My husband A, is all about meticulous planning. While I procrastinate and watch HGTV, he is busy scribbling down notes and making tiny routes and maps with his yellow lead pencil. When he is finished, he exclaims “This is going to be epic”.
That was two years ago. But then life happened. I had exams to take and that summer just slipped away giving way to the New Year with newer and more difficult challenges. It wasn’t until July 2016 that we decided to give this baby a green signal and boy was it worth it!
Ranked as the #1 Island in North America by Travel + Leisure magazine, Cape Breton Highlands National Park is an island situated in the northeast of Canada’s peninsular province, Nova Scotia. Considering its ranking and our driving distance proximity from New York, it had to be on our list of national parks. There used to be a 12 hour ferry that ran between Portland, Maine to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia but thankfully the think-tank in the Bay Ferries Limited had a great idea of procuring a new age naval vessel and shorten the travel time to 5.5 hours. The ferry runs by the name of CAT (pronounced Cat, yeah the feline mammal) and allows cars for a fee of 200 dollars one way. Individual fare is separate, costing about 194 for a round trip. Rates vary by age.
So, off we set at 8:30 on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning, planning to reach an hour ahead of required boarding time of 2 pm, but the sinister traffic gods were unusually busy. The traffic on 495 North towards Boston was choked, thanks to the snail-speed rally of Trump supporters. We were stuck for a good 1.5 hour until they finally decided to take the exit towards Boston. The traffic eased but we were behind schedule now. We called the terminal office to apprise them of our situation and played Need for Speed (no kidding), applauding ourselves for being optimists, but not for long. We reached the ferry terminal at 2:21 PM. The admin at the terminal is very strict with the boarding time and so we missed the ferry by SIX MINUTES! (They don’t let you in after 2:15)
I was fuming at that point. It meant we had to wait another day to take the ferry, cutting one day from our vacation time. But like many things in life, sometimes these unplanned events and obstacles can be the best thing that can happen to you. A decided to refund the one way fare of the trip (the company very graciously did so) and change the itinerary.
After fueling up on some McDonalds, we hit the road towards New Brunswick, reaching the ridiculously small border (it was literally a kiosk in the middle of a two-way street) in about five hours. The time zone changes an hour ahead to Atlantic Time as soon as you cross the border. A drove for a further four hours until we reached the first accommodation of our trip, Cooke’s and Regents motel around 10 pm. It is situated on the western outskirts of a small city called St. John, NB and was the only available place we could find after the change in itinerary. Let’s just say I wouldn’t go there again if my life depended on it. But A made up for it with a sumptuous dinner at a snazzy place in St. John called the Britts Pub & Eatery. It was Friday night and it was good to see clubbers after a long no-human-in-sight highway drive up there.
In the morning, we woke up early to leave that place asap and further drove up to fuel up and have breakfast in a beautiful town called Moncton, NB. We couldn’t have found a better place for breakfast aka Café Archibald. Both the sweet and savory crepes hit the sweet spot and the caramel mocha was to die for. I have never tasted a better whipped cream in my life. Moncton itself is an interesting place to explore but we had to be on the road to reach Charlotte town, Prince Edward Island (PEI) where we had a delicious lunch of fish and chips at Water Prince Corner Shop located in the downtown. However overall, I didn’t find PEI as charming as the name suggests. There was something off about it. Maybe, it is because I haven’t read Anne of Green Gables. Considering how much I love children’s classics, I have no idea why I never read it.
As much as I adore all things rustic, most of the drive was through a monotonous landscape of farmland (save a few gorgeous mustard fields). A quick Wikipedia search revealed that PEI is an agricultural province with a massive potato farming scene (It is only second to Idaho when it comes to potatoes). Even the Stanhope beach at the national park failed to live up to its hype. There were a few more beaches in the park that were supposedly great for swimming and activities like finding Anne of Green Gables, but we had to catch a 75 minute ferry from Wood Islands, PEI to Caribou, Nova Scotia and this time we were determined not to miss it. The ferry ride cost amounted to 71 CA dollars inclusive of two person passenger fare, car fare and a mandatory exit toll fee of 46 dollars.
Our next destination was Baddeck (part of the original itinerary).That was another long drive and we ended up reaching well past midnight. *Yaaaaawwwn*.
Our accommodation at Inverary Resort, located on the Bras d’Or Lake was simply ah-mazing. The gorgeous rooms, über charming breakfast patios, sprawling gardens and lake views rejuvenated us for the next two days. The village of Baddeck is as quaint as the word can be, with a delightful blend of Celtic and Acadian culture.
Baddeck is often referred to as the beginning and end of the Cabot Trail (The Cabot Trail was featured in USA Today’s 10 Best Readers’ Choice for Best Motorcycle Trip in 2014.). The village’s main street and boardwalk are small but pretty, dotted with colorful restaurants, cafes’ and gift shops. A few places only take cash (which for American tourists has to be at par, meaning despite the currency difference, you have to pay the exact amount in US dollars, so keep some change handy). There is a pub within the resort and a golf course nearby. The resort’s adventure center offers cycling, kayaking and boat paddling. There is also a communal bonfire in the evenings. Did I already mention we adored every bit of our stay?
