Archive for the ‘ Cabot Trail ’ Category

On the Cabot Trail, Canada

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



abstract: What happens if people migrate to paradise and their way of life stays suspended for a couple of centuries? This is more or less what happened to the people in an area of Canada’s Cape Breton, in Nova Scotia, which is marked by the 185 mile circular loop of the Cabot Trail. The Trail is anchored on the east by the village of Baddeck where people who came from Scotland in the late 19th Century have lived and, on the west, by the village of Cheticamp where the Acadians who came from the Loire Valley, via Port-Royal in Nova Scotia, have lived. In the month of July when I visited the Cheticamp region it was indeed the “pastoral paradise” that the Greek word promised “Acadia” to be. The Baddeck area was no less. These two villages have also been held isolated on a distant island, which is Cape Breton, with its forbidding long winters. That isolation has kept their community life as though suspended in the past. The different cultures of these two peoples have each preserved their distinct old elements and traditions.

Baddeck, and that Sort of Thing

From the window of my hotel I could see the Bras d’Or (Arm of Gold)Lake. The biggest lake inNova Scotia, this is a major area of concentration for the 20,000 remaining Mi’kmaqs in the province. They are the “Aboriginal” inhabitants of Nova Scotia. Because they lived here for millenniums before the first Europeans arrived, they are now called the First Nation. I went out in the hope of meeting some of them in the village of Baddeck where I was staying.

There were three men in the patio of the Bean There Coffee Café which looked like the hangout for those locals who rose earlier in the morning. One of these regulars told me that I could not distinguish a Mi’kmaq from others because “their blood is not pure now.” He paused and then said “Most people here call them ‘Mick-mack,’ but the correct pronunciation is Mee-gmakh.” His friend said that Baddeck itself was a Mi’kmaq name which meant “village near the island.” They were not clear on which island they meant. We were on Cape Breton, however, which was an island. It has been connected to the mainland Nova Scotiaonly since 1955 by the Canso Causeway.

The feeling one gets in Baddeck is still one of island isolation. “The population is 800, not counting the tourists,” said the third of these new acquaintances of mine. He had gone to Ontario for work but was spending his vacation here at home. He now turned to a woman who was just stepping into the café from the street and grimacing in the chill of the morning and said to her:  “Toughen up, Mary! You are a local!” Mary smiled faintly, showing all of her three teeth. She had the stocky body of one who had toughened it for years.

In the two days I was in Baddeck I saw Mary a couple of times more, usually sitting on the bench in front of the general store  watching the passers-by. I also saw the Ontario man again. He wanted to know how my day went after he had advised about which way to make the loop around the Cabot Trail. When I saw the same local bicyclists getting ready to go on a tour the second time around, we exchanged banters. You could become part of the scene in no time in Baddeck.

One time I ran into a man who was going to the general store. He was in no hurry and I asked him where was a good place to eat lobster. He said he bought his lobsters “from fishermen at the water and cooked them in hot water.” He went on “We come to town for Chinese food.” He pointed to Wong’s Bras d’Or House Family Restaurant right behind him. He asked where I had come from. When I said San Francisco, he eyes widened in apparent wonder: “You are the first one I meet from San Francisco.” Then he murmured to himself “Los Angeles?”  He sounded a bit confused about these far away places. He said he lived “just south of here, across the river, in Wycocomagh.” He was the first man from that place I had ever met.

A Bookmobile parked near Baddeck’s one-room library  was a good sign that the village provided some public services to the more rural communities around it, such as Wycocomagh. At the Bell Buoy Restaurant there was a sign of appreciation for a sense of a bigger community. A handmade tableau at the entrance showed “the names and ages of our Canadian Military that have given their lives in Afghanistan since 2002. On this Canada Day we ask you to remember those who gave so that ‘We’ can be free.”

