The words flow off the tongue, lyrical and ethereal: Nova Scotia. Ignore for a moment that the name translates (quite literally) to New Scotland; to a kid from California, the name sounds so exotic it may as well refer to a sector of the Martian landscape. So when I got the chance to visit the gem of the Canadian Maritimes, I wasn’t going to let the opportunity slip through my fingers.
Like a lot of things in life, that opportunity came because of fine whisky. No, not as the result of a drunken brainstorm; rather, I was chatting with a guy who operates the only single-malt distillery in North America, Glenora Inn & Distillery in Glenville, Nova Scotia, when this gentleman posited that one of the finest motorcycling roads in the world was right in his backyard.
I smiled. We’ve all heard that one; motorcyclists are the masters of braggadocio, and at one time or another, we’ve all staked our claim to the “world’s greatest riding road.” But Bob Scott’s not a motor-cyclist, just an innkeeper and distiller who claimed to host riders of the Cabot Trail regularly. Bob said that, without fail, these bikers were either one of two things: blown away by what they’d just experienced, or giddy with the prospect of tomorrow’s ride. From where he sat, Bob said, it was a short trip north to the tip of Cape Breton Island, where the forest meets the sea and the road that hugs those cliffs provides jaw-dropping views of Highlands National Park and the Atlantic Ocean. The scenery, Bob insisted he could certainly vouch for. As for the ride? “Oh, I have no idea. Why don’t you come up and find out?”
Drunk with anticipation, I took him up on his dare. That summer, my wife, Colleen, and I set out from New York City on the adventure of a lifetime. Little did we know we wouldn’t be making that trip alone.
On To New Scotland
We were aboard a 2009 BMW 1600LT; the LT stands for luxury touring, and that moniker applies in spades to this queen of the highway. I loved the optional Garmin GPS, the user friendly dash, and the four-speaker stereo system, while Colleen was more appreciative of the heated seats and backrest (with separate controls for rider and passenger) and the electronically adjustable windshield, which I would dutifully raise once we reached cruising speed.
From the US, a ride to Nova Scotia happens one of two ways: you can either go up and around through New Brunswick, or take the route we chose, via the CAT ferry from Maine. We holed up our first night at a bed and breakfast in Bar Harbor called the Seacroft Inn, a cozy establishment within walking distance of this charming seaside town. The following morning, we joined the line at the ferry terminal a mile or so outside of Bar Harbor and boarded the CAT for Yarmouth.
(Note: In December, 2009, CAT ferry service between Maine and Nova Scotia fell victim to the economy and was suspended; as a result, details of our magnificent ferry ride have regretfully been omitted from this story.)
Entering any foreign country is a roll of the dice, because one never knows what to expect at a border crossing (let alone which line to stand in, how to respond to curt queries, etc.). After showing our papers, turning in the Customs Declaration card stating the purpose of our visit, and being waved off the ferry ramp, imagine our distress when the first thing we saw was a KFC sign. And look, there’s a Taco Bell! Welcome to exotic Nova Scotia! Also, most signs here were in plain English, cars drive on the right side of the road, and folks seemed to have an aversion to horns and an affinity for smiles. What a strange, marvelous place! More annoyed than disturbed by the lack of foreign oddities, abundance of strip malls, and frank commercialization (hello, Wal-Mart!) of Yarmouth, we found our way to Canada 103 south, the highway to Halifax. Within minutes, we were clear of the urban sprawl and, eager to take in the local color, exited at Pubnico to join Route 3, aka the Lighthouse Route.
Nova Scotia is encircled by 11 touring routes, slower-paced two-lane roads that lead around the entire province. Each scenic travelway describes the culture, history, and natural features along the route, and is referenced within official Nova Scotia tourism literature, with places to stay and things to do in each area. It’s slow going, but also a fascinating, educational way to fully experience the province.
