My husband is from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Every summer we head East to spend time with his family. And every summer we “do” the Cabot Trail.
The Cabot Trail is consistently ranked among one of the top roads to travel in the world. Accommodations and meals are affordable and it offers breathtaking views and beaches.
One of the many beautiful views you’ll find on the Cabot Trail.
The “easiest” method to do the Cabot Trail is from East to West – starting closer to Sydney, NS. This is simply because it makes it easier to pull out at all of the look offs you’re going to want to stop at. So here are our top stops on the Cabot Trail starting in the East and going all the way around. There is really no way you could do all of this in one day – we suggest a few days. We tend to camp at Broad Cove to cover all of this. And YES – we do almost all of this EVERY summer! Enjoy!
Chels shows us the itinerary of the Cabot Trail in three days.
1. Cedar House – Boularderie Island, NS
Ok. Technically the Cedar House is NOT on the Cabot Trail. It’s actually pretty close to Sydney on the Trans Canada. But – if you’re coming from Sydney OR leaving from Sydney, stop here for lunch or supper. The Cedar House has fresh-baked goodies (their pie… mmmmm) and offers a ridiculous menu for ridiculously good prices. Last summer I had a full turkey dinner for supper in like, August. And it only cost me about $14. It gets crowded around lunch and supper time (which is about 4:30 in Cape Breton…) so be prepared for a bit of a wait. Everyone in Cape Breton knows about this place, and everyone would recommend it.
2. St. Ann’s Lookoff
Again. Not technically on the Cabot Trail, but if you’re coming from Sydney you should stop at this view. On a clear day you can see all the way to Cape Smokey from this look off. It’s definitely worth a quick stop.
3. Englishtown Ferry
We take the ferry across every chance we get. I mean, I love being on a boat any time, but it will also save you 15-20 minutes than driving past the Gaelic College. Also, the road you take is TERRIBLE (ok, I won’t lie, a lot of the trail has terrible pavement). It will only cost you $7 and it runs 24 hours (unless, of course, the weather prevents it). I enjoy getting out for a little stretch and checking out the views.
4. Nova Scotia Picnic Park – Cape Smokey
After the ferry, you’re going to go down a crazy winding highway. Feel free to stop in at some of the little shops along the way. But you’re also going to wind up (possibly into the clouds) a busy road to the top of Cape Smokey. You’ll need a rest, and possible a place to vomit (yeah… I get car sick). Plus, the views from up here are amazing. It comes up a little fast when you’re driving, but pull off to the right when you see the little wooden “Nova Scotia Picnic Park” sign and get out for a stroll. Apparently there is a hiking trail up here too if you are so-inclined.
5. Main Street Cafe
By now you might need a little snack and a coffee. When you get into the Ingonish area, pop into Mainstreet Cafe (which will be on your left across from the Scotiabank and the Nova Scotia Liquor Store – ps stop there if you need booze!). You can stop in for a bite to eat – they have fresh seafood items on the menu – or grab a coffee and a fresh baked item. One thing to note – “to go” coffee is difficult to come by on the trail. You will NOT find a Tim Horton’s, Starbucks, McDonald’s, etc. at all on your entire drive. If you’re looking for a cup of coffee, pop in here or into a grocery store in Ingonish, Neil’s Harbor, etc.
6. Ingonish Beach
Ingonish Beach and Cape Smokey at sunrise.
This is a bit of a tourist and local hot spot. It’s the only beach in the Ingonish area with a lifeguard for the day, but it does offer a snack shack, great views and a nice beach to lay on. If you’re looking for something less busy (but less waves), head a little bit further down the road to North Bay Beach. It’s calm, has beautiful white sand, and you can walk for miles.
7. Middle Head Trail – Hiking
View part way through Middle Head Trail
The scenery changes a lot on the trail!
Billy and his fam on Middle Head Trail.
We only discovered this trail a couple of years ago, but it’s a must-do! Just past Ingonish Beach, you’ll see the turn off for the Keltic Lodge – a famous and beautiful set of accommodations – and Highland Links Golf Course. I hear this is a nice place to golf, but I don’t do it. ANYWAY… drive past the lodge and all of it’s buildings until you get to the parking lot at the end of the “peninsula”. You’ll find the Middle Head trailhead here. It’s a very busy trail, but it’s relatively easy and quick. You can do the trail in 1-2 hours as it’s just under 4km. Kids can definitely do it!
8. Coastal Restaurant
If you’re ready for a pint and a bite, head to “The Coastal”. They’ve appeared on You Gotta Eat Here! and offer a wide variety of food items. We like to go in the evening for some Alexander Keith’s (red, not the IPA) and food. Billy likes the Ringer Burger while I go for the crab dip or seafood pasta. But the BEST is saved for dessert – they have ridiculous brownie or cinnamon bun skillets. They take a long time to make, but it is soo worth the wait. Trust me. After 10PM on weekends they also have live music. It gets busy, so go earlier to snag a table and snacks!
