A Road Trip for Two: Exploring the Charm of Cape Breton Island

WHY GO: Cape Breton Island is part of Nova Scotia. But it’s the more natural, wilder part, encompassing the 186-mile Cape Breton Cabot Trail that partially runs through Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Cape Breton, however, is so much more than the Cabot Trail and the Highlands National Park. There’s also a Living History Museum – Fortress Louisbourg – highlighting Acadian life in the early to mid-1700s, and the summer retreat of Alexander Graham Bell, with a visitor’s center open for tours.

Cabot Trail Cape Breton NS from above

So, come with us on a road trip around Cape Breton – a place considered by many to be one of the most spectacular places on earth.

This post picks up where we left off on our Greater Nova Scotia Road Trip.

Where is Cape Breton Island located?

Cape Breton Island is located in the eastern part of North America, in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. It is situated at the northeastern end of the province, separated from mainland Nova Scotia by the Strait of Canso and bordered by the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the north and east.

The island is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on all sides, with a 1700-mile coastline, and it also features the beautiful Bras d’Or Lake, a large inland sea located in the heart of the island.

Cape Breton Island is connected to mainland Nova Scotia by the Canso Causeway Bridge, which allows for easy access to the island by car.

Cape Breton Island Road Trip Itinerary

Day 1: Charlos Cove to Sydney, Nova Scotia on Cape Breton

Visit Fortress Louisbourg National Historic Site, Louisbourg

If you’re driving from Seawind Landing on Eastern Shore’s Charlos Cove, avoid the much longer coastal road that takes you through Glace Bay, and take the direct route to Fortress of Louisbourg, about 3 ½ hours. (It’s also roughly 5 hours from Halifax). This will give you the whole afternoon to explore this incredibly fun and informative living history museum.

Vermeer-like-photo-of Costumed-Docent-Fortress-Louisbourg

If you’ve been to the Citadel in Halifax and feel that you’ve “been there, done that” with Living History Canadian forts, please reconsider. The two historic strongholds are each unique.

While both Fortress of Louisbourg and The Citadel offer an immersive experience with costumed interpreters doing period-correct things, they differ in two significant ways.

Costumed interpreter at Fortress Louisbourg NS

One – Louisbourg was a “Fortress,” not a Fort, which means it was a village in addition to being a military post. Two – it represents Nova Scotia as it was originally settled by the French in the early 1700s, rather than occupied by the British in the mid-1800s, as the Citadel portrays.

Mi'kmaq family member sings prayers and songs Fortress Louisbourg

Historically speaking, the Brits captured Fortress Louisbourg twice: the first time in 1745, after which it was returned to the French by Treaty. In 1758, the Brits, taking no chances, captured Louisbourg, and then immediately burned it to the ground. The current version of the village was built between the 1960s and 1970s upon these ruins.

The recreation itself, a feat both tedious and inspired, is impressive. The property is expansive, with 37 individual residences, shops, and military posts to visit – each with informed docents in period costumes.

Fiddler at tavern Fortress Louisbourg NHS NS

Naturally, as a Living History Museum, this Historic Site has the obligatory blacksmith and Gift Shop. But you’ll also find a baker from whom you can purchase fresh, hearth-baked bread; a fiddler who will play you a tune in the Tavern; and presentations by descendants of the Mi’kmaq, who were in Nova Scotia long before the Europeans arrived.

Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site Nova Scotia

There’s such a wide-ranging assortment of things to see and do – through tours (both self and guided) and programs – you’ll need at least three hours here.

STAY: Hampton Inn Sydney

Conveniently located near the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site and the Cabot Trail, Hampton Inn Sydney guests can enjoy scenic views of the harbor and explore the charming town of Sydney, which offers a variety of dining, shopping, and entertainment options. It offers comfortable and modern accommodations with amenities such as free Wi-Fi, a complimentary hot breakfast, and an indoor pool.

EAT: Governor’s Pub and Eatery

Casual and friendly, Governor’s Pub and Eatery veers toward traditional pub fare with a strong emphasis on fresh seafood. Located in a historic building on the waterfront that once housed the governor’s mansion, the second-floor Irish pub features live Celtic music on weekends.

Welcome to Baddeck NS

Day 2: Sydney to Baddeck to Ingonish 

Start driving the Cabot Trail (186-mile loop), with the first stop an hour from Sydney, in Baddeck. Many consider Baddeck the “start” of the Cabot Trail. (Although the trail is really a 186-mile loop).

