Fiddles, Bagpipes And Empty Beaches On Cape Breton’s Cabot And Ceilidh Trails

cape bretonAfter driving for miles on a dirt road through the pitch darkness and seeing no signs of life anywhere, I was certain we were lost. It was a perfect early August evening in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and we were looking for the Thursday night square dance in Glencoe Mills, a blink-and-you’ll-miss it hamlet in Cape Breton’s untrammeled interior. The road was so dark and so eerily quiet that when I finally saw another car coming towards us from the opposite direction, I flagged the driver to stop.

“You’re almost there,” said the old man.

“But how will we know when we’ve arrived?” I asked.

“Oh, you’ll see all the cars,” he said.

And he was right; the whole area was so eerily silent because on Thursday nights in the summertime, almost everyone within a 20 mile radius descends on the community center in Glencoe Mills to dance to traditional Gaelic fiddle music. We paid our $5 entry fee and stepped into a large hall that was filled with men, women and children from age 5 to about 85 dancing in pairs and in big circles as a band on a small stage played soul stirring traditional Gaelic fiddle music. Almost as soon as we sat down, a man in his 70’s came over and swept my wife onto the dance floor, where she remained for most of the night. On Cape Breton’s Ceilidh Trail in the summer, the music and the strong sense of community are infectious, and there are no spectators, only participants.

As the weather finally warms up and I start to think about where I want to go this summer, I can’t think of another place in North America I would rather return to than Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. With dramatically situated sandy beaches, fresh seafood, scenic drives, great hikes and a rich musical heritage, it’s easily one of the continent’s most distinctive places, blessedly devoid of tacky strip malls and hi-rise hotels. From the U.S., Cape Breton isn’t that easy to get to- it’s a three hour drive from Halifax to the south end of the island-but the payoff is that it’s far less crowded than the Maine coast and other coastal retreats on the eastern seaboard in summer.

In the southwest corner of the island, you’ll find the Ceilidh Trail, (pronounced kay-lee) Cape Breton’s music heritage trail, where you’ll have a blast taking in ceilidhs and square dances in the summer. Ceilidhs are social gatherings and in the Cape Breton musical parlance, the term is usually synonymous with a concert. The square dances are, in my estimation, more fun because they feature live music but also plenty of dancing. From mid June through the end of August, you can take in ceilidhs and square dances nearly every night of the week, and you should plan your itinerary around the music calendar.

We spent a few nights in Mabou at the Mabou River Inn ($110-170 in the summer, less offseason) and found it to be a comfortable base for exploring the Cape Breton music scene, which is reflective of the region’s rich Scottish heritage. The Red Shoe Pub in Mabou has great food and even better live music nearly every night of the week in summer and during the annual Celtic Colors festival each October, when hundreds of Gaelic musicians descend upon Cape Breton for a nine-day celebration of traditional Gaelic music and culture.

There’s a square dance in West Mabou on Saturday nights year round, but the other dances are only held in the summer. The Normaway Inn in Margaree Valley has square dances and concerts on Wednesday night in July and August, and on Friday nights from June 28-Ocobter 20. Other than those dances, the best ones are Thursday night in Glencoe Mills and Friday night in Southwest Margaree. (And there are great ceilidhs in Mabou on Tuesday nights and in Judique on Wednesday nights).

West of the town of Mabou, you can hike along the coast in the Cape Mabou Highlands area, with is lovely. The Ceilidh Trail ends just up the road in Margaree, and that’s where the scenic Cabot Trail loop begins. The trail loops around and through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and features dramatic cliffs and Kodak moments around every bend.

cabot trail

As you head north, the linguistic terrain transforms from Gaelic to French. Nova Scotia was the epicenter of a larger maritime territory French migrants called Acadia. Their descendants still live in a string of villages north of the Ceilidh Trail – Belle Cote, Terre Noire, Cap Lemoine, Cheticamp – and speak a peculiar French dialect.

We stayed in Cheticamp, then drove clockwise around the trail, staying near Ingonish, which has a nice beach, and in Baddeck before heading back to Halifax, which is also a great place to spend a couple days. In many ways, Cape Breton reminds me a lot of the Scottish Highlands, only with better weather, less unintelligible accents and colder beer. (No knock on Scotland, of course, which I adore) You won’t find scorching hot weather, even in July or August, but when we lived in sweltering D.C., the 70 something temperatures we found on Cape Breton felt like a gift from God.

