Sometimes, what’s most noteworthy about a place is what hasn’t changed. In an age that champions what’s new, now and next, a visit to Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton is a refreshing celebration of resilience.The 42-foot fishing boat Le Godouque bobs serenely on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, off the west coast of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. It’s a cold day, but one the lobster fishermen here call good because there’s no wind to cause waves. A steep coastline runs along the port side; a bald eagle perches calmly on a jagged rock above the frothing surf.
The MacDonald family are the perfect hosts as well as the ultimate guides to the Margaree Valley. Live music, good home-cooked food and a charming nine-bedroom inn create a bubble of comfort.
Margaree Fish Hatchery
This hatchery, the birthplace of countless salmon and trout, has been in operation since 1902. Now operated by the province, it’s a great place to get personal with the fish. Highlights include the live river camera and a look at the fry wriggling in vats.
Yellow Cello CAFÉ
525 Chebucto St., Baddeck
A welcoming atmosphere, reasonable prices and delicious desserts are some of the highlights of this friendly café. Keep your ears open for neighborhood gossip.
West Mabou Sports club Hall
2399 West Mabou Road, Port Hood
Stop into this quiet dance hall to witness the quaint but musically accomplished culture of Cape Breton. Old and young dance the night away in a sober community frolic — the only late-night activity around.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park
When you visit this top-of-the-island park, check out the Skyline Trail, which features hundreds of stairs along a 5.7-mile loop. For a shorter alternative, the Lone Shieling Trail can be completed in 15 minutes.
Sheldon Deveau, 27, was born on this vast, remote, eastern Canadian island and already has a decade of experience as a professional fisherman under his belt. He shares the profession with his late grandfather and his father, Daniel, who sits in the captain’s seat. They port Le Godouque at a pier just south of the village of Chéticamp, the Deveaus’ hometown.
“Look here,” Sheldon says, using one gloved hand to prod a lobster freshly snatched from a trap. “The water’s too cold, right? They’re barely moving. Only way to catch ’em is to drop a trap right on top.”
Right now — on an unheated boat just before 6 a.m. — my empathy lies with the lobster. I, too, am cold and sluggish. Rain threatens constantly. Thick, low-hanging clouds make it easy to miss sunrise; all of a sudden you’re aware of a silvery light that makes the water look like liquid pewter.
But it is not the weather that gives a place its identity. Rather, it’s the people — a commodity as special as a perfectly carved seascape or a waterfall-rich mountain valley. Only full-time residents with a rich history can deliver the authenticity that so many travelers crave: the sense of seeing something different — and being invited to experience it.
Luckily for visitors of Cape Breton Island, the locals here have a deep reserve of unyielding pride that preserves the island’s uniqueness as a destination. Even better, they are willing — from the fishing boats to the dance halls — to share some of their quiet lives with total strangers.
The island is sparsely populated, so communities are tightly knit. More than a dozen other lobster boats ply the waters nearby, circling or bobbing alongside their buoys, and Deveau’s crew knows them all by name. If another boat approaches alongside a broadside tack, any wise crew tenses for a friendly bait fight.