From waves to trails

Kav Dadfar travels to Cape Breton Island to discover how Gaelic and Acadian settlers integrated with the local Mi’kmaq peoples.

Paid partnership with Tourism Nova Scotia

From waves to trails

Kav Dadfar travels to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Atlantic Canada, to learn about the uncertain future of the pilot whale, and visit the sensational Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

From waves to trails: to listen along to this story on Nova Scotia outdoors, or to pause the playback, click the play button:

A warm smile illuminated Ray Fraser’s face when I stumbled awkwardly into the modest wooden reception structure perched atop the hill. “Are you joining the whale-watching tour?” he enquired in a soft tone, his speech carrying subtle traces of a Scottish accent.

I had ventured to Bay St. Lawrence, nestled in the northernmost reaches of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, eager to hop on a whale-watching tour in the open waters, hoping to catch a glimpse of the minke and pilot whales that inhabit these maritime realms.

Located in Eastern Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island boasts a rich tapestry of marine life in its waters. The convergence of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean creates an appealing habitat for a thriving array of marine species.

Whales, including humpback and minke, as well as dolphins frequently navigate these nutrient-rich waters drawn by the schools of fish, from cod to mackerel, which weave through the currents, sustaining the intricate balance of the underwater ecosystem.

Established in 1998, Oshan Whale Watch has been taking guests out on their Northumberland Strait boat called Oshan for over two decades. The company was started by Captain Cyril Fraser who initially began his seafaring journey as a fisherman in his oceanside village. The decline of the cod stock in these waters led to the launch of Oshan Whale Watch. Today, the company is a familial enterprise: sons Ray and Matthew play integral roles as tour Captains, and Cheryl, the youngest, passionately embraces her role as a tour guide.

Within minutes of leaving the dock, Cheryl pointed to the distance: “There! Some pilot whales,” she gestured. As the guests on the boat swivelled and squinted into the endless horizon, sure enough in the distance were two small triangular fins piercing the surface of the water. Cyril had already changed the course of the boat and was heading towards the pod. “Don’t worry, we’ll get much closer to them for photos,” Cheryl reassured us, her words intermingling with the incessant shutters of camera apertures opening and closing.

As we drew closer to the pod, several more pilot whales emerged on the starboard side from another pod, and even more appeared behind us. It felt as if we were encircled by these marine behemoths, their jet-black skins shimmering as they gracefully surfaced for air before diving, in a seemingly endless game of hide and seek with us.

The sheer numbers surrounding the boat left me astounded. Curious, I asked Cheryl if this was a common occurrence. “Yes and no,” she replied, her voice carrying a tinge of sadness. “This year their numbers were high, but unfortunately in other years, they haven’t been. And with the warming sea temperatures, we are seeing them coming into the bay later and later each year.”

She notes that a worst-case scenario would see the whales stop coming into the bay altogether. “This would impact the marine ecosystem at the coastline. You know, every element relies on each other,” she muses. 

But even with the dangers that these delicate ecosystems face, I couldn’t help but feel that there is a sense of hope. The dedication of families like the Frasers to showcasing these majestic creatures and continuing to educate guests aboard the Oshan will hopefully inspire others to cherish and protect the oceans and the incredible life they hold. For two and a half glorious hours, I was consistently reminded of the sheer magnificence of these mammals before we made our way back to shore.

Beyond the whale-watching experience, Cape Breton is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. Other activities include kayaking, canoeing, cycling and even world-class golf courses, not to mention the hiking opportunities. There are 26 hiking trails ranging from easy to advanced, just in Cape Breton Highlands National Park alone.

But amidst this array of adventures, the one thing that everyone will experience in this part of Cape Breton is the world-famous Cabot Trail which stands out as a centrepiece for exploration along the rugged coastline of the island. Winding along the dizzying coastline, this 185-mile highway is a scenic masterpiece that offers an incredible drive through breathtaking landscapes.

Named after the renowned explorer John Cabot, the highway weaves around the island and through Cape Breton Highlands National Park, traversing highland plateaus and offering glimpses of picturesque coastal cliffs. Numerous viewpoints along the route treat drivers to panoramic views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean, punctuated by small fishing villages.

Having driven south from Bay St. Lawrence to rejoin the Cabot Trail, I was heading towards the west coast to conquer the four-mile Skyline hiking trail. But Cheryl’s words lingered in my mind, prompting a spontaneous decision to make a brief detour to Pleasant Bay and the Whale Interpretive Centre.

The small centre serves as an educational hub and a celebration of marine life. I found myself immersed in the interactive exhibits that illuminate the behaviour, ecology, and conservation efforts surrounding whales, providing a deeper understanding of the intricate marine ecosystem.

As I bade farewell to Pleasant Bay and approached the signpost for Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the initial hairpin bend marked the start of my ascent. Flanked by dense pine forest on one side and the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean on the other, it was as if the view-o-meter was slowly being dialled up. 

I continued to climb until the MacKenzie Mountain Viewpoint literally halted me in my tracks. From this vantage point, I could see the waves crashing onto the beach at Pleasant Bay and the faint outline of Phantom Point, the northern tip of Cape Breton Island, emerging in the misty distance.