At the bakery I asked what among its products was special and unique to Baddeck. The Baker offered Wheat Short Bread cookies, “but,” she said, “they are a specialty of all of Cape Breton.” Alexander Graham Bell, on the other hand, is what Baddeck calls all its own. He had a summer home here and is buried near that estate which is visible across the bay. The lamp-poles on the main street of Baddeck were festooned with banners  publicizing the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site  at one end of the street. The museum at the Site covers many of Bell’s inventions and innovations. The citizens of Baddeck have reported witnessing “the historic flight” of Bell’s “Silver Dart” on Baddeck Bay, and on September 9, 1919, “Bell’s hydrofoil, the HD4″ which “was clocked at 114km/h.”

I saw a far less conspicuous monument to Bell’s impact on Baddeck at an abandoned lot just outside of the village center. It was a plain stand of upright stones. It read:  “Commemorating The founding of the Home and School Movement in Canada-December 18th 1895. The Parents Association of Baddeck held its first meeting on the site of the Baddeck Academy. The idea of such an association was presented to the Young Ladies Club of Baddeck by Dr. and Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell and through their combined efforts became a reality.”

The Bells befriended prominent members of Baddeck society. Among them were the Dunlops.  In 1861the Dunlop family opened the Telegraph House Hotel which has been in continuous operation until today, run by successive generations of the Dunlops. The hotel established its reputation from early on. The author of a 1869 book called Baddeck, and that Sort of Thing, Charles Dudley Warner wrote this about his visit to the Telegraph House: “We came into a straggling village we could see by the starlight. But we stopped at the door of a very unhotel-like appearing hotel. It had in front a flower garden. It was blazing with welcome signs. It opened hospitable doors and we were received by a family who expected us.”

The second generation of the Dunlops met Alexander Graham Bell and his wife in 1885, and various members of the third generation became friends or employees of “Dr. Bell.” In the next generation even a son in this family was named after him: Alexander Graham.

The “Dinner Menu” of Telegraph Hill restaurant  sported pictures of the Bells and its other past illustrious guests, and invited us to “Relax in the surroundings of ‘Open Fireplace’ Hospitality.” Our waitress was quite hospitably chatty. She said that the man sitting at a table to our right was the owner of the place himself. As I turned around I saw a man in his 50s in shirt-sleeves and trousers, with tussled thinning sandy and grey hair, and wearing glasses. He was engaged in a conversation with two women who were “his sister and her friend,” according to our waitress. The siblings were members of the sixth generation of the Dunlops. The sister owned another hotel in town called Dunlop Inn. Another brother, Gerald, owned a third hotel in Baddeck, the sprawling Lynwood Inn. The funeral home in town belonged to still another brother.

Lobster Supper

The restaurant at the Telegraph House was for “fine dining.” The next evening we experienced a different Nova Scotia institution called the Lobster Supper. The supply of sweet Atlantic lobster is still plentiful in the waters surrounding the province. It is available at almost all restaurants, but for the cheapest and often the best you go to the homelier venues such as the dining hall of a church. Called simply “Lobster Suppers ,” in Baddeck this “feed” was held in a former legion hall. The sign with the logo of a lobster trap  beckoned us. Inside, the place boasted that it had already served “over 200,000 satisfied customers.” The room was plain, decorated only with nautical themes of the type worthy of its folksy customers. Used berry picking baskets were on the tables for discarded shells . The modest price for lobster, 29.95 Canadian dollars, also included “unlimited amounts of mussels, chowder, rolls, biscuits, desert and beverage.” Except for the beverage, they were all home-made.

Students working on their  summer break served us as we put on a bib and attacked the orange crustacean with pickers and nutcrackers, and dunked the pieces with a fork in melted butter.  I asked the young woman who attended our table what her “desire” was in life. She did not hesitate: “To go to Australia.” Her co-worker, Michael, told us that after the summer tourists are gone “Baddeck becomes a ghost town; the rest of the year only the Pizza place  and the Village Kitchen  are open. In the past this was a region of coal mining as well as fisheries.  Due to the decline of those industries, many of the young have been leaving to find work elsewhere.”

