The 10,311 km2 (3,981 sq mi) island accounts for 18.7% of Nova Scotia’s total area. Although the island is physically separated from the Nova Scotia peninsula by the Strait of Canso, the 1,385 m (4,544 ft) long rock-fill Canso Causeway connects it to mainland Nova Scotia. The island is east-northeast of the mainland with its northern and western coasts fronting on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence; its western coast also forms the eastern limits of the Northumberland Strait. The eastern and southern coasts front the Atlantic Ocean; its eastern coast also forms the western limits of the Cabot Strait. Its landmass slopes upward from south to north, culminating in the highlands of its northern cape. One of the world’s larger salt water lakes, Bras d’Or (“Arm of Gold” in French), dominates the island’s centre.
Cities and towns
1 Sydney – largest city on the island
2 Glace Bay – the second largest urban area and situated on the east side of the island
3 North Sydney – end of the Trans-Canada Highway with ferry connections to Newfoundland
New Waterford – former mining town
Sydney Mines – formerly a coal mining town
Port Hawkesbury – a town located on the southwestern end of the island
4 Baddeck – summer resort area and convenient starting/finishing point for the Cabot Trail
5 Cheticamp – center of Acadian culture on the Cabot Trail
6 Louisbourg – one-time French colonial town best known for its reconstructed fortress
Ingonish – on the Cabot Trail and adjacent to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Arichat – a village of Acadian culture on Isle Madame
Mabou – fishing and farming community on the west side of the island
St. Peter’s – a small village and the “Gateway to the Bras d’Or”
Eskasoni – the largest Mi’kmaq community in Nova Scotia
1 Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Understand : Cape Breton Island was a separate colony until 1820 when it was merged into Nova Scotia against its will. It is the only place in North America where Gaelic is still spoken, a legacy of the large immigration (about 50,000) from the highlands of Scotland in the first half of the 19th century. There are also pockets of French, remnants of the Acadian history described in the Longfellow epic poem “Evangeline”, in towns such as Margaree and Cheticamp and on Isle Madame. With 5 Mi’kmaq communities in Cape Breton (4 are situated around the Bras d’Or Lake) there is a strong island identity and sense of community, which increasingly unifies the Mikmaq population of the island.
The island has consistently lost industrial investment and jobs in the past ten years. However, the closing of the coal and steel industry coupled with the presence of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which buffers the pristine northern half of the island from its more commercialized southern half, have no doubt contributed to the island’s very positive ratings for ecological stewardship and spectacular scenery. An excellent reference site for the incredibly beautiful northern tip of Cape Breton can be found at the “Top of the Island” site.
Access : Coordinates: 46.166667, -60.75 / By car : The most common way to get into Cape Breton is by car via the Trans-Canada Highway (Hwy 104) at the Canso Causeway from mainland Nova Scotia. Cape Breton is approximately 12½ driving hours from Boston, 14 from Hartford and 16 from New York City. By bus : Maritime Bus runs between Truro and Sydney with onward connections to much of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Shuttle service is provided between Halifax and Sydney and environs by several companies who travel at various times throughout the day. Excellent value.
By plane : Cape Breton Island is served by Sydney Airport. Most flights to and from Sydney go to Halifax and then to major destinations such as Toronto, Boston and Montreal.
Get around : Cape Breton is most accessible by car. The main road is the Trans-Canada highway (Hwy 105), which connects Sydney on the east coast with the causeway to the mainland on the west. You can rent a car in Sydney if necessary. Like any place, you see more if you get off the main road, and the Nova Scotia government has been helpful in this regard by creating a number of scenic drives. These include the:
- Cabot Trail – Mountainous, windy and sometimes foggy, this drive alternates between hugging the ocean and crossing the rugged Cape Breton Highlands. Considered one of the top drives in North America, it should be considered more a destination than a drive for the variety of activities available around this 400km (190 mile) loop.
Fleur-de-Lis Trail – covers the southern French-influenced part of the island.
Ceilidh Trail – covers the western part the island with its strong Scottish influence.
Bras d’Or Lake Scenic Drive – follows the shoreline of Bras d’Or Lake.
Road maps and additional information on the island is readily available at any tourism information center (located at entry points and any major towns and cities) and a number of private operators offer trip planning services.
- Cable Ferry :A more adventurous option to get around the island is to cycle. The roads tend to be narrow and windy, so prior experience is recommended. Bike rental and trip planning are available through Sea Spray Outdoor Adventures.
- Hiking trails abound in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, and the above-mentioned Sea Spray Outdoor Adventures offers guided hikes to little-known remote areas north of the national park.
Regardless of your mode of travel, watch out for moose on the roads.
There are many small cable ferries between the islands. They usually go every few minutes and charge $5.
Salty Bear Adventure Travel – An excellent alternative to renting a car, Salty Bear offers budget adventure tours around the Cabot Trail. Run by passionate travellers who aim to provide a true Cape Breton experience, their trips include roundtrip transportation, accommodation, guide with full commentary, guided hikes, National & Provincial Park access, ferry passes, wildlife encounters, barbecues, bonfires. Discounted optional activities of kayaking, sailing, and whale watching.
- Cape Breton is noted for its unique and vibrant traditional Scottish violin music incubated by its relative isolation over the years- so much so that music lovers from Scotland come here for a taste of their own past. Typically a duo of violin and piano play hearty dance music that can be seen at community halls throughout the island. The early-evening tourist-targeted concerts are well advertised later at night you can find ones that draw the entire local community. Some of the most important musical centers are Judique, Margaree Valley and Cheticamp. The island ranked second in the world in a National Geographic study of ecotourism conducted in 2002 and 2003.
