INGONISH BEACH, Nova Scotia (AP) — Rounding a curve on the Cabot Trail, you see it: an elongated pile of granite jutting toward the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s called Middle Head, and it’s part of Cape Breton Highlands National Park on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. The views from here are stunning, whether a sandy beach below or brooding Mount Smokey above. At Middle Head’s entrance is the 75-year-old Keltic Resort, which can serve as a well-appointed base camp for exploring the 370-square-mile (950-square-kilometer) national park and the Cabot Trail, a ring road.
Reminiscent of Ireland’s formidable Ring of Kerry, Cabot Trail’s 185-mile (298-kilometer) route clings to cliffs, plunges into deep native forests and connects small coastal communities whose heritage comes from French, Scot, Irish and British settlers, as well as the Mi’kmaq, the region’s indigenous people. Highway signs may be in French or Gaelic, as well as English.
Navigating sharp bends and steep descents, motorists can stop at numerous “look-offs” that may be safer than gawking through the windshield. Birds are abundant, marine life can be observed during off-shore tours, and a moose or two may materialize.
One difference between the Ring of Kerry and its Canadian counterpart is the crowds. Here, tour buses are rare and other traffic is light. Just make sure you know where gas stations are.
Middle Head once served as a seasonal home to small bands of fishermen. It was later owned by an Ohio industrialist, Henry Clay Corson, who fell in love with the region while visiting the nearby summer retreat of a famous friend, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Corson’s widow sold the property in the 1940s to be developed as part of the park.
Along the Cabot Trail, an extraordinary club sandwich is served at the unpretentious Seagull Restaurant near the Keltic Resort. It is packed with chunks of locally caught lobster, smoked bacon and summer-fresh lettuce and tomato on crusty toast. The chowder is prepared daily by the octogenarian owner and retired coal miner, John Dan Jobes. In his broth could be crab, scallops, salmon, mackerel, cod or halibut.
Jobes “is somewhat of a local legend,” says Jessica Young of Keltic Resort. “Whenever I go to the Seagull, I usually see him in his apron, greeting guests warmly before heading back to the kitchen.”
Up the highway is the Chowder House in Neil’s Harbor, a fishing village with stacks of lobster traps on its wharfs. Chowder House’s 16 indoor picnic tables were crammed before noon on a weekday in August with offerings of lobster sandwiches, crab cakes and both clam and seafood chowder. Its mussels could have been harvested that morning from Cape North near where explorers John and Sebastian Cabot were said to have landed in 1497.
Working up an appetite is not difficult. Hiking trails for different skill levels are plentiful throughout the national park, including more than a half-dozen near its entrance at Ingonish Beach. One low-impact guided hike traverses the length of Middle Head through trees and patches of knapweed, elderberry and wild daisies to its tip for a 270-degree panorama of the ocean and faraway jagged shorelines.
Said to be among the world’s top cycling destinations, Cape Breton Highlands has strategically placed campgrounds for longer Cabot Trail rides and several off-pavement trails. If you are a hardy beachgoer, the late summer Atlantic surf is chilly but tolerable.
Golf at internationally ranked Highland Links adjacent to Keltic Resort can be arduous, if you walk rather than ride in a motorized cart. Opened in 1941, it is part of the late golf architect Stanley Thompson’s legendary Canadian portfolio, which includes Banff Springs in the western Rockies. Highland Links’ holes wind by the sea, twist through dense woodlands or border the Clyburn River. The trek from the first tee to the 18th green is 8 miles (13 kilometers). The miracle is how a golf course was carved out of the Cape Breton wilderness with the equipment of the 1940s.
With what’s left of the day, you could attend a “ceilidh” at a local parish hall where musicians gather to play or spend it in the Highland Sitting Room at Keltic, with ocean views, twin fireplaces and entertainers like Jimmy Sweeney, a native of County Tyrone in Northern Ireland.
One summer evening, he sang a mournful ballad about Irishmen who emigrated to find work in the 1960s. “It’s a long way from Clare to here,” the refrain goes, and that’s true of Cape Breton, but the sadness seems to have dissolved with the generations that came and stayed.
If You Go.
KELTIC RESORT: Ingonish Beach, Nova Scotia, five-hour drive from Halifax airport, under new management celebrating its 75th anniversary; http://www.kelticlodge.ca/ .
CAPE BRETON HIGHLANDS NATIONAL PARK: http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/ns/cbreton/index.aspx
CABOT TRAIL: http://www.cabottrail.travel/ . National Geographic perspective,http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/road-trips/cape-breton-nova-scotia-road-trip/ .
NEARBY ATTRACTIONS: Cheticamp, French-Acadian fishing village; Bell Museum in Baddeck; Glenmora Distillery in Glenville; Stewiacke, which claims to be halfway between the Equator and North Pole with a “halfway” sign in town.