I wanted to stand there longer, mesmerised by the panoramic spectacle that seemed to stretch into eternity, but with the afternoon slowly slipping away, I reluctantly returned to my journey along the Cabot Trail toward the Skyline trailhead.

On that cool autumn afternoon, with the sun in a cloudless sky, I made my way along the path of the Skyline Trail, each step bringing me closer to the iconic headland. I passed through lush forests and meadows which infused the air with the earthy scent of pine. In the distance, I could hear the murmur of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

As I reached the end of the trail, the panorama suddenly opened up with an expanse of rolling hills meeting the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. I continued down the boardwalk with my aim set toward the headland. The cool breeze carried a sense of solitude, punctuated only by the distant calls of seabirds. Standing on that precipice, with the world spread out below, I felt an indescribable connection to the untamed beauty of Cape Breton, a moment etched in memory as the Skyline Trail unveiled the grandeur of nature’s beauty.

From the headland, I could see the sinuous contour of the Cabot Trail, illuminated by the late afternoon sun as it traced the mountainside. It served as a gentle reminder that my adventure was far from over. Soon, I would be back on the tarmac, continuing along this world-famous road, with the promise of more breathtaking views waiting for me.

Need to know

Getting there:

There are direct daily flights to Halifax in Nova Scotia from London Heathrow with Air Canada.

Starting spring 2024, WestJet will launch seasonal non-stop flights from London, starting on 29 April. Direct services will also operate from Dublin and Edinburgh (new route) from 20 June.

Additionally, Icelandair returns to Halifax in May 2024, with complimentary stopovers in Iceland for up to seven days.

From Halifax to Cape Breton Island is approximately 364km (4-hour drive).

The are several places to join on to the Cabot Trail.

Best time to go:

The best time to drive the Cabot Trail is typically from late spring to early fall, spanning from May to October. During this time, the weather is relatively mild, and the landscapes are adorned with vibrant colours.

Late spring offers the beauty of blooming wildflowers and the awakening of nature, while summer provides warmth and longer daylight hours for a more leisurely exploration of the trail.

Autumn, however, is considered by many as the peak season, as the foliage transforms into a breathtaking blanket of red, orange, and gold, creating a stunning visual spectacle. It’s advisable to check the local weather conditions and road closures, as winters can be harsh, and some sections of the Cabot Trail may be inaccessible due to snow and ice.

Where to stay:

There are plenty of options for accommodations on offer on Cape Breton Island.

Try Inverary Resort, nestled on the shores of the Bras d’Or Lake in Baddeck. This waterfront resort offers a range of accommodations, from cosy rooms to private cottages.

Further north is Keltic Lodge. Perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Ingonish Beach, this is a popular retreat surrounded by rugged cliffs and pristine landscapes. Keltic Lodge offers elegant accommodations, fine dining, and a wealth of outdoor activities.

Glenora Inn & Distillery, situated in Glenville offers cosy accommodations, a warm Scottish ambience, and a chance to savour award-winning Glen Breton Rare whiskies. Nestled in the Mabou Highlands, guests can enjoy the serenity of the surrounding landscape, explore nearby hiking trails, and experience the rich Scottish heritage that permeates the inn.

Must-pack items:

For whale watching, make sure that you pack a waterproof jacket as the weather can change quickly. Also, make sure you have plenty of memory card space for photos.

Sunglasses will be invaluable when driving in bright and sunny conditions especially when the sun is low in the sky.

How to do it:

Hire a car and explore the magnificent Cape Breton Island at your own pace.

Click here to navigate to the Oshan Whale Watch car park.

Click here to navigate to the Skyline Trail car park.

Anything else:

The Cabot Trail is 185 miles and there are parts where you won’t find fuel, food or water. So, make sure you are prepared.

Also, it is always a good idea to check before travelling as some trails such as the Skyline Trail might be closed in severe weather conditions like high winds.

FEATURED TOUR:

Captivating Cape Breton | Discover the East of Nova Scotia – 10-night fly-drive holiday with Frontier Canada

Fly with Air Canada from London Heathrow to Halifax, 2 x nights Westin Nova Scotian Halifax – room only, collect intermediate hire car with Avis, drive to Baddeck, 3 x nights Inverary Resort – room only, drive to Louisbourg, 2 x nights Louisbourg Harbour Inn – BB, drive to Charlos Cove, 2 x nights Seawind Landing Country Inn – American Breakfast, drive to Halifax airport, drop car, 1 x night Hilton Garden Inn Halifax Airport – room only, morning flight back to London Heathrow.

Price based on 20th May departure – £1,945 per person based on 2 people. Find out more.

More information

This article was brought to you in partnership with Tourism Nova Scotia.

The gateway to Atlantic Canada and only a 6-hour flight from the UK, Nova Scotia is filled to the brim with stunning natural beauty, diverse cultures, rich heritage, and warm, friendly people.

The province is known for its world-class experiences, spectacular beaches, and a top-notch locally sourced culinary scene shaped by the sea.

For more information and suggested itineraries, go to novascotia.com.


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