The Lighthouse Route is an idyllic, winding two-lane that hugs the southern shore, parallel to the highway. Lonely lighthouses, tiny hamlets, snug coves, chowder shacks, and fishing boats of all colors and sizes line the road. Tractors occasionally lumbered across, mutts often in tow, leaving hazardous chunks of mud in their wake. Thick fog rolled in and out, and the temperature fluctuated wildly, depending on sunshine. As the day plodded on, though, the novelty soon wore off, and so after a couple of dawdling hours and a fine bowl of chowder, we decided to reconnect with 103 at Shelburne. Twenty minutes later, we exited the freeway — narrow, sweeping, and a pleasure to ride — and pulled up to our first night’s destination, the White Point Beach Resort.
A sucker for a rustic lodge, my wife was delighted to find that the White Point Beach Resort looks and feels like someone placed a mountain chalet on a long stretch of sandy beach. It featured split-log construction with exposed timber and stone, vaulted ceilings, and roaring fireplaces — and that’s just the main lodge. Our private cabin had all those features and a private porch. Established in 1928, the resort today includes a surf shop, golf course, spa, and ample facilities for business conferences, family vacations, and romantic getaways. We took a long walk along the beach at dusk, fed crumbs to the ubiquitous bunnies, and after a delicious dinner in the restaurant had a few drinks in the Founder’s Lounge, where friendly guests and staff regaled us with tales of Ivy, the inn’s resident ghost. Black and white photos, remnants of summers past, adorn the walls of the main lodge, and it was clear from the wistful nostalgia — not only of the lodge’s décor but of the people we encountered there — that White Point Beach Resort is a treasured Nova Scotian institution. I enjoyed my first pour of Glen Breton Rare, the whisky that I’d come for, and it was as I’d imagined it would be: smooth and succulent, and without the peaty muskiness that characterizes most Scotch single malts. Instead, I found it light, drinkable — faintly fruity, even — and my glass was empty in a few savory quaffs. With tomorrow’s ride in mind, though, I stopped myself at just-the-one and reverted back to Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale.
After breakfast at the lodge the next morning, we were sad to be packing up the bike and leaving White Point Beach. Still, the sun was shining brightly, the ocean air was crisp and clean, and if our first day was any indication of how our Nova Scotia journey was going to play out, we were thrilled about its prospects.
From Peggy To Pictou
The big LT quietly lumbered up the Lighthouse Route, and we crept through the towns of Liverpool (not that one), Brooklyn (nor that one), and West Berlin (ditto). Again, we found the going to be ponderous along the coast. After nearly an hour of hushed tooling, we rejoined the highway at Medway — just 14 miles up the road. Our destination this day was Pictou Harbor on the Northumberland Shore, just 200 or so miles away. But we first wanted to swing by two recommended sights.
A 30-mile blast up 103 brought us to Bridgewater, where we rejoined the Lighthouse Route and rode an hour south through a smattering of suburbs to the historic port of Lunenberg. I’d like to wax poetic about the quaint town; the tall ships were neat, and the short harbor-front boulevard was bustling with gray-haired tourists, but the whole scene was frankly not too far removed from what you’d find in Maine. We had an ice cream, watched some riggers amble around the masts of the ships — then shrugged and saddled up. Unless you’re fervent about Canadian maritime history, feel free to skip Lunenberg; it’s got charm, but it’s a charm far more suited to the tour bus set than to motorcyclists. And besides, the mildly dull, stop-and-go ride here and back ate up more than an hour in each direction.
Better, stay on 103 until you reach Upper Tantallon. Exit here and take Route 333 south toward Peggy’s Cove — the place for which the word picturesque was invented. Now this was the Nova Scotia I’d pictured: small, vibrantly colored homes dotting windswept bluffs, lonely dinghies moored in inlets, stacks of lobster traps, weathered fishing shacks, and a solitary red-and-white lighthouse standing majestic guard on a rocky promontory. Round hills of granite, perfect for strolling, hiking, and boulder-hopping, make for ethereal terra firma. Numerous craters pock the smooth surface, and deep clefts and fissures ensure that you watch your step. There’s naught to do at Peggy’s Cove but fill up your memory card — and fight déjà-vu. But here, the view is enough. For two solid hours it felt like Colleen and I were hanging around on the cover of a coffee table book.
