Photo: Colin D. Young/Shutterstock

Driving Around Cape Breton in a Rented Honda Civic

Nova Scotia Travel Narrative
by Josh Heller Nov 13, 2012
This post is part of Matador’s partnership with Canada, where journalists show how to explore Canada like a local.

I MEANDERED OUT OF HALIFAX in a brand-new Honda Civic. It took a few miles to get used to “kilometers per hour.” I passed several towns with good slogans like “Bedford, a traditional stopping place” and “Stewiacke, halfway between the Equator and the North Pole.” Each of these hamlets are places that our moms would love.

Halfway between Halifax and Truro I stopped at a tourist trap called Mastodon Ridge. A 12-foot concrete mastodon lures people off the highway to play miniature golf in its shadow, and buy dinosaur replicas in its gift shop. In this fast-food parking lot, I witnessed an earnest event. A group of farmers had gathered for a pumpkin growing competition. These were the largest gourds I’d ever seen. A farmer sent his toddler to pick up the award from each of his three wins. Another winner wore a t-shirt that read “No farms. No food.” Across the parking lot, a Tim Horton’s was wrapping around the building.

I wanted to eat something local, but the only restaurant I could find off the highway was a Burger King. I accepted the cashier’s offer to upgrade my medium french fries to poutine for $1.80. I immediately regretted accepting the offer to add gravy and mozzarella to my already very mayonnaised burger.

After three hours of unchanging terrain I reached the causeway that led to Cape Breton. I stopped at the tourist center and used free wifi to update my Instagram with photos I’d irresponsibly taken while driving. I got back on the road and drove through “Baddeck, the birthplace of Canadian aviation” en route to Sydney.

I checked into the Cambridge Suites on the Esplanade in Sydney. Nova Scotia Tourism treated me to dinner at the hotel’s contemporary kitchen. I ate dill haddock and a warm spinach salad. I normally don’t eat fish, but this region is known for seafood. I didn’t want to relive the experience of feeling like an idiot for ordering chicken tenders on that Turkish fishing island. I texted my girlfriend the Blink 182 lyric “I guess this is growing up” because I had made the adult decision to order fish and actually enjoyed it.

After dinner, I headed to the Cruise Terminal to watch a Celtic Colours performance. A crowd listened intently to Nova Scotian fiddlers and Gaelic dancers and Irish singers and Acadian pianists perform music that started in Ireland & Scotland but has found a home here in Cape Breton. This was not music that I was familiar with, but I really enjoyed it.

I’d never seen so many secondhand ice skates.

An MC told the audience about an upcoming performance. A thoughtful luthier made a suite of instruments (violins, violas, cellos) from a 200-year-old tree, which he had chopped down while serenading. Then with the tree as his muse, he wrote music for each instrument, calling the finished piece: “The Fiddle Tree.” A band hawked their merchandise: “And if you don’t like our CD, send us a letter, we’ll send you a CD of music that we don’t like.” A Jamaican played Celtic tunes on the steel drum. The women in front of me were vocally amazed that someone was able to rock a Celtic tune on an instrument they’d drank piña coladas to.

A band sounded like Mumford and Sons. The sound would’ve been unique a few years ago, but now playing music from a previous era seems to be en vogue. Does the popularity of this down-home folk rock redefine what it means to be cool? Is this music influenced by the economy? Is this the soundtrack to all those underemployed urban hipsters who leave the city for a life in the country to learn how to farm and build sustainable homes and become self-sufficient?

* * *
On my way out of town I stopped at a Value Village. This thrift store seemed uniquely Canadian. I’d never seen so many secondhand ice skates, maple-leaf flags, and t-shirts emblazoned with “hoser.”

I arrived at the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts to a performance of 75 fiddlers playing in harmony. It sounded like the cowboy soundtrack to Blazing Saddles. This was a bring-your-own-fiddle festival.

During the intermission I asked some young women sitting at an information booth where the gas station was. They didn’t understand what I was talking about, so I asked where the petrol station was. They said they didn’t drive because they were vacationers too, they had come from Ireland. I should have detected their accent but to these flawed ears a Canadian accent sounds very similar to an Irish one. I remember once talking to a guy on Bedford Avenue and having asked if he was from Toronto, but he said he was from Galway. I wondered if the Canadian inflection has its roots in the Celtic tradition of Cape Breton.

