishing villages and artsy Maritime towns if you drive the Cabot Trail, and you’ll want to stop at a few of them along the way.
If you’re driving the Cabot Trail, you’ll be starting, or ending, your travels in Baddeck. The name of the town likely comes from Mi’kmaq, meaning “place with an island nearby.” Sailing tours (or lessons) are an exciting way to explore this area. You can also enjoy the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site to learn more about the inventor who had two summer residences in Cape Breton.
Ingonish is another popular spot along the way. Known for the beautiful beach, opulent resort, and stunning golf courses, it’s a great area to take a break or stay the night.
The small Acadian towns along the coast are a fascinating part of the Island’s history. Because of their remote location, the villages like Belle Côte, Terre Noire, Cap Le Moine, Grand Étang, and Chéticamp have preserved their native language and culture, nestled away from the eye of British troops of old.
Cape Breton Island is the only place outside of Ireland and Scotland to have a living, and thriving, Gaelic community. Signs are in English and Gaelic, and many of Nova Scotia’s 2000 Gaelic speakers reside on the island. Iona, Cape Breton, is North America’s only living Gaelic language and culture museum. Mabou and Baddeck are some of the best towns to experience the unique culture.
Cape Breton Island Food
Seafood plays an important part of the culture and cuisine in Cape Breton. Once you taste fresh Atlantic fish and lobster, there’s no going back.
Want to cook and eat lobster traditionally? Book an interpretive tour with the Highlands National Park. In the summertime, a lobster boil on the beach takes place where you’ll feast on the local fare surrounded by nature.
Baddeck Lobster Suppers is also a must-stop during your Cabot Trail drive. Locally owned and operated, they’ve been serving up fresh crab, salmon, and, you guessed it, lobster for years.
Whisky lovers will enjoy touring the Whisky Warehouse at Glenore Distillery, the home of Canada’s only single malt whisky. Of course, there are some taste tests during the tour as well.
Best Time to Visit
You can visit Cape Breton any time of year. The summer months are the warmest with the most activity options available. It’s also the busiest time to visit. Spring is an excellent time to spot the first whales in the area.
Although some restaurants and events close by September, Fall in Cape Breton is perhaps the best time to go. The entire island turns into a vibrant canvas of colours with the foliage in bright yellows, reds, and oranges.
No matter what time you visit, we know that you’ll enjoy yourself on Canada’s best island.