Peggy’s Cove is by far the number-one tourist attraction in Nova Scotia, but it somehow manages to still feel like an authentic fishing village, in large part because people actually do live in the colorful homes perched on its hills. It is no doubt the best day trip from Halifax — meaning that there are plenty of other sightseers to contend with. There are a couple of tea houses/gift shops, but there’s only one real restaurant, the Sou’Wester, and it’s the quintessential tourist trap. I recommend beating the tour bus crowd to the appropriately-overpriced-but-surprisingly-not-half-bad Sou’Wester, or waiting until the masses begin clearing out before asking for a table; only problem is, another busload arrives every few minutes. Either time your hunger appropriately or just have lunch elsewhere.
The sun was now starting to sink in the west. We would have loved to stay and watch the sunset at stunning Peggy’s Cove — we could have sat on those rocks for a week — but because we still had a two-hour ride to Pictou and had burned so much daylight getting in and out of Lunenberg, we said goodbye to Peggy and her cove, and headed inland.
The freeways of Nova Scotia are great; unsnarled by traffic, with nice wide lanes and plain signage that’s easy to comprehend. We made good time as we skirted Halifax and cut due north on Veteran’s Memorial Highway, Route 102, bisecting the big island. Colleen remarked in my ear that the rural countryside of Nova Scotia reminded her of the Midwest, and I couldn’t disagree. A bit more windswept, perhaps. Near the city of Truro, we caught Nova Scotia’s section of the Trans-Canada Highway, Route 104, and raced the sunset for another 45 minutes or so until just before New Glasgow, where we merged onto Route 106 and headed 20 or so miles north to Pictou Harbour.
Under a purple sky and a brilliant moon we maneuvered a dirt road up to Pictou Lodge Resort, a sprawling assemblage of split-log cabins that more than lived up to its rustic moniker. As we checked into our nicely appointed, paneled room, we barely had time for a shower before rushing over to the restaurant for the last call. I enjoyed quite possibly the best prime rib I’ve ever had in front of a roaring fireplace — and, of course, one more wee dram of the Glen Breton Rare for dessert. But just the one.
The Yellow Brick Road
After a long walk on a deserted beach (and a rip-roaring game of life-size checkers), it was almost noon by the time we were back on the Trans-Canada heading east. Now, the highway signs began appearing in two languages: English and — wait for it! – Canadian Gaelic. That’s right; we were getting deeper into New Scotland, approaching the highlands of Cape Breton Island, and increasingly, the road signs had Gaelic subtitles. New Glasgow became Glaschu Nuadh; Antigonish was Am Baile Mór. Did you know that more Gaelic is spoken in Nova Scotia than in Scotland? That the Antigonish Highland Games are the oldest in North America? That nearly two percent of the population of Cape Breton Island speaks Gaelic exclusively? Yeah, me neither. But the French influence was not to be squelched; we passed exits for the towns of Tracadie and Havre Boucher, and clearly we were at the collision of three distinct cultures — four, if you count the influence of the native Mi’kmaq people.
We descended a long hill on approach to the Canso Causeway, which connects 104 on mainland Nova Scotia and 105 on Cape Breton Island. It supports two lanes of vehicle traffic, as well as the single-track mainline of the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway; a swing bridge allows ship traffic to pass. From its opening in 1955, the causeway charged a toll to motorists; however, in the early ’90s the Canadian government, in a charming (and frankly, enviable) gesture, discontinued the toll after the $23 million construction cost was finally paid off. Riding up the Cape Breton Island side, we had two choices: stay on the Trans-Canada, or hang a left onto the coastal route. Remembering the pace of the poky Lighthouse Route, I opted for the highway. After all, our next destination was Glenville, home of Glenora Inn & Distillery, which, to me, might as well have been the Emerald City. So I didn’t want to spend any more time on the yellow brick road than was necessary, for tonight was the one occasion on this tour where I might be inclined to have a wee bit more than just-the-one.
After an hour or so, we turned left onto Route 395 at Whycocomagh and made for the northern shore, making first a left onto Route 252, then a right onto Canada 19. We made it to the gates of Glenora while the sun was still in the sky. With the anticipation on my palette, I disregarded the precarious gravel driveway and guided the big tourer expertly up the hill (the trick is to maintain momentum, after all) to our chalet overlooking the valley.
