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By Habeeb Salloum and Muna Salloum
“Don’t miss travelling at least a part of the Cabot Trail when you visit Nova Scotia. The scenery is heavenly”. Our colleague who hailed from that part of Canada advised when I told her that my daughter and myself were making a trip to Cape Breton Island for a writer’s conference. We took her advice to heart and a few months later, we were at the village of Baddeck, the starting and ending points of the Cabot trail.
Tourist literature describing this trail conjure images of a magical island claiming that if one never believed in magic, this is the place where one becomes a believer. “Your eyes may not be big enough to take it all in, but your heart will”, another of the promotional statements of the island’s official Destination Cape Breton Association, are words that we hoped to verify during our short tour.
The 297 km (185 mi) Cabot Trail that winds around a considerable part of the island, is one of the most renowned drives in Canada. The Trail, a scenic roadway that takes one around the greater part of Cape Breton has many natural attractions. These include the numerous vantage points with their panoramic views; Cape Breton Island National Park with its seductive scenic drives; eye-catching fishing villages that hug the coast; and splendid hiking trails.
If a traveler has four days to a week to spare some of the most important stops on the Cabot Trail are: the Margaree Harbour and villages in the Margaree River valley, to fish and visit the Salmon Museum; Chéticamp, the largest village on Cape Breton Island’s Acadian coast; Pleasant Bay Harbour, for whale watching; Ingonish and the beaches, for water sports and the edging scenery; and Baddeck, for the Alexander Graham Bell Museum and enjoying a wonderful sailing experience on the largest inland sea in Canada.
Our day’s tour would only include a mini section of this famous Nova Scotia Trail. One of the top spots that entices tourists is the village of Baddeck which we were to explore this day. With a population of 900 set in green forests and edged by deep blue waters of a shimmering bay, it is the jewel of Cape Breton. It is at its finest bursting with colours from the spring to autumn seasons and best enjoyed along its downtown shopping area with its baskets and boxes overflowing with flowers, ivies and all things colourful celebrating the blossoming warm seasons.
With its identity as a bustling resort town during its high seasons, its special character remains as a quaint village. Rather than tourists changing the face of this destination, Baddeck turns the tourist into a Baddeckian – calm, at ease with nature, enjoying the cleanliness of unadulterated and water, making for a re-born tourist.
Outdoor activities abound – sailing regattas, bird-watching, hiking, biking, fishing, horseback riding and in the winter, even dog-sledding. There are many activities enjoyed by all ages and wonderful venues for family getaways. Even Baddeck’s theatre productions or Ceilidhs are embedded in the culture of the village. Held during the evenings, the lively performances are reminiscent of the bygone days of public theatre. Go ahead and ask anyone in Baddeck about events and sites because in this centre of the Cabot Trail, it is also the home and heart of hospitality in Cape Breton.
We had come to Baddeck to sail for a while on the rolling waves of the Bras d’Or Lake, the largest inland sea in Canada. Soon we were comfortably seated on Captain John Bryson’s ship, Amoeba schooner, a 20 m (67 ft) hand-crafted vessel. The schooner sleeps 8 comfortably, and can take up to 42 passengers per tour. John’s voice boomed “Sit down folks! Remember, this is not the Titanic. The schooner was built not to tip over.” Someone shouted ‘What?” Captain John replied, “I didn’t say sink!”
Gently, the schooner which was built by John’s father in the 1970s, and had already made six trips to the Caribbean, set sail. “Look! See the bald eagles overhead?” All eyes on board watched as Captain John threw frozen fish into the water and eagles swooping down to grab the fish. It was like a picture out of the movies – the beautiful creatures of the sky being fed by human hands.
The picturesque scene ended with the voice of Captain John booming. “Did you know that eagles mate in mid-air? That’s why we have the expressions ‘the mile-high club’ and ‘I don’t give a flying ….’ in addition to the term ‘quickie’.” The sun was shimmering on the waters as our boat slowly moved along the bay. Captain John kept us entertained with his jokes and anecdotes. For him, life is good. His attachment to his schooner, the care-free life atop the waters and his true love of Baddeck gave the passengers a feeling of comfort and ease.
