I was a kid when the song “You’re So Vain” was popular. In fact, I used to tease my then-boyfriend that he was so conceited, “you probably think this song is about you.” But for me the really exotic line, the one that fired my imagination was, “You flew your Learjet to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun.” Growing up in landlocked farm country, I wondered if I’d ever make it there, and what it would be like if I did.
Well, we’ve been to Nova Scotia four times now, and, although I’ve yet to see a total eclipse of the sun, I am happy to report that with each trip I love it more. As you drive up the coast, the coves and bays are beautiful, with colorful fishing boats reflected in their calm waters. But make no mistake; the open North Atlantic is wild there. At every tourist spot you’ll find maps of “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” off Sable Island and books with names like Andrea Gail, Mont-Blanc and, of course, Titanic, in the titles. But this May was the first time we headed north to the rocky shores of Cape Breton.
It was late afternoon when we landed at Halifax, so our drive up-island was long and made mostly in the windy dark. I blame travel fatigue for the only serious dining error we made. As we approached the small town of Antigonish, my companion suggested it might be wise to take a break for the loo and maybe grab a small snack to take in the car before we hit the wilds of the Cape Breton Highlands. He usually likes fries when we car-nosh, and a McDonald’s was just off the exit. When we pulled in I noticed a sign that said the “McLobster” sandwich was back in season. I was amused to find something different at the chain, and insisted we have one. What we got were some sad, rubbery little chunks of something that might have been lobster, slathered in mayo on a bed of limp lettuce and slapped on a hot dog bun. Seriously – a cold, dry, hot dog bun. What a sinful waste of crustacean life. (If, in fact, that’s what it was.) It also gave my companion teasing ammunition for the rest of the trip.
In spite of our ill-advised meal, he did a great job negotiating the narrow roads and hairpin turns as we climbed the Cabot Trail. We were just past the “No gasoline for 50 kilometers” sign when the fog rolled in. I knew there were vast, crashing ocean views somewhere out over the steep drop-offs, but staring out the passenger window all I could see was darkness. In spots some kind of super-insect clan chirped so loudly we could hear it even inside the car. It was a long, somewhat creepy drive.
So we were both relieved when the Castle Rock Country Inn in Ingonish Ferry hove into view. Our room was not luxurious, but it was warm, well appointed, clean and quite comfortable. The hostess said it had a great view, but there was no way to confirm that until the sun came up.
Which it did. She was right. The view of Middle Head peninsula and the sea beyond was worth the late night drive. Our hostess, Kim Magistro, was right about a lot of things, and also pleasantly accommodating. Even though she’d told us she’d hold the breakfast buffet open late so we could sleep in, neither of us wanted to waste our short time in Cape Breton sleeping. Over our breakfast of eggs, yogurt, toast and oat cakes, we told her we were interested in driving around the tip of the island. She mentioned the town of Chéticamp, telling us there was some wonderful Acadian food there that would make a great lunch. She also suggested a hike through the Middle Head peninsula, which is part of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Since rain was in the forecast, she advised us to get that in as soon as possible, and even packed us some snacks as we went on our way.
The hike was probably the highlight of the trip for me, in spite of the signs warning of bears, coyotes and moose in the area. One even instructed what to do if you encounter a coyote (1. Back away slowly. 2. Act “big.” 3. Beat the hell out of it with your walking stick.) Happily, previous hikers left a supply of sturdy branches to help us along the steep trail, and defend ourselves if necessary. I made sure my companion was armed with one that had a good, thick knob on the end.
As it turned out, the coyotes must have been sleeping off their pastimes of the night before. We didn’t see a single one, or a bear, or moose. We didn’t even see another person. There are some advantages to visiting a place in the off-season, and one of them is the lack of other tourists.
Even in the light mist, and stiff sea breeze, the hike was pure delight. The path isn’t very strenuous, and often there are benches where you can sit and just take in the wonderful views of the rocky shore below with the waves spraying up around them. There is no sound I love more than the incessant, deep murmur of the sea and it was our only accompaniment in the few hours of wonderful privacy between my companion and me. You want great romance? Take a long walk surrounded by gorgeous scenery and whispering nature while talking with the person you love most. Yeah, it was that good.
Eventually we forced ourselves back in the car to make our way up the coast. No doubt the views would have been even more spectacular if there had been bright sunshine, but that didn’t stop us from pulling off at nearly every pull-out to look down at the Atlantic. As we climbed into the higher elevations of the Cabot Trail, the wind was sharper, the rain heavier and the sea below us wilder. The pure vastness of it stays with me. How can the frailty of life not hit you as you look down a mountainside, watching a tiny fishing boat struggle through the white caps out into the deep waters of the open sea? Nothing on earth has made me feel smaller.
By the time we reached Chéticamp we were starving. Le Gabriel was the restaurant Kim recommended and we had no trouble finding it. But one downside to pushing the tourist season is that not everything is ready. The menu hadn’t changed to its summer offerings, so the traditional Acadian food we’d so looked forward to wasn’t available. We settled for fish and chips (they let us substitute poutine for the plain chips), and happily, our disappointment disappeared. If there is a better place to get fresh haddock than Nova Scotia, I haven’t found it. On our way out of town, we stopped at a little bakery. Living in the Washington, D.C. area, we are ground zero for what has to be the most expensive cupcakes in the world. (Yes, we have been known to pop in at Georgetown Cupcake, where their specialty, tiny cakes run about $2.50 each.) So, we got a kick out of the beautiful, huge, red velvet cupcakes we purchased for $.65 each.
The drive back to Ingonish was made in heavy rain, and we were glad we made our hike earlier. Many of the views that had so riveted us were obscured. But my sharp-eyed companion did spot a moose on the side of the road. We even turned around to get a picture of the big lady. We also spotted two eagles that day.
Back at Castle Rock Inn, with the rain bucketing down, we decided to have dinner right there at the Avalon restaurant. Hostess Kim again provided great customer service. Since we’d had a late lunch, she suggested we share the seafood platter. When I explained I’m allergic to scallops, she graciously volunteered to split the dish before it was served, making sure my portion didn’t come into contact with them. The meal was delicious and we even shared a tasty bottle of Nova Scotia white wine. It was great to simply slip up to our cozy room rather than head out into the rainy, blustery night.
The next morning we were off, with Kim’s package of apples and oatcakes in the backseat in case we got hungry. That day the sun was out, and we finally got to see the fantastic views on the east side of the island. The drive was just as long, so I didn’t mind breaking it up with a quick stop (and purchases) at a hat shop and a glass studio. I’m not sure my companion would say the same, but he was patient as I tried on hats. (Okay, maybe he rolled his eyes a little, but I won’t hold that against him.)
As in the past, I cherished every minute of our time in Nova Scotia. If we’re lucky enough to get a chance to go again, I’ll have my bags packed in record time. It’s never let me down. Maybe next time we’ll even catch a total eclipse of the sun.