The sun falls over the Gulf of St. Lawrence, gilding the sea in gold then painting it scarlet. On a pebbled beach guarded by green hills we’re getting an informative – and fun – lesson.
“Take this pot to the water; partially fill it,” says a Parks Canada staffer.
After completing my assignment I carry the pot back to a hut where rudimentary stoves – and other visitors – await.
This is a Parks Canada weekly summer programme hosted at LaBloc Beach in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. It’s called “Learn to Boil Lobster” and culminates in a full dinner in one of the most gorgeous settings in Atlantic Canada, if not the entire country.
As we gear up for Canada’s one-fiftieth, this culinary and cultural celebration – and my whole experience of what Lonely Planet calls “one of the best road trips in the world” – seems like the perfect way to stand on guard for thee.
And it’s just one more pit stop – albeit a delicious one – on the Cabot Trail.
The Cabot Trail runs in a roughly three-hundred-kilometre loop through the northern reaches of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island.
It rises and falls, soaring and plummeting, twisting and turning like a riled rattlesnake, switchbacking, hair-pinning, theme park ride but for the fact that it’s so beautiful that you’ll forgive and forget the vertigo.
Thrill ride and slice of paradise both, it is a must-do addition to your Canadian bucket list.
Along its easterly reaches the sea is sometimes blue-green, sometimes cobalt, sometimes silver-etched. Like a shy child it’s sometimes visible, sometimes hidden beyond that next ridge, behind great stands of evergreens that are emerald contrast to those waters they flirt with, though these tints and hues are hardly the only contrast between the Trail and the sea.
The Trail exudes and evokes drama at every turn while the sea itself is a calming influence, a constant friend. Even when the surf is up, even though each time you stop for photo ops you hear its thunder, watching the spray as it assaults rock-strewn beaches or secret bedrock coves, the sea is like a defining border, a sort of picture frame that orients you on your trek northward.
But it takes advance planning to embark upon a Cabot Trail road trip. Pit stops constantly lure and beckon: hike, bike, kayak, whale-watch, fly-fish, sail, imbibe in history and culture, sample local brews or whiskey. And when the day is done visit a local pub or kitchen party where folk musicians – both Gaelic and Acadian – are plentiful as black flies in May.
You need at least three nights to “get” the Trail but five nights are even better.
Right from the start we’re distracted and delayed – though it’s not a bad thing.
Welcome to the beginning of the Cabot Trail. Welcome to Baddeck.
We hook up with Angelo Spinazzolo, proprietor of North River Kayaks and ply the waters of Bras D’or Lake up close and personal, rounding tree-shrouded Kidston Island just off this village that shows like a miniature Lunenburg, boasting clapboard storefronts playing host to a multitude of gift shops and restaurants, picnicking beachside in the shade of a towering lighthouse across the bay from Alexander Graham Bell’s family estate. We go ashore and tour the Alexander Graham Bell Historical Site, boasting gorgeous views of the sky-blue waters of the lake along with fascinating tidbits of history. We head south along Bras D’or Lake with Sailing CBI, plotting a course through this inland sea on a twelve-and-a-half metre catamaran.
And when the sun falls we nosh on even more lobster.
Next day we make for points north.
In Cape Breton Highlands National Park we stretch our legs among coastal highlands and canyon-decorated tablelands that show like a backdrop for “Jurassic Park.”
We hike the Skyline Trail through Acadian and Boreal forest, traversing a sky-reaching ridge ending in a view of mountains bowing to greet the sea, the Trail itself hundreds of metres below. Members of my party ascend the Franey Trail (it ends at the edge of precipitous cliffs) while I check out the beach at nearby Ingonish before visiting the lobster pier and chatting about the price of lobsters, one lobsterman discussing retirement. “I’m doing the ‘Freedom 649’ Plan,” he says.
Could do more trails crisscrossing this wilderness of bears and moose – twenty-six of them in the park alone – but other pit stops beckon.
We book a whale-watching tour out of Cheticamp, a charming Acadian village, but the seas aren’t cooperating so we visit Paroisse Saint Pierre, an august sandstone church, circa 1893, before renting bikes and going backcountry along the Gypsum Lake Trail.
Next stop is the Margaree, a Canadian Heritage River, where I don hip waders and fight the current in the bosom of a green valley after a lesson in fly-fishing provided by Ed McCarty, an American ex-pat and fisherman extraordinaire, snagging a fish on my very first cast. Honest.
Could get to like this.
Could get to love our next Cabot Trail pit stop. Welcome to Big Spruce Brewing featuring a tour and more important, beer tasting in a sort of screened in gazebo overlooking rolling hills and pristine forest.
I’m thinking this might be the best Cabot Trail pit stop then just one more comes to mind.
There’s nothing special about this other pit stop, a humble roadside lookout near Cape Smokey. Nothing special but the views.
The road is a pewter ribbon wrapped like a holiday gift around rust-colored cliffs; the sea below is sapphire; the surf looks like meringue on a lemon pie.
Here at this lookout I am suddenly transported through time.
Half a century ago I inhaled this exact panorama, passenger on a vacation I shared with my little sister and my parents, long since passed.
The view looks the same as it did fifty years ago. And now, through memory’s eyes, I see my mother sitting at the picnic table – maybe this very one where I’m ensconced – weeping silently.
On that day the sheer beauty of this place overwhelmed me. Awe-struck periods of silence were like musical rests between bickering in the back seat, demands for washroom breaks, the shouts accompanying our “alphabet game” with the license plates of other voyagers.
“So beautiful,” my mother said between sobs on that day so long ago. “So beautiful.”
Today I experience empathy with the ghost of my mother. I share those feelings she had so long ago that the creator of the universe has placed this view before us as if to prove his or her existence. Today I claim this place for my birthright as a Canadian.
Just one more pit stop on the Cabot Trail.
∙ For a metaphorical “map” of the Cabot Trail – from must-do stops to places to overnight on your journey – check out http://www.cabottrail.travel
∙ For all things Cape Breton Island, since other pit stops on this Atlantic oasis are equally alluring, log on to https://www.cbisland.com
All Images © Sharon Matthews-Stevens