Sometimes driving is the best way to experience a destination. It gives you the opportunity to make stops where and when you want, instead of just looking at them from the window of a tour bus. This was very much true on my flexible self-driving tour of Nova Scotia (including Cape Breton Island!) with Canada by Design. It gave me the opportunity to explore the province and drive the Cabot Trail at my own pace, getting into the nooks and crannies of this breathtaking Canadian region.
Driving the Cabot Trail is way better than doing it on a tour bus!
The loose and adventurous itinerary that they created led me far to the Northeast, to Cape Breton Island for a drive unlike no other. The Cabot Trail is a 185-mile driving loop that has picturesque lookout points, miles of hiking trails, lush forests and 360 degree beauty, plus quaint crafty shops, harbors and delectable fish eateries.
Many folks travel to Nova Scotia just to take this drive, making it a 3-4 day vacation. But, we were going to be adventurous and do it all in one day, just like when we made the 17 stops on Maui’s Road to Hana in 9 hours.
Drive clockwise or counter-clockwise?
It’s a debatable dilemma. Driving counter-clockwise will allow you to be shore-side for much of the time hugging the shoulder, whereas clockwise will not give you the jitters from the sheer drops on the edge. The choice is really up to you. We started at 9:15 in the morning and went clock-wise, a decision that was made mostly because I wanted to make a special breakfast stop and that was the direction it was in.
Canada’s Cape Breton Island: 9 Best Stops While Driving the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia
We started our ten-hour journey at Red Barn Restaurant, a popular restaurant and gift shop in Baddeck. We skipped dining here, because I already had my heart set on our first stop.
.1. Dancing Goat
After reading about their fresh-baked muffins and cappuccinos, I knew the first stop on the Cabot Trail would be for breakfast at the Dancing Goat – try one of there fresh baked muffins or a breakfast sandwich made with a hot-from-the-oven buttermilk cheese and onion biscuit. Make sure to pick up a bag of homemade cookies (snicker doodles or ginger sparkles) for the road.
Dancing Goat | 6289 Cabot Trail, North East Margaree | Map
2. Whale Cove Cemetery
If you blink you’re going to miss the turnoff for this Cabot Trail stop which close to Margaree Harbour. Keep your eyes open for a small sign on the left. The quaint cemetery at the end of the road is only one aspect to this stop. Take a peek to the left to get a beautiful view of the blue waters below—and a chance of spotting a whale!!
3. Margaree Harbour
You may be getting thirsty by now and in need of a road soda. Stop at Laurence’s General store in Margaree Harbour, where beverages may share the same aisle as a hammer, and take a walk through this small Cape Breton Island village or along the pristine beach.
4. Enragee Point Lighthouse
If you take the dirt road to the right on Chéticamp Island it will lead you to Enragee Point where the reward is a picturesque red-capped lighthouse. The two-mile gravel road will give you incredible panoramic views of the harbour and the town of Chéticamp, plus you’ll probably pass some cute cattle on way.
Enragee Point | Cheticamp, Nova Scotia, Canada | Map
5. Cape Breton Highlands Lookout
We stopped at a lot of lookouts on the side of the road, but this one was one of the best. Once you get into Cape Breton Highlands National Park (you’ll know by the pay booth at the entrance) pull over at the first outlet on the left.
It’s a quick stop on the Cabot Trail and one of the most breathtaking.
6. Skyline Trail Hike
You’ll know you’ve reached the Skyline Trailhead by the dozens of cars that line the entrance. This hiking trail is the most famous on the Cabot Trail and for very good reason. It will not only give you the most incredible views, but you will also have the opportunity to spot a moose (we saw 3!). Make sure to ask the hikers you pass along the trail if they saw Bullwinkle on their route and how far back, so you can catch one before they retreat into the dense brush.
The full trail took us about 2 1/2 hours, but if you are strapped for time when you get to the the fork in the trail head left to get to the boardwalk view and then turn around and come back the same way you came instead of completing the loop which can add up to a half hour.
