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Footloose in Cape Breton

Thick Forests, Rugged Coastlines and a Tale of Two Cultures

September 06, 1987|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

BADDECK, Canada- — It wasn't exactly Hobson's choice for the French settlers who left their country in the 17th Century to farm and fish in Canada's Maritime Provinces, but it was awfully close: either swear allegiance to the British Crown after the Anglo-French wars or leave mainland Nova Scotia.

The Acadians could move their families to still-French but very barren Cape Breton Island, or leave Canada altogether for the American colonies. Only in Louisiana did the emigres establish any sort of community, the forebears of today's Cajuns, while others chose the considerable hardships of Cape Breton.

The entire infamous affair of the Deportation Order in 1755 is still regarded by many Canadians as the blackest mark on their country's escutcheon, even though some torn-apart families returned when English-French peace finally came about a decade later.

Cape Breton has hardly grown into a garden of Eden in the past two centuries, yet the thick inland forests and rocky and rugged coastlines convey a primitive beauty and appeal, particularly the remote fishing villages ringing the Cabot Trail up north.

Ask a native what the French-British balance is and you are likely to get a different answer in each village. Harking back to the region's split ethnic past, most towns are predominately one or the other, villagers conversing with you in English tinged with either a soft Scottish burr or the lilting patois of Cajun French.

Here to there: Air Canada will fly you to Halifax, Nova Scotia, after a change in Toronto, Canadian Airlines via Vancouver and Toronto. Either line will get you up to Sydney on Cape Breton in less than an hour. Take a bus or rental car for the hour's drive over to Baddeck.

How long/how much? Give this delightful little lakeside village and its environs a day, at least another full one for driving the Cabot Trail up to and around Cape North, still another for driving to the fascinating fortress of Louisbourg outside Sydney. Lodging and dining costs are mostly moderate, thanks in part to the exchange rate.

A few fast facts: Canada's dollar was recently worth 75 cents U.S., giving you 1.32 of theirs for one of ours. Best times for a visit are from very late spring through fall, keeping in mind that the former comes at the end of May, fall and its spectacular foliage much earlier than New England's. And to really enjoy Cape Breton's spectacular scenery, you will need a car.

Getting settled in: Inverary Inn (Baddeck; $49-$64 double) is a century-old Scottish inn on 11 acres right on shore of Bras d'Or Lake. Choice of antique-filled rooms or contemporary in the new buildings, all meals served in the main house or in Scottie's Fish House on the lake. Three tennis courts, indoor and outdoor pools, boat rentals at the dock. Kids would never want to leave this place.

Silver Dart Lodge ($40-$47 for motel-like room, $42-$54 for a chalet with kitchenette) is on a grassy hillside overlooking the lake. Good restaurant, private beach area, extremely helpful staff. Those chalets are separate units hidden in the trees.

Telegraph House (village center, $53) is a huge and charming Victorian that's been in the same family for four generations, public rooms in the main house right out of Dickens, bedrooms bright and colorful with special touches such as pretty eyelet pillow slips and fluffy comforters. There is also a choice of motel rooms in a separate wing.

Regional food and drink: In addition to bountiful seafood such as salmon, lobster, clams and trout, the old Scottish staples are much in evidence: hot oatmeal porridge with brown sugar for breakfast, or try mharagh , a rolled-oats pudding made with various spices and enough suet to top your planned cholesterol intake for the trip.

Bannock, a Scot tea biscuit, and oatcakes are usually somewhere on the menu. And crab rolls, sort of a hot-dog bun stuffed with crab salad, are delicious.

A couple of good brews come from Halifax--Alexander Keith's ale and Schooner lager.

Moderate-cost dining: The Telegraph House's dining room is rustic from its hurricane lamps on each table to an old upright piano against the wall. They pride themselves on a "homemade maritime menu" heavy with such as soups and chowders, scallops steamed on the shell, fresh salmon and halibut, a broiled lobster for $5.25. How can you beat that?

Wong's on the main street is a simple and funky little place decorated in knotty pine and plastic. "Specializing in Chinese and Canadian dishes," Wong zeros in on specials like chop suey, moo goo gai pan and lobster. A few booths, small counter if they're filled, but don't expect finger bowls.

Scottie's Fish House (Inverary Inn) is very informal, with old farm implements scattered about, a small stand-up bar and dining inside or on a porch over the water next to a wooden pier. A catch-of-the-day is most inexpensive, all other seafood moderate. With boats from Bras d'Or Lake docking nearby, the setting couldn't be more picturesque.

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