Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island in a Day

As a child of the west coast, saying that circumnavigating an island in a day is possible deems it small by default. But to compare my native Vancouver Island to Cape Breton Island is like comparing apples to golf balls: both are round and have many varieties. This particular east coast adventure, though it can take longer, will take a full day. It’s jam-packed with lots of driving and even more rewards to see, do, and taste. It’s one of the many exciting activities that you can partake in while travelling in Canada.
My co-pilot on this magic carpet ride was my mom and it was a far cry from the early days of family road trips with me in the back seat, repeatedly asking if we were there yet. We got started at the crack of dawn from our campsite at Bras D’Ors Lake Campground, a few kilometers from the beginning of the Cabot Trail. While our tent didn’t spew us directly onto the lake, the site we landed after arriving without a reservation in mid-July was nothing to scoff at. The lake was only a five-minute walk away and when starting our trek for the day meant getting up around 6 am, a quick dip in the temperate water of one of the largest salt water lakes in the world as the sun rose, was more effective than the buzz of any alarm clock.

Bras D’Or Lake at the crack of dawn.
Bras D’Or Lake at the crack of dawn.

The Cabot Trail is a road that circles the northwestern area of Cape Breton Island and has been cited on many lists as one of the greatest drives not just in Canada or North America, but the whole planet. This Nova Scotian tourist staple is a 297 kilometre non-stop feast for the eyes, where every vista could be a postcard for the province. Squat houses that have weathered countless storms; rolling green hillsides; tall craggy bluffs evocative of a New Zealand landscape; a clear, vast horizon where on a clear day you’d swear you could see straight to Scotland; clear, clean hidden coves for swimming; and winding curves after meandering switch back that climb and descend through every metre of this setting. The road is your companion, guiding you knowing that you wouldn’t dare set foot in such rugged scenery if not for the hospitable transit route.
Our first stop about 40 kilometres in was Margaree, a small town speckled with—as most are around the island—a few churches, a post office, and a grocery/hardware store, and drenched with Celtic flavour. We’d heard it bustled with festival activity periodically throughout the summer, but this day wasn’t one of those; a quick stroll and stretch was sufficient before continuing on to our next stop about 160 kilometres further, Meat Cove.
The post office/grocery store/hardware store in Margaree.
The post office/grocery store/hardware store in Margaree.

General Store in Margaree, Cape Breton

Travelling in a time when neither phone reception nor smartphones were prevalent, my only preconceptions of Meat Cove were elicited by its carcass-conjuring name and the constant heeding about the travel time from every local we spoke to, wondering where these BC-plated gals had been and where, they were going. It’s Nova Scotia’s northernmost community at the end of a road more windy than those that weaved their way through the Cape Breton Highlands, yet made of dirt instead of cement and about half the width.

A few standoffs with RVs leaving the cove left us impressed that one could pilot such a large vehicle down this road. After a reasonable amount of white-knuckling, we made it. And it was worth every bead of sweat shed.
The view of the descent into Meat Cover reveals campers dotting the hillside.
The view of the descent into Meat Cove reveals campers dotting the hillside.

A dozen or so campers dotted the green hillside like sheep on a rolling Irish knoll. It was isolated, indeed. We parked and walked down to the beach where the shore was a blanket of smooth dark grey rocks, made round by countless years of storms. On this summer day, the water was flat and we spread out our towels and some snacks out on the beach, shrouded by the shadow of the tall cliff behind us.
View of a dirt road leading to Meat Cove beach.

Aquaphiles, rejoice: Meat Cove is especially for you. Picture: crystal clear water, ample beach space to dry off post-swim, and a big climbable rock within doggie-paddle distance, perfect for leaping off to snap your next profile picture. Our East Coast Canadian vacation would not have been complete without stopping here.
We had another 120 or so kilometres to conquer, so with envy for those hill-dwellers who’d opted to stay a night, we retraced the dirt track to continue to our next stop, the shortest boat ride we’d ever take, the Ingonish Ferry, technically a cable car.
Between those two points though, we savoured the sights as the road peaked and valleyed, providing some of the most beautiful expansive vistas we’d seen. Soon we discovered that the Cabot Trail is a cyclists dream, too. The adventurous rider could hop on to a bike tour where a van would conveniently do the leg work of transporting guests to each summit. The cyclists then remounted at a safe lookout point, and got the joy of traversing down without the burn of lactic acid to spoil the experience.
Cyclists riding down a steep hill on Cabot Trail toward the ocean followed by a silver SUV.
Cyclists enjoy the ride down a steep hill on the Cabot Trail.

Sharp turns became soft chicanes as we meandered back to sea level. An intimidating lineup awaited us upon arrival at the Ingonish Ferry, but the crossing was indeed as surprisingly short as advertised, and the row of cars in front of us moved along quickly. Within 20 minutes of arriving, we had crossed the teeny channel and were on the home stretch to our final destination of the day. We had just another 100 kilometres or so to complete the circle back to Baddeck, to end the tour in true east coast style: with a lobster feast.

After picking the brains of the locals about where they’d indulge for such an occasion, we landed ourselves at Baddeck Lobster Suppers. This homey red and white establishment by the water offered a half fish shack, half boardwalk aesthetic. We’d heard lobster supper on Cape Breton Island was a force to be reckoned with, but had no idea what we were about to indulge in. And for only $35!
Baddeck Lobster Suppers restaurant in Nova Scotia 17 Ross St, Baddeck, NS B0E 1B0 Phone:(902) 295-3307
Behind the scenes at Baddeck Lobster Suppers.

We recapped the day over a bottle of chilled white wine, savouring course after course of chowder, fresh bread, steamed mussels, and the coup de grâce: Nova Scotia lobster, all of which was hauled out of the sea not 20 metres from where we dined.
Customer enjoying white wine and mussels at Baddeck Lobster Suppers restaurant.
White wine and mussels at Baddeck Lobster Suppers cap off a perfect day.

Satiated and satisfied, we returned to the campsite. Around Cape Breton in a day? I did it before and I’d do it again.
Looking to do a cross-country roadtrip? Check out other posts like Best Attractions in Ontario for Every Traveller, or 10 Fun Things to Do That Manitoba Does Better for some inspiration!
Happy travels,

Laurel Borrowman, Guest Blogger Laurel Borrowman is a writer and editor in non-stop hot pursuit of the perfectly placed word and the most intriguing of stories. Curious traveller, constant concert-goer, avid glockenspielest, one-time Sesame Streeter, cyclist for life.
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