NOTE: The Extreme Group and Destination Cape Breton have contracted me to tour Cape Breton Island and blog about my journey for four days. I have editorial control of the content and promise to write honestly and openly about the things I see and do. I hope you will accompany me on this adventure by reading my posts and commenting as you see fit.
Traveling and writing are two of my favourite activities. Paired together into a paid work assignment—even better! This might be the best "job" I've ever had.
On day three, I sadly bid adieu to the delightful staff at Keltic Lodge and drove south to the St. Ann's Bay section of the Cabot Trail known for its many artisans.
My first stop was at Wildfire Pottery. I chatted with owner and potter Sarah Hake, who apologized for low inventory levels—she's had a good season. Her clay puffins were my favourite item. Sarah's inspired by the live puffins that nest on the small rocky islands that dot this coastline. Sarah also displays her art on locally sourced driftwood and stones. At the back she has a sizable used bookstore.
Next I went to the Glass Artisans Studio and Gallery, owned by stained glass artist Wendy Smith. It is an artists' collective, and five glass blowers work in a studio on the property. My best discovery was the lollipops by Len Chodirker, for $25 each. Lollipops with no calories—who knew? The blown glass whale tails by Jon Sawyer, and the bowls and vases by Curtis Dionne were also beautiful.
At Woodsmiths, I was greeted by the delicious smell of freshly cut oak and birch as I entered. Owner Robert Evans was shuffling about in his workshop at the back of the store. His cutting boards, salad bowls and clocks line the walls, and he also carries woodwork by other artists. I fell in love with the carved birds by Paul and Jenn Arborr, who create them using the ancient art of "intarsia." Every colour you see is a different type of wood. They use no paints or stains but coax warm, rich natural hues from the wood grain.
I followed the Cabot Trail to St. Ann's Gut and stopped at the Gaelic College. Former Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald recently joined the College as CEO, and to my surprise I found him checking inventory in the gift shop. After I introduced myself and explained the project he toured me around the extensive property and gave me the quick-and-dirty. The College is open for six weeks in the summer to students young and old who want intensive training in Gaelic studies: language, bagpipes, fiddle, step, bodhran drum, harp, piano, weaving, etc. The College also offers workshops and demonstrations, especially when the tour buses pull up, and hosts many performances during the Celtic Colours festival.
Whether or not you agreed with his politics it's hard not to appreciate the passion MacDonald brings to Gaelic College. I stayed longer than I intended, but with no regrets. The Great Hall of the Clans is truly impressive. Whether you're a Campbell, MacKay, MacKenzie, Matheson, MacDonald or Ross, you can learn about your clan and its crest, motto, badge, pipe music and tartan. The obvious effort that's being made to preserve Gaelic culture in Cape Breton is everywhere, and the interactive displays tell wonderful stories of milling frolics, great kilt demonstrations, and both the immigration and emigration of Scottish Highlanders in the area.
"I believe in the mandate of the College," MacDonald, who taught fiddling there in the 1990s, told me. "The language is near and dear. My grandmother's first language was Gaelic. This is a place young people can come to learn about the different disciplines. My own son came here and had a great time."
The day was slipping away from me. I had to keep going, to get to Baddeck and the Alexander Graham Bell Museum before closing. I left the Cabot Trail and turned on to the Scenic Bras d'Or Lakes drive, discovering that the landscape in the interior of Cape Breton is also hilly and lush. Baddeck is smack in the centre of Cape Breton on the edge of Lake Bras d'Or, an area with a salt-water estuary and ecosystem so precious it was recently granted Unesco designation as a protected biosphere reserve. When he visited in 1885, Alexander Graham Bell was so taken with the scenery here, reminding him as it did of his Scottish birthplace, that he built a second home in Baddeck and spent many summers and much of the last 37 years of his life living and working here.
Bell loved Baddeck
"I have travelled 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," Bell once said. His estate, Beinn Breagh (Gaelic for 'beautiful mountain') can be spotted from the museum. It was home-away-from-home for his large family, including his granddaughter Gertrude Grosvenor, pictured with him here.
Parks Canada operates the museum and it houses an extensive display of Bell memorabilia that his daughters donated. Bell was lauded for inventing the telephone but perhaps under-appreciated for his lifelong commitment to helping people, especially the deaf, to communicate. He worked as an audiologist with deaf children, eventually marrying one, Mabel, when she reached age 18. Many of his contemporaries and the people of Baddeck, too, considered him somewhat eccentric, as they watched him fly kites for many hours on the hillside. They didn't realize that he was constantly running science experiments, which eventually he contributed to inventions including air conditioning and x-rays. Bell also built the first hydrofoil plane.
I walked through town to the Baddeck Marina, and watched a tall ship sail past the lighthouse as the sun was beginning to drop. I decided to have dinner at the Lynwood Inn. It opened in 1868 so I deduced that was ample time to refine the quality of the food and service. Right again, I ordered the maple salmon on the advice of Twitter friend @fishornofish and she was spot on. It was the right combination of sweet and flaky, with tasty vegetables and rice pilaf on the side.
It was quite dark as I drove away, and when I looked into the rearview mirror at the top of Kelly's Mountain I saw that the sky behind me was a brilliant array of pinks and blues. I pulled over to watch the final minutes of the sunset, then continued on to Sydney.