Little Breton: Canada’s Celtic outpost
Most tourist souvenirs are best seen and not bought, but there’s some tempting stuff in the gift shop as I wait for the ceilidh to start in the tiny Nova Scotian village of Judique.
The Confiture de Rhubarbe Sirop d’Erable (rhubarb and maple jam) looks good.
Yet many things carry Canada’s staple maple flavour, and we’ve stocked up well already. So maybe the tartan ‘serviettes de plage’ (beach towels) complete with sporran, aka the Instakilt. Or the hip flask, a hint that there’s a whisky distillery just up the road.
A moody lake near Baddeck.
Green Cliffs Overlooking Cabot Trail.
Historians are sure Cabot landed somewhere on the Canadian east coast but it could have been further north at Newfoundland or Labrador, or even south in present-day Maine in the U.S. For the Cape Breton believers, it was near the north tip of the island, where at Cabot Landing Provincial Park a bust credits Giovanni/John – who by one account landed only once and never advanced inland “beyond the shooting distance of a crossbow” – with the discovery of North America.
If Cabot did land here, he chose the best beach on the island, a golden crescent several kilometres long and perfect for a mid-summer’s afternoon siesta away from the Cabot Trail. This is a 300km loop road which runs the gamut of quaint, lush and spectacular as it links communities on the east and west shores. On the north-west corner, every whale-watch operation more or less guarantees sightings, and so it is with Capt. Mark’s out of Pleasant Bay. In 20 minutes, our zodiac is among a pod of 50 small, playful pilot whales. You hear them a split second before they breach, and we get so close – some swim under us – you smell them, too. “It’s their breath,” says our boatman.
Such magnificent land-locked harbours I never imagined. Every moment something new to enchant.
From Pleasant Bay, the Cabot Trail cuts across the island to the Atlantic. Seeing the ocean as you eat must enhance the seafood experience, because at the Chowder House – a weathered weatherboard on a promontory in Neils Harbour – the lobster club sandwich, served toasted with mash and wasabi coleslaw, is one surreal meal. But at the other end of the scale, the combo of seared halibut and Neils Harbour snow crab in hollandaise at the grand Keltic Lodge hotel, further down the east coast in Ingonish, is served with bay views on either side.
The Cabot Trail deposits you in Baddeck, in a setting on the shore of Bras d’Or Lake that moved a former resident to write: “Such magnificent land-locked harbours I never imagined. Every moment something new to enchant.”
While this observer, Mabel Hubbard Bell, was admiring the view, her serial inventor husband Alexander Graham Bell was beavering away in his workshop at Beinn Bhreagh, their home across the lake. The Bell Museum in Baddeck is a memorial to his enormous mind.
Yet another Scot to make his mark in the New World, Bell’s experiments in telephony had arisen from his main interest in phonetics and ‘visible speech’: his mother and his wife were deaf.
Some of his other ideas were fanciful, such as a device to aid sailors lost at sea by producing drinking water from their breath, but he also made a metal detector (used in a vain attempt to find the assassin’s bullet in the abdomen of U.S. President James Garfield) plus early versions of the aeroplane and the hydrofoil.
The farmers market, held every Wednesday, is a central feature of Baddeck life. It’s populated by artisan bakers, and so a warning about the Happy Butter Tart: the thing is so buttery, one bite and it collapses.
Sure it’s an indulgence, but you can always dance it off at a ceilidh.
Jeremy Bourke travelled as a guest of Tourism Nova Scotia and Destination Canada.
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