Stop in St. Anns

Drop by St. Annes, if only to admire the pretty coastal town, with its rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, and crystal-clear waters. But you could easily spend a day or more here.

St. Annes is home to several popular beaches, including Inverness Beach and Mabou Harbour Beach. The village is also known for its vibrant music scene, with local pubs and restaurants hosting live performances by talented musicians.

In addition to its natural beauty and entertainment options, St. Annes is home to several historic sites, including St. Ninian’s Cathedral, which dates back to the 19th century. Visitors can also explore the nearby Glenora Distillery, which produces award-winning single malt whisky. The Glenora Inn is pretty enticing too!

Walk Around Baddeck NS

There are plenty of restaurants and tourists; art galleries and boutiques. Wander down to the pier for serene cove views. And then stop into the Baddeck Visitor’s Center for ideas about what to do around town and on the Cabot Trail.

Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site Baddeck NS

Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site

Before leaving Baddeck, don’t pass up a visit to the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site.

Few know about Alexander Graham Bell’s connection to Cape Breton NS, or that in addition to inventing the telephone, Bell was a tinkerer and prolific inventor the likes of Ben Franklin and da Vinci. He designed airplanes and hydrofoil boats and conceived devices to teach and aid the deaf, as both Bell’s mother and wife lost their hearing at young ages. (He was so well known in this space, he was asked to work with Helen Keller).

Life-size models of hydrofoils, airplane Alex Graham Bell NHS

As a Professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at Boston University and through his studies of electricity, Bell had an idea to create a “talking wire” that would transmit human speech. Although other scientists at the time were working on this type of machine, Bell was the first to patent his invention: The telephone.

You can see models of the plane, and his structurally interesting hydrofoil – in the fantastic Alexander Graham Bell NHS. Bell was born in Scotland and lived in the United State, so why was this NHS placed here? Because this was where he spent quiet summers with his family, and where he died and is buried. (The Bell home in Baddeck is still in private family hands and not open to the public).

Note – The Alexander Graham Bell NHS is only open seasonally, from May-October.

Artisan shop on Cabot Trail Cape Breton

Drive 1 ½ Hours from Baddeck to Ingonish on the Artisan-Studio-Studded Cabot Trail

Cape Breton Island is renowned for its crafts and artisans, so be prepared to stop at galleries and studios along the Cape Breton Artisan Trail where you can talk to the actual artists. If you fancy glass, ceramics, wood, chocolate!!, fiber, iron, pewter, painting, or the island specialty, Hooked Rug art – you’re in luck.

These intimate studios seem juried-fine. There are ten between Baddeck and Ingonish and not one schlocky shop among them.

Ocean view from atop Cape Smoky Gondola Ride Cape Breton NS

On Top of Ole Smokey: Cape Smokey Gondola Ride

At about $50 Canadian per person, the cost of lifting up to the summit on the Cape Smokey Gondola isn’t cheap. But the beguiling views of the Atlantic Ocean from the top of Nova Scotia’s highest ski hill are worth it if your idea of healing meditation is kicking back with a beer (from the shipping container bar up top), securing an Adirondack chair, and reveling in the scene for a while.

Knotty Pine Cabin interior Ingonish NS

STAY: Knotty Pine Oceanfront Cabins, Ingonish

Sure, the words, “Knotty Pine” don’t scream high-end luxury. Or even contemporary. But these Knotty Pine Cabins – especially ones situated where the water meets the land – certainly are. Yes, from the outside, they look like concrete boxes (or, to my mind, bomb shelters).

But walk into your own space – and one wall of windows reveals a tree-lined cove right outside your private deck (complete with a grill). A high-top table for two is set with wine glasses. The bed is dreamy. It’s all so romantic – you might just want to get a late start the next morning. (But don’t – see below).

EAT: Coastal Restaurant

Of course, you want to savor freshly caught seafood in Nova Scotia, and there’s plenty to choose from at the Coastal Restaurant. But it’s also the home of the” Ringer” as seen on Food Network’s “You Gotta Eat Here.” This all-Canadian beef burger is topped with mozzarella, onion rings, bacon, and Coastal Restaurant’s special sauce. Who’s up for the challenge?

