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This is a 3 part series, click here for part 1.
Last year, when the pandemic hit and we had to come back to Canada, we had to do something we hadn’t done in a long time.
Specifically, drive in downtown Toronto.
Let’s just say driving in Toronto and I have a long and complex love-hate relationship—except, you know, without the love.
On the plus side, if I ever get tired of being married, driving in downtown Toronto together will fix that right up for me.
I suspect, this is why we love Europe and Asia, where public transportation options are so cheap and convenient, there’s absolutely no need to drive.
So, imagine my surprise when not only did I not hate driving on the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Island, it was one of the best drives of my life.
Now, you might be wondering where is the hell is Cape Breton Island?
You’re not alone. The only reason I knew about it was from researching for our recent trip to Nova Scotia (apparently, Nova Scotia is not just Halifax). And that’s when I discovered that Cape Breton island, located on the eastern end of the province, was voted the #1 island in North America by Conde Nest Traveller readers, Of course, I had to go see it for myself.
It took us around 4 hours (Wanderer and I split the driving time) to get to Cheticamp (the starting point for the breathtaking Skyline trail) from Halifax, and along the way we were rewarded with views like this:
The only other drive even remotely comparable was Iceland, which also had incredible scenery but way too much road construction and constantly changing weather. In comparison, this drive was far easier and more relaxing.
We decided to explore the best of the Cabot Trail by visiting these spots highlighted by other travellers:
When we got to our Airbnb in Cheticamp, our bubbly Airbnb host greeted us with freshly baked scones, tea, and offered to start a campfire in the backyard so we could watch the stars.
This was a welcome change from Toronto, where “backyard” = balcony of your condo and the only stars you’ll ever see are the B-listers at the International Film Festival.
We quickly unloaded our stuff into this adorable purple farmhouse and discovered that the most perfect sunset was only 10 mins away:
With the quiet stretch of beach all to ourselves, we sat on the sand, munching on scones while the sky darkened from orange, to purple, to black.
After a peaceful (and incredibly quiet) night of sleep, we woke up refreshed, ready to discover all that Cape Breton island had to offer.
Skyline Trail/Cape Breton Highlands National Park
First stop was to the Cheticamp center to buy our Highlands National Park passes which gave us access to the Skyline Trail, home to one of the best panoramic cliffside ocean views I’ve ever seen in Canada.
Parking was surprisingly easy despite it being peak tourist season, and it was also remarkably easy to spread out from the other hikers on the trail.
When we got to the head of the trail, we were given two choices: the quick “there and back” path or the meandering, more scenic 3 km loop.
Quick and easy wasn’t challenging enough to me and didn’t spell “best value” obviously, so I went with the longer, more scenic route.
This is what we saw along the way:
I’m happy to report that even though there were signs saying, “beware of moose” and a bear fence, we didn’t get eaten by any bears and made it to the panoramic viewpoint:
This also gave us a good look at the mountainous winding roads we took to get here:
The hike wasn’t strenuous at all and even though it was an easy 3 km loop back, I still heard complaints from other travellers about not being able to hail a taxi to drive them back. *sigh* So healthy.
After the hike, we decided to drive the extra hour and a half to Ingonish beach on the other side of the island. Since we only had 2 days there, we didn’t have time to drive the entire Cabot Trail, but luckily a friend, who’d driven it before, told us the most scenic part is the Cheticamp to Ingonish section, so we prioritized that.
When we got to Ingonish, I was shocked to find that we had the entire beach to ourselves:
But then we realized that this wasn’t the nicest, main beach. Tucked away on the other side was a whole other stretch of beach, with a few families and tourists lounging about:
After driving back from Ingonish to Cheticamp, we discovered an old Gypsum mine lake, which was the perfect swimming hole:
We then drove back to town to have dinner at L’Abri, the most popular restaurant in town, to wind down our perfect day. Little did we know that the piece de resistance was coming up.
Cheticamp Island Lighthouse
Our Airbnb host told us the best place in Cheticamp to watch the sunset was at the lighthouse. What I didn’t know was that she wasn’t talking about any ol’ lighthouse. She was talking about a lighthouse at the tip of a tiny island, which no tourist visits, because they literary don’t know there’s another island called “Cheticamp island” right across the water from the town of Cheticamp. Duh. So obvious, right?
I was also a little apprehensive since her directions to the light house went something like this:
“Drive across the bridge to the island, then turn off the road onto a dirt path. Now, most tourists will just turn back at this point, but just keep driving down the dirt path. There aren’t any paved roads at this point but just keep going all the way until the end. Don’t be alarmed if a cow randomly wanders into your path. That just means you’re going in the right direction.”
Uh huh. Mysteriously vague directions, leading us off the beaten path, where no tourists and witnesses would be? If this were any place my alarm bells would be going off that we were about to star in a real life episode of Squid Game. But come on. This is Nova Scotia. Nothing bad ever happens in Nova Scotia.
So we went. And she was right. The island was full of cows:
Finally after 30 mins of slowly meandering down a narrow gravel path, we saw this:
That’s when I remembered the rest of my host’s instructions. “Don’t worry about the locked fence. Just shimmy your way under it—it’s not really locked. All the locals do it. It’s fine.”
Again, Squid Game alarm bells. But again, Nova Scotia. So, we did what anyone else would have done in that situation and we broke the Hell into that lighthouse. Like a boss.
After we got to the other side of the fence, we realized our Airbnb host was 100% right. The view was incredible:
So, I guess the moral of the story is. if a local tells you to break into a lighthouse labeled “Private Property” and “No Trespassing,” they’re probably trying to kidnap you. BUT if they’re Canadian, it’s fiiiiiine. Do it! You can’t afford not to.
And that’s why that was our favourite Airbnb of the entire trip. That local tip alone was worth the entire price of accommodation.
Plus, we got to enjoy a scrumptious meal of Seafood chowder and Salt Cod Gratin with incredible ocean views at L’Abri, also recommended by our Airbnb host:
It was the most memorable day we had in the Atlantic provinces. The next day, we woke up early and drove our way to Caribou, where we would board the ferry with our rental car to P.E.I.
Little did we know, we were going to make one of the biggest mistakes of the trip. To be continued…
Here’s how much we spent in Cape Breton Island for the 2 days:
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|The Airbnb was the most expensive out of all the ones we booked in the Atlantic provinces, but with the exceptional local tips, it was so worth it. Also we were only there for 2 nights, so it wasn’t a big deal.
|$29 ($26 for eating out, $3 for groceries)
|Since were only there for 2 nights, food was relatively inexpensive since dinner at L’Abri was only $53 for 2 people and other meals consisted of sandwiches and trail mix from the grocery store, and pastries provided by our Airbnb host.
|This is by far our most expensive line item for the Atlantic provinces. Since a lot of car rental companies sold off their used cars during the pandemic, there was more demand than supply for rental cars. Normally we would just go with public transportation, but in order to explore the Cabot Trail, you have no option but to drive.
The car rental was $90 day, plus an extra $80 to return it to P.E.I instead of Halifax where we picked up the car. Gas was $78.
|Entertainment was the park pass, which was $8 a person, so $16 for the two of us, which is only $8 a day over 2 days.
|Because of the car rental, Cape Breton island ended up being the most expensive location in the Atlantic provinces. It kind of reminded me of how much we used to spend on vacation packages back when we were working. If we had gone with friends (like we did in Iceland) and split the cost of the car and gas, it would’ve been a lot more reasonable, but sadly the timing didn’t work out. You could bring the cost down significantly if you have a car and choose to camp instead of staying in an Airbnb.