Winding along the famed 297-kilometre Cabot Trail that skirts the edge of Cape Breton Island,
I feel like I’m in an exceptional place, far different — and far removed — from any other I’ve visited.
The only physical connection Cape Breton has to the continent is a 1,400-metre long bridge completed in 1955. If something were to happen to the Canso Causeway, Cape Breton could retreat into seclusion from the rest of Canada. And I’d venture to guess the locals would probably be OK with it.
I’m not saying this because Cape Bretoners don’t like tourists. I think they love tourists. Wherever you go, they’ll invite you into their communities, their houses, and their hearts.
They’re proud to show off the raw and rugged splendor of their loving island, and share traditions steeped in the three regional cultures (Gaelic, Acadian and Mi’kmaq). But I also think they know just how special their island is, and would probably be content if they never had to go anyplace else.
Cape Breton’s slogan is "Your heart will never leave." Rightly so, because it’s an easy place to think about after you’ve left. One of the best memories will definitely be the seafood. During lobster season, it’s the norm for the crustacean on your lunch plate to have been caught fresh that morning. And chances are, the person serving the lobster is married to, friends with, or a relative of the person who caught it. It’s that kind of "small world" place, and that’s a great big part of what makes it so endearing.
Every town offers some treasure to be discovered, and fascinating locals like Herbert. A lifelong resident of Neil’s Harbour, Herbert sells fish stories for $2. Except the day we got there, he seemed to be all out. In fact, he didn’t have much to say at all. Nevertheless, stopping in his idyllic seaside village was the best $2 we never spent.
There are so many interesting places to explore, like the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck, which commemorates one of the most ingenious inventors who ever lived; a man so taken by Cape Breton that he chose the location for his summer home. Or Glenora Inn & Distillery near Glenville, producers of North America’s first single malt whisky. Or Cabot Links in Inverness, Canada’s only authentic links golf course, and where golf pros come to stay on holiday.
At the Cape Breton Miners Museum in Glace Bay, you can take an underground tour of an actual coal mine. Our tour guide, a retired miner named Wishie, took us down into the Ocean Deeps Colliery, revealing harsh conditions of what a coal mine was like before the labour movement. The stories he told of his father and grandfather working in the mine, and he himself starting work in the mine as a teenager, were heart-breaking.
The journey into the mine itself is back-aching, with the ceiling gradually closing in on you, forcing you to stoop over. The height of the shaft becomes lower and lower — down to a mere four feet — in the damp, dark, stifling space. It’s an incredibly moving experience that touched me deeply, leaving me feeling emotional on a level I could not explain.
Perhaps it’s the resilience of Cape Bretoners that moved me. Or maybe it’s just that Cape Breton — particularly the coal miners’ stories — captured a little piece of my heart that will remain there forever.
It will never leave.
RoseAnna Schick is an avid traveller and music lover who seeks inspiration wherever
she goes. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org