Cycling the Cabot Trail

The Cabot Trail, as I have made no secret of saying, is one of my favorite places in the world.  Between the friendly people, the great food, and the stunning scenery, the 300km (186mi) road around the top of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia cannot be beat. The Trail (and the area around it) boasts over 200km (125mi) of hiking trails, as well as a plethora of activities, scenic overlooks, and fresh local food. The Trail can conceivably be driven in a single day, but even in a car 2-3 days minimum should be required.

The accessibility of the Cabot Trail, the fact that the entire thing is paved, and the abundance of food and shops along the way all contribute to this being a great first-time bikepacking adventure—that I love the area so much also didn’t hurt.  It truly is a beginner’s bikepacking trip, but that is exactly what we wanted.  You’re never too far away from civilization, and someone on Cape Breton Island is always willing to help you out if you need it.

Despite the ease of use of the trail, we did do quite a bit of planning and preparation (as anyone should).  Hopefully some of our preparation ideas can help you out as well.

The entirety of the Cabot Trail
Gear

We had a lot of gear to bring, despite trying to pack as lightly as possible. To accomplish this, I had a large Ortleib 16.5L seat-pack saddle bag, a Revelate handlebar harness (changed from the Ortleib handlebar pack, which was too wide for my handlebars but also not round enough for my sleeping bag), and a Topeak Tribag frame bag. Kaitie used a Revelate Terrapin 14L saddle bag and a system of Revelate washboard straps to hold thing together, and we both had custom-made frame bags (my mom is a seamstress).

Inside these bags was everything we would need for five days (minus food): a Big Agnes Fly Creek Ultralight 2-person tent, a Big Agnes Lulu 15 sleeping bag for Kaitie and a Big Agnes Encamptment 15 for myself, two Sea To Summit Aeros Ultralight pillows, a Klymit insulated Static V all season sleeping pad for myself, and one for Kaitie. My sleeping bag was strapped to my handlebars in a Sea To Summit eVent 14L compression sack, and Kaitie kept the tent and her sleeping pad strapped to her handlebars in a Sea To Summit 13L Evac Dry Sack.

In addition to all of this, we had a pair of clothes to sleep in, a pair of “town clothes” if we needed, raincoats, a first aid travel kit, a pair of Toms for myself, and extra bike gear (mini tire pump, a multitool, and spare tubes). It was a lot of gear to amass (especially the bike-specific stuff), but REI was a great help between their online Outlet sales, coupons, and garage sales. If you are able to take your time in collecting the necessary gear, you will be able to find plenty of deals.

Training

We knew there would be plenty of climbing on this trip—three significant mountains and a total of over 4,600m (13,800ft) of climbing.  This isn’t extreme for a lot of cyclists, but as relative beginners who live in a pancake-flat city like Philadelphia, there aren’t many hills to train on. Luckily, we found a few and made it our job to tackle them each weekend for weeks leading up to the trip. We also embraced some flatter rides for longer mileage to get used to being in the saddle for hours.

Route Planning

The first major decision to make when traveling the Cabot Trail is clockwise or counterclockwise. Counterclockwise will put you on the cliff’s edge of the island for most of the way around, and is said to be much better visually.  However, we’d also heard there would be strong headwinds on the back end of the trip if we went counterclockwise. Between that and being afraid of heights and not wanting to be on the edge of anything, I pushed for clockwise.

We made up a map and a list of potential stops and hikes for each day

After choosing a starting point and a direction, things get much easier: there are a limited number of places to stay, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t have too much mileage in one day (and that we only tackled one mountain per day). Our original plan looked like this:

Day 1: Margaree Forks to Pleasant Bay (79km; 1,041m of climbing)
Day 2: Pleasant Bay to Meat Cove (58km; 1,040m of climbing)
Day 3: Meat Cove to Ingonish (71km; 985m of climbing)
Day 4: Ingonish to Baddeck (104km; 1,190m of climbing)
Day 5: Baddeck to Margaree Forks (43km; 405m of climbing)

While we could have made day four a little shorter, there isn’t a whole lot going on between Ingonish and Baddeck, and I also wanted to have at least one 100+km day, because why not?  And I’ll get more into it in my full recap, but due to weather we had to cut out day two altogether and change day three to Pleasant Bay to Ingonish Beach, which turned out to be 71km with 1,153m of climbing.

