WHITE POINT, CAPE BRETON, NOVA SCOTIA -- In February 2012, just prior to Valentine's Day, Vacay.ca named Cape Breton as the most romantic place in Canada to visit. Immediately, I received emails decrying the selection. And they were all from Cape Bretoners. Cape Breton is too isolated, I was told. There's nothing to do there. Its cities are run down and depressed. Too rainy. Romance is about champagne and chocolates and roses, an interviewer from CBC Radio in Sydney, Nova Scotia told me. It's about Paris and Montreal, not backwater Cape Breton.
At that point, I had never been to Cape Breton. To defend the selection, I turned to my team of travel writers whose effusive praise of the island clinched the selection. (Quebec City was my pick.) They told me about the beauty of it and the warmth of the islanders and the refreshing lack of cell-phone signals, which gave two people looking for an escape from the hectic pace of urban life the time to connect.
Their thinking made sense but one of the reasons I chose to come to this island was to validate our selection for myself. I drove through the rain from Halifax, becoming cynical, as journalists usually do, thinking that Cape Breton couldn't look or feel any different than the rest of Nova Scotia, which was certainly beautiful and charming, though not remarkably romantic. How could Cape Breton be so distinct? I wondered as I neared the Canso Causeway.
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As soon as I crossed that bridge and glimpsed the Bras d'Or Lakes, Cape Breton did indeed spin its magic. By the time I left after a four-day visit, I would have the ammunition of my own words to tell you that yes, Cape Breton is incredibly, undoubtedly and overwhelmingly romantic. And not just because of the astounding beauty of the Cabot Trail, and not just because it offered an escape from busy Toronto to a place that seemed of a different era, and not simply because it has a unique culture that takes you away, and because the 150,000 or so people who occupy this enclave settled primarily by Scottish immigrants are so friendly and kind they instill in you a desire to come back. The reason Cape Breton is romantic is because when you come here you want to share the experience with another.
I sat on a rock at White Point, on the eastern edge of the Cape Highlands National Park, and gazed out beyond the large cross that honours The Unknown Sailor and deep into the azure of the Atlantic and revelled in the aloneness of being there with my wife. You might think you can enjoy such moments in any park in this country or on any picturesque lookout off of a highway. But you can't, not to this degree.
The Cabot Trail makes you stop. Not stop and start. Stop. Stop with all the myriad thoughts racing through your head about work and responsibilities and where to go next. Here, you stop, you linger, you give in to the views that beat you to your knees with their beauty. Of the magnificent roads I've been on, the Cabot Trail is most reminiscent of the Cape Peninsula loop in South Africa, which starts and ends in Cape Town, and thunders through beach villages, passed vistas where you can spy wine country, and over rocky cliffs with dramatic drops that dive into the Atlantic and Indian oceans.
There are other highways in the world that also have splendid scenery and spectacular viewpoints and heart-pounding asphalt descents. The stretch of the Cabot Trail that starts in the Cape Highlands National Park packs all of that in on a 103-kilometre parabolic thrill ride that knocks into you a sense of appreciation for all that really matters in your life.
When you stop to realize that truth, you'll never question the magnitude of Cape Breton's romantic nature.