Let’s Go Exploring! Atlantic Provinces Part 2: Cape Breton Island

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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.

Drive.

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:

Cheticamp

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:

Ingonish Beach:

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:

Who wants to play Red Cow, Green Cow?

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.

Pictured: Nova Scotian security. Solid.

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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CategoryCost (CAD)Cost (USD)Notes
Accommodations:$143$116The 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.
Food:$29 ($26 for eating out, $3 for groceries)$24Since 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.
Transportation:$169$137This 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:$8$6Entertainment 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.
Total:$349$283Because 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.

19 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Atlantic Provinces Part 2: Cape Breton Island”

  1. Yeah! So happy for you that you’re back travelling and having a good time! Keep us posted! Thanks for the post!

  2. How wonderful of you to share your experiences in Cape Breton.
    My husband and I moved here in Feb 2020 (just before Covid hit) and just keep pinching ourselves that we got so lucky. We’ve lived in 5 different provinces and internationally as well, and this is by far one of the most beautiful, friendly places on earth. Glad you got to see a small part of it and have those idyllic days here. We love your blog and your messages of optimism. Safe onward travels!

    1. Ooh you moved there? Lucky you! The people there are wonderful and the nature is breathtaking. Great timing with going there before pandemic lockdowns. Does this mean you didn’t have to experience lockdown at all?

      1. Hello Kristy! (FireCracker) – you have just made my day, week, year by saying this! We are both Master Mariners in the shipping industry so we compared the lockdowns to being onboard a ship for months on end. We are not FIRE candidates, too old (late 50’s) and too many financial committments but used the lockdowns to comfortably renovate a badly neglected property which we call the #RescueHouse (lots of those in Cape Breton); with some acreage, it wasn’t the confinement that urbanites experienced. You’re AirBnB afficionados, but not sure if you are aware of a similar concept in the RV world (we are inbetween motorhomes right now), we’re listed as “The RescueHouse” on the parking-spot-sharing site Boondockers Welcome/Harvest Host. Also just to say, you and Wanderer are celebrities in our family, all our kids have your book and we often enthusiastically review your posts and case studies – SO motivating in these perilous times. Please connect with me on facebook.com/motheroceanblog if you can, we are your biggest fans and supporters, and if you ever make it back to Cape Breton, we’ll host you as friends!

        1. Aww, thanks Amanda! So happy that our book and posts have been helpful to you and you family. The next time we’re in Cape Breton, we’ll let you know :). I don’t use FB often, or social media, in general, but I’ll msg you on your site the next time we’re in your neck of the woods.

          Interesting tip about the RV version of Airbnbs! I had no idea. Well, you learn something new everyday.

  3. I love, love, love Cape Breton. Gorgeous scenery, wonderful people, adorable round rocks polished by the ocean. And that was without any airbnb tips!

    I also adored the stars around our camp in PEI. I’ll stay tuned for your (mis)adventure!

  4. My spouse and I went to Cape Breton Island in 2016. Sadly, when we got there (after driving for 3 days from Ontario), I learned that my mother had died. We had booked a place for 5-days and had only stayed one night. I went to inform the innkeeper we’d be leaving and why. She insisted that we owed her nothing. It was the kindest gesture and I it makes my heart swell and my eyes water to this day when I think of it.

    We haven’t seen the Cabot Trail (yet) but we have seen the heart of the people of Cape Breton Island.

    1. Aww, I’m so sorry to hear that your mom passed away when you were driving there 🙁 That sucks. I’m glad the people were so nice to you. They’re the best.

      Hope you get to visit Cabot Trail sometime. It’s such a Canadian gem.

      1. definitely should go to Waterton Lakes NP in Alberta – as good as many US NPs. We camped in late May and had the place to outselves….and the herd of deer :))

  5. Cape Breton is so gorgeous, it makes it to the “Epic drives of the world” list! Nova Scotia is way underrated.

  6. Kind of like New Zealand in some ways! Except more Canadian. For instance, beaches with no people and lighthouses. I’ve been to Nova Scotia twice but never that end of it. One thing that NZ has that Canada does not have is one-lane bridges, which are somewhat terrifying.

    Speaking of locked gates, we were trying to check out some birds here in NZ last weekend, but there was a locked gate between us and the birds. Got the runaround asking the Department of Conservation (eventually they said that they couldn’t recommend hopping the fence) but the locals were like “yeah just hop the fence” so we may have done that.

    Car rentals sound expensive! Guess I won’t get rid of my car quite yet. In fact I was wondering where to be in December and NS has pleasingly little COVID (also PEI). Not keen on hanging around in Toronto or Waterloo. Quebec has twice as much COVID as Ontario, so we’ll see whether that continues.

    I reviewed this 1906 travelogue of New Zealand on my blog. They got around the whole country without cars (because it was 1906). There was a bunch of public transit (trains, boats) and also stagecoaches.

    1. “but the locals were like “yeah just hop the fence” so we may have done that.”

      Ha ha. Locals are the best. Take that, fence!

      Very cool that Cape Breton Island could be compared to NZ. Huge compliment. One of those days, we’ll get there 🙂

  7. Love road trips…

    On the contrary to the common belief, the best ingredient in any road trips are children unless you are in your early 20’s or late 70’s.

    I am planning to do the “Road Trip” part II with my grand children, hopefully in about 5 years.

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