We see gently rolling hills with mist whispering over the tops of a thick deciduous forest. There’s a crystal clear, gently flowing brook cutting through the quiet glen with the distinctive aroma of good whisky permeating the crisp, fresh air.
Looking as if it had been transported directly from the highlands of Scotland, the Glenora Inn and Distillery sit in a rural area of western Cape Breton Island, near the village of Glenville. The first, and until recently, only single malt whisky distiller in North America, Glenora turns out spirits that have captured numerous international awards, including two recent gold medals in Chicago against 10- and 15-year-old Scotch single malts.
“It’s the water that makes our whisky so special,” says inn manager and whiskey ambassador Donnie Campbell, as we sip samples before the fire in the Inn’s cozy bar accompanied by a young Cape Breton fiddler and pianist. “We own 900 acres of pristine wilderness and this stream passes no houses or industry. It runs over granite and marble as well as roots from apple and maple trees. This adds distinctive elements and minerals to the water for our whisky. Our founder looked at 200 potential water supplies on Cape Breton Island and this was the best.”
Glenora’s oldest product is a 15-year-old single malt aged in American Oak barrels called “Battle of the Glen.” Clad in a box covered with newspaper headlines, it was produced to commemorate the legal victory against the Scotch Whisky Association. The SWA objected to Glenora’s use of the term “Glen” for its signature Glen Breton 10-year-old whisky, claiming consumers might think it was from Scotland (Canada cannot and does not use the term “Scotch”). Nova Scotia won the nine-year battle and Glen Breton Single Malt remains to tantalize taste buds with its heady aroma and ultra-smooth taste.
Not renowned just for its whisky, Cape Breton is the most Scottish part of “New Scotland” and we spent four delightful days exploring hidden Celtic gems and savouring unique treats that are raising the bar for fine cuisine along the Cabot Trail and in Sydney and Louisbourg. At every stop we sampled traditional Scottish oakcakes (a flaky square or rectangular cookie with an oatmeal base) and seafood chowder that’s among the best in the world.
The Inverary Inn in Baddeck has been serving its distinctive oatcakes for decades. Sitting on the shore of the Bras d’Or Lakes, Baddeck is a popular summer resort area and the seasonal home for 30 years of Alexander Graham Bell and his wife, Mabel. Parks Canada supports a major museum in Baddeck filled with artifacts from the life and times of the inventor of the telephone. Bell and his wife are buried in Baddeck on his nearby estate called Beinn Bhreagh, Gaelic for beautiful mountain.
The Gaelic language and culture survive and thrive on Cape Breton Island (many of the road signs are bilingual) largely because of the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts in St. Ann’s, near Baddeck. For almost 75 years, the campus has featured classes in the Gaelic language, music instruction on bagpipes and other Celtic instruments and step-dancing, plus Scottish history and kilt making. Up to 100 students come for weekend classes or stay for a week or two. Visitors, Scottish or not, are always welcome and can be ceremoniously fitted with a Great Kilt, made from five metres of fine tartan. And yes, we left with some delicious oatcakes.
An excellent lunch or dinner stop on the Artisan’s Loop of the Cabot Trail is the Chanterelle Country Inn and Cottages. Chef Earlene Busch is an advocate of the slow food movement and her restaurant features Cape Breton fresh cuisine. Visitors give Chanterelle rave reviews and it’s featured in “Where to Eat in Canada.”
Parts of Cape Breton are actually trilingual with a strong Acadian influence on the west coast of the island. One hidden gem of a museum is Les Trios Pignons in the French community of Cheticamp. In a modest whitewashed building, the work of rug hooker Elizabeth Lafort is featured. Starting in her teens with complex landscapes, this acclaimed artist created realistic hooked tapestries of people, places and events. The luminous detailed works, all in wool that she dyed, include giant historical tableaus of Canadian and U.S. history (featuring all prime ministers and presidents), religious works and portraits of people like Queen Elizabeth and Jacqueline Kennedy. Visitors stand in awe of her talent.
Leaving Cheticamp and heading to the island’s east coast there’s a visual wonder around almost every bend of Cape Breton’s highways but we also found a number of hidden culinary gems. The Dancing Goat Café and Bakery, on the Cabot Trail in the Margaree Valley, doesn’t advertise but is always filled with locals and tourists. The sandwiches, on fresh multi-grain bread, are stuffed with roast beef, chicken, ham or veggies and the desserts (including oakcakes, of course) are delicious.
The Fortress of Louisbourg is the ambitious reconstruction of an 18th century fortified French town. Built to harvest the plentiful seafood and to defend the French empire in North America, Louisbourg was eventually destroyed by the British in 1758 but, in the 1960s, partially rebuilt by the government of Canada as a living history museum.
Only 20 per cent of the Louisbourg Fortress site has been excavated and rebuilt but archeologists continue to explore the area and the surrounding sea (26 known shipwrecks are in the vicinity). More than 10,000 artifacts are uncovered each year to add to visitors’ pleasure of wandering among the many buildings, streets and gardens as they were in the 1740s (along with costumed inhabitants).
The 18th-century theme is continued at another local gem, the Beggars Banquet in the village of Louisbourg, within sight of the fortress. Linda and Tom Kennedy and their team provide comfortable seaside accommodations but the banquet is not to be missed. Every evening visitors can choose to dress up in period costumes provided by the Inn (most do) while servers and a grumpy (but witty) wench, Luscious Lady Linda, present a feast of locally caught lobster, giant local snow crab, halibut or chicken accompanied by live music and merriment. It’s a great way to top off a day at the fortress.
Many visitors return to nearby Sydney after visiting Louisbourg. The Cambridge Suites has the No. 1 accommodation ranking at TripAdvisor and the hotel’s creamy, seafood-filled fish chowder is divine. Some locals say the Cambridge Suites has the most reliable kitchen in town but we found Governors Pub & Eatery, on the main drag with an excellent view of Sydney Harbour, to be outstanding as well. Its pulled pork sandwich is pungent and tasty.
Gordon Stewart, the executive director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia, told us that fine cuisine has now become a key feature for increased tourism. “People want good value and great food,” he said. “At the high end, travellers will pay a premium for something different and extraordinary.”
In addition to spectacular scenery, Cape Breton has recognized the need for great food with two annual events that started this year. May’s Savour Food and Wine Festival gathered together three dozen top Island restaurants and beverage purveyors for an evening of sampling the best dishes and the best wine. And this month, 10 world-class chefs from the U.S., France, Spain, Australia, Peru, Belgium, Switzerland and Hong Kong will fly to Sydney to work with local chefs across Cape Breton for the Right Some Good Foodie Adventure. International expertise and local culinary passion will join forces on an island that Alexander Graham Bell loved. “For simple beauty, it outrivals them all,” he wrote.
And we suspect those big name chefs should be suitably impressed with the whisky, the Scottish oakcakes and the fresh, succulent seafood.
John and Sandra Nowlan are freelance travel and food writers based in Halifax.