Michael, however, was not thinking of leaving. For one thing, his girlfriend was here and she had two more years of college to do. She was the daughter of Violet Wong of Baddeck’s Chinese restaurant. As Michael related, “Violet’s mother sent her here from China on an arranged marriage. The husband has died. She and her son now own the restaurant. She has two other daughters who both married Canadians. The Wongs are the only Chinese family in the area.”


The Catholic Church in Baddeck provided the venue for “Gathering Ceilidh” in its Parish Hall.  Nancy MacLean who greeted us at the door said that she had run this musical event for the last 13 years, “every night for three months in the summer.” She paid the musicians as well as the Church for the use of for the Hall. Admission was $10.00, but “Babes in arms FREE,” as the sign at the door said. The Hall soon filled up. MacLean told me that only four in the audience were local, the rest were tourists. Ceilidhs, however, is the institution that has helped generations of the locals endure the long cold winters of Cape Breton. When family and friends get-togethers, they play fiddle, strum guitar, foot-tap, and dance. The music is Scottish and Acadian.

Cape Breton is called the capital of Ceilidth. We were promised a variety of traditionalCapeBretonmusic tonight.  On the stage before us was a man who played the guitar and a woman who played the fiddle. Behind them there was a piano that never got used. Pausing after a number, the fiddle player told the audience that Ceilidth was pronounced “k-lee,” and it meant “visit, or get together.” It was coming together to play familiar songs. In that sense it was different from jamming. When they resumed playing, she kept the beat by tapping her left foot.

Now a woman from the audience came toward the space on the left of the musicians and started dancing to the music.  We all began to clap rhythmically. After this dance, Nancy MacLean came on the stage. She formally introduced the musicians and invited people to come up and dance and said she would teach them how. She asked for four couples. She said this would be “step-dancing.” Some women and children got up and walked to the dance floor; only later one man joined them. They formed a circle and moved inward to the center, grabbed the right arm of the person next to them and then their left arm. “Now promenade,” MacLean called. They walked and exchanged partners. It was like square dancing, but it was Keltic dance. MacLean was now herself swinging with several couples who had come forth. The rest of us clapped and the musicians continued to play. The fiddle player was now tapping with both her feet. This was the entertainment of choice in these isolated rural communities.

At break time MacLean announced that “Elizabethwill give you tea.” In the back of the room there was a counter behind which stood a woman serving tea, soda, and some food for purchase.  On the walls, also for sale, were hand-towels and “hand quilted” fabric art, as the sign said.

After the break the guitar player spoke. He said he had been playing for 40 years, but when he began his father had told him he should, instead, take a day job. The guitar player introduced the next song. It was called “Getting Dark Again.”  He said that he wrote it when he and his friends had been playing for 72 hours almost nonstop, “only five minutes without music, and it was getting dark again for the second time, without their noticing the passage of time.”

On the display table in the Parish Hall there were CDs for sale featuring the fiddle player, Rachel Davis, and the guitar player. His came as a part of a book, called “Getting Dark Again.” In it he said that this is “a book of my own songs … composed over the years, from the way I have saw (sic), felt and lived each line.” The book’s cover introduced him as Buddy Mac Donald, “Cape Breton singer, song-writer.”  A longer introduction was inside by a man from “Cape Breton University.” Accordingly, Buddy Mac Donald has “performed across Canada and in theUS and Scotland and many northern European countries… his performances all serve as further inspiration for lyric and music…. The lyrics in (his) songs reflect the deep musical tradition within family and community that is so abundantly rich in rural Cape Breton.”

Indeed, Buddy Mac Donald has inherited that tradition from his father “Tommy ‘Peggy’” who was one of the “North Shore Gaelic Singers,” which was “one of Canada’s foremost choral groups.” The group performed also in theU.S., as Buddy Mc Donald wrote, and “at Edinburgh Castle, Scotland… in the land where their forefathers had sailed from”.

