The big decision in the planning of this trip was where to go after the beer fest in Bangor. Looking for something new to experience, we set our sights east. With its strong connection to Celtic music and natural beauty, Cape Breton, on the far end of Nova Scotia, had always been high on our list of travel destinations.
Almost four hours out of Halifax, Merideth and I crossed the Canso Causeway onto Cape Breton (it’s really an island, not a cape). Eager with anticipation of exploring an area for the first time, we expected the music and hiking to approach ‘EPIC’ on the vacation meter. The one unknown was beer. We had no idea what to expect. After a short stop at the visitor center, we turned up the Ceilidh Trail, the coastal route along the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The English/Gaelic dual language signs reminded us of our trips to Ireland. But we would quickly learn during our stay that the Gaelic heritage was Scottish not Irish. There were some Irish but the main influx came from the Scottish Highlands spurred by the social and economic upheavels of 18th and 19th centuries.
Our destination was Mabou (An Drochaid in Gaelic), a small rural village in the heart of the Celtic music country. We found our hotel on the edge of the village’s main drag just across the river. After checking in, we decided, despite the heat and humidity, to walk around and explore our base for the three day stay on Cape Breton.
A cute village with friendly people, Merideth and I finished the grand tour in only a few minutes. There were shops and stuff but it wasn’t the season yet so most were closed. And despite all the locals insisting it was a beautiful day, it was a tad humid for our dainty California dispositions. We needed to get indoors and a beer would be nice too.
We quickly found ourselves in the one pub in Mabou, the Red Shoe Pub. The bistro-like pub was adorned with all manner of music memorabilia. Little did we know that the Red Shoe was quite well known in the music community. Owned by the Rankin sisters, the pair were part of the dozen siblings who at one time or another comprised the award-winning Cape Breton band The Rankin Family.
We were introduced to Cape Breton beer at the Red Shoe. Looking over the menu, Merideth and I were pleasantly surprised to see some of the Halifax breweries we visited the prior day on the tap and bottle list. And better yet, they were pouring two beers from Big Spruce, the island’s brand new organic brewery.
Our Big Spruce choices were Cereal Killer Oatmeal Stout and Ready Yer Knot Regatta Red Ale. Not in the mood for a Stout, I went with the Red. Billed as their summer ale, the 5.0% ABV Regatta Red had an enticing deep copper color. Light on the hops, the brew had a pleasant maltiness and refreshing body that played well with the current weather conditions.
In our normal travel routine, we usually would bust out the scrabble board or go back to our room and watch a DVD. But I had a moment of inspiration.
It was finally cooling off and the evening was quite pleasant. We would go back to the room but only to pick up the beers we so wisely had chilling. With brews in hand and a couple of glasses scrounged, Merideth and I headed down to West Mabou beach.
It was one of my best travel decisions ever. An absolutely beautiful evening, Merideth and I drank a few beers, skipped a few rocks, watched the sun go down and maybe for the first during the trip just relaxed. We even chatted with a friendly local who was more than happy to tell a couple of Californians about his home. Only thing that would have made it a more perfect evening was if Porter and Stout were with us. A nice way to close our first day on Cape Breton.
The following foggy morning Merideth and I were on the road again heading east. Leaving the Ceilidh Trail, we crossed into the French speaking Acadian area (home to their own style of music, that will have to wait for another trip to Cape Breton to experience). Here we joined the Cabot Trail, a 185 mile long scenic highway loop. The plan for our day was to drive the loop, hike and visit Big Spruce Brewing.
The highway wraps around Cape Breton Highland National Park, a rugged landscape with spectacular ocean scenery. After a week of doing beer stuff, we looked forward to getting out on a trail. Our chosen trail was Skyline, an almost six mile loop to a headland that promised whales, eagles, moose and bears.
After consulting the signs instructing what to do if we encountered a bear or moose (and coyote as well), we were off across the scruffy landscape. Remembering what our hotel owner said a day earlier, I continually scanned the skies for any sign of clearing. She talked about the incredible views along the Cabot Trail but added “unless it’s foggy”.