Lodging

Knowing we’d be out and about and getting gross on the trail, I wanted a nice split of camping and inside lodging.  Our home base on night zero was Live Life In Tents in Margaree Forks, where we camped the night before we took off, and then we splurged on the Mountain View Motel & Cottages in Pleasant Bay, mostly because there weren’t really any camping options near the town. This got us a shower after our first day of cycling, as well as let us do some sink laundry to put off our stuff getting gross for an extra day. As it turns out, we had to extend our stay for a day since our proposed day two was nothing but rain—luckily, the Meat Cove Campground we had planned on staying at was first-come first-served, so we hadn’t put down a deposit or paid in advance.

Day three was back outside at the Ingonish Beach campground, which was a great little spot with all the amenities you could possibly want at a campground. Night four was Baddeck Cabot Trail Campground, but we splurged on a glamping cabin (which had no electricity or water), just for the bed.  This gave us at least three days needing our camping gear (minus the tent), so we didn’t feel like we’d brought it in vain. If you wanted to cycle the trail, though, without bringing a ton of shit, you could very easily stay at a motel, cottage, or bed and breakfast every night.

Food

Another thing we didn’t want to do was haul around a week’s worth of food, especially at the beginning of our trip.  We brought along a few of our favorite Clif bars and some Nuun Endurance drink mix, but other than that we relied on the towns and shops along the way to stay fed—which worked out well, as a surprising amount were well stocked with energy bars and Gatorade (something we’d been warned would absolutely not be the case).

Stopping at restaurants and shops to get food also gave us an excuse to spend more time off our bikes, which was a welcome break every once in a while. Especially at nice little coffee shops like the Frog Pond Café in Cheticamp, Danena’s Bakery & Bistro in Dingwall, or the Wreck Cove General Store (which had surprisingly good coffee).  Other great stops included the Dancing Goat in Margaree, which has awesome sandwiches for breakfast and lunch; the Clucking Hen Café & Bakery in Englishtown (which also had great lunch sandwiches); Andrew’s Pizzeria in Ingonish (where we devoured two large pizzas after our second day of cycling); and my personal favorite on the entire island, the Rusty Anchor in Pleasant Bay.  Get the lobster roll.

I wish we could do it all again.  Not because I would do anything differently, but because it was such a great trip.  Being able to see the Cabot Trail from a different perspective, and with a lot more time to process it all, was a great experience.  Being on the bike for a week, being able to leave it outside while we went into a restaurant and not worry about it being stolen, just spending a week with Kaitie—it all made for a perfect adventure.  And a perfect beginner’s adventure for anyone thinking about giving it a try.  The Cabot Trail should be a must-visit anyway, but to do it on a bike is a special treat that I never thought I would be able to accomplish.

Almost through Day 1, before attacking French Mountain

I would be remiss without thanking my former travel partner LeeAnne for not only providing tips for the trail and where to stop or eat, but also driving it two weeks before we arrived to do some recon (and finding out about some construction on one of the mountains that might be a bit hairy for us). I also used the official live Nova Scotia construction map to keep an eye on things. Cycle Nova Scotia is also an excellent resource.

An Ode to Cape Breton Island

This was originally written for EatYourPHL.com in October, 2015.

Cape Breton Island is a simple place.  If you don’t live on the island, or near it, chances are you’ve probably never even heard of it, even though National Geographic named it as one of their 20 Best Trips of 2013. Admittedly, had my ex-wife not grown up on Cape Breton Island, I never would have heard of it either.  And if I did—probably in passing—I certainly would never have visited.  It’s a hard place to get to—you either fly into Sydney, which has no direct flights from the US and can sometimes take all day, or you can fly into Halifax and drive for a few hours.  Regardless of which option you choose, renting a car would be a requirement.

If you do take the trip, though, you will be rewarded for your hard work.  Cape Bretoners are a hardy bunch of people—they’ve suffered the loss of their coal mining, steel, and fishing industries (and without much other industry to fall back on) and have to weather some intense winters—but they are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.  Everyone is willing to help, and everyone is up for a chat, no matter who you are or where you’re from.

skyline

If you don’t have family on the island, chances are you’re going for the Cabot Trail, a 185-mile scenic highway around the northern tip of the island that just might include some of the most beautiful coastlines and scenic vistas in the world.  The trail can be driven in as little as a day, but with multiple campgrounds, as well as hiking trails of all lengths and difficulties, a long weekend or even an entire week would be more appropriate.

