Ever wish you knew the inside scoop before visiting a new destination? Now you can! We’ve reached out to our favorite locals and tour guides from all over the world for their insider tips. In the City Insider (here, Island Insider) Q&A, they’ll let you in on the spots that should be on your must-see and -do list!
Name: Yvette Rogers
Occupation: Outreach Coordinator, Celtic Colours International Festival
City: Cape Breton Island, NS
Short bio: Yvette Rogers is passionate about Cape Breton Island. Yvette is Outreach Coordinator for the Celtic Colours International Festival; does freelance work independently as a community outreach consultant; and is an actor, dancer, singer, and songwriter.
Quickly, on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia: Note that the geography is very varied on the island. In the eastern corner (Louisbourg area) you’ll find coniferous forest, granite cliffs and rugged windswept coastlines; on the west side you’ll find soft, rolling farmlands that seem to fold down touch the sea, sandy beaches; in the northwest highlands you’ll find dramatic mountains with velvet-soft-looking tops, mixed forests, just jaw-dropping simple beauty; and in the northeast corner (Ingonish, Neil’s Harbour) you’ll find charming fishing villages, sea-softened, pink rocks with natural lines and fissures. It is a geologist’s dream. The island is really beautiful.
Best way to get to/from airport: Vehicle. To get around the island you’re going to need a vehicle.
Best way to get to/from train station: Drive…but you won’t be catching a train anywhere anytime soon, there are no passenger train options available at this time.
Favorite budget hotel: Merry’s Motel (Cheticamp), Iona Heights Inn (Iona).
5 places visitors must see:
- The Cabot Trail — Stay in the highlands somewhere. Gorgeous.
- Coastal route 19 — You must stop in Mabou.
- Route 223, centre of the island — You must stop at Highland Village in Iona.
- Fortress of Louisbourg — Worth it!
- Isle Madame — Charming fishing villages, rugged scenery. Lovely.
Best local newspaper/recommended reading (for finding out what’s going on about town): Whatsgoinon.ca (online magazine).
Favorite historical fact: The region at the top of the island (north of Cape Smokey Mountain) is often referred to as “Down North.” The reason for this is that many years ago, people from the coastal fishing villages in this region would do supply runs to and from the Sydney area. Due to the great distance and length of time it would take to travel by ground (especially then, we’re talking dirt roads, horse and carriage) from the highlands southward to Sydney, they’d be going against the gulf stream of the Atlantic and it felt like traveling uphill, and when traveling from Sydney area to the highlands they had the gulf stream in their favour and it felt like traveling downhill, hence the term “Down North.”
Favorite fine dining restaurant: The Bite House (hands-down the best best best). Baddeck Forks, reservation-only table-d’hote menu with predominately locally sourced ingredients. So nice! Charming little farmhouse, spectacular five-course meal. Great wine and beverage selections also.
Favorite casual restaurant: Olive Tree (Sydney), Black Spoon (North Sydney), Flavor Downtown (Sydney), Danena’s (South Harbour—casual atmosphere, gourmet dinner menu).
Favorite greasy spoon: Tie between Collette’s Place (Glace Bay) and Robena’s (North Sydney). All-day breakfasts, friendly service, consistently good. Both places offer local comfort-food fare as well, like cabbage rolls, corned beef dinner, etc.
Best place to get a coffee: This is a tie between Doktor Luke’s (Sydney), their iced frappes are to die for….and The Dancing Goat (Margaree). Either place is really good for a latte or a straight-up cup of joe. Mmmm…I want a cappuccino right now. Honorable mentions go out to the Ugly Mug (Sydney River) and the little café in Arichat next to the gas station across from the Fish Market (can’t remember its name, those directions will get you there).
Favorite museum: Highland Village Museum (Iona) is pretty amazing—scenery is gorgeous, living history museum reflecting pioneer life of the Gaels who settled in the area. Also, check out the Miners Museum (Glace Bay). Go on a mine tour, heartwarming fellas with good humour and real life stories. Lastly, the Alexander Graham Bell Museum (Baddeck)—I learn something every time I go. Honorable mention to the North Highlands Community Museum (Cape North), which is all kinds of adorable.
Best sports venue(s): Highland Arts Theatre…theatre is a sport, right? ;) They have a series of plays every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through the summer (in the fall and winter seasons they offer regular programming in scheduled chunks).
Most popular local food: Snow crab (in season).
Best “locals-only spot”: Glencoe Mills Square Dance (Sundays in the summer). If you can take a workshop beforehand, that would be a good idea, but if not, they’ll tell you what to do). Brook Village Square Dance (Mondays in the summer). West Mabou Square Dance (Saturdays all year long). Tune session at the Blue Mist Tavern in Bras d’Or (Thursday nights). In the winter, the curling club…have you tried curling? It’s so fun!
To live like a local, you must have this experience: Go to a community breakfast. (There is a regular community breakfast schedule for most corners of the island. For example, there’s one at St. George’s Channel Hall the third Sunday of every month. D’Escousse’s is the second Sunday of every month.)
Local/native fruit or dish to try: Smoked eel, fresh blueberries (by the handful or baked into a crumble, crisp, cobbler, or pie), chanterelle mushrooms, seafood chowder, snow crab, lobster. (There is an enormous bounty of local food options in season. Chanterelle Inn in North River, Telegraph House Inn in Baddeck, and the Bite House in Big Baddeck are three dining options that specialize in local cuisine.)
Movies/TV shows filmed in your city: The Bay Boy, Squanto, a Warrior’s Tale, Margaret’s Museum, Book of Negroes; there was another series being filmed this past winter (something Jason Momoa was cast in).
