DRIVING THE CABOT TRAIL

Ingonish, N.S. This time we did it right, driving clockwise from Margaree so as to keep on the land side of the road. Last time around we took it in the other direction from Baddeck, hugging the cliff's edge for most of the 190 miles (306km)- and that's not terribly comfortable when you are driving a 24-foot (7.3m) motorhome on Cape Breton's mountainous Cabot Trail.

Without a doubt this is one of North America's most magnificent drives. Every turn in the road brings a new vista, as it winds around forested mountains and across grassy plateaus then plunges down to the sea on inclines so steep they could alarm timorous drivers.

It is possible to complete the trail in half a day, but that would be a crime. Picturesque fishing villages cry out to be photographed. Picnic areas are reserved above perpendicular cliffs, with a swirling sea way below. And part of the trail loops through Cape Breton Highlands National Park, safeguarding for posterity the region's most prized scenery in a 948 sq km (366 sq mile) preserve.

The trail is named for explorer John Cabot who came this way in 1497. Portugese fishermen arrived soon after, followed by French and Scottish settlers whose influence is strong still in both language and traditions.

Alexander Graham Bell, who chose Baddeck at the foot of the Cabot Trail as his summer home, is quoted as saying that he traveled around the globe, saw the Canadian and American Rockies, the Andes, the Alps and the Highlands of Scotland, but for simple beauty Cape Breton outrivals them all. I too have seen all those places, and agree with him wholeheartedly.

Half an hour or so from Margaree we stopped for lunch above a scenic cove and watched what we thought were two whales cavorting a few hundred yards (meters) offshore. After 15 minutes, when they hadn't moved on, we had to admit the "whales" were black rocks and that the waves, not they, were being playful. Never mind, it was a heavenly spot carpeted with honeysuckles permeating the air with their sweet perfume. And the sea birds were for real.

There were so many stops in the next three days. Neil Harbor is a favorite with photographers for its lobster traps piled high on the dock and fishing boats alongside. The traps were being unloaded when we happened by. Most of the lobsters were around two pounds each. One five pound (2kg) monster was offered us for $20.

At Chéticamp harbor, deep sea fishing and seal watching excursions are popular. An ideal base from which to explore Cape Breton, Chéticamp has a golf course, good seafood restaurants, shops specializing in Acadian crafts. The handsome St Peter's Church here was built in 1883 with stone taken from Cheticamp Island and hauled by horse drawn sleigh over winter's ice.

The national park has seven campgrounds. At Ingonish our fully serviced site was a joy, close to clean showers and kitchen shelters, and a five minutes' walk from the beach. There we could swim in the sea or a freshwater lake, play a game of tennis, set off on nature trails. The Highlands Golf Course was half a mile (1km) away, the Keltic Lodge twice that distance. Operated by the Department of Tourism and Culture, the lodge is perched on a stunningly beautiful site above the sea. Accommodation is in its main lodge, the White Birch Inn, and two or four bedroom cottages. All are within walking distance of golf course, tennis courts, heated swimming pool and beach.

In summer wild flowers beside the Cabot Trail are unforgettable. For years I have tried without success to grow lupins, yet here they are in great profusion alongside the highway. Twenty eight walking paths within the park are designed to lead you to more of its natural treasures. Some of the trails offer a picturesque 10 minutes' stroll, others provide a "challenging wilderness experience." A Parks Canada booklet from a park information center will tell you which ones lead to lakes and streams and historic sites settled by early Acadians; which are flat and which are steep, and how to reach the most exciting lookouts.

Our final stop on the Cabot Trail was St Ann's where at around 8.45 in the morning the sound of bagpipes hurried our approach. Reward for our haste was sight of kilted students being piped into morning classes at North America's only Gaelic college.

St Ann's was originally settled by immigrants from the Highlands of Scotland. Back in 1851 more than half the population of St. Ann's emigrated to Australia and then New Zealand with a Rev Norman MacLeod who had brought them from Scotland. Now every year, visitors from New Zealand come here in search of their roots.

The Gaelic College stands on 400 acres (162ha) of the original 1,000 granted the Rev MacLeod. At its summer school, students learn Highland art and crafts, bagpipe playing, clan lore and Gaelic singing, Highland dancing and hand-weaving of clan and family tartans. During the first week of August the Gaelic Mod is a seven day festival of Celtic culture and a gathering of the clans. On campus, the Hall of Clans has visible displays on the history of the clans and tartans. One exhibit features Angus McAskill, a Scottish giant nearly 8 feet (243cm) tall who lived and died in St Ann's.

IF YOU GO:- The Cabot Trail begins and ends just south of Baddeck, about 50 miles (80km) northeast of Port Hastings on highway 105. To follow the clockwise route, turn onto the Trail to the left of highway just north of Nyanza, where signposted.

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