Cape Breton Island coastline © Tango7174, Wikipedia
Joined to the mainland since 1955 by the 2km-long Canso Causeway that crosses the narrow Strait of Canso, Cape Breton Island has a population of just under 150,000. Approximately 175km long and 135km wide, it covers 10,300km². At the island’s core is the vast 260km² saltwater Bras d’Or Lake, to the northeast two natural passages connect the lake to the open sea, and in the southwest a short canal constructed in the 1850s and 1860s performs the same purpose. Cape Breton Island has the province’s largest bald eagle population, many of which nest along the lake’s shoreline.
Rugged highlands occupy much of the northern portion of Cape Breton Island: here you’ll find the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, a region of deep, forested canyons, and magnificent coastal cliffs – and the best place in the province to see moose in the wild. This area of natural wonders is accessed by one of the world’s great scenic drives, the 300km Cabot Trail. But don’t just see it all through your car window – get out of your vehicle to hike, bike, kayak, play one of the superb golf courses, take a whale-watching trip or just relax on one of the beautiful beaches. Take a detour to remote Meat Cove, or wander the streets of the Trail’s de facto capital, lakeside Baddeck, where Alexander Graham Bell was a summer resident for more than 35 years.
A century ago, Alexander Graham Bell said: ‘I have travelled the globe. I have seen the Canadian and American Rockies, the Andes and the Alps and the Highlands of Scotland: But for simple beauty, Cape Breton outrivals them all.’ He still has a case.
Set on a magnificent harbour on the east coast, the port of Sydney is by far the biggest urban area: with the surrounding communities it makes up what is still called Industrial Cape Breton, a region largely built on coal mining and steel manufacturing which is home to over 70% of the island’s population.
The island’s major manmade attraction is in the southeast, a wonderful reconstruction of the Fortress of Louisbourg which played a major part in Nova Scotia’s Anglo-French conflicts in the mid 18th century. In the southwest soak up the sleepy pastoral beauty and pretty backroads of Isle Madame.
But man has contributed another particular highlight of any visit to Cape Breton Island, part of the legacy left by the 50,000 Highland Scots who came here and settled in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – joyous Celtic music and dancing. Be sure to go to a ceilidh whilst in Cape Breton Island – or better still, try to time your visit to coincide with the Celtic Colours International Festival, a fantastic blend of traditional music, dancing and nature’s splendour.