That evening, we enjoyed an excellent dinner in the pub area of Glenora’s restaurant, and then an impromptu ceilidh (look it up) manifested itself. I stayed up late, time and again toasting dancers, singers, players, drinkers, those who could stand on one leg and juggle— ultimately, anything in my bleary view became worthy of a rousing toast. Colleen stuck with soda, knowing, I suppose, that I’d need some prodding in the morning. It was a memorable night of supping straight from the source. Our hosts were gracious, the split-level chalet gorgeous, and for the third morning in a row we wished we didn’t have to leave. After a tour of the facilities, I began packing up the BMW. Colleen, meanwhile, snuck into the gift shop and came out with a present for me — a fifth of the fine, fine stuff. Truly, this was above and beyond the call of a photographer’s duties. I tried to make room in the Beemer’s saddlebags for my potable souvenir. No luck. I tried the top case, too — but our gear had simply maxed out the LT’s luggage space. For me, the solution was obvious: I opened my saddlebag, took out four or five pairs of socks, and, shrugging, chucked them into a nearby trash can. The bottle fit nicely.
On The Trail
A few miles down the road, the hangover really kicked in. Between the bright, hot August morning and the constriction of my riding gear, I was in no condition to be in the saddle. By now, 19 ran alongside the shoreline. We had just passed a desolate beach with an empty parking lot, so I did what any self-respecting motorcyclist should do when not at his best: I spun around, pulled in, killed the motor, stripped off my gear, and charged headlong into the cold, clear ocean before Colleen could even unbuckle her chinstrap.
An hour later, we rolled through the town of Belle Cote. A large sign indicated we had reached our ultimate destination: we had hit the Cabot Trail, regarded by many as the prettiest drive in North America and by some as the finest ride a motorcyclist can take. For the next 20 or so miles, we passed through a series of small towns: Terre Noire, Cap du Moine, Belle Marche. At the last one, Cheticamp, I gassed up the LT, and I’m glad I did, because within minutes I didn’t want to stop for anything. Bob Scott was right, after all; this is where our motorcycle tour of Nova Scotia transitioned from very pretty to drop-dead gorgeous.
The Cabot Trail was named for sailor and navigator John Cabot, who explored these shores in 1497. On this, the northwestern side of Cape Breton Island, the road clings precariously into the side of the 1,000′-high cliff. On our left, hundreds of feet below, was the vast blue ocean; on our right, pine trees stretched high overhead. Again, déjà vu overtook me, as if we were still living in that picture book; this stretch of road seemed strangely familiar, and it was only later that I realized that this very scene adorned a book jacket I was carrying in my saddlebag. It’s reminiscent of California’s Pacific Coast Highway, on the Central Coast near Big Sur; for sheer beauty, that’s the only road I’ve ever been on (in a car or motorcycle) that comes close to rivaling this stretch. Between the panoramic vista and the tortuous path, it was difficult to concentrate.
By now, we were deep inside Cape Breton Highlands National Park, and I should note that, much like the national parks in the US, the speed limit here is conspicuously posted and strictly enforced. The Cabot Trail is swarming with troopers — in no small part, I’m sure, due to the astonishing amount of motorcycles slicing its lanes. It’s also important to point out that despite what we motorcyclists like to think, this area was not created strictly for our enjoyment; campgrounds and trailheads are abundant, minivans and RVs clog the turnouts, and hikers (and their dogs) can cross the road at a moment’s notice. So be alert and mind your lines.
Shortly, we rapidly descended a winding drop with numerous turnouts that boasted breathtaking, exhilarating views. (If Peggy’s Cove spawned the word picturesque, as I suspect, then the Cabot Trail begat the term jaw-dropping.) Shortly we pulled into the town of Pleasant Bay. It was only just after noon, but Pleasant Bay was our scheduled stop, and, frankly, after several full days aboard the BMW, my photographer and I were rather looking forward to a respite. We easily found the Highland Breeze Bed & Breakfast, where our host Annie was kind and welcoming — and made delicious pastries! We spent the afternoon lounging by the pool, and, in the morning, went whale watching from the marina just down the road. I have little doubt that I’ll forever remember the sensation of being a half-mile out in the Atlantic Ocean in a 14′ Zodiac, with hundreds of migrating pilot whales all around and underneath us, bumping and thumping against the Zodiac’s hard-shell hull and inflatable raft-like sides, as if trying to coax us into joining their voyage. Some flapped tails, others launched themselves fully out of the water, but all seemed harmless and playful. They ranged in size from 4′ to 20′, and while they weren’t the “giants of the sea” you see on TV, they were so numerous just beneath the surface that I imagined I could step out onto their backs and simply walk to shore.
