Cape Breton, Nova Scotia — Nova Scotia, attached to mainland Canada by only a narrow strip of land at the New Brunswick border, just missed being an island. But Cape Breton, separated from the rest of Nova Scotia by a mere mile and a half of water called the Strait of Canso, just missed not being one.
Such a distinction is more important than it might seem, a traveling companion and I discovered after crossing the causeway spanning the strait at the beginning of a memorable three-day tour of Cape Breton. For in that special way peculiar to islands, Cape Breton has the look and feel of a separate world.
This particular world is one where massive water bodies and mountains vie with one another in a contest of grandeur. Encircling the northeastern tip is the Cabot Trail, a 190-mile highway that plunges and soars along steep coastal cliffs and cuts through the densely wooded Cape Breton Highlands National Park. To the south is the equally imposing Bras d'Or Lakes region, magnificent saltwater lakes fed by narrow inlets from the Atlantic.
Scenery alone would be reason enough to visit Cape Breton, but then so would some of the remarkable man-made attractions. In Baddeck, a picturesque lakeside town at the start of the Cabot Trail, is a museum devoted to the life and experiments of Alexander Graham Bell, a place that is nearly as inventive and dynamic as the man himself. And on a lonely, windswept point near Sydney is the Fortress of Louisbourg, a beautifully restored 18th-century French settlement that is often referred to as the Williamsburg of Canada.
With the Fortress of Louisbourg in mind for our destination the next morning, we headed along Route 4 toward Sydney. For most of the way the highway follows the southern shore of the principal Bras d'Or Lake, a body of water so vast that it appears to be more of a sea than a lake. A paradise for yachtsmen, we spotted innumerable white sails following the outline of the wooded coves.
After a night's rest in Sydney, an industrial city whose chief attraction for visitors is its proximity to the fortress, we set out on the half-hour drive to Louisbourg National Historic Park. With the trees becoming shorter and stubbier and the land increasingly barren as we approached the park's site on the Atlantic shore, the last thing we expected to find was an enclave of elegantly recreated 18th-century colonial French culture. But, because of an ongoing restoration project that is the largest and most expensive in Canada's history, that is what awaited us at Louisbourg.
Parking at the visitors center and then climbing aboard a shuttle bus for the one-mile ride to the fortress, we saw an imposing skyline of fieldstone buildings, one of them a palacelike structure with a fanciful clock tower, gracing the incongruous setting of the rocky ocean shore. The grand scale of Louisbourg and the elegance of its design befitted the fact that the settlement was once the third most important port in eastern North America, ranking behind only Boston and Philadelphia.
The French established Louisbourg in 1713, choosing the forbidding spot as one they felt would be impervious to attack. A handsome, well-fortified town liberally supplied with creature comforts shipped in from France, Louisbourg quickly became a hub of maritime commerce. The thriving community met its downfall in 1745, however, when invading New Englanders seized the fortress for Britain. For many decades afterward Louisbourg lay abandoned, her war-ravaged buildings falling into complete ruin. Finally, in 1961, the Canadian government employed a legion of archaeologists, scholars, and craftsmen to begin its meticulous restoration.
The time frame that visitors find at Louisbourg is the summer of 1744, the town's heyday just before its fall. Costumed guides represent the actual citizens of the town, among them soldiers, servants, government officials, housewives, and children. They are happy to answer questions, but only if they are ones that could have been understood by the people they portray.
It takes at least half a day to properly appreciate Louisbourg, time that can be spent visiting the restored houses and businesses of the town and then enjoying an authentically prepared 18th-century meal served on pewter plates at the Hotel de la Marine. What amazes most people during such a tour is the high standard of living that the town's wealthier citizens enjoyed in such a remote spot.