Beginning as open country, we passed into a woodland. Despite the warnings, we hoped to see a moose but the closest we got was piles of scat dotting the trail every now and then. We did see a cute grouse family.
Breaking out of the trees, we headed out a board-walked path to what was the culmination of our hike, the coastal views where we would see whales and lobsters frolicking in the ocean.
And it was FOGGY. Not able to see anything, we could only imagine what this vista was like on a clear day. It didn’t help either that a park worker told us that the previous day there was a moose, easily visible, grazing on a nearby hill.
Enticed by another chance at seeing a moose, we quickly walked the short loop on the Bog trail. Shut out again, we did see wild orchids, the carnivorous Pitcher plant and a juvenile red-tailed hawk that swooped low a few feet from us.
Hiking done, we continued along the Cabot Trail. In retrospect, I am not sure this was the best decision. Maybe I should have checked my ‘can’t go back the same way’ tendencies and returned the short third. With the fog turning to rain and Big Spruce closing in a few hours, the final two thirds of the loop became more of a sprint than a scenic drive.
Located on a 30 hectare farm near the town of Baddeck, Big Spruce Brewing opened in April of this year. In the heaviest rain of the day, we arrived about an half hour before closing time. Merideth and I hurried into the tiny tasting room and brewery.
Big Spruce presently brews three beers, the two available at the Red Shoe plus Kitchen Party Pale Ale which they were out of. Not wanting to try the Oatmeal Stout in the heat and humidity of the prior day, I was now eager for a sample of the dark brew in the current dreary, damp, Ireland-like conditions. Cereal Killer was just as good as the Red Ale. On the drier side, the brew had a nice roast/chocolate character plus an easy drinkability important in a Stout.
The hillside farm overlooking Bras d’Or Lake would have nice to explore especially the hop field. But with the rain still falling and muddy conditions, our visit to Big Spruce was short and sweet. For not knowing what to expect from Cape Breton beer, the island’s one brewery turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole trip. Unfortunately, we left empty-handed except for the logo pint glass. Big Spruce doesn’t bottle.
Finally back in Mabou in the early evening, our day was still not done. After a short rest, we were of to the Celtic Music Interpretative Centre in nearby Judique for the first Ceilidh of the summer season.
Opened in 2007, the mission of the Centre is to “collect, preserve and promote the traditional Celtic music of Cape Breton Island…” A beautiful building, the Centre was part museum, part gift shop and, most important, a performance venue.
Joining a mix of locals and fellow tourists, Merideth and I enjoyed an evening listening to Cape Breton fiddlers. Bonus points to the locals dancing for us and to the Centre for having an inexpensive lobster sandwich.
Our last day on Cape Breton dawned glorious. The fog and humidity of the previous days disappeared and pleasant temperatures boded well for one more Cape Breton hike. Several of the locals had enthusiastically recommended hiking around the nearby Cape Mabou Highlands.
Maintained by the local trail club, the network of trails follows roads as well as settlers’ original cart tracks. Our friendly hotel proprietor recommended that we hike one of these cart tracks, Bein Alasdair Bhain (Fair Allistair’s Mountain) for its stunning ocean views.
We set out from the car park for what was a four plus mile loop. While the hiking was more challenging than the previous day, it was still pretty moderate. After a fairly easy ascent through a forested area, we came out into a meadow with breathtaking sea views that spread out before us. As we crossed the field into the descent back down the hill, we marveled at the shimmering waters and brilliant blue sky as a lobster boat lazily plied its trade.
After that ‘WOW!’ moment, the return part of hike was less awe-inspiring. But as we walked along the tree-shaded access road back to our car, Merideth and I ranked the ocean views we had just seen in our Hiking Hall of Fame. I had it pretty high up there.
We celebrated our great day hiking back at the Red Shoe Pub with a late lunch and a few pints of Big Spruce Cereal Killer Oatmeal Stout. And a big slab of Carrot Cake.
Our time on Cape Breton was winding down. The following morning, we would retrace our steps back into New Brunswick and eventually Maine. With only three days on the island, Merideth and I only scratched the surface of things to do and see. But from what we experienced, the friendly locals, the music, the great hiking with stunning vistas and good local beer, we can only hope we make it back someday soon.