Celtic (Gaelic) music, with its accompanying dance and folklore, are now one of the hottest trends. Their main source is Cape Breton, but originally they came here from Scotlandin the 1880s. The music and culture in Scotland, however, have since been subjected to many European influences.  CapeBreton’s isolation, on the other hand, has allowed its Scottish people to keep their ancient Celtic traditions relatively intact. There is a Gaelic college ten miles north of Baddeck, in St Ann’s, which is “devoted to the study and preservation of the Gaelic language and Celtic arts and culture.” Its student body each year includes over 500 students from around the world.

Cabot Trail South

Cape Breton’s main tourist attraction is the Cabot Trail, a 185 mile long scenic road that loops around the island’s northern head which is bracketed by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Gulf of  St. Lawrenceon the west. My local friends at the Bean There Cafe agreed that the Trail’s namesake was an Italian, Giovani Caboto, who explored this area in 1497.  Which way to begin the loop, however, was a big topic of debate among them.  One advised going up the east coast as the drizzling thick morning fog was not expected to lift for some hours: “It is easier to drive the west part of that two-lane narrow winding road since it is less steep. In fact, because you will be on the inside of the road, away from the cliffs on the water both ways –coming down on the west side as well– this has always been considered the safer way to drive the loop.” Mr. Ontario disagreed: “Go from the east as the dramatic scenery is on that side. And as to the foggy weather, enjoy what is real, because that is the weather nearly all the time here.”  We followed his advice.

Once we passed the surprising stretch of morning traffic of people going to work just south of Baddeck and turned west, we had the road almost all to ourselves. This was even more surprising as some 500,000 cars of tourists are said to traverse the loop annually. We were soon in the picturesque  valleys  of several rivers: Lower Middle River, Upper Middle River, Margaree River, and tucked among them, Lake O’Law, all known for superb salmon fishing.

As the road curved north from the bridge on Margaree Riverwe got a glance at the area just to the east of it which the locals called “The French Side.” This was the beginning of Belle Cote. The coastal drive on the edge of the Gulf of St. Lawrence took us through the small villages of Cap le Moine, St. Joseph du Moine, Grand Etang, Point Gross, and Grand Etang, and finally to the substantial village of Cheticamp.

The difference with the Scottish rest of Cape Bretonwas remarkable. Red, yellow, and blue plain houses with clean lines  were perched on the hills facing the water of the Gulf.  Tricolor (red, white, and blue) Acadian flags with a gold star, a symbol of the independence of a proud francophone people, were hoisted on them . The biggest settlement, Cheticamp with a population of just over 3,000, was the capital of this Acadia.


We were in the enclave of the Acadians on Cape Breton. The residents here were the returning descendants of the Acadians who had been expelled by the British, in the 1755-1763 period, from Port-Royal (a part of Nova Scotia several hundred miles away) where, in 1605, they had established a settlement which they called Acadia, an ancient Greek word meaning pastoral paradise. Their banishment was due to their refusal to swear allegiance to the British crown which they considered would be an affront to their Catholic faith. Some 14,000 of Acadiens were deported in Le Grand Derangement (The Great Expulsion), mostly to the Catholic territory ofLouisiana. They were not received warmly there -although they would leave their legacy as the Cajun culture in Louisiana- and many returned at the first opportunity allowed. They could not, however, retrieve their lands in Port-Royal which had since been occupied by others. The Acadians had to resettle elsewhere, mostly in the Cheticamp area and the French Shore south of Port-Royal.

It is believed in Cheticamp that some Acadians had hidden all this time in the mountains here which are, indeed, densely wooded and never left the area during the expulsion. Regardless, in 1785 Cheticamp was just a fishing village. Its name, meaning “rarely full” in the Mi’kmaq language, referred to a harbor that is shielded by a large peninsula.