7. The Rusty Anchor
In Pleasant Bay, take a lunch break at The Rusty Anchor, the halfway point on The Cabot Trail. They are known for their lobster rolls and fish cakes — we had both. National Geographic Traveler named their lobster roll the best on the trail, though their fish cakes were no joke either.
The Rusty Anchor | 23197 Cabot Trail Road, Pleasant Bay | Map
8. Groovy Goat Farm
I am going to shamelessly admit that this was my favorite stop—who can pass up a cute, furry 4-legged animal? In the front of the Groovy Goat Farm & Soap Company is a charming shop filled with fragrant soaps made from the farm’s goats milk. The best part is that you are welcome to walk to the back barn to pet the goats. If you are anything like me, you may never want to leave these cuties.
A bonus (as if baby goats weren’t enough) is that there is a pretty white steepled church right next door...
.9. St. Anns Bay Artisan Shops
All along the Cabot Trail (and on Cape Breton Island) you will pass a small scattering of cute arts & crafts shops selling handmade pottery, iron, glassware, etc. But, St. Anns Bay is the best place to find a wide selection of shops to choose from in one concentrated area.
It’s a great place to pick up a Nova Scotia souvenir!
Bonus Stop: Baddeck Lobster Suppers
We finished The Cabot Trail at 7:30 PM, over ten hours from when we started. And the perfect ending to the perfect day was dinner at Baddeck Lobster Suppers.
Though this restaurant is technically not on the trail, but still on Cape Breton Island, you’re gonna be hungry after all that driving and there’s no better place to load up on lobster (or crab) with all-you-can-eat mussels.
Essential Tips for Visiting Cape Breton Island and the Cabot Trail
Getting There: The JA Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport is the main, full-service airport in Cape Breton Island. To get here, you can book flights from Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax. You can easily check for the best fare deals at Skyscanner, which also has the option to choose ‘cheapest month’ as the departure to find the lowest priced dates to fly to your destination. From the airport to the Cabot Trail, pick up your rental car and head towards the Trans-Canada Highway/NS-105 West. You can also drive from mainland Nova Scotia via the Canso Causeway, or take a Marine Atlantic ferry from Newfoundland.
An easy option, and how I traveled throughout Nova Scotia, was by taking a flexible self-driving tour with Canada by Design. They not only tailored my itinerary to include activities I liked, but also made my car and hotel reservations, making it no-fuss for me. All I had to do was enjoy! Plus, because it was a loose itinerary it left plenty of room to explore on my own, finding my own unique experiences and sleeping in when I wanted!
The Cabot Trail Map & Location:
Nova Scotia is a province located along the Eastern portion of Canada, and is mostly bordered by coastline. The Cabot Trail is a 185-mile loop located on Cape Breton Island in the Northeastern part of Nova Scotia.
Where to Stay in Cape Breton Island: There are several lodging options when traveling to Cape Breton Island. The Trailsman Lodge & Restaurant (moderate) is a great choice in Baddeck. For something closer to the airport, try the Travelodge by Wyndham (moderate) in Sydney. For something on the less expensive side, try the Aberdeen Motel located in Whycocomagh, or the Inn on the Intervale located in Judique. For a hotel with a little more extravagance, book a room at the McIntyre’s Cottages. Or search some great deals on hotels of your choice at Booking.com. If you’re looking for more of a home atmosphere (or are traveling with a group of people), head over to Airbnb that has houses, apartments and even just a room for rent in every price range.
Getting Around: Renting a car in Cape Breton Island is the best to really experience the area and RentalCars.com has some great deals. If you are not renting a car but would love to explore Cape Breton Island and the Cabot Trail, consider joining a multi-day group tour that includes pick-ups and drop-offs, such as this Multi-Day Cape Breton Island Tour from Halifax.
Insurance: It’s always a good idea to travel fully insured so you are protected in case of trip cancellations or medical emergencies. You can check out pricing at Travelex Insurance.