Driving the Cabot Trail Cape Breton Road Trip

Day 3:  Ingonish to Cheticamp With Detour to Meat Cove

This is a long day, so leave Ingonish early and get your walking shoes on. You will finally be entering Cape Breton Highlands National Park, We highlight four short and one long hiking trails that together amount to about 7+ miles of relatively easy terrain.

Locals in the know will tell you to go “Off Cabot” once you get up to Neil’s Harbor, so you can hug the shoreline. And then, again, in Cape North to Bay Saint Lawrence and Meat Cove, where views are unparalleled.

Purchase Entry Ticket to Cape Breton Highlands NP

Just north of Ingonish on the Cabot Trail, stop at the National Park Visitor’s Center to purchase your entry ticket which allows you to stay within the park until 4 pm the following day.

Green Cove Cabot Trail Pull-Off

Green Cove

From the Visitor’s Center, drive 11 miles to the Green Cove overlook. There’s a series of boardwalk steps with a terrific visual payoff: a remarkable, boulder-strewn shoreline. Some have compared it to the better-known Peggy’s Cove outside of Halifax NS.

Neils Harbor Cape Breton Nova Scotia

Neil’s Harbor and Off Cabot Trail to White Point and South Harbor

Another 6 miles brings you to the picture-perfect fishing village of Neil’s Harbor. Here, veer right, into town, where the Cabot Trail continues to the left (west). After White Point, you’ll hug the shoreline until you get back to the Cabot Trail in South Harbor. This 20-minute drive gets you a bit more waterfront time.

South Harbour Yacht Club morning calm

Detour Again Out of the National Park to Bay St. Lawrence and Meat Cove

I promise you – this 2-hour detour out and back drive to Bay St. Lawrence and then on to Meat Cove at the top of Cape Breton can be harrowing, but so worth it.

To get there – take a right off the Cabot Trail at Morrison’s Restaurant in Cape North (a couple of miles from South Harbor). From Morrison’s – it’s 10.5 easy, paved miles to the stunning bay and Atlantic Ocean scenes in Bay St. Lawrence.

Bay St Lawrence NS

But wait. There’s more. (Although you can just head straight back to the Cabot Trail if time, or your guts, don’t allow it. Otherwise, continue).

Meat Cove Road

Double back on Bay St. Lawrence Rd. for a mile or two (towards St. Margaret Village), and take a right on Meat Cove Road. You’ll be on this half dirt road for 8 miles (16 miles round trip), FYI – so get comfy.

Meat Cove Road overlook Cape Breton NS

Meat Cove Road begins as a paved road for a few miles, and then, atop hulking cliffs and switchbacks, it’s rutted dirt and gravel lot of the way, baby! However, if you’re like me, you won’t mind because…the views. Fantastical, ends of the Earth remote.

Meat Cove Campground Northern Cape Breton NS

There are others at this apparently coveted campground: of course, there are. Just look around! Tents and campers are all welcome. A tiny camp store sells Meat Cove t-shirts. There’s a beach down below. Turns out, Meat Cove is quite the civilized place after all that dusty driving.

Back on Cabot Trail

Return to the Cabot Trail the way you came, taking a right when you hit Morrison’s Restaurant.

Lone Shieling Trail Cabot Trail NS

Walk Lone Shieling Trail (.5 mile loop)

From Morrison’s Restaurant – continue 14+ miles towards Chetticamp to your first walk: Lone Shieling. The replica of a Scottish “crofter’s hut,” it sits among Maple Trees along a pleasant half-mile loop path.

MacIntosh Brook Trail with lots of tree roots Cabot Trail NS

MacIntosh Brook (1.1 miles out and back)

Drive 2 miles to the MacIntosh Brook trailhead. It’s a bit over a mile (total) out and back, on a rooted path through old-growth forest, to a sizeable waterfall. Take hiking poles if you’re not sure of your footing.

Pleasant Bay

If time allows, consider stopping in Pleasant Bay. The village is known for its delicious seafood, with local restaurants serving fresh lobster, crab, and scallops. Plus, it’s a good spot to head out on a sea kayak or to board a whale-watching cruise.

Bog Trail on Cabot Trail NS

Bog Trail (.3 mile boardwalk loop)

Drive 11 miles to the Bog Trailhead. If you love boggy boardwalk trails, cool marshy flora and fauna, and the prospect of seeing Moose, stop to meander this “typical highland wetland.”

