Wow, what a weekend. I added 1,150 km to the odometer of the red PT Cruiser since Friday afternoon, that's some killer mileage! I drove to and from Baddeck in Cape Breton, and around the 300 km Cabot Trail. What an experience. I uploaded some pictures here.
The trip started around 4 p.m. on Friday. I left work a bit early to take advantage of the couple of remaining hours of daylight. Yeah, not so much, it was already dark at that time. I left Halifax in rainy, windy weather. I have to admit, the 4 1/2 hours it took to make it to my destination were quite difficult. The rain was at times a downpour, mixed with fog and gusts of wind. Even with the limited visibility, I only took a wrong turn once, trying to pick the right exit out of a roundabout with signs barely visible because of the heavy fog.
I had reserved a room at the Inverary Resort in Baddeck. From what I had read, Baddeck was a great starting point for the Cabot Trail. When I arrived, I asked the ladies at the front desk where I could find a good place to grab a bite. It was almost 9 and I hadn't had dinner. They thought about it a bit, told me that most places would be closed at this time of the year, and finally sent me to Tom's Pizza. Pizza? I was hoping for a small pub where I could sit at the bar, have a pint and some local specialty. But the pizza would have to do. Tom's Pizza is a small parlour where kids drop in for slices. They made a decent meat lover. I then headed back to the resort and went to bed.
I woke up early, initially at 4:30 with the room's alarm buzzing madly (not my setting, thanks a lot), and then at 8 a.m. to shower and have breakfast at Flora, the resort's restaurant. I have to be honest: the food at Flora was nothing to rave about, and the breakfast buffet wasn't worth $14 (with taxes). I leave at 9:30 and start my drive around the Cabot Trail.
The first part of the drive heads North towards Margaree Valley, cutting across the island (Cape Breton is an island, connected to the rest of Nova Scotia by the Canso Causeway). It's a lovely drive, through small villages of farms, over rivers, including the Margaree River that is supposed to be known for salmon fishing. I made a quick stop in Margaree to look around, but didn't stay long because I still had a long way to go.
The road eventually comes to an intersection where you can chose to head straight North towards Chéticamp, or South towards Inverness. I pick North. The drive is pleasant, and I can tell that I am close to the ocean. Unfortunately, I can't see the water, the fog is thick and rain is falling down. I'm hoping that the fog clears at some point during the day.
Chéticamp is in Acadian Canada, and the names on signs along the road, originally more Scottish sounding, now sound very French: Aucoin, Doucet. Just before I get to Chéticamp, I stop at a tiny store called Charlie's Music Store. Charlie's is not only a place where you can buy French Acadian and Celtic music, but also rent movies and buy snacks. I chat a bit with the owner, who speaks French. Lovely. I love the Acadian accent. I buy a couple of CDs to keep me entertained along the drive.
In Chéticamp, I stop to have lunch at All Aboard Restaurant. The waitress doesn't seem surprised to see me alone, and once she has taken my order, brings me a coffee and the Saturday newspaper. How thoughtful. I order a pan-fried haddock and fries. Apparently, the fish is caught locally. The dish is delicious, I don't eat much of the fries but the coleslaw is fresh (tastes like cabbage) and the fish, moist. The place gets really busy during lunch, it looks like a spot where locals come to eat.
For the next little while, as I drive into the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, I notice that there is very little traffic along the Cabot Trail. The entrance to the park is wide open, I guess they don't make you buy a permit in the low season. As I continue my way around the Trail, I am disappointed when every view point is a view on pea soup, not a breathtaking bird's eye view of the Atlantic coast. View point? Fog. Another view point? More fog. The only time I see anything is when I drive down to the sea level, any point high in the mountains is stuck in a thick white mist.
Well, too bad then. I keep on driving, I'm singing along with the CDs, and I can't help but enjoy the drive. I'm basically alone, with the odd car driving by every 10 minutes or so. When I stop to breathe the fresh air (and let the car cool down from the hike up), if I happen to meet anyone, they give me a very surprised look. "You're driving the Cabot Trail by yourself? Good for you!" It's not a dangerous drive, but obviously, you try not to push the car too hard and keep the tank filled. This is not the place to run out of gas.
The rest of my trip will be a series of stop and go, as I sometimes see a nice place to sneak a peek. I'm scanning the forest around me carefully, this is a place where you have moose, and I know very well what happens to a car when it hits one of the large animals. Not good. I return to the resort around 4, a full day of driving under my belt.
I had noticed that the resort had a small pub and after eating a snack, I decide to drop by. There's a local musician playing Cape Breton folks music, and he's very good. James MacDonald I believe was his name. I initially sit at the bar, and have a glass of Canadian whisky (cannot be called scotch if you're not in Scotland) from a local distillery called Glenora. It's very smooth, and I decide to visit the distillery on Sunday. I wanted to visit the Louisbourg fortress on Sunday, but it's a long way out and my Frommer's travel guide mentioned that the museum was closed after the end of October. Louisbourg would seem like a place you visit to get the whole experience, including the costumed interpreters.
A guy drops by the bar to get some beers, and asks me to join his group in the back of the bar. Dan is from Halifax and is visiting Cape Breton (for the first time) with his girlfriend. Another couple is also local to Nova Scotia. It's fun to see people visiting their own province. We chat for a little while and exchange contact info. They told me about a pub that I have to visit in Halifax. I look forward to an invitation in the future.
Sunday morning, I pack my stuff and leave the resort around 10. No buffet for me, I stop by Tim Horton's for a breakfast sandwich and coffee. Atlantic Canadians sure love their Tim Horton's, they are all over the place, even in the most remote towns. I then head towards Margaree again, the same road I initially started my trip on Saturday. I have to admit, the drive is priceless. There is nobody on the road, it's dry, and most parts have been recently repaved. Just like in a car commercial.
I take the turn towards Inverness and drive along a road that makes me feel like I'm in another country. From the rugged coast of the Trail, I have moved to rolling hills that I would imagine Ireland and Scotland to look like. There are even sheep grazing in one of the fields, c'mon!! My spirits are high, until I drive up to the entrance of the Glenmora distillery and stare at a large "Closed" sign. Pooh. I was looking forward to this tour.
Well, maybe this is my hint that I should be heading home, which is what I end up doing. Along the way, I end up getting a few rays of precious sun. Very nice. The sun won't last long, but I'm not complaining. After missing, again, the turn I'm supposed to take out of the roundabout (they have to rethink that design, it's not intuitive, especially when the fog is thick), I drive my merry way back to Halifax and my hotel.
Great memories: driving alone on a country road Sunday morning, discovering Glenora whisky, meeting new friends, standing on the beach with the ocean wind blowing my hair around, listening to FM 92.5 Acadian radio.
Disappointments: my Frommer's guide (probably the worst travel guide I've bought in a while, most places they recommended were closed, what about catering to the traveler who does the Trail off season?), not being able to visit the distillery (while the Frommer's guide said it was opened year long and offered daily tours), missing out on some of the great views.
All together, I'm happy I took this trip. I would do the Cabot Trail again, maybe as a camping and hiking trip. To the bird on route 19 South: I'm sorry, the sickening thump I heard probably means I killed you, but I had to chose between making a crazy manoeuvre and hitting you. You lost.