After 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.
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).”