From Cape Breton – With Love

By Sherry Duncancape-breton

I am blessed to have a career that allows me to attend amazing conferences dedicated to supporting my growth as an educator.  This year, I am attending a conference sponsored by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE).   I have one day of the conference left where I will attend Acadian Storytelling followed by a small intimate session with Rex Murphy at the closing plenary.

This evening I am sitting in a hotel in Sydney, Nova Scotia and feel compelled to share with you my Cape Breton experience.  If you are from this area I hope that I do justice to the description.  If you have only previously heard about Cape Breton, then perhaps this will become a place where you too will come for a visit.

I am a planning kind of traveler.  Weeks before any sort of trip, I plan destinations, hotels and tours.  This adventure would be highlighted by an amazing conference but I would also have a few days before and a few days after to explore the area.  The first thing I did was have lunch with a friend of mine who grew up here.  Nicole provided me with a detailed list of “must see” places and adventures.  Her face lit up as she talked about the province and community she calls her first home.  Some of her comments included a red barn, a red shoe pub, a tearoom and tons of beaches.  I pay close attention and vow to take in what I can while I am here.

The first thing to know, it is a long plane ride.  We took the milk run stopping in Edmonton before a plane change in Calgary and again in Toronto.  As we got off the plane in Sydney, the man holding the door greeted us with “Welcome to Cape Breton” (I wish I could write with a distinct Cape Breton accent – you know what I mean!)  It was like music to our Fort McMurray ears.   We got into a cab and headed for town.  There was a local driver and another local passenger hitching a ride to town as well.  Soft fiddle music played on the radio as we settled in for the ride to Sydney.  Small talk about where we were from soon led to best places to eat, “must see/do” activities and a personal walk with our luggage to the front desk of the hotel all for $20.00 (easily a $50.00 ride for the equivalent in Fort McMurray).

Cambridge Suites is where we have been staying.  Hands down the most comfortable bed we have ever slept in for a hotel.  Clean, comfortable, conveniently located.  I recommend it to anyone traveling in the area.  Here are some of the things we have done as tourists that I would suggest you add to your list of things to do while in Cape Breton:

Walk around down town and don’t be in a hurry.  Everyone is super friendly and has something to say about the weather or some local event.  When the locals found out that we call Fort McMurray our home we were typically greeted with big smiles and further conversation ensued.  “my husband works out there” or “my daughter lives in Calgary” was all too common.  One local gentleman talked about how sad it was that the young folks have little choice but to leave because “there is just no work to be had”.

Travel the Cabot Trail.  There is no way for me to do justice in describing the scenery.  In the past, I have heard this area described as “God’s Country”.  I have argued that “God’s Country” was in the Rockies.  I would like to sincerely apologize for my arrogance.   We spent two days on the Cabot trail awestruck by the green rolling hills, the never ending ocean views and the twisting and turning highway that took us around the Island.  We stopped at a B & B in Cheticamp and spent an hour walking along the beach.  We stopped at a bench and were welcomed by every person who walked by.  The smell of the ocean was intoxicating.  Our meal at a local restaurant was excellent and  $24.99 for a full lobster dinner (note – if you are a seafood lover consider a visit during lobster season!)  We continued our drive along the coast to Ingonish and fell in love with the ocean views, cozy country style houses and huge yards.  I went for a swim in the ocean near here.  OK, I went up to my knees and splashed around, but it was REALLY cold!

Visit someone’s family.  My nephew (who lives in Calgary) is married to a beautiful young girl from the area.  She told me to call her “Da and Ma” and so we did.  Having never met them before, I didn’t want to intrude.  However, they invited us out to their home for supper.  Paul and Mary McNeil welcomed us like we were family.  The evening meal reminded me of the kind you would have on a Sunday with your own family at home – except I have never been served 6 shelled lobsters on one plate before.  On another plate a beautiful roast beef.  “That’s the expensive meat around here” chuckled Paul.  After the delicious meal we loaded up the mini van and were driven around the area.  A formerly busting area was now abundant with deserted underground mines, churches with no congregations and schools where my niece attended.  We stopped by the local lighthouse and Paul shared that GPS was making the landmark all but unnecessary and commented “Too bad, there’s something comforting having ‘er here”.   After a comprehensive tour of the area and many chuckles, it was time for us to return to the hotel.  Paul got a little teary eyed as he hugged me to say so long.  Perhaps he was willing a hug to his own little girl living a full country away. “When you come back again, there will be no hotel for you.  You can have a key and come stay with us”.

I encourage you to make “Scenic Cape Breton” a destination. I now have a completely new appreciation for this land and the people.  I can see why the “Capers” talk so longingly of going home.  I have seen a beauty in our own Canada that I never even knew existed.  I can’t wait to come back.