In 1790 a charter by the Crown (La Grant a Pierre Bois) gave 7000 acres of land to 14 settlers of Cheticamp. Some of these were the returning deported Acadians. They built their first Catholic church in Cheticamp. In 1879 that church was replaced by the more solid stone church of L’eglise Sainte-Pierre. As the community grew a newer and better church was constructed. What exists today is the 4th reincarnation of their original church. Built in 1893, St. Pierre’s Church “majestically watches over the Acadian community of Cheticamp ” at 212 feet in length and 74 feet in width and with a steeple rising to 167 feet. It has a Baroque interior, which permits it to boast that it is one of the most ornately beautiful in the Canadian Maritimes provinces.

The Church is the focal point of Cheticamp, visually, spiritually, culturally, and socially. The role of the priest in this community has been fundamental. Signs in the church proclaim that “Under the … leadership of Father Fiset the community was able to come together and achieve what seemed impossible.” Father Pierre Fiset “also worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the Acadian people of Cheticamp.”

The times of services at this Catholic Church were posted for the Communaute Chretienne (Christian Community),” of Cheticamp; the implication perhaps was that Christians equated with Catholics and no others. Cheticamp, of course, manifests aspects of distinctiveness of the Acadians other than just religion. Equally important is the language. The Acadians’ land of origin was the Loire Valley of France, and most residents of Cheticamp today speak French at home. “About 80% of them,” as one resident, Jacques told me. I met him near the Church. He pointed to the nearby building of Ecole  NDA and said that was a francophone elementary and secondary school. “There is also a campus of a French university, the Université Sainte-Anne, here near thevillage ofSaint-Joseph-du-Moine.” That is where Jacques had gone. Jacques was bilingual. He said more than 75% of the people in this area understood both English and French. What distinguished Jacques was that he had studied languages. Having just graduated, he said he was on his way toSpain, “to teach English and improve my Spanish.” However, as he explained, he was not so unusual in being the evidence of the flight of the educated for many of whom opportunities in employment were limited in Cheticamp.

That economic problem was in part due to the isolation of Cheticamp. The Cabot Trail was the only good road connecting it to the rest of the world. The Trail had not been extended this far until 1949. Isolation, on the other hand, was what made it possible for Cheticamp to preserve the Acadian heritage. By the 18th Century, the Acadians felt more connected with their new home in Canada than the distant France. Even their language, inevitably, evolved somewhat differently. Nor are they Québécois; theirs is a unique culture. A sign of their continuing pride was the “Project d’embellissement” undertaken in 2003  to refurbish Cheticamp.

Jacques pointed out that the music we were hearing on the radio in Cheticamp was “a blend of French and Scottish styles, a fiddle music found in no other area.” He then took us for a demonstration of the equally distinct Acadian cuisine of Cheticamp. When we sat down, he suggested that we try the stewed chicken dish and a spiced meat pie called “rappie.”  While not totally strange, these tasted sufficiently special to us.

At this “Co-op Artisanale, Restaurant” we shared the back room with a group of local guests at another table who were celebrating a birthday, all speaking French. “That is my boss,” our waiter said, pointing to one woman sitting at that table. It turned out that she was also the executive director of the “Co-op,” which included a large store, full of goods from the area.

As we entered the store, a local customer volunteered information on the Co-op phenomenon in Cheticamp. Aside from the restaurant and the store, we had also seen the sign for “Credit Union” co-op in Cheticamp. “Cheticamp was a pioneer in the cooperative movement, he said, “which began here in the early 1900s among the poor fishermen. The priests helped them organize. Among the first activity was to buy fishing tackle wholesale. Then they expanded to producing and marketing their products. Eventually, this fishing co-operative was even able to establish a lobster processing plant. The credit union co-operative was formed to provide easy loans. A store was opened as Cheticamp joined a more extensive Movement which in 1930 started in Antigonish south in CapeBreton.” Our friend continued: “Now any buyer can become a member and share in the profits which are usually put back in the business, for example, in replacing an old refrigerator. Every co-op is an independent unit.”

