A single weekend on Cape Breton Island hardly seems like enough time. But if you find yourself in Nova Scotia, Canada with even a limited opportunity to see the Island, you should take advantage of it. And one weekend is still enough to get a good sense of the place, if you plan it well.
If you only have the weekend, this itinerary will hit the highlights of the lower part of the Island (closest to the mainland) while limiting driving. It does not cover the National Park, or some of the bigger hiking trails. These sites require a longer drive, and really there is plenty to do without spending six hours in the car.
Day 1: Truro & Cape Breton
Coming from the mainland (Halifax, Wolfville, etc.) there is only one way onto Cape Breton Island – via the Causeway from Auld’s Cove to Port Hastings. Occasionally there can be delays crossing this small bridge, but generally in good weather it goes smoothly.
If you can, leave on Friday around 10 from Halifax and head toward Truro. A small town with an agricultural college and a cute downtown, Truro is your first stop.
Grab lunch at Bistro 22 or Nook and Cranny, and stop for souvenirs at My Home Mercantile. There is a beautiful library in town, a cute bookstore, a cafe, and some shops.
The highlight of Truro though is Victoria Park, a green space with 3000 acre for hiking, biking, swimming, and waterfall spotting. About a ten-minute walk from the parking lot is Jacob’s Ladder, a huge set of stairs that those feeling ambitious can take on. Or, keep heading down the path to the Witch’s Cauldron and the various waterfalls. This is a great stop on a long day of driving: clean bathrooms, space to run around and stretch your legs, and refresh before the next leg of the trip.
From Truro, get back on the highway and head toward the Causeway. Just before the transition to the Island is a small community called Auld’s Cove, where the Irving Big Stop is located. Take the exit for Havre Boucher and follow signs (or GPS) to Jack’s Beach – a beautiful and secluded rocky beach with water warm enough for swimming. It’s not quite the Island, but it’s pretty close.
Then – cross the Causeway! Welcome to the Island. If you need groceries or supplies, stop first in Port Hawkesbury, and then follow the 105 to Whycocomagh, about half an hour from the Causeway, for an ice cream cone or a milkshake at The Farmer’s Daughter Market. Be sure to sit in the giant chair and embrace the tourist life!
Baddeck, the cutest town on Cape Breton, is only a half hour more down the 105. Head there for dinner and one of the many restaurants including the Inverary Resort and Lakeside Restaurant, the Freight Shed, or Tom’s Pizza.
Day 2: History and Culture on Cape Breton
Start the day in Baddeck at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum, a National Heritage Site. Alexander Graham Bell is perhaps best known for his invention of the telephone. But he experimented with any number of scientific challenges, including flight and tools for the deaf. The Museum is significant; 2-3 hours can easily be spent reading love letters from Bell’s wife, and learning about kites.
If some members of your group are not so keen, Baddeck is full of cute shops and cafes so send those less science-minded into town for some retail therapy, and a walk along the waterfront. Lunch in Baddeck is easy to find at any of the delis or cafes.
Fresh coffee in hand, get on the road to Iona, a tiny, picturesque community less than an hour from Baddeck. Iona’s highlight is the Highland Village Museum, a historical and cultural centre for highland immigration, history and music. You can easily spend the whole afternoon here – check out my whole post about the Museum and how and why to go!
Saturdays on Cape Breton are for music. From Iona, drive to Mabou, home of the Rankin family’s famous pub The Red Shoe. Get there early to get a table, and stay for the live Gaelic music and hopefully some step dancing.
If you still have energy, many Saturday nights around 9 there is a square dance in West Mabou. It’s a little bit hard to find (follow the road to West Mabou Beach and it’ll be on the right before you reach the dirt road). Ask the staff at the Red Shoe for directions and to confirm if there’s a dance happening. Cover is $10 cash at the door. You can watch (boring) or join the welcoming locals and learn the steps. You’ll be exhausted by the time you get to bed.
Day 3: Cape Breton to Antigonish
After breakfast (try Charlene’s Bayside Restaurant in Whycocomagh), the time on the island is almost over. On your way to the Causeway, stop to stretch your legs at Whycocomagh Provincial Park. If the weather is good (particularly in the fall) you can hike a short way up Salt Mountain to see some nice views. Or, just wander through the picnic park and campground to get some air and see the bay. This is your last stop on the Island!
Just half an hour from the Causeway, back on the mainland, is Antigonish, a small town home to St. Francis Xavier University. Have lunch here (many places are closed on Sundays, but the restaurant at the Maritime Inn at the far end of town is always reliably good) and then head out of town to Arisaig Provincial Park. Nova Scotia has so many provincial parks, and they are all free to visit (you likely have to pay to camp, but not to walk or picnic). Walk the wooded trails or go straight to the beach. If the tide is out, you can walk a long way around the rocks.
Where should I stay?
This itinerary is focussed around Whycocomagh and Baddeck, so I would look for an AirBnB or hotel in that area. The Bear on the Lake Guesthouse is a discount hostel near Whycocomagh, that has private rooms. Baddeck has several nice hotels and inns, and Whycocomagh’s Keltic Quay Cottages would give more privacy. There are lots of options, but you will want to book ahead in high season to avoid disappointment. Be aware that some places close from November-April due to poor weather and lack of tourists.
This doesn’t really seem like enough time…
It’s not! This itinerary takes you from 10am Friday to 7pm Sunday assuming you are coming and going from Halifax. It’s definitely not enough time to see the whole Island. But, you will get a good taste of the history and culture, and it will leave you wanting more!