There were loads of American retirees in attendance. Connie from Hawaii won a prize. The MC made a joke about Canadian Thanksgiving: “On Canadian Thanksgiving we put our turkey in the oven at 6pm on the second Sunday in October, and by the time Americans celebrate their Thanksgiving we’ll be done with leftovers.”

A group called The Chaisson Family from Prince Edward Island performed. Unfortunately Uncle Peter was in the hospital, but the performance was handled by the twins and Uncle Kevin. They got the crowd moving, and someone jumped on the stage for what appeared to be a River Dance.

* * *
I arrived at the lodge situated on the cliffs of a peninsula in the early evening of Canadian Thanksgiving. Wealthy families were gathering to celebrate a holiday I was wholly unfamiliar with. I booked a reservation for dinner at the elegant dining hall from the reluctant hostess. There hadn’t been any room but my persistence got me an 8 o’clock table. I ate mussels and prime rib beside the Canadian elite in the Purple Thistle room on their Thanksgiving. I was thankful to have the privilege of eating like an esteemed gastronome. Upstairs my hand-washed clothes were drying in the shower. I was probably the only bro in this entire lodge who washed his socks in the sink.
At every turn I expected to see a horde of trolls or other mythical enemy.

A couple on their honeymoon were accosted by the gravy chef.

“Hey Roger, it’s Eric from high school!”


Roger seemed uncomfortable. He was a financial analyst still living in Toronto. Eric had made the gravy that he was dousing onto Roger’s prime rib. Eric was spending his third summer employed on the eastern edge of Canada, but he’d spent the winter in the mountains of the West, clearing ski paths. Roger would continue to spend 48 weeks of his life in an office building in downtown Toronto, so he could use his vast income to take short vacations to tourist destinations.

I didn’t want any gravy on my prime rib, just hand me that horseradish.

* * *
I left the Keltic Lodge in the morning to drive around the Cabot Trail. This was named after the explorer John Cabot who sailed around these parts in 1497. Though, according to Wikipedia, most historians agree he actually landed in Newfoundland, an entirely different island.

This terrain reminded me of the watercolors hanging in my parents’ living room painted by my great aunt. I stopped every few minutes to take blurry pictures on my cellphone. I spent 15 minutes trying to get the rear wipers to clear off the mist. I looked through the car manual. Then got out of the car to discover that there wasn’t a window wiper, only a defogger.

Through the foggy mountains of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, I thought about other people’s sadness, my own solitude, and general self-improvement. This route through the clouds made me feel like I could be easily transported to medieval times. At every turn I expected to see a horde of trolls or other mythical enemy.

I arrived in the French Acadian community of Cheticamp, “known for its rugs and hookers.” The guidebook then conveniently defines “hookers” as women who sew rugs. The docent showed me rugs that were made by a woman who had bequeathed her large collection to this museum. She made rugs for American Presidents, British Royalty, and liturgical audiences. The docent explained that the Acadians comprised small communities, descended of the original French who arrived in 1605. Their community was evicted by the British for its land, and because the French were friends with the Indians. There are dozens of small towns in Nova Scotia where the inhabitants still speak French.

She recommended that I eat lunch at an Acadian restaurant in town. I ordered the meat pie with a side of chiard, a meat stew. The women at the restaurant were excited by a new baby, being shown to everyone in the tiny community. They were excited as all people are by youth, but additionally happy that the traditions they’ve maintained can continue on to a new generation.

I left French territory, and after 40 minutes I’d made it to the Scottish Highlands to visit the only single malt scotch distillery in North America. I didn’t have the patience to wait for a tour, nor the foolishness to get drunk at the pub. So I decided to take home a bottle of Scotch. The only thing I could afford was an airplane-sized bottle for $15.

I got back into my vehicle and traveled south for another twenty minutes, before making it to Ireland. I went to the grocery store in Mabou to purchase coffee and water. The woman in front of me had an Irish accent and was buying Irish Red Beer. The cashier gave me the coffee for free. I bought some jam from a lady out front. The proceeds would go to fighting type II diabetes.

I continued down the coast, crossing the causeway and returning to mainland Nova Scotia. A few hours later I’d be eating a rack of lamb at a four-star hotel in metropolitan Halifax.

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