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8 Essential Cape Breton Experiences

Can’t travel to the Maritimes this fall? Get the vacation you never had, and explore our guide to the landscape, culture, and of course, the pubs, of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

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Joined to the rest of Nova Scotia by a short bridge across the Canso Causeway, Cape Breton Island is a bucket-list worthy destination that every Canadian should try to get to. Acadian and Celtic cultures mix beautifully here, and the Island is full of music and arts.

This year Cape Breton Island was voted the number one island to visit in North America by the readers of Travel + Leisure Magazine, and once you visit, you’ll understand why. Driving through the unspoiled countryside in the fall is breathtakingly pretty, and the vibrant foliage makes for a gorgeous backdrop to every landmark and location. Here are eight experiences not to be missed on a fall trip to Cape Breton:

(Photo courtesy of Tourism Nova Scotia)

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1. Sip a Pint at The Red Shoe Pub

Owned by the Rankin Sisters, the Red Shoe Pub is a friendly place to stop and have a drink, eat some good Nova Scotia style home cooking and listen to live Celtic music. The food is great – be sure to try the chowder or any of the seafood dishes on offer. Bright and airy, the Red Shoe Pub has a down home charm and the atmosphere there is really fun and friendly, which is why it has become as much a locals favourite as a tourist destination. If you’re a fan of microbrew, then be sure to order glass of their Red Shoe Ale.

(Photo by Lola Augustine Brown)

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2. Collect Mermaid’s Tears on Inverness Beach

Cape Breton has no shortage of beautiful sandy beaches, but many consider Inverness to be the prettiest, and there is an abundance of beach glass – also known as mermaid’s tears – strewn along the shores. This is such a glorious beach to walk along and relish that last bit of warmth that fall brings. So take off your shoes and feel the sand scrunching under your toes, enjoying the natural beauty around you.

(Photo by Lola Augustine Brown)

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3. Pick up a Fiddle at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre

A short drive across the Causeway, you’ll hit the blink and you’ll miss it town of Judique, home to the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre. You can’t get much closer to the traditional music of Cape Breton, as a professional musician takes small groups into the centre’s green room to give a live demonstration of the differences between a jig and a reel. The self-guided exhibit is part traditional museum celebrating famous fiddlers and performers from the Island, but also has fiddles for you to pick up and try to follow along to a video lesson with and also there is a video step dancing demo and mini dance floor for you to try your fancy footwork on. They also hold regular Ceilidhs (which loosely translates as kitchen party) if you want to spend more time watching traditional live music.

(Photo by Lola Augustine Brown)

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4. Sip some Whisky at the Glenora Distillery

If you’re a whisky lover, then you’ll love visiting the Glenora Distillery, where you can learn about and try Canada’s only single malt whisky. You can stay overnight at the cheery inn attached to the distillery, and go have dinner in the pub or dining room. Both have an excellent menu, with a range of whisky infused (and non-boozy) meals. As to be expected, the bar has an excellent whisky list of both it’s own drams and fine Scotches, so you’ll be glad you stayed at the Inn and have no need to drive anywhere afterwards. Tours of the distillery run every hour and give a good introduction to what they do at Glenora, as well as let you try their fire-water.

(Photo by Lola Augustine Brown)

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5. Hike the Skyline Trail

This easy but long (give yourself at least two hours to complete it and take plenty of drinking water) hike takes you to some of the most incredible views in Canada – these are the views featured in the ad campaigns for Cape Breton. Once you get through the trees to the points where the best views are, there is a boardwalk that takes you down closer to the ocean, and there are plenty of places that you can sit and watch the waves in the hope that you’ll see a Minke or Humpback whale cruising past.

At the entrance to the trail there are lots of warnings about the bears, moose and coyotes that you might encounter along the way, and an advisory to carry a big stick to defend yourself, which is a bit nerve-wracking, but on our hike we saw nothing but birds.

(Photo courtesy of Tourism Nova Scotia)

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6. Fly a Kite at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site

Located in the pretty little town of Baddeck (which is worth checking out as it has some great little shops and galleries), the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site is a fascinating museum dedicated to all the amazing things that Bell worked on (he invented so much more than just the telephone) and his life on Cape Breton. This is a great family destination, with a huge playroom downstairs and craft tables set up where kids can make their own kites (a fascination of Bell’s) and are then encouraged to fly them on the hill outside (they also have a bunch of commercially made kites for visitors to borrow). The views from the hill are gorgeous, and the site very interesting for all ages.

(Photo by Lola Augustine Brown)

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7. Walk Like a 17th Century Frenchman in Louisbourg

As corny as it sounds, when you visit the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, it is as though you are stepping back in time. A huge cast of actors play the parts of the early French settlers at Louisbourg and it feel like an entirely authentic experience as you walk around the various buildings of the settlement and interact with soldiers and merchants. The site has been lovely restored and recreated, so that around every corner is a living educational experience. Stay at the gorgeous Point of View Suites, right on the waterfront in Louisbourg, you can see the fortress from the beach there and it is a beautiful view to wake up to.

(Photo by Lola Augustine Brown)

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8. Stop for a Cuppa and Oatcakes at Rita MacNeil’s Tearoom

If you’ve driven all the way around Cape Breton, you’ll come through Big Pond, which is home to an old one room school house that songbird Rita MacNeil lived in for a few years before turning it into a tearoom/ museum/ gift shop. Here you can stop for a very civilized lunch (the fishcakes are especially delicious) or cup of tea, just be sure to order up some of their melt in the mouth oatcakes. Fans might be lucky enough to meet MacNeil at her tearoom, she does regular meet and greets there.

(Photo by Lola Augustine Brown)