DAY 4 &5
Saying good-bye to Baddeck was hard but the climax of this road trip was about to begin en route the Cabot Trail. The drive up north towards the Cape Breton Highlands National Park is picturesque to say the least. We made multiple stops at scenic outlooks and savored the oceanic views.
We like to consider ourselves seasoned campers, but for the next two nights, A had a pleasant surprise for me. Our campsite in Broad Cove Campground was situated steps away from the beach. Plus, he had booked oTentik, a hybrid of a tent and a cabin sans restroom and kitchen. It was blissfully heated with a propane heater and had beds for about 6 people (you have to take your own bed sheets and pillows), patio seating for two and an open-air grill. Some people like to call it glamping. I call it tree house dream come true for adults. The convenience it offers, especially the heating (considering the temperature drops to low fifties at night) was just wonderful. A lot of people unbashedly ogled when walking past it while kids called it the coolest thing they had ever seen. OH YEAH.
The park has excellent amenities including immaculate restrooms, free shower areas, a good size dish washing area and some fun communal activities planned for each evening, of which some are free and some paid. We took a paid nighttime storytelling hike, which was simultaneously eerie and fascinating. Other options include open-air theatre, bonfire, lobster cooking etc. As usual, we had a great time BBQ-ing our much-loved menu: chicken tikka, lamb chops, shashlik and cheeseburgers. Mmmmm.
As the night fell, the soundtrack of ocean waves dominated and the sky lit up with literally millions of stars. According to word of mouth, some nocturnal people had even witnessed the Aurora on the beach.
One of the must-dos of the park is the Middlehead trail. It is, hands down, the most beautiful hike we have ever done. Rated as moderate on difficulty level, it is a 3.8 km loop that winds through the cliff, starting near the Keltic Lodge and offers spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean at multiple points. Whales, seals, eagles and other birds can be seen from the cliff especially in early summer (be sure to carry binoculars)
Another popular hike is the Skyline trail on the west side of the Cabot Trail. It is a 7.5 km level loop, deemed easier than the Middlehead trail but surely feels a bit dreary UNTIL you reach the cliff head .The incredible view of Gulf of St. Lawrence more than makes up for it. There are numerous warnings for moose sightings and some interesting research about their impact on topography of the highlands. The boardwalk winds down but not up to the ocean. It is also a great vantage point for whale watching.
After getting done with the skyline trail, we drove down the west side of the Cabot Trail all the way to our next destination
It was an exhausting 6 hour drive thanks to some crazy traffic jams. We did a hat-trick of midnight check-ins at the Château Bedford which was a pleasant hotel, within a small driving distance to Downtown Halifax. We decided not to explore Peggy’s Cove, a popular happening touristy spot. Instead, we walked and lounged around the waterfront, explored the farmer’s market in Dartmouth, tried the best burgers of Nova Scotia at Darrell’s Restaurant. Unfortunately, the burger connoisseurs in us were fairly disappointed. Their poutine was great though. The Bicycle Thief looked like an interesting Italian restaurant where we just had desserts. Somehow, despite all the rave reviews on TripAdvisor, for us, food was below par in the metropolitan city of Halifax. However, we loved the Central Library of Halifax. It has slick modern architecture and innovative amenities, lots of interesting spaces and interactive events. I don’t think we have ever swooned like this over a library.
DAY 7 and that’s a wrap
Sadly, our trip was coming to an end. It was time to hit the road again, this time towards Yarmouth, the port city where our ferry would take us back. Since A couldn’t find a single vacant hotel to say in Yarmouth, he booked a comfortable rustic suite, brimming with character, at a farmland in Richmond. . We maintained the midnight check-in streak. As Phil Dunphy would say, life was giving us lemonade and we made lemons out of it. If we had reached in daylight, we would have gone wild in this pretty Scottish farm by the lake. The owner, Mr. Wolfgang, has a mesmerizing, polite voice and is rather a smart entrepreneur. He has a farm store and a restaurant near the lodging where, on weekends, he serves premium steaks of his highland cows . We plan to visit him again one of these days.
The ferry was to depart at 8:30 in the morning, so we woke up early, watched the beautiful sunrise on the farm and drove down to Yarmouth, which looked like a very grey and boring town. But we couldn’t care less for the CAT ferry was there and we were right on time. YAY.
The ferry is super comfortable with lots of plush seats, two small cafés with a good size eat-in area and an onboard souvenir shop. It also has free Wi-Fi (which sucks big time). If you really need internet service, you can log in at one of the free computer kiosks provided. After a ride of 5.5 hours, we reached Portland, Maine and suffice is to say we were glad we didn’t miss this ferry trip.
This road trip means a lot to me in every way. It couldn’t have come up at a better time. Its original plan two years ago and the last-minute modifications brought out some interesting flavors and experiences. It gave me perspective and closure. It was a balm, nay, a deep-tissue massage to a tired soul.
Au revoir Atlantic Canada!
*All photographs (except the map) are property of annelikestotravel*