Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island is getting a lot of international attention
A website touting the island as a refuge from Donald Trump sparked increased interest
As we wound down a series of switchbacks toward the Seal Island Bridge, my ears popping as we left the rolling green highlands behind and descended to Bras d’Or – a massive inland sea – Donny Hall told me that he was surprised at the worldwide attention his small island of Cape Breton was currently attracting.
An electrician by trade, Hall worked for years in a coal mine, once the dominant industry in this remote part of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.
But now, with the coal mines closed, tourism has taken over as the primary industry, and calls have been coming from all over the world from people who had never before heard of Cape Breton, inquiring about hotels and restaurants and things to see and do.
At the wheel of a minivan, with me in the passenger seat, Hall turned his mustachioed face to me and wagged his head with a wan smile of bemusement, telling me what he thought of this newfound fame.
“It all started as a joke,” he said, with just a hint of a maritime accent, a lilt that echoes the area’s Scottish past. “We never expected all of this.”
What happened? Donald Trump.
Or, more specifically, a website launched earlier this year titled “Cape Breton if Donald Trump Wins.”
It was created by a local radio DJ on the modest proposal that Americans should think about spending some time here, or maybe moving to this scenic island if the polarizing Republican nominee ascends to the presidency.
As the story spread on CNN and other international networks, American interest grew.
A rugged retreat
The relatively basic website, which includes testimonials from Americans who love the island, as well as lots of helpful information on Cape Breton, has so far attracted more than 1 million clicks.
And some, it seems, may actually move: Google reported that searches for “how to move to Canada” increased sixfold when Trump became the GOP’s presumptive nominee.
Cape Breton has long been one of Canada’s best-kept secrets, an island about twice the size of Delaware, connected to the mainland of Nova Scotia by the 1.4-kilometer Canso Causeway.
On this island, the famous Cabot Trail, a scenic two-lane byway, loops through Cape Breton Highlands National Park, with much-photographed vistas of green hills falling away to beaches backed by cliffs.
Alexander Graham Bell was one famous resident, and a national historic site and museum are devoted to his work here, a place that overlooks the white sails of yachts and catamarans out on Bras d’Or, an inland sea that slices across the island.
Cape Breton has always valued its distinct identity, one rooted in its Scottish past.
The island thrums with the sounds of fiddles, musical gatherings called ceilidhs are still common, Gaelic is spoken in pockets on the island and some of the best single malts on the continent are distilled here, too.
The island flip-flopped between British and French control before becoming part of Nova Scotia again in 1820. Native Mi’kmaq people long preceded the settlers.
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The “Trump Bump,” as they call it here, has been significant.
During my week or so on the island, I met Mary Tulle, CEO of Destination Cape Breton, who noted that web searches on their own site are up about 600%, and those clicks are turning into trips – operators note that bookings are up between 20% and 200%.
Much of the attention has come from nearby states like New York and Massachusetts, but they’ve also gotten tens of thousands of inquiries from places like Texas, where the island does zero advertising.
“We are delighted with the attention,” she says. “As a tourism organization, we have received millions of dollars of free marketing.”
I saw the attraction of this island firsthand.
At the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, I took a white-glove tour, sliding on fancy white mitts and handling Bell’s own, original jacket, walking stick and personal notebook– with his notes still visible on its delicate pages.
I sipped whisky – award-winning single malts – at the Glenora Distillery, tasting the pure water of the creek that runs through the property, then the good stuff, right out of the barrels, before settling in for dinner and a ceilidh, a traditional Scottish party, with fiddles and piano and song.
And I even learned a few words of Gaelic at a spot called Highland Village, an outdoor, living history museum where costumed interpreters take visitors through various generations of homes inhabited by early Scottish settlers.
Riding the Cabot Trail, sailing Bras d’Or
I also traced the famed Cabot Trail by car with two friends.
Named after the Genoese explorer John Cabot, who landed in this region in 1497 (scholars still debate the exact spot), the trail completes a 298-kilometer (185-mile) loop around the northern end of the island, often clinging to the curves of the Cape Breton Highlands as it winds above the ocean below.
With a dinner to attend that night back in Sydney (the island’s largest town), we raced up into the hills, enjoying the ride but making few stops along the way.
However, entering the national park, we decided to carve out a couple hours to hike its signature trail. A 9-kilometer loop (5.5 miles), Skyline Trail follows a well-worn path through moose and bear country to a dramatic headland, where cliffs fall away on both sides to the Gulf of St. Lawrence below.
We set a brisk pace through the boreal forest, reaching the boardwalk on the headland within an hour.
I had hiked the same trail 13 years earlier, and remembered seeing pilot whales spouting off below. None graced us with their presence this time, but we took a few minutes to take in the view – the Cabot Trail, cutting its path through the green on the left, and the endless blue of the water on the right.
We made it back in time for our dinner that night – making just one more stop, for super-fresh lobster rolls at small-town seaside spot with an appropriately bucolic name, the Rusty Anchor.
A few days later, at the end of my trip, I’d get a chance to spend some time on the water. Climbing aboard Capt, Paul Jamieson’s 42-foot catamaran, I spent three days cruising the calm waters of Bras d’Or. More than 1,000 square kilometers in size, we had plenty to explore, sailing into small inlets and stopping for swims and checking out sunny lighthouses.
Docked at the charming town of Baddeck, we went for a pint at the local yacht club, and I asked the captain what he made of all this Trump business.
He reckoned that his charter bookings had gotten a bit of a bump, but added that, once people get to see it, the island really doesn’t need any help.
“Here, we have some of the best sailing in the world. We have the warmest water north of North Carolina. You saw a couple inlets, but we’ve got thousands,” he said, adding that it’s not just the sailing.
“People come on the boat, and I tell them, ‘Well, we’ve got Alexander Graham Bell over there, and the Cabot Trail up there,’ there’s so much to do. This is really one of the world’s best islands.”