Nova Scotia: A House on the Cape
It's never too early to plan your summer vacation—especially if you want to rent a cottage on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton. The hard part is waiting until July.
With towering headlands covered in jack pine, a crescent of white sand bisected by a creek, and slabs of red granite half submerged in the surf, Black Brook Beach is the kind of coastline that inspires artists and poets. In me, however, it was inspiring only frustration.
"You sort of kick, then hit the ground with the ball of your foot, kick, and do the other side," said naturalist Bethsheila Kent of Walking the Wildside Nature Tours. She was demonstrating the Scottish step dance known as the strathspey while humming a merry little tune.
"Like this?" I asked.
Bethsheila shook her head, sending her ponytail flying and her crystals clinking. She did the move again, and I followed suit. "Don't wave your arms," she said. "You look like a windmill."
I had hired Bethsheila for an interpretative walk through Cape Breton Highlands National Park. We had just hiked Jack Pine Trail, or most of it anyhow. At the trailhead, someone had posted a hand-scrawled warning: "Bear and cubs spotted at noon." Bear-and-cub encounters are highly dangerous, so when Bethsheila caught a whiff of eau de Yogi--truck driver with undertones of dung--she turned us toward the beach.
This gave me the opportunity to initiate a dance lesson, which she probably wasn't so qualified to teach. The majority of people on the island of Cape Breton are descended from the 50,000 Scots who migrated to Nova Scotia in the early 19th century, but Bethsheila is not of Gaelic stock. Like me, she's of Jewish, Germanic, Eastern European descent. She was born and bred on Cape Breton, however, speaking with the requisite Scottish lilt and possessing a love of the place that's every bit as ferocious as a mama bear.
I'd wanted to rent a house near sand and sea with my husband, Nick, and our 3-year-old, Willa. I'd heard that Cape Breton has good food and, thanks to the Gulf Stream, water almost as warm as that off the Carolinas.
Four months before our late-July trip, only a few rentals were available. We chose Heritage House, a former schoolhouse that had been turned into a one-bedroom chalet with a giant sleeping loft. At $1,000 a week, it was a little on the expensive side, but it was described as being in the woods and across the street from St. Ann's Bay.
Unfortunately, the house was also 50 feet from the Trans-Canada Highway, and the water nearby wasn't swimmable. (Locals hooted when I asked.) The rough-hewn beams and sleeping loft were almost charming enough to make up for the 1960s Ultrasuede chairs, 1980s-style futon couch, and ugly posters. Heritage House's location, however, was excellent: right at the start of the 185-mile scenic route known as the Cabot Trail and a 15-minute drive to the adorable village of Baddeck, which is on the shore of the Bras d'Or (pronounced bra-dor), Cape Breton's big saltwater lake.
We spent our first day in town, buying provisions, watching the sailboats, and stopping at the High Wheeler Cafe for coffee, cookies, and bumbleberry pie. We considered a visit to the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site (he summered on Cape Breton) but rejected that potentially edifying experience for Kidston Island, where Willa led Nick and me through the tall reeds to an 1872 lighthouse that's still in use. We had dinner at the Lobster Galley, where the menu promised the island's best seafood chowder. It was delicious, full of scallops, lobster, and haddock in a tangy broth. We sat on the patio while Willa ran in the yard and the setting sun painted the gypsum cliffs pink.
The next day, we set off on the Cabot Trail. The forested portion that runs along St. Ann's Bay is known as St. Ann's Loop, with shops peddling locally woven baskets, pottery, and such. I prefer crafts that I can wear, so just off the loop, I slammed on the brakes outside Sew Inclined. As soon as I walked in, milliner Barbara Longva plunked a velvet-and-fur number with a feather--"Our John Cabot," she said--on my head, followed by many others. I was getting a contact high off the smell of wool. The family was restless, so I bought a black cloche with a plaid flap and we were back on the road.
The Cabot Trail weaves in and out of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. We paid the $7 admission and headed to Ingonish Beach, where platformed paths lead through the woods and out to the Atlantic. The ocean was fairly rough and full of jellyfish, so we hiked to the lake, which was so warm that we swam until our fingers turned pruney. Then, at the ranger station, we watched a puppet show featuring the park's animals--moose, foxes, whales, coyotes, eagles, and lynx--before stuffing ourselves on homemade fries at Beinn Mara Beachside Takeout.