It’s no secret that if you are looking for breathtaking landscapes and wildlife, Canada is the place to go. As many head west to see Lake Louise, Banff and Jasper in the spectacular Rocky Mountains, equally majestic treasures await anyone who ventures east.
Last summer, my partner and I visited Cape Breton island in Nova Scotia, as part of a longer trip exploring Canada’s east. The island is known for its rugged coastline and majestic mountains as well as the renowned Cabot Trail, a ring road that allows you to see and explore it all.
We flew into Halifax Stanfield International Airport (YHZ) and after a 5 hour drive across the length of the province, we made it to our accommodation close to Sydney (not that one), the major town in the north of Nova Scotia.
We only had 2 days to explore the Cape Breton but, blessed with amazing weather, we managed to visit some the island’s most beautiful and unique places without ever feeling too rushed.
At nearly 300km, we decided to explore the Cabot Trail in two halves: west coast one day, east coast the other. Below is the itinerary we followed, covering the trails, the very essential cafe breaks and a few unique little stop offs.
Read on to get inspired about how to make the most of a short trip around the picturesque trail.
Day 1: West Coast
10:00 – Dancing Goat Café & Bakery
Probably not the usual start to an article on exploring vast and spectacular wilderness. However, the Dancing Goat Café is a great place to start your day if, like us, you are staying near Sydney. About an hour in to the cabot trail (before it gets really good), this café has a nice array of brunch items to fill you up before the busy day ahead. It has a warm and welcoming atmosphere and it was clearly very popular with locals.
What really makes this place special is their homemade cakes. Baked fresh, there’s a huge selection on offer, from white chocolate cheesecake to apple and cinnamon pie. It’s a must before you expend all that energy climbing Cape Breton’s mountains.
12:00 – Gypsum Mine
Gypsum mine, near the town of Chéticamp, has to be your first stop your Cabot Trail itinerary for a number of reasons.
Firstly, just look at it. This former mine is now one of the most popular hikes in the province. The water’s mixture with the white gypsum mineral has turned it an aqua blue and its helpful ropes and steps allow hikers of almost any ability the opportunity to view it from up high where it looks most spectacular.
Secondly, the Gypsum mine is so brilliant because it is only a short walk to reach it. From the car park, a steady pace sees you get there in about 20 minutes, and although it is slightly uphill, the path is wide and clearly defined. So you won’t be too exhausted to enjoy it by the time you get there!
In fact, it is so close to the car park that in the summer swimmers and sunbathers are known to flock there to enjoy the water’s tepid appeal.
15:00 – The Skyline Trail
The Skyline Trail is without doubt the most famous walk in Cape Breton. I couldn’t put together any sort of Cabot Trail itinerary without it.
While I toyed with making this the last stop on my whirlwind Cape Breton tour, when I woke up that day to cloudless blue skies, I decided to seize the moment in case the next day’s weather wasn’t as kind.
The path takes just over an hour from car park to sea, passing through forests and wildlife enclosures(!) before reaching the coast. Within these forests, it is not unusual to see moose, bald eagles, bears or even coyotes. I highly recommend finding a long threatening stick in case of this last eventuality.
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your opinion), we did not see any of these creatures. Instead, we reached the Skyline Trail’s impressive finale – a descending boardwalk with hundreds of steps taking you closer and closer and lower and lower to the sea. Here, you are treated to an iconic view of the Cape Breton coastline: a rich, lush landscape hugging the surrounding mountains, with the Cabot Trail snaking around it.
The walk takes between 2 and 3 hours, depending on your pace, but it is again relatively easy with the only real ascent or descent being on your way down or back up from the sea right at the end.
Day 2: The East Coast
10:00 – Franey Trail
On Day 2 we headed to the East Coast of the Cabot Trail to do what would turn out to be my favourite hike of the trip: the Franey Trail near Ingonish. I recommend doing this trail first thing as it is a challenging ascent up Franey mountain that takes around an hour and a half to reach the summit.
A quick google of the Franey Trail descibes it as “heavily trafficked” and “a bit of a let down”. DO NOT believe these reviews. The hike takes you through rugged forestry, with beautiful creeks, wildlife and some serious climbing at certain points. We went in mid-June and saw less than half a dozen groups on the 2-and-a-half hour round trip.
Throughout the climb you are regularly teased with glimpses of the stunning views of Ignonish beach, the Atlantic Ocean and the lush mountains all around. But it is only when the trees clear and it opens up at the top that it can be fully appreciated.
There’s even big red chair at the top where you can sit and marvel at the view and your achievement. Pictures truly don’t do the view justice. This stop must be an essential part of any Cabot Trail itinerary.
TOP TIP: If you’re going in the late spring/summer remember bug spray! We forgot ours and were left flapping our arms the whole way up à la King Kong atop the Empire State circa 1933.
13:30 – Clucking Hen
Depending on where you are staying, you may have already driven past the Clucking Hen café on your way to Franey. Don’t stop though. Instead, come back here for lunch to sample some of their fresh shellfish delights.
As well as all the usual suspects you’d find on a café lunch menu, their specials of crab sandwich, lobster sandwich and lobster stew are a must. All caught locally, these shellfish are a specialty to Nova Scotia and any visit is incomplete with a try.
Like Dancing Goat, the Clucking Hen café also boasts a mouth-watering selection of cakes and desserts. This is another reason I recommend the Franey walk first as after my stew and treacle tart, movement was difficult.
14:30 – Groovy Goat Farm & Soap Company
After lunch, we headed back into Ingonish to Groovy Goat Farm. This farm made a nice change to the hiking and exploring we’d done so far by letting us get up close and personal with horses, cows, bees(!), rabbits and, of course, goats. I said this Cabot Trail itinerary would have some little surprises!
The farm is run by an extremely friendly family who are more than happy to show you around and let you touch and meet all their animals.
There’s also a small shop at the entrance which sells a range of goats milk products including soaps, lip balms, and bath bombs. It was a great place to pick up unique souvenirs for people back home.
16:00 – Middlehead Trail Head
The final spot on our whistle-stop tour of Cape Breton was the Middlehead Trail. Set out on a little peninsula in the Atlantic, to get the Middlehead you’ll drive through a very luxurious resort and golf club that I can only dream of affording.
Due to the long narrow nature of the peninsula, Middlehead’s USP is that it feels as if you are in the sea with views looking back at Cape Breton’s luscious mountains and coastline.
The walk itself is only the more difficult end of easy. It’s reasonably flat and will take around an hour and a half, with plenty of lookout points to stop and admire the view. It can get rocky in sections though, with a couple of hills that should be allowed for.
Put simply, it was the perfect level of difficulty after a long long day.
So there we have it. A (very) brief Cabot Trail itinerary including possible things to do if you only have a couple of days on Cape Breton. It should be said that there are tonnes of other things that you could do too.
For instance, if we had come just a week later then we would have caught the start of whale watching season. A whale watching trip is an absolute must if you happen to be in this part of the world at the right time.
There are also numerous companies and locations where you can rent kayaks or canoes and explore the Cape Breton coastline on the water’s edge. I can only imagine how pleasant paddling along this spectacular shoreline would have been on a warm sunny day.
We only chose not to do this as we had an organised kayaking tour booked for the next part of our trip, near the idyllic town of Lunenburg, which is closer to Halifax.
The silver lining in not experiencing these things (and loving everything that we did do) is that without doubt, Cape Breton you will see me again.