PORT HASTINGS, Nova Scotia -- Crossing the Canso Causeway onto Cape Breton Island on a misty morning feels a little like entering Brigadoon, the mystical Scottish town in the 1940s Lerner and Loewe musical. When the mist lifts, you find yourself in an enchanting, almost magical land. Its beauty only increases as you drive along rocky shores, by farmland, valleys, trails, waterfalls, and mountains, reaching Bras d'Or Lake in the center of the island and continuing north to the Cabot Trail, a 185-mile loop where stunning views await at every turn.
But you need more than scenery to make the experience worthwhile. And Cape Breton's 3,981 square miles contain much more: history, culture, food and drink, and music, music, music.
You will, for instance, get a hefty helping of history and culture at Highland Village Museum in Iona , which overlooks Barramens ' Strait on the Bras d'Or. Cape Breton's Celtic roots run deep, and the village helps you understand just how deep. Costumed animators portray the Scottish Gaels who came to the land in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Period buildings, including a farmhouse, school, and wooden church, provide the history, as do the presence of Soay sheep , which date to prehistory, and highland cows.
Drop in at a " ceilidh ," or gathering, at the village and you will hear Gaelic singing and may even be encouraged to try speaking Gaelic yourself. The language is still spoken by many on Cape Breton, which a visiting scholar from Scotland called a "jewel in the crown of Gaelic culture." So if someone says, "Ciamar a tha sibh? " be prepared to wrap your tongue around this reply : "Tha mi glé mhath ." You won't be asking directions, merely greeting each other with "How are you?" and "I am very well."
You might also absorb some Celtic culture and history by visiting the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts in Englishtown . Here, if you are part of a group that has made advance arrangements, you might watch a staging of an old-style wedding, or even participate by donning a gown or kilt and taking mock vows. Men are often so impressed with the kilts, some of which have 5,000 or more hand-sewn stitches, that they find themselves ordering one from the craft shop for anywhere from $575 to $900 US. The tartan patterns, associated with various clans, bring orders from around the world.
History of a different sort resides at the 25-acre Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck , where the man credited with inventing the telephone had a home. Wait a minute . . . wasn't he an American and didn't he demonstrate the telephone in Boston? Yes to both, but he was a Canadian citizen before he became a US citizen , and in 1886 he began to buy land on Cape Breton and built an estate called Beinn Breagh (Gaelic for Beautiful Mountain, and the view is indeed superb). Bell put it this way: "I have traveled the globe. I have seen the Canadian and American Rockies, the Andes and the Alps and the highlands of Scotland, but for simple beauty, Cape Breton outrivals them all."
What may surprise a visitor to the museum, which has three exhibit halls, is that Bell was involved in so much more than the telephone, from aircraft to the hydrofoil -- and then there were his giant 12-sided kites, made to further his knowledge of flight.
Time to eat? Cape Breton cuisine is a lot more than just boiled lobster and drawn butter (although many people would not object to that diet). At the Chanterelle Country Inn and Cottages in Baddeck, where the food is organic, they will even tell you how many "food miles" the ingredients have traveled. Some examples: crab spread from Little River Harbour, 15 miles away; lamb stew and wild mushrooms and vegetables from Lake Thompson Farm, 35 miles; applewood-broiled salmon, 30 miles; and mushrooms foraged from a mile away. For artisan bread made of organic grains, a trip out of the province to Speerville, New Brunswick , 175 miles away, was required.
As for liquid refreshment, how about a single malt whiskey ? (Most would call it Scotch, but technically only products of Scotland can bear that name.) The only place it is produced in Canada is the Glenora Inn and Distillery in Glenville . The 900 acres contain a malt storage facility, grist mill, mash house, warehouses, and a bottling plant, as well as the inn consisting of six chalets and nine rooms. The two gleaming , Scotland-made copper-pot stills, which produce more than 13,000 gallons per year, were impressive, but the smooth taste was even more so. There is also a small museum, where it is noted that Canada pretty much gave up on Prohibition more quickly than did the United States.
Now for the music -- and many would call this saving the best for last. The world-famous Cape Breton sound, highlighted by infectious fiddling, is ubiquitous on the island at any time of year, on stages and in pubs and parks. But for nine days in October, when the annual foliage show makes Cape Breton glorious to behold, the Celtic Colours International Festival takes over, with more than 350 performers, nearly 100 workshops, art exhibits, and an education program. The vocals, by turns lively and languorous, are usually in English but sometimes in Gaelic or French.
Events are held all over Cape Breton, and half the audience is from off the island. If you can attend a concert without at least tapping your feet as the fiddles blaze, you will be in a distinct minority . For that matter, if you can visit Cape Breton without longing to return one day, you will be among an even tinier minority.
Contact Richard Carpenter at email@example.com.