Cape Breton's treasure is its people
No crowds will greet you in Cape Breton just spectacular vistas, quaint towns, and genuinely friendly people
CAPE BRETON, NOVA SCOTIA — Everywhere I look in Cape Breton, I see blue. Somehow, patches of French blue on barn roofs, window shutters, and in folk art must help the people who live on this island endure long winters, depleted fisheries and mines, and rusted farm machinery cluttering its verdant hills.
Here in northern Nova Scotia, where meandering asphalt meets the stout seacoast, color and warmth are precious commodities that natives share freely with guests.
Most tourists come during the summer and fall months, when outdoor activities such as whale watching, eagle spotting, fishing, hiking, and swimming are plentiful. But even in early May, when snowbanks still cover Breton's highlands, the island offers a rich vacation experience.
A full 700 miles northeast of Boston, Cape Breton boasts that it has some of the warmest ocean temperatures north of the Carolinas. In fact, Nova Scotia license plates proclaim the region as "Canada's Ocean Playground." (However, in a spontaneous and ill-conceived bit of immersion journalism, this reporter dived into the deep, emerging with whimpers and goose bumps, confirming that this claim is true for perhaps two weeks in August.)
Is it worth driving the extra 10 hours past Maine's heralded midcoast to get to Cape Breton?
Maine's delights urge visitors to write postcards: "Wish you were here." But Cape Breton for both its journey and its destination compels visitors to keep journals: "So glad I have this place to myself."
Granted, there are hundred-mile stretches along the Trans-Canada Highway that make the prospect of watching "Ishtar" exciting.
And be forewarned: North of Moncton, New Brunswick, tourists often succumb to the attraction of "Magnetic Hill," a full-fledged amusement park built around ... a dirt hill. Locals tout the hill as an interactive optical illusion cars appear to roll magically uphill but M.C. Escher (the Dutch artist known for his illusions and geometric patterns) probably would have saved his $3.
Natural beauty abounds as the road winds north, but it is the quaint towns, like River John, that slow down speeding cars with their postcard-perfect churches and lamb's wool merchants.
After enduring Maine's overabundance of antique and outlet shops, American visitors to Cape Breton will be delighted to use their strong currency to patronize Nova Scotia's pleasant merchants.
Pewter and crystal jewelry, diverse folk art, hooked rugs, hand-dyed yarn, and maple-inspired delicacies await folks who skip the souvenir shops.
The span across the mile-and-a-half-long Canso Causeway that separates mainland Nova Scotia from the island of Cape Breton isn't particularly remarkable. As a measure of endearment, though, it speaks volumes.
Quite literally a chip off the old block, the Canso bridge was built with massive boulders cut from a coastal mountain. Looking back from the Breton end, the driver can see the naked cliff carved to connect the lands a scar of affectionate sacrifice.
Cape Breton's roads can't help hugging the coast. Whether gripping the cliffs on the 190-mile Cabot Trail, or tugging at the softer contours of Bras d'Or Lake a massive saltwater inlet that nearly splits the island in two highways in Cape Breton offer spectacular vistas.
No need to brace for briny air. Go ahead, open the car windows. Better yet, get out of the car altogether. Feel the cool, clean air. Spot the wild lupines that promise perfumed air. Venture to the shore.
Early springtime on the beach might as well be the early Jurassic period as far as the number of people around. Puffy white sails, men with binoculars, even teeming sea life clinging to salt-swept rocks all are absent. The shores here are elemental, with polished pebbles strewn over wind-cleaned granite.
Cape Breton's trails have been compared to the famous drive along California's Big Sur shoreline. They're both memorable, yet for different reasons. Big Sur reveals nature's power. Cape Breton shows her grace. And her fun. Where else can you swim in the ocean at the foot of a ski mountain, stand on a snowbank, and spot a moose, all within an hour?
Breton's brightest treasure, however, is its people. Most of those who make their home in a tourist paradise suffer from the "summer smile." They're friendly to tourists; in season, smiles mean money. But off-season, locals bond over just how much they dread visitors trespassing on "their" island.
Cape Bretons have no such duplicity. (Or they're really good at faking friendliness.)
In Mabou, where the island's fiddle music is concentrated, pubgoers are almost too friendly. At the Red Shoe Pub (www.redshoepub.com), a Sunday afternoon romp between fiddler Carl MacKenzie and pianist Pat Chafe was fully interactive. A discreet question to a patron quickly became a pub-wide concern.
"Hey, Carl," a local man named Donald shouted between songs, "these folks are from New Jersey; you got any CDs for [sale to] them?"
Abashed at interrupting Carl's foot-tapping energy and lilting tunes, my mom and I tried to keep a lower profile. But its contagious playfulness soon had us trading stories with Mabou residents. Here's a typical conversation:
"Have you lived here your whole life?"
"Not yet. I'm still alive, ain't I?"
"This place seems like paradise; but I'm sure it has its share of challenges, right?"
"No, it's pretty darn perfect."
Will stressed-out urban dwellers looking to get away from it all pose risks to Mabou's tight-knit community? Population trends illustrate the reality that outside the cozy warmth of the pub, residents face long winters and a cold economic climate.
Still, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that before too long, a Visa credit-card commercial might make this area its next victim, er, highlight: "The Celtic fiddlers at the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou will take your breath away. But they won't take American Express."
Red Shoe's musical charm reaches its commercial apotheosis in the Celtic Colours (www.celtic-colours.com/core.php), an annual festival that brings hordes of fiddle aficionados to the island in fall. Celtic musicians, singers, dancers, and storytellers perform at more than 30 venues each October, when fall foliage peaks.
Celtic music may be the most obvious link to the island's traditions, but sites throughout Cape Breton point to the rich history of its Acadian, English, and Scottish influence.
The Acadians are descendants of French settlers who arrived in the early 1600s. The British expelled them from Nova Scotia in 1755, but they've since reclaimed parts of Cape Breton's northwest coast. Scottish immigrants arrived in the 19th century, and, largely free from outside influences, their music and culture survived, and, beginning in the 1970s, even thrived.
Today, step dances, square dances, reels, and jigs are performed everywhere. Come nightfall, red barns and white-painted community centers glow with the light of listeners and dancers who travel no small distance to join in the fun.
Tourists, it seems, are not allowed to be mere spectators at these frequent gatherings. Once, a woman named Evelyn, who must have been a schoolgirl when Alexander Graham Bell still called this island home, grabbed me out of the corner where I was watching a square dance, and out onto the dance floor we went.
When its people share their enthusiasm naturally, Cape Breton shines. When it adopts the tastes and attitudes of the people who come to visit, it loses its character. Cuisine is a prime example. Fresh lobster, hearty soups, and butterscotch pie were the standout meals.
Upscale inns that serve gourmet meals, miss the mark, in my opinion. Why come to Cape Breton to get roast duck that you can find anywhere?
It was while eating fish and chips that I got my best impression of Cape Breton.
In an empty diner that sat atop a grassy cliff, my mom and I looked out our window to the sea. Pale gray shadows lengthened as the sun set over the windy coast. A lone man raked the grassy border of his driveway as billowing clothes dried on a line.
Inside, our halibut gave way to pie. Outdoors, the man continued to rake as the chilly dusk began to encompass him.
This was way beyond Norman Rockwell. If the Wyeths had ventured from Maine, they would have painted this scene. Not for its beauty for its authenticity.
This is the real Cape Breton Island.