The Cabot Trail

Indoctrinated to Nova Scotia. “Nice Scenery and Good Riding, Eh?”

JEFF BUCHANAN

When the Westjet Dehaviland Dash Turboprop touched down in Sydney, Nova Scotia, it immediately threw its props into reverse pitch in order to get stopped on the short runway. When the plane pulled a u-turn and taxied back to the terminal on the active runway, I realized just how small the airport was. When I say terminal, what I mean is a small building with a swinging glass door that welcomes passengers crossing the tarmac into the tiny baggage claim area followed by the short stroll to the exit. Getting here from Colorado had entailed three flights, including a fatigue-inducing red eye that had me on the brink of a foul mood, which was quickly subdued by the pleasant smiles and famously friendly greetings from the Nova Scotia locals. I immediately liked this place.

I was on Cape Breton Island, which sits at the extreme eastern corner of Canada, just above Maine, on the last finger of land that juts out into the mighty Atlantic. The next landfall one would make to the north is Newfoundland, and to the east; Europe. Cape Breton is a 3,981 square mile island that constitutes 18.7% of Nova Scotia’s total landmass and is separated from the peninsula by the Strait of Canso, which was connected by the Canso Causeway in 1955. I was here to ride the famous Cabot Trail, a scenic road that winds through, around and over the Cape Breton Highlands. The Cabot Trail is fast earning a rightly deserved reputation as a must-ride motorcycle destination, as much for its entertaining route as the island’s uniquely picturesque landscape and calming tranquility. Cape Breton, though only slightly removed from the contiguous United States, has a distinct character that feels dramatically removed from the American mainland.

At the Keltic Quay Hotel, situated on the northeast shore of Bras d’Or Lake (Canada’s largest saltwater inland sea) in the village of Whycocomagh, I was introduced to the mount that would carry me through this unique corner of the globe: a 2018 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra. I would also meet the man known as the Cabot Trail Biker, Daniel Ross. Born and raised in Arisaig, Nova Scotia, Daniel is a passionate motorcyclist who has been riding the region for years. The de facto “go-to” guy for riders coming to experience the Cabot Trail, Daniel’s website (www.cabottrailbiker.com) evolved as a kind of dedicated two-wheel guide where he shares his accumulated experiences riding this exceptional riding playground with other bikers. It stood to reason, between Daniel’s encyclopedic knowledge of the area and his infectiously enthusiastic demeanor, that he should start his own tour.     

I was part of the inaugural Cabot Trail Biker Tour, a five-day tour that, in addition to indoctrinating willing enthusiasts to the motorcycle-friendly roads, explores the island’s heritage and culture. Daniel had assembled an intimate group of eight riders (led by Daniel, with a sweep rider and support driver) who all got to know each other over a barbeque and drinks at the Quay’s main meeting room overlooking the water. The motorcycle season in Nova Scotia—assuming you want relatively comfortable riding conditions—is short, with the cold giving way to warming trends beginning late June and running through September, though the weather can change dramatically as summer abates. Sitting around a blazing fire we all shared in excitement for the days ahead.

Waking Up In Whycocomagh

Blessed with clearing skies our squad of Harleys rumbled out of Whycocomagh where we were immediately introduced to the wonderfully uncluttered roads of Cape Breton. In short order we found ourselves trekking densely wooded areas broken by quaint villages of brightly colored homes, small cafes, and shops. A mix of inland roads had us skirting Bras d’Or Lake. Over the course of the tour, we will make it around this massive salt/freshwater lake. On the west side of the island, we traded wheels for hiking into the woods to see “Egypt Falls.” As a motorcyclist, once we were back on the route, I was very aware of the moose road signs. We were warned that moose are generally undaunted by the presence of man or motorcycle, not easily spooked off into the woods by the approach of a loud Harley. Weighing in the neighborhood of a thousand pounds, hitting a moose would be traumatic for both parties.

The people of the Cape have a strong pride that is reflected in the immaculately maintained homes that make up the quaint villages and small townships dotting the island. The owners tend to choose bright, primary colors to show off their humble abodes. Blue, yellow, red, and purple siding augmented with white shutters and picket fences, which are set off against rocky landscapes and the lush green backdrop, giving it all the appearance of a painting.

With numerous stops for coffee and food, as well as to take in the sights, there is the inevitable learning about a new place. For decades Cape Breton’s primary industry was centered around coal and steel. When the mines and mills closed in the 90s there was a definite exodus. Those who stayed learned to adapt to the Cape’s transition from an industrial to service-based economy, with tourism becoming a major industry. However, the island’s outlying areas, whose economies were focused on fishing, have remained relatively stable. As can be expected for land that reaches out into the north Atlantic, overlooking the migration lanes of whales, whale-watching is a popular tourist attraction for Cape Breton, with Pilot Whales being the predominant species. Whale-watching cruises operate from Baddeck to Cheticamp.

Our host arranged an early morning outing in Mabou to experience life aboard a lobster boat. In the pre-dawn darkness, our erstwhile group carefully steered their Harleys down a gravel road, the string of single headlights weaving and bobbing in the early morning dark of misted air, eventually arriving at a tiny harbor.