Le Buttereau Trail Cabot Trail NS

Le Buttereau Trail (1-mile loop with some elevation)

Drive about 12 miles to the Le Buttereau Trailhead, bypassing, for now, the “Main Event” – the Skyline Trail – which you’ll return to in later the afternoon.

Le Buttereau begins with a long upward swing, and takes you to overviews of the Ocean, a beach, through fields and forests. There are information panels about the Acadian families, like the LeBlanc’s, who lived here. (Perhaps this is where Matt “Friends” LeBlanc’s French-Canadian father’s people hailed from). Keep your eyes pealed for remnants of their homes.  

Start of the Skyine Trail is wooded Cabot Trail NS

Skyline Trail (4 miles out and back, or 5.2 miles loop)

Double back from Le Buttereau Trailhead about 8.5 miles on the Cabot Trail. The highly popular Skyline Trail is best done in the later afternoon when you’re likely to catch one of the most magnificent views on Cape Breton during the Golden Hour. You’ll be in plenty of company.

A tip: There are two large parking areas. You pull into the one farthest from the trailhead first – so try to get a spot by continuing up the hill to lot closest to where the trail begins. Otherwise, you’re adding a ¼ mile (each way) to the already long walk.

Spectacular views end of Skyline Trail Cape Breton Highlands NP

Another tip: the payoff of this rather pleasant, flat, but long, walk is at its extreme end. For this reason, most people will just do the 4-mile out-and-back route, rather than the 5+ mile loop, which takes you to the same ocean vista, but then through the woods with no additional water views.

Last tip: The Skyline Trail ends atop a cliff at the Atlantic Ocean, with viewing platforms descending down from the main path. If you think you’ll have problems walking down and then up about 350 steps at the end of this, again, very flat trail, you can still get amazing ocean vistas without going downhill.

Stay and Eat in Cheticamp

Cheticamp NS is closest to the Skyline Trail, so plan to have dinner and stay in town. You’ll need a reservation for the hottest restaurant, L’abri Café. Although there are several decent motels and chalets with ocean views, I stayed at the friendly, Cheticamp Outback Inn, about 1 ½ miles from the waterfront. Sure, the exterior is nothing special. But room interiors are surprisingly immaculate and fashion-forward.

Aucoin Bakery dough rising Cheticamp NS

In the morning you MUST join the throngs of fans queuing up at Aucoin Bakery for real, flaky, fresh-baked croissants, bread, and other warm-from-the-oven treats. There’s a line out the door for a reason – no matter what time you come. I haven’t had a butter croissant this amazingly fresh since Paris.

Canadian Maritimes Road Trip

To create your own 2-week Canadian Maritimes Road Trip, start with our 7-Day Nova Scotia Road Trip for Adventurous Romantics. And then add this 3-day Prince Edward Island Road Trip.

Cape Breton Island On The Map

All articles belong to Getaway Mavens LLC, and all photos belong to us as well, unless otherwise noted. It’s all copyrighted. Please don’t repost anything elsewhere without asking us first. All rights reserved. This site uses cookies to enhance your experience.

We make no guarantees of any price listed on our site. We’re not responsible for content on external websites linked to ours, including linked resources, an external blog post, any partner site, hotel property sites, or affiliate sites. We only write about places we have vetted, but can’t guarantee that your experience will be exactly the same.

Posts may contain affiliate links at no cost to you. Several of our trips are also compensated by the respective tourism boards for the city or state we are visiting. This never impacts how we share the destination with you – opinions are always our own and we pride ourselves on that. We do not sell links or accept unsolicited guest posts under any circumstances. Don’t even ask.

United States Copyright, Getaway Mavens, LLC


  • Malerie Yolen-Cohen

    Malerie Yolen-Cohen is the Author of the cross-country travel guide, Stay On Route 6; Your Guide to All 3562 Miles of Transcontinental Route 6. She contributes frequently to Newsday, with credits in National Geographic Traveler, Ladies Home Journal, Yankee Magazine, Shape.com, Sierra Magazine, Porthole, Paddler, New England Boating, Huffington Post, and dozens of other publications. Malerie’s focus and specialty is Northeastern US, and she is constantly amazed by the caliber of restaurants and lodging in the unlikeliest places.