At the lovely two-story home of the chief engineer, for example, delicious meals were prer!red with the latest in gleaming copper cookware and then served in an elegantly paneled dining room to silk-clad guests seated on brocaded chairs. An even more sumptuous standard of living was the rule at the clock-towered King's Bastion, the official residence of the governor. Here the governor had his own white- and gold-leaf chapel and a splendid set of living quarters with velvet drapes, fine china and crystal, a canopy bed, and a host of other luxuries.
Peeks into the humbler homes and soldiers' barracks reveal that not everyone lived so well. For most of the lower-ranking soldiers, a short straw mattress laid out in damp, unheated quarters was about the limit of home comforts. And a sharp division between nobility and the lower classes existed on the cobbled streets as well; soldiers or servants who were so bold as to walk down the middle of the street could expect to receive either a prison sentence or a fine.
After an engrossing morning at Louisbourg, we headed north toward the Cabot Trail and a very different chapter in the history of Cape Breton. After an hour or so of driving through the Bras d'Or Lakes region, we came to a particularly breathtaking spot on the northern shoreline - the town of Baddeck. Its most famous resident was Alexander Graham Bell, who built a sprawling Victorian mansion on a magnificent headland that he called ''Beinn Bhreagh,'' Gaelic for ''beautiful mountain.'' He lived there from 1885 to 1922.
Across the bay from Beinn Bhreagh is the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Park, 25 acres that include a stunning museum designed in the shape of a tetrahedron, a geometric shape that Bell used in designing kites that tested his theories of flight. As the many audiovisual exhibits, films, photographs, and artifacts in the museum reveal, the telephone was only one of many inventions that Bell gave to the world.
The first part of the museum is devoted to the life of Bell, most effectively through a gallery of large photographs that illustrate his boyhood in Scotland; youth in America and Canada; and his life in Baddeck, which he made headquarters for much of his later experiments. Visitors can also learn about his work with the telephone, even hearing a recorded talk by his assistant Thomas Watson, who describes the historic moment when a voice was first heard over a receiver.
Subsequent halls show the countless other technological contributions made by Bell, particularly in the areas of aviation and marine engineering. Particularly worth noting is the exhibit area detailing Bell's work with hydrofoils, including one he developed in 1919 and experimented with on the Bras d'Or Lakes.
What Bell shared with many other less-famous Cape Bretoners was his Scottish heritage. Beginning in the early 1800s thousands of Highland Scots settled the area, drawn to the saltwater lakes, thickly forested mountains, and dramatic coastline that so reminded them of home. As we followed the Cabot Trail northeast from Baddeck, we saw ample evidence of this Scottish heritage, particularly in place names such as New Campbellton and Skir Dhu, and in occasional Presbyterian chapels poking their white steeples up through the pines. Just 11 miles from Baddeck is St. Ann's, the only Gaelic college in North America, a summer school that offers courses in Gaelic, clan lore, highland dancing, and other Scottish traditions.
As the Cabot Trail heads up to Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the steep cliffs that drop sharply into the sea below command full attention. Coming right after one of the world's longest and most awe-inspiring hairpin turns is the Keltic Lodge, the perfect place to stop overnight and catch one's breath.
Located just outside the village of Ingonish, the old-fashioned Tudor-style Keltic occupies one of the choicest sites of any hostelry in the world: a ruggedly beautiful promontory called Middle Head that juts out into the sea. No matter where your room there are views of the rocky, pine-forested coast, lying as it does on either side.
From the Keltic Lodge there is a two-mile walk to the tip of Middle Head, a trek I had an irresistible urge to make the next morning. At first the trail winds through a dense fir and hardwood forest, a setting that I shared with two red-headed woodpeckers and a fleeting beige hare that darted into the brush. Then it comes to an open meadow, one that affords sweeping vistas of the coast on both sides. Peering over the edge to the sea below, I was amazed at the colors of the rocks crumbling away from the cliff - delicate shades of pink mingling with black and gray.
A sign at the meadow explains to hikers that the constant erosion of the cliffs by the sea may one day make Middle Head an island. And that, given the way Cape Breton had deepened my affection for islands, was a prospect I found a delight.