Off The Trail
Shortly after leaving Pleasant Bay, we reentered the national park boundaries and turned inland, ascending rapidly. When we reached the summit of MacKenzie Mountain, strong, cold gusts began pushing the big Beemer to and fro in its lane, and despite the bright sun the air temperature was considerably lower. On this wide plateau, a surreal view: a vast forest of tiny trees, no more than 5′ tall, stood windswept and stunted as far as the eye could see. I could make out beige ground between them. Once again, Nova Scotia had presented an eerie, ethereal face; it was as if we were riding on the top of the world.
The road was now cutting the tip off Cape Breton Island. Just when I thought that perhaps we’d seen the best of what the Cabot Trail had to offer, we reached Neil’s Harbour on Cape Breton’s eastern shore. Here the Cabot Trail again followed the coastline, hanging onto cliffs and providing still more stunning views. Again, though, turnouts and recreational vehicles were abundant, so it was impossible for me to take my eyes off the road for too long.
We rode all day to reach our northeasternmost destination, one of the most northeasternmost destinations in North America, to be exact: the town of Louisbourg, where we spent a nice night in a swank oceanfront condo at the Point of View Suites. While the newly constructed condo was gorgeous and its view superb, we found it odd that such a nice resort would have a marginal, cafeteria-style restaurant. Oh, well. Also, it’s not moto-friendly; the long driveway is covered with large-stone gravel — the kind thin motorcycle tires love to sink into. The stone-and-steel 18th century Fortress of Louisbourg looms imposing and magnificent across the bay.
By this point in our trip, Colleen and I were beating to death a running joke about Nova Scotia youth — namely, where the heck were they? Not just children, mind you, but college-age kids and young families. We hadn’t even seen any yuppies! This is not hyperbole, but an honest estimate: fully 75 percent of the people we had encountered thus far had gray hair. Seriously. So what do Nova Scotians do with their young? Do they offer them up to the gods in some kind of Logan’s Run-in-reverse sacrifice? Clearly, we were excited about our lodging for this night: a deluxe room at the Lord Nelson in downtown Halifax. Would the capital city be the place where we’d finally encounter the elusive Nova Scotian creature known as the youngster? We were determined (and, frankly, more than a little desperate) to find out. I steered the big Beemer inland on Route 12, and caught up with Route 4 headed west, skirting the southern shore of Bras D’Or Lake, a freshwater sea that makes up much of Cape Breton Island. Another pretty, poky ride. A few hours of tooling around brought us to the Canso
Causeway once again; we caught Trans-Canada 104 headed west, and I gunned it for the city. In the morning, I’d say goodbye to my wife and take her place as principal photographer for the rest of the journey.
Big City Nights
Halifax is vibrant with energy and full of museums, restaurants, universities, public gardens, and mass transit. Navigating downtown was easy, and I felt comfortable piloting the big Bavarian touring machine around town. The first thing that struck us as we wheeled into the drive of the Lord Nelson was the young people. Consider our mystery solved: clearly, as soon as they’re old enough to leave home every Nova Scotian under the age of 60 packs up and heads for Halifax. They’re just as nice as their elders, brimming with smiling faces and copious cheer. After a solid week touring the country, it felt great to kick off the riding boots and jeans, and walk the streets of a city, feeling the familiar urban energy and joie de vivre we’re so used to back home in Manhattan. Music and raucous laughter poured from the open doors of the bars and storefronts, smoking hipsters slouched on street corners, and nobody dawdled. We stopped for dinner at a café/bar called Economy Shoe Shop on Argyle Street. The place was funky and fun, and dinner was phenomenal. With full bellies we declined dessert, but I ordered another IPA. My wife had tea, and it was over these after-dinner drinks that Colleen told me why she’d refrained from drinking thus far on the trip: we were expecting our first child. In a trip full of highlights, the rest of that night was surely the pinnacle.