Best souvenirs to buy/goods to bring home: Local art. We have so many local artists and artisans, there are so many options to choose from. Buy some of their work! Pick up a local musician’s CD, or a hand-woven shawl. Me, I’m a sucker for pottery. Maple syrup or local honey can be a nice treat too, depending on where your “home” is and how readily available those things are to you.
Best place to volunteer: With lots of charitable causes, fundraising events, music, and cultural festivals, there are a lot of options if you’re interested in giving your time. SPCA (local animal shelter) is a great choice—go walk a dog. They need the exercise and more human interaction will help them become more adoptable. Meals on Wheels is another great choice, as you’d be making someone’s day brighter (this organization delivers meals to seniors who live alone or are unable to get out and about). Any local community hall (of which there are hundreds around the island) would be yet another great choice. Many of these community halls are run by (largely aging) volunteers who offer community meals, host local festivals and concert series, and hold regular fundraising activities. These community halls are vital ingredients to keeping that palpable sense of community alive, which we are so fortunate to experience around here.
Biggest tourist trap/places to avoid and when: Honestly can’t answer this. I wish more local people would give the “touristy” things a try because often they are heartwarming, enjoyable, educational things to do, and traveling around this beautiful island, even the most recognizable routes, is well worth the time.
Best beaches: This topic is very subjective, as we live on an island surrounded by the ocean with a giant salt water lake at the centre, thus there’s no shortage of amazing beaches to visit, and everyone has their favourites for whatever reason. Here’s my current top five:
- South Harbour Beach — Simply stunning scenery, miles of sand, beautiful mountains backdrop, can’t even do it justice to describe it. This beach is the southern-most in the Aspy Bay chain of beaches. All are pretty great options, but this one, in my opinion, has the prettiest viewscape.
- West Mabou — Picture a painting with the wide open ocean in front of you, rolling hills and cliffs to your left and farmland off to the right. And you’re swimming in this painting! Lovely trails nearby, sandy, close to the Red Shoe Pub and the West Mabou Square Dances.
- Kidston Island — I threw this one in for the families. Great way to spend a day. You catch a little motor boat ferry at the Baddeck wharf over to Kidston Island (technically you could probably swim across but might take you a bit). There is a little sandy beach and a raft and you can meander and explore the island, overlooking the charming village of Baddeck.
- Chimney Corner — Wee sandy beach tucked in a cove, has that homey familiar feeling.
- Margaree Harbour…and Inverness, Port Hood, Pondville, Point Michaud, Belfry, Kennington Cove, Morien…uh-oh I can’t stop at five!
Honestly, if you’re a real beach bum, come to Cape Breton in the heart of the summer. There are too many to get to. You could hit a different beach for every sunny day and not get to them all. Seriously. (Can you tell I love to go to the beach?) Or, if you’re a die-hard surfer, come any time of year. Winter surfing is a thing in the Maritimes. If you know what you’re doing, get your wetsuit and booties and hood and catch the big swells. Eastern shores of the island seem should be hit up the most.
Best hidden gem: Mi-Carême Centre in Grand Etang. Gah! Just go, if I tell you too much I’ll spoil it for you.
Best hiking trails: Cape Breton Highlands National Park has more than 20 trails to try. Among them I particularly love the Acadian Trail in Cheticamp and Coastal in Ingonish. Meat Cove Mountain (north of the park) is another spectacular hike, a really nice trek through the woods and a steady climb to panoramic views. There is a trail between Big Lorraine and Little Lorraine, just outside of Louisbourg (eastern shore of the island), and you hike through Wild Cove, Captain’s Cove, Gooseberry Cove; the trail hugs the rugged granite coastline, and has the most dramatic scenery.
Best outdoor excursion: North River Kayak Tours. So nice! Have been on the tour a few times and thoroughly enjoyed it. There is another kayak tour outfit up in the highlands near Dingwall called Eagle North (haven’t done that one yet, but love the scenery and area where they would traverse, and I have this on my own list for this summer to check out). There is also a new stand-up paddleboard outfit in Margaree Harbour. Gonna have to do that! AND, you can take surfing lessons in Point Michaud.
Best festival: Celtic Colours International Festival. (I’m a bit biased, I’ve been working for them for nine years, but honestly, there is really something magical about this festival!) This year there are 49 concerts and 280 community cultural events over nine days in October all over this beautiful island when the trees begin to wear their autumn vibrant colours. It’s such a wonderful celebration of our island and the roots and branches of Celtic cultures that thrive here in Cape Breton and in other parts of the world. The best artists and culture-bearers from around the world take the stage and all sorts of serendipitous things just happen.
- North River Falls (North River) — Hike through the forest to a 150-foot waterfall that is somehow both powerful and serene (about 2.5 hours each way, in to the falls and back out; a full day).
- Egypt Falls (Piper’s Glen) — Short hike but steep descent to broad table falls; unique and beautiful.
- Uisge Ban Falls (Big Baddeck) — Lovely hike through forest and along a river to a picturesque two-tiered falls.
- Mary Ann Falls…and Beulach Ban Falls, Glenora Falls, Grand River Falls, Gillis Lake Falls, Indian Brook Falls—so many waterfalls!
Best smartphone app(s) for your community: The camera. Seriously.
Best travel tip: Fill your gas tank & go to the ATM. You’ll find lots of long stretches of road between gas stations and some of the rural stations’ closing times are early evening. Also, there are many events that happen in the local community halls: square dances, ceilidhs, community suppers or big country breakfasts that you might happen upon (or even plan to go to) and they’re not often equipped to process the plastic. Most villages and towns will have both gas stations and ATMs so if you see one, that’s your cue.