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.
In the late afternoon, we drove to the top of the cape while Willa napped in the car. At Bay St. Lawrence, on the northern coast, Nick and I felt as if we were at the end of the world--which, it turns out, is actually a creepy sensation. So we hurried over to the Keltic Lodge complex in Ingonish Beach, where we had deliciously light snow-crab cakes at the Atlantic Restaurant.
Fiddle music--and dancing to it--had always been an integral part of Cape Breton's Scottish heritage. But after the rise of rock and roll, that tradition seemed to be going the way of Gaelic. A 1971 documentary, The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, spurred a renaissance that continues to this day, and a number of music festivals and concerts are held around the island. The hugely popular nine-day Celtic Colours takes place every October, while the Broad Cove Scottish Concert is held on the last Sunday in July, when we were in town.
I don't know why, but hard-driving violin music sends me into a tizzy. I rushed us through breakfast at the Coal Miners Cafe in Inverness so we could make it to the concert. Sure enough, when fiddler Buddy MacMaster and the piano-fiddle team of brothers Robbie and Isaac Fraser played, my feet were bouncing off the grass like it was a trampoline. I needed to dance. I was like Billy Elliot, but without talent. I studied a pair of girls, how they kept their upper bodies ramrod straight as they kicked and hopped. Willa joined them, stomping around like a punk in a mosh pit. But she's a little kid, so people found it charming.
When Nick left to take Willa to the beach at Port Hood, where the water truly is 75 degrees, I stayed behind, determined to find my own lord of the dance. Things looked promising when two brothers in their late 50s performed a rousing dance and spoon-playing recital. Afterward, one made his way through the crowd. "I wish I could dance like that," I said wistfully to him.
He snaked an arm around my waist and asked if I'd be at the dance later in Dunvegan. When I said no, he flashed me a bawdy smile and replied, "Too bad, lassie. We coulda had some fun."
Over the next few days, I tried other avenues. We went to the Highland Village Museum in Iona, an animated exhibit that shows the evolution of the cape's Gaelic settlements. In addition to mingling with folks in "ye olde" costumes, visitors can attend demos of oatcake baking, fiddling, and dancing (we missed it by two hours). At The Red Shoe Pub in Mabou, there's a euphoria-inducing chocolate sticky toffee pudding, nightly music, and occasional dancing--but no lessons. On our second-to-last night, I got desperate and drove to a dance in Judique, only to chicken out in the parking lot. And that was why, while Nick and Willa were on one of Donelda's Puffin Boat Tours, I was trying to wheedle a dancing lesson from my hiking guide.
On our final night, after fish cakes and beans (a Cape Breton specialty) at Lynwood Inn, Nick, Willa, and I went to a ceilidh, which means "to visit" in Gaelic and is pronounced kay-lee. Ceilidhs are a winter tradition: Locals drink, sing, and play music in someone's kitchen. In summer, tourist-friendly public ceilidhs are held nightly in one town or another.
The Baddeck Gathering is held in the parish hall every summer evening, starting in July. This being a tourist thing, I expected fiddle lite. Instead, I got local stars Shelly Campbell and Robbie Fraser switching off on fiddle and piano, playing so hard that the entire room seemed to be sweating.
Anna MacDonald of Trad Dance began step dancing, and I sensed possibility. After a few sets, she announced that she'd be leading a Scottish-dancing lesson. I looked imploringly at Nick, who gave me the OK. I turned to Willa. "You can watch four Blue's Clues and eat as many fruit leathers as you want if you sit quietly while Mommy and Daddy dance," I said. She took the bribe.
Nick and I shuffled to the front. Anna showed us what seemed like more of a square dance, and I was a little disappointed. But then Shelly lit up the fiddle, and Robbie pounded the ivories. I felt a tingle of anticipation zing in my chest and travel down my legs, which were already tapping to the beat. I took Nick's hand. Anna started the calls. And it no longer mattered whether we were doing a strathspey or a pirouette or a pogo. We were dancing.
Renting in Cape Breton
Locals say it takes an hour to get anywhere, but an hour and a half is more likely. If you plan on spending much time in the national park, Chéticamp and Ingonish are optimal places to rent. For a beach holiday, consider west-coast towns like Mabou, Port Hood, and Inverness. If you want to stay on the lake, look in the towns around Bras d'Or Lakes Scenic Drive, as well as in Baddeck and St. Ann's.
It's worth checking broad websites (cyberrentals.com, vrbo.com) and more specific ones (cottage-canada-usa.com, capebretonisland.com, baddeck.com). Try to book nine months to a year in advance, especially for June to October. Ask a lot of questions, such as "Is the house near swimmable water?" and "How far off the road is it?"
The weak U.S. dollar means that Canada isn't the value it once was. Moreover, Nova Scotia's 14 percent sales tax is no longer refundable to foreigners. Some owners are adjusting their prices (since our trip, Heritage House has dropped from $1,000 to $885 a week), so go ahead and bargain.