Cape Breton’s nine-day Celtic Colours Music Festival is in full swing, and I’m being treated to some toe-tapping fiddle playing from the internationally acclaimed Rankin Sisters, holding court at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre.
This annual festival, an absolute feast of music, dance and storytelling, takes place right across the island. Nova Scotia literally translates as New Scotland, and Celtic music in North America was born right here, folks.
It’s a three-hour drive from Halifax to Nova Scotia’s eastern island tip, but once you’ve crossed over the Canso Causeway, there’s no mistaking you’ve arrived somewhere quite different. Cape Breton has a distinct island vibe, but its roots lie in the Gaelic culture and language of its Scottish ancestry.
The island is not just about history though, it’s also a place of outstanding natural beauty; its rugged coastline shaped by the crashing tides of the Atlantic.
It’s the perfect setting for Cape Breton’s jewel in the crown, the legendary Cabot Trail, one of the undisputed top ten scenic drives of the world.
A 185-mile circular route, it can be driven in either direction — but follow it anticlockwise and the thrilling Highlands National Park in the high north of the island makes for a magnificent climax.
The Trail snakes through many charming historic communities, some tucked away inland, while others cling to the rugged Atlantic headlands.
It’s a route you could complete in a day’s drive, but honestly, what would be the point in that? This is a drive to savour every moment. Take in the views, stop frequently, and spend a few days discovering all its nooks and crannies, as well as some of Cape Breton’s highlights.
Baddeck’s claim to fame is that inventor Alexander Graham Bell bought a large estate here as his summer home — but while he is best associated with telephony, he also created many ground-breaking innovations in watercraft and aviation here. The Alexander Graham Bell Museum is not to be missed.
A celebration of his life and work, it contains many original artefacts, films, and full-size replicas of his aircraft. Try the private “white glove tour” and look through many of his personal items not on public view, such as his fascinating notebooks.
Baddeck also makes a lovely overnight stop, giving you time to walk the lakefront and perhaps do some swimming, kayaking or paddleboarding.
The Iona peninsula is about an hour’s drive away, with a cute and free car ferry to take you across the Little Narrows.
This leads to the Great Narrows and a thrilling encounter with the Barra Strait on the inland sea; an enormous body of water with epic views as far as the eye can see.
Perched by the water’s edge is the Highland Village Museum. Not so much a museum as an authentic outdoor recreation of a 19th-century Gaelic settler village, brought to life by costumed actors demonstrating weaving, spinning, and quilting.
It’s a working and sustainable settlement that is no cheesy tourist attraction; rather a realistic glimpse into the harsh life of Cape Breton’s early pioneers.
I leave the Trail for a worthwhile diversion to the Fortress of Louisbourg, a historic garrison on a remote tip of coast dating back to 1713.
Originally built by the French, it was subsequently taken by the British and in 1759 was used as a launching point for the siege of Quebec and the ultimate defeat of the French in Canada.
After years of neglect, a huge reconstruction project was started by Parks Canada in 1960 and is still ongoing, making it the biggest historical reconstruction in North American history.
It is another doorway into the past with lots to explore inside and out, including an excellent time travel tour, where costumed actors describe 18th-century garrison life.
Louisbourg itself might be remote but it makes for another excellent overnight stop – for the hospitality at the North Star Hotel as well as the landscape.
Turning north, you can rejoin the Cabot Trail at St Ann’s. From here, the elevation rises towards that highland finale.
Driving around rugged headlands, past sandy beaches, and along sweeping green valleys, my route takes me towards Ingonish, a collective name for a cluster of sleepy communities along this coastal stretch — namely South Ingonish Harbour, Ingonish Ferry, Ingonish Beach, Ingonish Centre and Ingonish.
Each turn is a Kodak moment, and along the way I pass numerous boutique artisan retailers. One of my favourites is hippy hat maker Barbara Longva, whose Sew Inclined store is well worth a peek.
I stop off at Cape Smokey along the way, Atlantic Canada’s only cable car ride. It’s a 15-minute journey to the top plateau where I grab a chair and take in the bird’s eye view of the ocean and the peaks of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which awaits next.
If you are searching for somewhere with the wow factor, the National Park is certainly it. During my visit in early October, my ledge overlooked a rugged river valley bedecked in autumnal rust as far as the eye can see.
An impossibly beautiful scene, and one only Mother Nature could hope to conjure. For walkers and ramblers, the hero hike is the Skyline Trail, a loop stretching almost four miles around the headland clifftops with the Atlantic surf roaring far below.
But what a finale awaits as I take the 80-minute drive to Inverness, with some truly astonishing viewing stops, called “look offs” by Canadians. Handy information panels reveal plenty of points of interest, as well as the marine life to spot.
Whales, dolphins, and seals are the headliners, but there are plenty more in the impressive wildlife line-up.
By now I’m in Acadian community territory, the French-speaking settlers who lived in the Canadian Maritimes during the 17th and 18th centuries — the appearance of French signposting being the first big clue.
Chéticamp is a typical village, where I pick up some fresh pastries from the Aucoin Bakery to nibble on the road, as well as taking a look at the gallery and museum housing the work of Elizabeth LeFort, who created an art form hooking portraits in wool.
Inverness itself is a small coastal village popular with golfers playing the renowned Cabot Links, but away from the greens, the beach is magnificent with a narrow road leading directly to the wild sands and boardwalk.
You’ll also find the best swimming on the entire island in the crystal-clear water of the Gulf of St Lawrence.
Moving on from French heritage, this final stretch also includes the Ceilidh Trail, the home of Scottish traditions and Gaelic folklore. Traditional music seeps from every pub, restaurant, and social gathering — and it’s the venue for that encounter with the Rankin Sisters.
Those toe-tapping fiddle jigs make a fitting tribute to Cape Breton’s early Celtic settlers and a perfect end to an epic drive that more than lives up to its billing.
Jewish life in Halifax
Visitors from the UK will almost certainly start and end their trip in Nova Scotia’s bustling capital, Halifax, and it’s well worth saving some time to explore.
The city has reinvented itself from a working port to a lively weekend destination, thanks to its impressive new 2.5-mile seafront boardwalk, lined with restaurants, boutique shops and places of interest.
The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is a celebration of Nova Scotia’s rich seafaring history, which includes the city’s part in responding to the Titanic disaster, as well as how it recovered from the devastating 1917 Halifax harbour explosion, when a munitions ship collided with another carrying supplies, setting off a tsunami wave and a fire that killed nearly 2,000 people.
The brilliant Harbour Hopper amphibious tour is also unmissable, as is visiting the historic Citadel, and the Museum of Immigration — between 1928 and 1971, more than a million immigrants entered Canada through the Pier 21 processing centre in Halifax.
There’s been a strong Jewish community in Halifax since 1750 too, and today it is Canada’s biggest east of Montreal. Though the original shul was destroyed in the 1917 harbour explosion, there are currently two, both on Oxford Street; the orthodox Beth Israel, and the conservative Shaar Shalom, which can both be visited.
Flights cost from around £600 return from Heathrow to Halifax in Nova Scotia with Air Canada
For more information on Nova Scotia, Touring the Cabot Trail, Cape Breton and Halifax, visit novascotia.com