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Cape Breton: A Trail and Then Some

August 31, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

BADDECK, Canada — The Cabot Trail could be the oldest autumn trail in the recorded history of North America, and it's only two days of spectacular driving northward from the fall foliage of New England.

Explorer John Cabot landed here on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, in 1497, just five years after Columbus knelt on the sands of a New World far to the south. The Vikings were probably here much earlier, and by 1504 Breton fishermen were busy in these waters.

The Cabot Trail and the approaches to it are scenic wonders in any season, but its autumn colors are still to be discovered by most U.S. travelers who follow the foliage. Local artists say that this summer's rains, mists and sunshine will produce one of the most colorful autumns in many years.

The Canada Winter Games will be staged here on Cape Breton Island Feb. 14-28. Some 3,000 of Canada's top amateur athletes will compete for gold, silver and bronze medals in 17 events.

The alpine and cross-country ski events will be held on the Cabot Trail, the cross-country competitions at Cape North and the downhill at Cape Smokey, close to the resorts of Ingonish Beach.

Rich With History

But Cape Breton Island is more than the Cabot Trail.

This resort community of Baddeck was the summertime home of Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone. The Bell Museum here tells the story of his life and inventions.

This year, Baddeck hosts an arts festival that spotlights its resort attractions and all-year school of fine arts. Alexander Graham Bell National Park is the site of the Harvest Home Fest on Sept. 20.

A little more than half an hour to the south, via a short drive and a ferry ride across the Little Narrows of St. Patrick's Channel, the Iona Connection is becoming a popular destination--off the beaten track but on the road to everywhere in Cape Breton.

Iona is the site of the Highland Heights Inn and the adjacent new Nova Scotia Highland Village on a hillside evocative of Scotland, overlooking Bras d'Or Lakes. It is a heritage center to which people of Scottish descent from all of North America are addressing inquiries to trace their roots.

Scottish Culture Preserved

If you need more to enhance a Cape Breton Island visit at any season of the year, there is the Gaelic College at St. Anns, the only college in North America devoted to the teaching of Scottish Gaelic culture, language and history. The Great Hall of Clans capsules its story.

English, French, Gaelic and the Micmac of the early Indians are four languages that can be heard daily on Cape Breton.

Sydney, largest community on the island and founded as Spanish Bay in 1784, is the commercial and tourism center that contains about one-third of the island's accommodations. St. Patrick's Church, on the Esplanade and near downtown Wentworth Park, is the museum of Cape Breton history as well as the oldest Roman Catholic Church on the island. It is built of stone quarried from the harbor in 1828.

The 587-foot Caribou makes two round trips daily from North Sydney to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. Ice-strengthened for winter crossings, it travels at 22 knots, offers food service, lounges, berths and cabins.

South of Sydney, the Fortress of Louisbourg recreates a French colonial town of the 1740s. Early Scottish settlers were displaced at Louisbourg by the French, who in turn gave way to the British Empire in North America.

Outdoor Attractions

Cheticamp is a busy Acadian village along the Cabot Trail. Its Les Trois Pignons culture center preserves French history. The Margaree River and Harbor along the trail are centers of trout and salmon fishing, with a Salmon Museum, hiking paths and one of the island's finest sandy beaches.

For bird watchers, the offshore Bird Islands are nesting grounds for the Atlantic puffin, the great cormorant, the razor-billed auks and more.

We drove to Cape Breton from Halifax along Marine Drive of the Eastern Shore, a panorama of small towns, fishing villages, rugged shoreline and remote cranberry barrens. Willy Krauch's smokehouse is a must-stop in Tangier for conversation and salmon snacking. No fisherman would want to miss the Fisherman's Life Museum at Jeddore.

The Marquis of Dufferin Lodge at Port Dufferin is symbolized by the profile of a marquis in top hat. It is in a home built in 1859 by a sea captain who became a successful merchant and politician.

At Sherbrooke Village we relived the Gold Rush days of the 1860s and '70s. The restored village is a presentation of its architecture and life style in the late 19th Century, complete with a coach barn, jail and Temperance Hall--all attended by villagers in the dress of that era. Sherbrooke will begin autumn with a Harvest Festival on Sept. 7.

Games and Music

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