Cape Breton Comforts – Idyllic Days On One Of The Best Islands in the World (Part 1)

Cape Breton Highlands, Photo: Scott MacLeod

(The following travel feature appeared in the May print issue of Flagstick Golf Magazine. Part two will follow on May 11.)

Lots of people know about Cape Breton. It is often lauded as one of the greatest islands in the world.

Naturally, for those who hear that, curiosity follows suit.

I’ll testify here, like anybody who has ever made the journey, that it just might be.

But not in the sexy manner we often think of islands like Hawaii, or those that litter the Caribbean.

Yes, it’s world class but it does not fall into the pattern of the exotic.

And that’s a good thing

They ARE world class, but in their own way. The Cape Breton Way. Authenticity abounds.

With the arrival of Cabot Links, a re-birth of the Highlands Links property, and active promotion by Golf Cape Breton, there has been plenty of new global attention to this part of Nova Scotia. Cape Breton is on the lips of those around the world.

However, those expecting a place that falls in line with their big city ways and flashy urban lifestyles will be sorely disappointed. In a time when sizzle is overly lauded in the spaces of media and social media, Cape Breton is the furthest thing from a Kardashian you will find. That’s is part of what makes it so compelling.

Once you cross the Canso Causeway, the often weather-plagued pavement strip that ties the place to mainland Nova Scotia, it is almost as if you have arrived in an alternative universe. A place that harkens back to the time when community was important and people cared for their neighbours as if they were family. The same genuine nature carries enough surplus to be distributed among travellers as well.

You can feel it when you are there. No matter if it is in Sydney, Baddeck or Mabou, as a visitor you are not made to feel out of place. You are of course, but you nobody ever seems to point it out.

The Trip

Some people might argue that the Fall is a risky time to visit Cape Breton. This Nova Scotia island, noted and voted by many as one of the best in the world, should never be considered as a summer destination only. That’s my opinion at least, and I have a few visits in my history to back my assertion. The foliage alone is reason enough to make a September or October visit.

Golf has been a part of the Cape Breton scene for more than three quarters of a century, and most recently the destination has gained worldwide attention for the newest facilities-the Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs golf courses.

There is no disputing the beauty and attraction of those two layouts but when it comes to this stunning island it is but a piece of a spectacular scene, so vibrant and attractive that it has kept visitors returning here again and again.

Last Fall, despite the spectre of Hurricane Matthew and its shadow approaching, colleague Jeff Bauder and myself made a foray back to Cape Breton, with golf, and so much more in our sights.

Despite a few setbacks, it proved to us once again why it needs to be on the destination list, for golf or otherwise, of any traveler.

Last Flight In

I’ve taken part in a few dodgy flights in my time – from bush planes in northern B.C. to lightning lashed affairs that left me stranded on runways in foreign countries. I’m not a nervous passenger. But I was on our brief jaunt into Sydney for Halifax.

Usually a smooth flight of less than an hour, our flight to Sydney was, well, interesting.

We understood the remnants of Hurricane Matthew might have some influence on our travel plans. How much so was indicated by one look out the window as we sat on the tarmac at Halifax Stanfield. Rain, and lots of it.

When we finally got in the air Mother Nature began to throw in some surging winds for good measure.

Halfway to our destination the most popular colour on the plane was reflected in the faces of the passengers, green.

I might have heard a couple prayers whispered.

They were answered by a safe landing, albeit in several inches on water that covered the runway.

We were the last flight in.

The airport itself was about to become isolated by crumbling and flooded roads. Thankfully our greeting party was there to immediately whisk us away.

The worst was over…or at least we thought it was.

225mm of rain later – a record, Sydney was flooded and our plans were taking a soggy turn.

Hours later, after some driving over dodgy roads, one passenger getting sick, and a foggy/rocky ferry round, we found our sanctuary – the Keltic Lodge in Ingonish Beach.

We though that night might be the last for the historic inn.

A Night To Remember

For those not familiar with Keltic Lodge, it has one of the most dramatic settings in all of Canada. Built on a peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, that is both a blessing and a curse.

