In Search of Cape Breton's Perfect Campsite

When our daughter turned 5, my husband and I felt it was a good time to introduce her to one of our favorite pastimes: camping. Feeling a bit land-locked at home in Toronto, we stuffed the car with sleeping bags and tent, a cooler jammed with food, cooking gear, duffel bags, maps, Beanie Babies, and headed east toward Maritime Canada. Our final destination was one of the most legendary parts of North America: Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

Apart from this geographical destination, we had another goal: to find "the perfect campsite." This is not always easy. Family relations can become strained in the process, hunger pushed to its limits, and best-laid plans dashed to bits. But when that ideal site is found, and the campfire is lit, few summertime scenes can compare.

At first, we had rather naive plans to tour the entire province of Nova Scotia. But you can't just "do" Nova Scotia in a week. To the newcomer, it is a surprisingly immense peninsula (more of an island, really) jutting out from New Brunswick in the shape of a giant lobster. We discovered it would take at least 13 hours of driving to go from the "claws" down to the "tail." And that would be on top of the 1,000-plus mile drive from Ontario just to get there. Not with a five-year-old, thank you.

So we wisely narrowed our focus to Cape Breton and its northern-most tip, home to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This was still ambitious, no doubt, but we were hoping to find some choice campsites there. And we had heard about the dramatic Cabot Trail, the scenic auto route that encircles the park.

After we crossed over the Strait of Canso (or the Canso Causeway) into Cape Breton, we headed north up the last stretch of the famous TransCanada Highway (No. 105). This being the middle of summer, we expected to hit some traffic.

But so amazingly unspoiled and unpopulated was the terrain that we wondered if we had taken a wrong turn. The farther north we went and the more moose-crossing signs we passed, the more we had the feeling we were driving to the top of the world.

Our quest for the perfect campsite began as we pulled into the Whycocomagh Provincial Park, just off the highway. What a view! Who could have resisted the prospect of pitching a tent on the side of mountain overlooking Bras d'Or Lake, a massive inland sea, as it glimmered in the late afternoon sun? Strangely enough, the park was practically empty. Soon we discovered why: pit toilets and no hot water.

Flush toilets are a must

Reluctantly, we kept driving.

When it comes to tent camping, we draw the line at certain points, especially with a child in tow. Hard-core campers may demur, but hot water and flush toilets are a must.

We had already compromised by having our car sitting right next to our tent site. If you do without full facilities, you might as well be backpacking.

So off we headed to Baddeck, the largest town (pop. 1,064) on this arm of Cape Breton and the official starting point of the Cabot Trail. Here we found nice motels, bed-and-breakfasts, lobster suppers, and a small harbor front full of fishing and sightseeing boats.

Just beyond town, the Cabot Trail begins ascending into the highlands.

We were heading counterclockwise (the "wrong" way) around the loop, and so our car was always cliffside, which can be scary or exhilarating, depending upon who, ahem, is driving. At lookout points, we stopped to admire the coastal vistas and dramatic cliffs of 1,200 feet or more.

Finally near Ingonish Beach we passed through the east gate of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park (a small fee is charged). There we loaded up on maps and brochures for the dozen or more campgrounds (provincial and private) and the many hiking trails, beaches, and sightseeing excursions in and around the park. We had made a reservation by phone weeks earlier, as the park recommends, but we found out there are usually plenty of sites set aside for tent campers.

Cruising through the park campgrounds, we discovered where all the tourists were. Tons of people were tucked into cozy sites in the woods and others were closer to the shoreline. It looked to be a well-run, attractive park, but unfortunately, no sites were available that met our stringent requirements: a somewhat unique setting, some privacy, a fire circle, and level ground.

We pushed on up the coast, our disappointment soothed by the marvelous headland lookouts into the Atlantic Ocean. Time to forfeit our best-laid plans and become flexible, I thought.

I whipped through our Nova Scotia guidebook and landed a finger on privately owned "Hideaway Campgrounds" in Dingwall. The description sounded good, and when we pulled in, dozens of gorgeous hilltop sites awaited us, offering placid views of the mountainous coast and Aspy Bay.

Most sites were nicely shielded from one another by trees, and there were fireplaces, hot showers, ice machines, cheap firewood, and even fresh oysters for sale. All for $13 (Canadian; about US$10) a night. We had found our Cape Breton "hideaway."

A three-hour tour

While there, we took a day trip up to the northern-most tip of the Cape and stepped aboard Captain Cox's Whale Watch boat. For three hours (and $50 Canadian) we cruised around St. Lawrence Bay and spotted pilot whales, seals, puffins, and bald eagles.

Back at camp in the evening, we noticed how the wind would pick up and clouds would move in. We took refuge in our tent and commenced our nightly reading aloud of "The Velveteen Rabbit."

After two nights, we left "Hideaway" and resumed the Cabot Trail drive across the top northern woodlands of the park and down the western shore.

The views atop French Mountain (1,492 ft.) and MacKenzie Mountain (1,222 ft.) were superb. Winding our way down to shore level, we soon came within sight of an intriguing looking campground: Corney Brook, part of the national park.

It was unusually tiny - 20 unserviced sites (no electric or water outlets). Only a shelter with flush toilets and no hot water. But when you have a chance to pitch your tent on a grassy promontory overlooking banks of wildflowers leading down to a gorgeous beach with thundering surf, well, you learn not to be so picky.

It was early - 11 a.m. - and lots of people were packing up and leaving. No reservations here. Just stuff your $14 (Canadian; $US10.50) into the payment receptacle. So we pulled into spot No. 10 on the edge of the cliff, set the parking brake, and unloaded with glee.

We had found it. The campsite of our dreams - prime real estate on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The wind made the fly sheet on our tent chatter, but the moist, salty air inspired us. Behind, the highlands loomed upward and a bald eagle soared. Below, our daughter danced on the rocks and even swam in a fresh water pool where Corney Brook spills down from the mountain.

That evening, after we finished the last marshmallow and doused the campfire, the temperature dropped. My husband lit the candle lantern in our tent, and we wriggled into our bags. As we relaxed and settled ourselves to the steady beat of the surf, the winning conclusion of "The Velveteen Rabbit" never read better.

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