Early the next morning, Colleen took a tearful taxi to the airport, while I explored downtown Halifax, walking 6′ off the ground with a smile as wide as Canada. It wasn’t until I received a text message three hours later that I fired up the BMW. My wife and child were safely on the ground at JFK. Me? I was motoring on, headed across Nova Scotia to its northern shore on the Bay of Fundy and then to Digby for the annual Wharf Rat Rally.
Beaming On The Beemer
It was one of those days where nothing could knock the smile from my face — not that anything was trying to. The sun was brilliant, and the traffic was light. I rode out of Halifax and made a left on 101 toward Windsor. It was Sunday, and I was disappointed to see a large number of motorcycles traveling the other direction, toward Halifax — rallygoers heading home after a weekend at the Wharf Rat apparently. I hurriedly checked in at the Digby Pines Golf Resort and Spa and made my way into town, but it was obvious I had missed the lion’s share of the festivities. Looking up and down the main drag of Digby, bikes were parked down the center of the street, folks strolled leisurely, vendors hawked their wares, and a band played earnestly — but the party could hardly be called a raucous blowout. Most people looked like they were blown out themselves.
I looked up Peter Robertson, one of the Wharf Rat Rally’s organizers. I got a good-natured ribbing from Peter and his staff about being a typical “American latecomer” and was regaled with stories of the previous night’s revelry. Peter guesstimated the previous day’s turnout at “around 10,000.” I smirked politely, privately chalking that number up to salesmanship. A few minutes later, strolling down Water Street, I noticed the Halifax Sunday Herald displayed on a newsstand. The front-page image plainly showed the same street I now walked, but the shot was taken the afternoon before. Water Street was a veritable sea of faces and chrome. The reporter estimated Saturday’s attendance at “around 10,000.”
The Wharf Rat Rally is said to be Atlantic Canada’s largest, and I was disappointed I’d missed the bulk of the party. Regardless, I was still giddy from the news Colleen had given me. After all, I was all alone in a charming seaside town on my last night in Nova Scotia, and I was to be a daddy! — so I decided to celebrate. Digby is world-renowned for its scallops, so I got an outdoor table at a restaurant on the waterfront and ordered a plate. Delicious. Along with the daylight, the famous 40′ Bay of Fundy tide was receding by now, leaving fishing boats to rest for the night tilted on their sides, their colorful hulls reflecting off the mud. I went to the hotel bar and toasted impending fatherhood with some other rally stragglers and my new best pal, Alexander Keith. The next day, I boarded a ferry bound for Saint John, New Brunswick.
I was anxious to get home to my family.
Certainly, the Cabot Trail is a beautiful ride. It climbs, it drops, it swoops, it switches back, it stretches out — all the while taunting you, boldly defying you to take your eyes off the pavement for one tempting second to admire the view. It just plain dares you to give it some gas and cut loose. But you can’t.
I can appreciate how the Cabot Trail is considered one of the world’s finest driving roads. But is it “the greatest motorcycling road in the world”? With apologies to Bob Scott, Rannie Gillis, and the guys from Sydney I met at Glenora, the short answer is no. If I’d tackled it at a different time of day, or if I’d had a longer visit and could ride it several times in either direction, perhaps I might feel differently.
For me, the best roads are those that envelop you, that fully soak you in, that you become part of. But in my experience, the Cabot Trail was too tightly patrolled to ride at a challenging pace, sapping the fun factor. The truly beautiful stretches of the Cabot are some of the prettiest I’ve seen from any road. But the astonishing views are too fleeting to be able to ride and sightsee simultaneously; I was forced to do one, or the other. And the biggest drawback is the amount of time it takes to get there. If I ever ride the Cabot Trail again, I’ll fly into Halifax and rent a bike. And stop at Glenora on the way back. RB
(For info on Nova Scotia — the BMW K1600LT, the CAT Ferry, the Glenora Inn & Distillery, whale watching videos, and much more — see my Bonus Extras at www.RoadBikeMag.com)
Words by Jon Langston, Photos by Colleen Langston
Story as printed in the August issue of RoadBike