Crossing over the Canso Causeway, Ali and I were filled with great expectations. We were now on Cape Breton, the island most like the province’s namesake, Scotland. Visions of rocky highlands, with steep bluffs shearing off into the sea, danced through our heads. In fact, Canada spends a fair amount of their own dollars advertising the views of this small island. Without question there are some stunningly beautiful views, as the pictures will hopefully show. Web views don’t always capture the majesty of landscape.
Truth told, we do think that maybe the area is a bit oversold. Yet even that commentary requires a qualifier. Cape Breton is quite lovely in many places. However, we were under the impression that nearly everywhere you looked we would be arrested with awe. Nor is it quite as remote or isolated as we thought. A bit of the hype, in the well packaged propaganda, fed our preconceptions a bit. In reality, the island supports a pretty healthy trade of inns, lodges, artisans, crafters, and knickknack shops, certainly far more than we anticipated. That being said it is still remarkably rural. Moreover, I was made to understand that the tourism trade was down a bit this year, as the lure of New Foundland and Prince Edward’s Island had for some reason surged. Regardless, I would still recommend that anyone visit. Despite any misconceptions, we were certainly not disappointed. One of the truly great things about our new nuptial bliss is that we pretty much find a way to have fun no matter where we go.
We spent the majority of our stay in the center of the island at the Silver Dart Lodge, nestled in Baddeck, on the banks of the giant, saltwater lake basin Bras d’Or, which sits centrally in the island like the filling of a Twinkee. Incidentally, the lake is pronounced bra-door, which I learned from a woman at an information booth who gave me a run for my money with her coy replies to my questions about the area. She was on to me from jump and Ali delighted in it the whole time. Aside from that the lodge was certainly the plum spot in the area, with a grand glass fronted dining room that provided a magnificent view of the lake. Yet, the lodge afforded a host of other amusements, most notably the entertainment.
If only the guy we asked to take this picture of us below could have gotten a bit more of the scenery in the background!
First, Cape Breton is world famous for its traditional musical culture. In fact, it is not uncommon that musicians from Ireland and Scotland find there way to the shores of this tiny island to relearn the folk music that local residents have preserved with ceilidhs and the like. While we did not stop in stomp with the fiddlers in ceilidh country, we were treated to the endlessly macabre musical mastery of Darryl Keegan at the Silver Dart Lodge. Now, the man was a fine singer and guitar player, to be sure. Nonetheless, it is his shtick that proved imminently more amusing. In the interludes, he would tell short stories about the songwriter or the inspiration for the diddy he was to play next. This is all fine and good until you listen to him over a stretch for a few nights, wherein every “wonderful, wonderful song” he sang was with written or inspired by ye old Grim Reaper. It was as if every songwriter, original singer, or subject matter of each song was “tragically killed.” It became quite comical by the third night we were there.
As in most cases, it is the people that can make the trip and this one was no different. Ali and I have a real knack for finding all kinds. In addition to the tragic songs of Darryl Keegan, there was an extraordinarily odd older couple, the wife of which would not give the poor songsmith a rest. The woman was transfixed by the singer and spent hours sketching the man in between bites of dinner. It was as if he was playing a private concert for her. Meanwhile, the poor husband, whose best days were long gone, struggled to stay conscious at the table during all the drawing and conversation. Despite the help’s delicate inquiries to the octogenarian artist as to whether her husband might be more comfortable in the room, she continued to flirt and capture the minstrel on paper. Meanwhile, the poor old guy was falling asleep in his soup, literally! Beak first, the old guy took a nose dive and could have drown, while his wife was oblivious to both him and the staff’s entreaties. This went on for all the days we were there. We felt a bit bad laughing, but it was so remarkably absurd that it was nearly impossible. We also shared a lunch table with a biker couple from Yarmouth, seeking shelter from the rain, as they prepared to ride the Cabot Trail.
The Cabot Trail is the draw on the island. In addition to its beauty, the trail is remarkably comical, historically speaking. For those from Massachusetts, they should be able to relate. A lot like Plymouth Rock, nobody can be sure exactly where “John Cabot” landed. A lot of people and even some evidence suggest he may have actually landed on New Foundland. Yet, the trail is on Cape Breton. Either way he is supposed to be the first European to run into North America in 1497. More ridiculous, however, is the name considering that “John Cabot” is actually Giovanni Caboto. Since he was sailing for England he apparently lost his actual name. I guess, Giovanni doesn’t sound appropriate enough for Canada’s Highland National Park, in New Scotland. Still, nearly all the views seen here were taken along the trail of the paisano, whose name seems to have been unnecessarily Anglicized.
While driving through the Highland’s I began to ruminate on an interesting observation. While many inhabitants of the island seemed to live in relatively modest, but nicely kept homes, there was a fair amount of rundown, derelict-looking shacks, tucked in the hills. Add to that the fact that Cape Breton is home to a once considerable and still functioning coal mining industry, and considering that many of the same Irish and Scottish immigrants found there way to places like Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia to tunnel for the same ebony earth. It begged the question, “Is Highlander merely Scottish code for Hillbilly?” I’ll let all of you make the call, but as a descendant of some of those same Stateside mining folk from the hills of West Virginia, I know where my instincts lie.
Along the Westside of the trail, is one of the Acadian strongholds on the island. Interestingly, none of those with French heritage had their name’s butchered into English. Of course the English did try to purge all those French speakers from the province after they got control of the colony. It was in the sleepy Acadian village where we found this French Tim Horton’s sign.
In fact, I learned even more about the Acadians then I had previously known on this trip. Next installment, the journey back to the States. But have no fear it is almost ready and will be posted in a day or so. I promise.