Note: There is no better primer for a trip to Cape Breton than picking up a copy of the Smithsonian Folkways album “The Heart of Cape Breton (Live).”

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara, Flickr users Kennymatic, Kirk Stauffer, and Jimmy Wayne]

Sick Of The Heat? 40 Places Where You Can Cool Off

glacier national park Most people look for warm places to visit. I look for cold ones. I live near Washington, D.C., and by mid-July, I’ve had it with the suffocating heat and humidity. I’ve taken escape-the-heat trips almost every summer over the last five years to places like Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Maine and the Pacific Northwest.

The lower the temperature the better as far as I’m concerned, especially this summer, which has been one of the hottest in American history. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 40,000 daily heat records had been obliterated by the Fourth of July. Take a look at the USA Today weather map and you’ll see a sea of depressing deep red all over the country.

If you’re looking to escape the heat, check out these possibilities (with high and low temperatures for July 25 listed) for some immediate relief. And if you know someone like me who sweats like a pig and is always carping about the heat, forward them this list!North America

Cape Breton, Nova Scotia- 71/64- Cape Breton is one of my favorite summer escapes. It has stunning natural beauty, great beaches, whale watching and traditional Celtic music and dances every night of the week in the summer.

Rangeley, Maine- 76/54- The tourist hordes flock to the Maine coast each summer, but if sitting in huge traffic jams and paying $300 a night for a motel room doesn’t appeal to you, try this classic lakefront resort town, which is just 2.5 hours north of Portland, Maine.

Lunenburg, Nova Scotia- 70/59- This enchanting waterfront town has a terrific old town that is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. With its treasure trove of historic homes and B & B’s, you’d think it would be mobbed with tourists in the summer, but I was there a few years ago in August and it was blissfully quiet.

Twillingate, Newfoundland-71/58- You can actually buy a rustic little vacation home for less than it would cost you to rent a similar place in the Hamptons for a week. This is a delightful, end-of-the-world fishing village where you can watch icebergs float by from May-July. Don’t go to the only Chinese restaurant in town though, it might be the worst food I’ve ever had in my life.

zocalo mexico cityMexico City, Mexico- 73/58-(see photo above) Mexico’s capital gets a bad rap, but I love the place. It’s full of interesting neighborhoods, terrific museums, amazing archaeological treasures and the best public square in North America. Best of all, with an altitude of 7411 feet, the climate is moderate all year round.

Alaskan cruise- (Juneau- 66/50)- According to www.priceline.com, you can book a seven-night Alaskan cruise, passing through Anchorage, Hubbard Glacier, Juneau, Skagway, Icy Strait Point, Ketchikan, The Inside Passage, and Vancouver for as little as $499 per person. Summers’s like this one were made for Alaskan cruises.

Glacier National Park, Montana- 71/43-(see top photo) I visited Glacier in late August two summers ago, and they had snow on the famous Going to the Sun road the week before our visit. Be sure to make a trip out to the Polebridge Mercantile, just outside the park to see one of the most off-the-grid settlements in America.

Vancouver, British Columbia- 76/60- Vancouver is one of the greenest, prettiest cities in North America with terrific natural beauty, great food and a Pacific Rim flare. You might encounter rain, but it won’t be scorching hot.

Seattle, Washington- 79/60- Seattle is one of my favorite American cities, and not just because of its temperate climate. Pike Place Market is one of the best of its kind in the country and the city’s stunning geography, islands, and nearby natural splendor make this a can’t miss mid-summer vacation spot. Google Kurt Cobain’s house and you can make a pilgrimage to the house where the punk icon died.

San Francisco, California- 63/52- The Bay Area can be downright cold in the summer, but I don’t mind. SF is easily the country’s most atmospheric city. A mecca for creative types, this is a great city for walkable neighborhoods, great bookstores and every type of ethnic food imaginable.

San Diego- 71/64- For my taste, San Diego has the best climate in the country. It’s relentlessly sunny but so temperate you don’t even need air conditioning. Great beach towns like La Jolla and Del Mar make this region one of my favorite parts of the country.

Grand Canyon National Park- 78/49- You’ll be sharing the awesome vistas at this majestic site with millions of others, but at least you won’t be baking in 100 degree heat.