When one of the passengers asked “What type of people do you take sailing every day?” He did not hesitate. “Oh! I take all types of groups. Wedding parties, birthday and anniversary celebrants, school groups, and any other organizations you can think of. But my best groups are always those who celebrate divorce. There’s usually only one person missing!”
Still laughing from John’s jokes, we cruised by and caught glimpses of Alexander Graham Bell’s summer mansion Beinn Breaugh that sits atop a forested hill. Dotted along the same hills are the homesteads of Bell’s descendants. I reflected on this great inventor’s legacy and how he added to the way of life of the modern age and also how he changed the course of Baddeck’s history. Bell loved the scenery around Baddeck which inspired his great works. Baddeck reminded him of the Scottish Highlands from which Bell hailed. He felt he had come home by purchasing large tracts of land in Baddeck and calling it home. He lived, loved and created in this ethereal setting.
Past the Bell remains, Captain John gently turned the schooner around and we were on our way back. The rolling waves were gentle in their caressing of the schooner. The air combined with the drops of water gave a feeling of calmness. I looked around at the sloping green hills and they seemed to add beauty to our small schooner atop the water making the scene a picture postcard of beauty.
Captain John, still entertaining us, asked if we wanted to have a look at new reading material that he claimed he “couldn’t put down”. “Sure!” we all said. He pulled out a large paperback and displayed it promptly. “Sailing for Dummies is my new bedtime reading!”. Even the comedy added to my relaxed state. I sat back enjoying the brisk pure air and slightly cool breeze enveloping my body. It was a fitting end to a few hours of sailing amid the breathtaking vistas of Baddeck and its allurements.
After we docked some of the passengers headed towards the nearby Alexander Graham Bell Museum while others stood in groups discussing the cruise. As we left my daughter turned to me saying: “I don’t know what I enjoyed more – the jokes, the soothing breezes or the people on board. Baddeck has a trait of forgetting life’s worries.”
With this short simple cruise being so exciting, imagine all the other activities and sites to be experienced on the Cabot Trail.
If You Go
1) It is best to have your own car or rent an auto when visiting Cape Breton. Taxis are rare and beware gas stations are a few and far in between.
2) For lunch, a must is to visit the Chanterelle Country Inn & Cottages where the halibut is divine. Served with roasted garlic and cherry tomatoes, the dish diffuses the flavours of Cape Breton: 48678 Cabot Trail, Baddeck, Nova Scotia B0E 1B0; tel: 1-902-929-2263
3) For dinner, the Bite House is the place to be. However, reservations must be made weeks in advance. Baddeck is to dine at the Bite House. A 12-seat restaurant located in a fully-renovated 100-year old farmhouse just on the outskirts of Baddeck, guests are given a 5-course meal, all gourmet dishes that are created from local organic ingredients. Dinner is $60 CAD plus tax. The menu changes monthly: 1471 Westside Baddeck Road, Baddeck, Nova Scotia B0E 1B0; tel: 1-902-322-1436
4) Accommodation: if you prefer experiencing 19th century Canadian history, consider lodging at the Telegraph House Hotel. Built in 1861, is owned and operated by the 5th generation Dunlop Family. This is where the first office of the Trans-Oceanic Cable Company was located and where the first telegraph messages were sent from North America: 479 Chebucto Street, Baddeck, Nova Scotia B0E 1B0; Tel: 1-902-295-1100
5) Sailing Bras d’Or Lake in Baddeck, contact: Captain John Bryson, Baddeck Wharf, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia; Tel: 1-902-295-1456
Habeeb Salloum is a Canadian author who grew up in Saskatchewan, joined the RCAF during the Second World War, and then worked for the Canadian Department of National Revenue for 36 years. For the last 30 years he has been a full-time freelance writer and author specializing in food, history and travel. Besides 7 books and 20 chapters in books, he has had hundreds of articles about culture, food, travel, history and homesteading in western Canada appear in such publications as the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the Western Producer, Contemporary Review, Forever Young, Vegetarian Journal and Saveur.
Habeeb was awarded the 2013 Saskatchewan Tourism Travel Media Award by the Saskatchewan Tourism on April 10, 2014 for his literary work on travel, tourism and the culinary arts of that province.
Read more by Muna Salloum, Habeeb’s daughter.