A natural beauty

Cape Breton's unrivalled vistas were a big part of the reason why National Geographic Traveler...

Cape Breton's unrivalled vistas were a big part of the reason why National Geographic Traveler magazine named the island the world's second most unspoiled destination. -- Photos from Sun Media files.

SHERRY NOIK-BENT -- Special to Sun Media

, Last Updated: 4:28 PM ET

In the land where Scotland meets Acadie, you might expect a full-blown, 24-7 party, where locals and tourists alike stagger from one of the East Coast's famous ceilidhs to the next. But that's not necessarily what you'll find on Cape Breton Island.

On a chunk of land shaped somewhat like a lobster claw, the reputation of islanders as a grizzled group of seamen who trawl hard and drink even harder is not in evidence. Made up largely of traditional fishing villages with almost more churches than people, Cape Breton has embraced the politically correct era with puritanical zeal, going entirely smoke-free even on outdoor patios. Try to find a watering hole along the Cabot Trail, and you'll have as much luck as the explorer himself would have had back in 1497 (had he actually traversed the trail). And even on the periphery of the high tourist season, a shop or restaurant open past 8 p.m. is rare.

But Cape Breton's unrivalled vistas and abundant wildlife last year earned it National Geographic Traveler magazine's vote as the world's second most unspoiled destination.

From the crossing of the Canso Causeway that links Cape Breton to the rest of Nova Scotia, the tiny town of Baddeck is the starting point of the 298-km Cabot Trail, a stunning ribbon of coastal road through the northern highlands of the province.

Two large-ish hotel/resorts -- the Inverary and the Silver Dart Lodge -- as well as dozens of B&Bs dot the shores of the Bras d'Or Lake system. From there, follow the route along spectacular inland scenery ringing the lake, where bald eagles can be seen quite readily.

Upon reaching Cape Breton Highlands National Park, check in at the ranger station to discover "You are in bear country!" as the flyer warns. There are also lynx, coyote and shrew. But the park is best known for its 5,000 moose, which roam fearlessly and are easy to spot. Evidence of them is everywhere -- in the fresh piles of uniform brown pellets they leave behind -- and nearly all of the 26 hiking trails that weave through the park's edges boast possible sightings. As advertised, just about a kilometre into the Skyline Trail, there they were -- 2.1 metres, 545 kilos of bulky beast. But lovably dim-witted Bullwinkles they're not, so if the idea of an up-close-and-personal encounter is daunting, the comfort of your own car can still yield plenty of sightings.

Each twist and turn of the road around the northern plateau reveals yet more breathtaking scenery, rugged and elemental and offset by jewel-toned green grass and blue water. Along the way are signs for local artists' studios, from blown glass to hooked rugs, their creations no doubt inspired by the setting.

Further around the Cabot loop, reach sleepy little Pleasant Bay, the self-proclaimed "whale capital of Cape Breton." Here, the aptly named MidTrail Motel perches on a crest overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the launch point for whale watching tours offered by half a dozen operators. Trips are scheduled nearly every hour of every day, as long as the water isn't too rough -- which it often is. Alternatively, park at one of the many look-outs jutting out to the sea and scan the water for whales on your own.

Cape Breton also has some of the more conventional amusements, notably the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, overlooking the estate that was Bell's summer home and where he is buried. For those who prefer to commune with nature from the green of a golf course, there is Bell Bay in Baddeck and Highlands Links, at Ingonish Beach.

And if you need a tipple after all that, perhaps you'll have more luck on the nearby Ceilidh Trail.

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BOTTOM LINE

MORE INFORMATION: For details on lodging, eating and activities, contact baddeck.com. For directions and reservations, visit midtrail.com. Rates range from $120-$250 in high season (June 16-Sept. 15). For more on Highland Links, see highlands linksgolf.com. For Bell Bay, bellbaygolfclub.com/index2.html.


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