Banff National Park, Alberta- 72/47- Banff is spectacular. If you’re looking for a mountain retreat with cool weather, fishing, hiking and mountain biking, look no further.

And here are some other ideas outside North America:

Galway, Ireland- 67/53
York, United Kingdom- 73/58
Isle of Skye, Scotland- 60/53
Brugge, Belgium- 77/61
Copenhagen, Denmark- 74/62
Stockholm, Sweden- 76/61
Yaroslavl, Russia- 78/60
Tallinn, Estonia- 76/59
Reykjavik, Iceland- 58/49
Khövsgöl Nuur, Mongolia- 70/39
Thimphu, Bhutan- 77/65
Kathmandu, Nepal- 77/68
Auckland, New Zealand- 62/51
Sydney, Australia- 69/52
Santiago, Chile- 64/35
Easter Island, Chile- 66/62
Bogota, Colombia- 68/49
Machu Picchu, Peru- 70/33
Buenos Aires, Argentina- 60/39
Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay- 56/40
Potosi, Bolivia- 59/30
Quito, Ecuador- 73/51
Mendoza, Argentina- 63/35
Cape Town, South Africa- 70/51
Kruger National Park, South Africa- 68/38
Swakopmund, Namibia- 76/59
South Georgia Island, Antarctica- 34/32

[Photos by Dave Seminara]

Photo Of The Day: Black Rock Beach

black rock beach

Summer advances slowly. Flickr user LadyExpat (Back in Daejeon) captured this idyllic springtime scene on Black Rock Beach in Halifax, Nova Scotia, this past Wednesday.

It wasn’t always quite so lovely round these parts. Black Rock Beach, situated in Point Pleasant Park, was near the site of the public hanging of a notorious pirate in 1809. Today’s vision of the beach is not quite so violent, thankfully; it looks like a truly lovely place for a spring or summer picnic.

Have you got a great capture of the changing seasons? Sure you do. Upload it to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr. Our favorites from the pool end up as Photos of the Day.

Frommer’s reveals top destinations for 2012

What destination are you dreaming of for 2012? The staff at Frommer’s have just unveiled their list of top travel destinations for the coming year. Included in the list is a little something for everyone: large metropolises, secluded beach towns, colorful riverside villas, and more.

But Frommer’s didn’t just rely on their expert editors and author’s for this years list–they also polled readers to find out where they wanted to visit in 2012. Click through the gallery below to see Frommer’s (and their reader’s) picks–including one surprising midwestern city that is the only spot in the United States to make the cut.
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Other Winners:
Top Family Destination: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Top Cruise Destination: Tromso, Norway
Top Beach Destination: Hanalei Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
Top Adventure Destination: Moab, Utah
Top Food & Drink Destination: Lima, Peru
Top City Break Destination: Chicago, Illinois
Top Endangered Destination: Aysen Region, Chile
Top Value Destination: Albanian Riviera
Top Destination to Get Lost: Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Nova Scotia, Cuban-Celtic-style

One of the best things about travel is the ongoing chance to have your most basic assumptions overturned by the unexpected realities of a new place. This happened to me a few years ago, when I traveled to Havana to learn salsa dancing, and instead wound up learning how to play the bagpipes.

Bagpipes, I discovered, aren’t some recent, quirky anomaly in this part of the Caribbean: The instrument was brought to Cuba in the late 19th century, when immigrants from Galicia and Asturias — Celtic regions of Spain — settled on the island. The bagpipers I met during my visit to Havana weren’t middle-aged hobbyists, either — they were hip young Cubans with a genuine passion for Celtic music.

Almost two years after I befriended these Cuban bagpipers, I had the privilege of accompanying them to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia for the fantastic Celtic Colors International Festival, a nine-day celebration of global Celtic music. Here, I was able to see my Cuban friends not just as musicians, but as first-time international travelers. What they found fascinating about Canada (such as the chaotic abundance of a Wal-Mart superstore) helped me see North America in a whole new way.


The audio slideshow above helps tell this story of my friendship with the bagpipers of Havana. Since that experience, they have gone on to host their own international Celtic music festival, called CeltFest Cuba, each spring in Havana. For more information, check out CeltFest Cuba’s Facebook page.