- Cape Breton Highlands National Park. You need an entry permit at $7 a day per person (there are group and family discounts). The Cabot Trail runs through the national park. There are many short hiking trails starting along the Cabot Trail. Scenery is a major reason to visit Cape Breton. Plan to stop along the many spectacular look offs on the Cabot Trail – this will lengthen your travel time between destinations. Since the Cabot Trail is more a destination than a drive, visitors seeking to truly experience this environmental masterpiece should plan on staying a minimum of two days in the villages around the Trail. A number of private operators offer trip planning services to assist visitors in taking advantage of the best attractions both on and off the Trail, some offering all-inclusive multi-day packages.
- Fortress of Louisbourg, 259 Park Service Rd, Louisbourg . 1 May-30 Jun 9:30AM-5PM, 1 Jul-31 Aug 9AM-5PM, 1 Sep-15 Oct 9:30AM-5PM. Closed 1 Nov-3 Apr. This is a reconstruction of the 18th-century fortified French town whose presence plagued the British colonies of New England. Its busy harbour was once one of France’s most significant economic and military assets in North America. If you enjoy the colonial restoration at Williamsburg in the United States, don’t miss Louisbourg.
The Bras D’Or is a brackish lake with unique ecological characteristics, and some islands in that lake are sacred to the Mi’kmaq.
- Bay St. Lawrence and Meat Cove. Two scenic fishing villages featuring whale tours, fresh seafood and unique accommodations along the rugged cliffs north of the Cabot trail. Turn north at Cape North.
- Joe’s Scarecrows at Cheticamp on the Cabot Trail. Scary gallery of scarecrows with Halloween masks. Entrance is free, but they ask for a small donation.
- Les Trois Pignons, 15584 Cabot Trail Hwy, Cheticamp. Museum of Acadian culture based on collection of antiques started by Marguerite Gallant.
- Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada, Chebucto St (Route 205), Baddeck. 1-30 Jun 9AM-6PM, 1 Jul-15 Oct 8:30AM-6PM. $6.50.
- Joes Scarecrows
Cape Breton Miners Museum, 17 Museum St, Glace Bay. 10AM-6PM (end-May to Thanksgiving). Underground mine tour, mining history museum ($6/person) with modern exhibits. Miners Village Restaurant. Stroll through a historic village. “Men of the Deeps” miners’ choir offers performances ($13/person) several times per season. $15/person.
Tartan Tours, Sydney. Offering daily tours of The Cabot Trail, Baddeck Louisbourg, the Highland Village & the Miners Museum. Airport & hotel pick-ups and shuttle service for Cape Breton Island, and cruiseship excursions.
Golf: There are eight golf courses scattered about the island that will challenge even the most discriminating among you. The views planes alone are worth the walk: coastal links, highland links, and several of the Bras d’Or Lakes.
Beaches: The east side of the island have some of finest beaches in the world but without the crowds. Hiking or lounging are the favourite activities as the water is never very warm. You’ll see sea birds, shore birds, seals and surf with nothing between you and Africa but water.
Celtic Colours Festival:. Spanning hundreds of events across dozens of towns in early-to-mid-October, the music options at Celtic Colours are not solely Celtic but include folk and some Acadian Zydeco (Acadeco) and jazz, and an increasing amount of world music. edit
Whale watching tour: There are boat tours along the coast from Cheticamp north and around to Englishtown. Sighting of whales is almost guaranteed, especially at the northern tip of the island. Tours takes two hours or more, and the scenery alone is worth the price. Oshan Whale Cruises and Captain Cox’s Whale Tour operate at the northern tip of the island.
Biking the Cabot Trail:. Many people think that biking the Cabot Trail is the best way to see it. Featured in the September 7 issue of Bicycling magazine, as “North America’s Best Ride”.
Hiking tours: Lots of self-guided hiking in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Kayak tours:. Eagle North and Sea Spray both offer guided kayak tours, in the large tranquil harbors at the top of the island as well as in the whale-rich Atlantic.
The Top of the Island: (North and Northeast of Cape Breton Highlands National Park). The most spectacularly scenic region of Cape Breton, the region boasts a combination of historic, cultural and environmental activities. Featuring whale watching, guided hiking, cycling, and paddling tours, museums, artists’ studios and galleries and seven miles of the most significant beaches north of the Carolinas, the region is home to Cabot’s Landing provincial park, the site of John Cabot’s landing in 1497.
Arts North:, Cabot Trail at Cape North (Drive to the northern tip of the Cabot Trail. Arts North is 3 km SW of Cape North Village) . A retail gallery featuring the works of over two dozen juried Cape Breton resident artisans. Pottery, jewellery, weaving, quilts, wood, prints, basketry, canvas and other media are all displayed in an architecturally pleasing space. The gallery ships purchases worldwide for its customers.
Go next : If you want to do a bit of island hopping Atlantic Canada-style, you can take one of two ferries from North Sydney to Newfoundland. The ferry to Port aux Basques on Newfoundland’s south-west coast is the shorter of two and runs daily throughout the year. The ferry to Argentia is much longer (about 14 hours) and only runs in the summer, three times a week. Ferry services are provided by Marine Atlantic.