9. Black Brook Beach
My girls, Chels and Linds, boogie boarding at Black Brook Beach.
Black Brook Beach before everyone arrives in the morning.
This is my favorite beach on the island. It usually has waves that are excellent for boogie boarding. We took a group of about 25 friends here right after our wedding (stay tuned for a post on that!) and had to come back twice because they all loved it so much. Bring a boogie board, towel and sunscreen and stay all day. After you get past the round rocks, the sand is amazing and the water is warm (well, in later July anyway). If you get tired of swimming, walk to the left of the beach and do the little hike up to the waterslide. For the adrenaline junkies – there are some spots to cliff jump past the waterslide. If you’re up for it, there is a “Coastal” hike that is just over 11km with a trailhead at Black Brook.
10. Soup at The Chowder House
View of Neil’s Harbour near the Chowder House.
The lobster dinner at The Chowder House
So you’ve come to Cape Breton for some authentic, fresh seafood. The Chowder House in Neil’s Harbour is where to get it. The ladies that work here make a killer seafood chowder. It’s FULL of chunks of amazing seafood and it is so flavorful. They also offer full lobster and crab “dinners” with fresh buns and sides. If it’s nice out, grab your meal to eat on the picnic tables outside to enjoy the view. Cap off your meal with an ice cream from the light house at the end of the parking lot. My meal here tends to consist of a full bowl of seafood chowder, a bowl of mussels, and then a waffle cone from the light house. Both establishments are locally owned – the lighthouse also offers locally made jewelry (it’s the cutest!).
11. Whale Watching in Pleasant Bay
Whales and views – it doesn’t get much better!
No matter what people try to tell you, there is no better place to see whales on the trail than from Pleasant Bay. And I don’t mean from the shore – you’ll have to jump in a boat. There are multiple tour operators here and we’ve used them all. If you’ve got a smaller, braver group hop on a zodiac to get up close and personal with the pilot whales of the area. If you prefer, there are larger boat tours as well. We go every summer (except that I didn’t go last summer because I was already carsick) and we see tons of whales every time. The companies have a guarantee that you’ll see whales. Once we even had a cute little baby whale playing games and wave at us. This is one of my favorite experiences on the trail and is absolutely worth every penny you spend!
Views from the boat.
So close you can literally touch them on the zodiac!
12. Hiking the Skyline Trail
Skyline Trail views.
For a breathtaking view and an easy hike (more like a walk or stroll until you get to the stairs that basically go into the ocean), take the Skyline Trail. It lies between Pleasant Bay and Cheticamp and again, is absolutely worth your time. Bonus: it’s free! You may see some wildlife (we saw a moose once) but it is so busy that it’s not really anything to worry about. You do have an option to do a back loop, but we did it once and didn’t think that it was worth it. If you’ve done the Skyline before you may want to detour this way, but we didn’t see any more amazing views from this direction and it just took us longer. If you walk down the stairs, you’ll get to the end and feel like you’re on the edge of the Earth peering into the ocean.
At the edge of the earth on the Skyline Trail.
13. Food at Le Gabriel
Cheticamp has a few options for dining, but we’ve recently started going to Le Gabriel. Cheticamp is an Acadian community, hence the French. If you have a seafood-loving friend along with you, share the shellfish platter: shellfish, shrimp, crab, lobster, and mussels for only $33 Canadian. I’m literally drooling remembering this right now.
14. Beach at Chimney Corner
This beach is found about 30 minutes past Cheticamp just a little off of the Cabot Trail. For directions see here. The water tends to be warmer on this side of the island (although we told our friends that and that ONE TIME we were wrong), there are few tourists, and the beach is just pure sand. It’s a great stop for a quick dip or to spend some time bathing in the sun.
You can see the “chimney” of Chimney Corner.
15. Souvenirs and Mini Golf at The Red Barn
While I don’t tend to need any souvenirs anymore, we will stop here with friends to show them the crazy selection of work from local artisans plus the token trinkets from vacation. You also have the opportunity to play a fun round of mini golf if you need to take a break.
In my mind, Baddeck isn’t on the Cabot Trail, but it seems like in everyone else’s mind it is. So if you’ve got the time, stop here! We like to take a walk on the board walk and sit with the statue of Alexander Graham Bell. Here you’ll also find the Alexander Graham Bell museum and a host of restaurants and shops to stop at. Last summer we stayed at The Inverary Inn for my SIL’s wedding and it was beautiful. There are many other accommodation options if you’re looking for something a little bit more affordable.
Don’t forget to stop at as many look-offs as you can, particularly between Pleasant Bay and Cheticamp. Each offers a unique view and a photo op!
Where are your favorite stops on the Cabot Trail?