The store prominently presented a demonstration of  hooked rugs, for which Cheticamp is famous. The rugs are produced by the Co-op, as well by individuals. Inside the store were examples of other Cheticamp crafts. Downstairs was a museum with artifacts of the simple and hard life here not so long ago.


Highland National Park

We could be forgiven if we almost missed the northern landmark of Acadiaa few miles from Cheticamp on Cabot Trail.  Impressive as Presqu’ile Pillar Rock was, the real drama was unfolding in view through the back window of our car. The Trail was following the contours of the Gulf of St. Lawrence up to 1,500 feet at a rapid pace. The blue waters on our left contrasted with the green of the FrenchMountainon the right as we moved into Highland National Park. We pulled off the winding road to many of the 24 lookouts for a better view  of the scenery. A prosperous looking couple from China often shared the stops with us in their car. The young woman hid behind her fashionable sunglasses but the man was gregarious in our encounters at view stops. He said “We are going to have lunch in Pleasant Bay. Ha Ha!” Then he asked if we knew how far that destination was. Our map showed Pleasant Bay as known for whale-watching, but hemmed in all sides by the wilderness  which we now began to traverse. As the French Mountain gave way to MacKenzie Mountain we went inland. Up on the plateau, the ancient canyons which rivers had cut looked awfully deep in these Highlandsthat are the most northern segments of the last ice-age Appalachians mountains.

We skirted Pleasant Bayand opted to see Cape Breton’s most northern communities. We passed a village called Sunrise and a few miles later another village called Sunset and ended up on the country road that follows Aspy  Bay. It was here that Giovani Caboto met his first Mi’kmaqs. It is the beauty of this Bay that I saw that day, especially the blue of its waters, that has left an indelible mark in my memory.

The Bay ends in Cape North at the northern tip of Cape Breton. We touched the rocky coast of theAtlantic. At4:15pm on this July afternoon, the unusually clear air made all colors vibrant. Sometime before us, “R.J.S” had gotten here and left on its rocks the indelible confession of his love for “Robynn.”  Commerce was not missing either at this land’s end. The vendor of  “Crab and Lobster fishing supplies” invited you to call his phone number. Striped Bass fishing, however, was declared illegal: “Throw them back alive!,”  the sign commanded the violators.  With the owner of a hotel in Bath,England, who had driven with his family from New York for a look at pristine nature here, we together lamented the intrusion of extraneous graffiti by man. Frankly, however, we admitted that the imperious-looking seagulls still owned the place.

The eastern stretch of the Cabot Trail appeared bucolic in places with the many brooks that ran to the rocky shores of the Atlantic. At one pullout we ran into two visiting German couples with binoculars who were searching for birds flying on the ocean. Surf was pounding at our feet, but we had yet one more mountain, the Smokey, to climb. It was not high but it was steep. When we descended into the busy area of the Ingonishes, we were at the bottom of the Highland National Park.  Here we went to the Middle Head Peninsula on the Atlantic which was the quietest place in the area as it was the most exclusive in Cape Breton.

The Peninsula hosts the Highland Links Golf course which is considered to be one of the best in the world. It is also where the Tudor-style Keltic Lodge is located. We went to the bar of this relic of the 1940s that has been spruced up with the title of Resort and Spa. The clientele was decidedly affluent. Appropriately, their conversation dealt with the “debt ceiling negotiations” then ongoing in Washington,D.C.  A Canadian man complained that the failure of the Americans to reach an agreement “was bad for Canadians too.” His wife said “I like Obama.” A short American guest in his 70s responded “I voted for Obama but now I am sorry I did.”

We went outside. On the green lawn sloping down to the pool and the ocean beyond there were several colorful Adirondack chairs. We chose a red and a green. With the good local beer, Alexander Keith, in hand, on that promontory where the breeze was soft, one had to try hard to avoid a sense of entitlement. The better part of valor was to be grateful for being lucky enough to be there.