Another thing Cape Breton has going for it is food.  Since it’s in the middle of the ocean, seafood is a necessity, and with all the regular items you’d expect: massive lobsters, cheap mussels (they’re regularly about $.99 a pound at the store), and fish and chips (but only get it with haddock, the way god intended).  There are also plenty of Canadian delicacies to indulge in as well: poutine—with curds (the right way) or with shredded cheese (the passable but wrong way), Tim Horton’s coffee, and All Dressed potato chips.

glenora

The island also has some items that are distinctly its own.  Be sure, for instance, to make time for a pizza night while you’re there.  Order a “Combination”—that being pepperoni, mushroom, and green pepper.  The ingredients aren’t anything special (well, they are, because it’s a perfect pizza), but just the fact that they’ve got their own name is excellent.  Come on, America. You can also get a side of donair sauce for your crust, which is basically condensed milk, garlic, and sugar.  It’s sweet, garlicky, and thick and rivals only Ranch dressing as the best thing to dip pizza crust in.  You can even get an entire donair pizza, which is basically a doner kebab in pizza form.

Where to Eat

Mussels and frites with aioli at Lobster Pound
Mussels and frites with aioli at Lobster Pound

Lobster Pound and Moore (North Sydney) – A bright touch of finesse in the middle of the down home working class, Chef Rich Moore cut his teeth in British Columbia before coming back to Cape Breton to set up shop. The small place specializes in seafood, but you can also get some good-looking meat and potatoes as well.  If you’re in for the lobster dinner, be sure to call ahead, and be sure to bring a friend, as the lobsters average 2+ pounds.

Collette’s Place (Glace Bay) – Collette’s is my favorite place for breakfast in the area, but their poutine and their desserts are top-notch.  The place is small and sometimes there’s a wait, but if you want a great breakfast or a solid lunch, this is the place to stop.  There’s a reason they were featured on Food Network Canada’s “You Gotta Eat Here!”

Big Spruce Brewing (Nyanza) – If you’re heading onto the trail and need some liquid sustenance, swinging by the brewery and filling a growler or two is your best bet.  It doesn’t hurt that it’s some of the best craft beer in Nova Scotia, and the first to jumpstart the craft beer boom in the area.  Before you leave grab a quick pint, or a four-beer sampler, and sit in the tasting room to enjoy the view.

The Dancing Goat Café & Bakery (Margaree) – This sandwich and soup shop and bakery is the perfect spot to stop before heading on to the trail.  The soups, which are changed daily, are delicious (their corn chowder is raved about and the curry sweet potato was excellent). The sandwiches, which seem somewhat normal—a BLT with avocado, egg salad, ham—are filling as well as comforting.  Be sure to get a blueberry scone with lemon icing if they have it, or just grab a maple shortbread for the road.

The Rusty Anchor (Pleasant Bay) – My favorite place on the island.  There are few places to eat this far into the trail, and the Rusty Anchor is the best of them.  You won’t get anything fancy, but what you will get are goodly portions (which you’ve earned with your hiking, no doubt) of delicious food.  The lobster roll (mentioned in National Geographic) is made the way they should be—a drizzle of butter and that’s it—and the fish cakes brought back childhood memories for my wife.  If you want a good starter, grab their Ziggies (nuggets of haddock and cod)—basically leftover fish pieces deep-fried and served with cocktail sauce.  Delicious.

Lobster roll with fries at Rusty Anchor
Lobster roll with fries at Rusty Anchor

The Seagull (Ingonish) – The first place I ever ate on the trail, and I still yearn for it.  Their fish and chips haunt my dreams, and their poutine was second-to-none.  It’s just a building facing the water, with plastic table cloths and folding chairs inside, but don’t let the décor fool you.  Eat here.

Coastal Restaurant (Ingonish) – Another alumni of “You Gotta Eat Here!”, the Coastal speaks more to the gastropub vibe Philadelphians will know and love.  They’re known for their burger, but with Canadian rules requiring ground beef be cooked well, I can never bring myself to order a burger in Canada.  Instead, go for the fish and chips, or their massive bucket of mussels.  The onion rings with their special sauce—another thing their known for—are also a must-order.

coast

There are plenty of places to eat on Cape Breton Island, and these are just a few of our favorites.  If you’re going to visit, the weather will be more enjoyable during the summer, but the scenery at the end of September/beginning of October when the leaves begin to change is incredible.  This also coincides with the Island’s Celtic Colours Festival, a week-long celebration of their Celtic heritage.  Or you can go in the summer and get on a team for the Cabot Trail relay, which runs the entirety of the trail in 24 hours.

It may be out of the way.  It may be hard to get to.  But Cape Breton is well worth the visit.  Even if you spend your time on strenuous hikes along the Cabot Trail or running around it, it will be one of the most relaxing vacations you’ll have.  And one of the most delicious.