Once aboard and motoring out past the breakers the boat crew immediately got to work pulling in the buoys (indentified by specific colors) that mark the location of their lobster traps. The three-man crew worked with a seamless familiarity that betrays the speed of their hands and the demanding task of servicing the traps; pulling out lobsters, resetting bait, clamping lobster claws, and as the small boat circles, dropping the traps back into the dark, cold waters before moving onto the next one. A flatlander such as myself acquires a new respect for these men of the sea, carving their livelihood out of the ocean. There is also a kind of envy, in that these men and women are earning their livelihood out on the sea as opposed to dealing with traffic and the stale air of cubicles. Despite the life of fishing being hard and unpredictable, there is an appealing honesty and simplicity that this lifestyle embodies. Maybe I’m romanticizing it, but I found myself wondering if I could cut it out here. Thoughts of a cottage, a fire burning in the fireplace and a hot cup of coffee to greet one returning from a long day of honest labor on the water had an appealing ring to it.

In the morning at Mabou River Inn we were treated to the bi-product of the owner’s hobby; baking. The breakfast spread included homemade, freshly baked bread cut thick and brushed lavishly with melted butter. Coffee, eggs, fruit, and cereal rounded it all out and prepared us for the day’s ride ahead.    

Cape Breton enjoys a strong Scottish influence with its music, the Gaelic sounds comprised of fiddle, guitar, light percussion, and hearty vocals, the lyrics laced with powerful storytelling. Introduced to the island by Scottish immigrants the traditional music is well preserved on Cape Breton, the island boasting the largest number of fiddlers per capita anywhere in the world. This lively, danceable music is heard in abundance around the island and is the backbone of many music festivals throughout the year. In Mabou we settled into The Red Shoe Pub to listen to the spirited sounds of this traditional music. The small establishment was packed with a combination of tourists and locals who take pride in the heritage of the tunes and sing along, confidence helped along with the consumption of local brews.

The Cabot Trail

At the Cornerstone Motel—the last establishment before the choice, remote, coastal portion of the Cabot Trail begins—we woke to stunningly clear blue skies and bright sun. Dropping the clutch and exiting the parking lot put us directly onto the famous two-lane road that curves its way into the northernmost reaches of the island. The day ahead was filled with those glorious moments of two-wheel bliss, when gently sweeping turns gel with a shedding of concerns of daily life to deliver we fortunate bikers to that state of two-wheel euphoria, reminding us of why we ride. Cape Breton and the Cabot Trail proffer this rider’s high in spades.   

After the Second World War, when motorized tourism expanded exponentially, Cape Breton’s scenic Cabot Trail became a popular attraction. Originally built in the early 30s, the route was renovated in the early 50s, creating the motorcycle-friendly we have today. Over the ensuing years, it has captured the imagination of motorcyclists worldwide. Yet despite the Trail’s popularity, the route is far from over-ridden. One can still find long stretches where another motorist isn’t encountered for some time, providing a relaxing ride that allows for plenty of stress-free riding and sightseeing. The Trail is 185 miles in length and loops the northern tip of the island, passing through Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The Trail traverses rugged coastline, paralleling the Skyline Trail, offering expansive ocean views. This is the part of the Trail that inspires wicking up the throttle a bit, rewarding with those sought after meditative moments on a bike that mesh the joy of riding with dramatic scenery. One aspect of the Cabot Trail that has enormous value is the fact that you really can’t get lost. Just stay on the main road and you’ll be fine.      

In the northern part of the island the road turns inland to Cape North where a highly enjoyable side road takes one out to Bay St. Lawrence, with a further extension (a mix of pavement and gravel) that leads to Meat Cove. The views are worth the slow-going five-mile jaunt on gravel. From there the Cabot Trail weaves its way down the east side of the island, through White Point and Neils Harbour to land us at Ingonish and the elegant Keltic Lodge, which is built on a finger of land that has ocean on either side.

The final portion of Cabot Trail takes riders through the exhilarating Cape Smokey, which has a section of roller-coaster twists that really deserves several runs to get the heart rate up and let the Harley breath a bit. As I was sitting there at the precipice of Cape Smokey I took note of the graffiti scrawled across the guardrail. As I might have expected in a country revered for its politeness, the graffiti had a certain flair and decency to it. Letters immaculately scrawled by conscientiously-minded taggers (evidently with enough education to render correct grammar and spelling), sharing funny comments, declarations of having been here, and even some literary passages and the occasional proverb.

My last morning on Cape Breton had me making a solo trek to the airport in Sydney. The day was crisp, with clear skies. I enjoyed the hum of the Harley’s V-twin as I slowly wound myself down the eastern side of the island. Being Saturday there was a steady stream of motorcyclists passing in the opposite direction. There was a bit of envy given that I was ending my time on Cape Breton and the Cabot Trail, whereas they were just starting their sojourn into this most splendid and unique of motorcycle destinations. It was then, as the road sign steered me toward Sydney and that diminutive airport where a plane would take me away from this place, that I better understood a statement that is oft-repeated here: Cape Breton Island; your heart will never leave.

With charming names like Bay of Lawrence, Neils Harbour, Pleasant Bay, Cheticamp, Cape North, and Ingonish Beach (to name just a few) and with the dramatic coastal passes and the lush forests of the Cabot Trail, the wonderful food, and especially the people, it’s no wonder the Condé Nast travel guide has rated Cape Breton Island one of the world’s best island destinations.

For more information about all aspects of riding The Cabot Trail, go to www.cabottrailbiker.com (contact Daniel Ross).

For Harley-Davidson rentals in Cape Breton, contact Cabot Powersports www.cabotpowersports.com

War Memorial on Cabot Trail

The wording of this war memorial, at this beautiful look-off on the Cabot Trail’s coastal run, is powerfully moving, given that it speaks directly to the loss of Canadian lives in war. It opens with: “They will never know the beauty of this place, see the seasons change, enjoy nature’s chorus.”

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