In fine weather, the views are immense and the crashing waves below are soothing to the soul. In the heart of an angry storm it feels as if the nearby ocean may swallow you whole.

We were prey for Neptune on this night.

Winds nearing 120 km/h lashed my Atlantic Ocean facing room. Golf the next day was the last thing on my mind.

Our original plan was to tuck into the rooms in the lower part of the resort, in buildings where GolfNorth, now holders of a 42-year lease on the property from Parks Canada, had recently invested some $5 million in upgrades.

For safety’s sake, we stayed in the main lodge, which proved more than comfortable. Despite wondering if the building might be blown over at times.

By morning the worst had cleared and we were left with surrounds of water and wind damage, but nothing of major consequence.

Golf on the historic Highlands Links, Stanley Thompson’s design masterpiece, however, looked to be on hold.

While most of our visiting party (which also included fellow journalist Jeff Lancaster and Cape Breton hosts Katherine MacDonald, Ian McNeil, and Kristine Mills) took their time getting to the breakfast table, resort General Manager Graham Hudson had risen may hours before. He bore the news that you never want to hear, “The course is closed. The flooding is pretty bad.”

With plans to head to the other side of the island the next day, our stay in Ingonish Beach might be one without golf. We had all played Highlands Links before and coveted its rumpled fairways and impeccable setting. To travel this far and not play it would be a tragedy. But we understood.

Hudson gave us a glimmer of hope. “We’ll see how she dries up and maybe we can get you out there.”

Words to warm a golfer’s heart.

With hours to kill we decided to do a little exploring. With McNeil, a former long-time CBC radio host, as our wheelman we took to the nearby shorelines. The winds were still up. Waves crashed the shores and the icy breezes reminded us of nature’s strength. We took in waterfalls gorged by the deluge and were awe of the raw beauty of the surrounds. Dark, tumultuous waters set against the contrast of hills and mountains ablaze with fall colours.

These views that bring so much acclaim to Cape Breton and its winding Cape Breton Trail, the roadway that snakes around the northern coastline.

At that point, we were content to take this alone away from our Ingonish Beach visit. A stay at the marvellous Keltic Lodge, in all its newly refinished glory, would need to be enough.

Or so we thought.

“If you want to give her a go you’re welcome to it,” Hudson told us upon our return to the lodge. “There might be a few holes out with flooding but just be careful.”

Sweeter words could not have been spoken.

Glory, Glory – Highlands Links

The air was still bitter. We were each awkwardly adorned in multiple layers of clothing that restricted our golf swings, but we were smiling from ear to ear. Not only would we get to take a walk down the aisle in the church of Stanley Thompson, we would be all alone to pay our respects.

Not far from us sat the newest accommodation option for Keltic Lodge – the aptly named Stanley Thompson House. At 100 yards from the 1st tee it is sure to be a much sought after reservation for years to come.

It was obvious that Highlands Links could not accommodate public on this day. Bunkers were filled deeply with water on some holes, while some fairways were nearly impassable. The 12th hole, fearsome on a normal day, had been converted by the storm into a 240-yard, island green par 3.

Despite the intrusions, it was glorious.

As the day wore on, the sun began to creep out, the temperatures rose, and once again Highlands Links graced us with her beauty. A newly improved version.

The recent efforts by Hudson and his team, with the support of Golf North, were obvious. Trees that once choked sunlight away from the greens had been removed, the putting surfaces ran true, and the turf in general was the healthiest we had ever seen it.

Like always, by the time we came down the 18th hole, if there had been even a sliver more daylight, we would have turned back for more. Given the circumstances, we were content.

Between the Lodge renovations, the highly-upgraded menu in the Purple Thistle Dining room, and the always present hospitality it had proven to be another soul-pleasing stay at Keltic Lodge.

The final word went to Graham Hudson, the man who had put so much of his heart into the place for decades. We spoke in the Highland Sitting room as a fireplace warmed the guests nearby.

“It’s been quite something,” Hudson shared of the transition at Keltic Lodge where they now have stronger financial backing. GolfNorth who has a commitment to push the place forward. “We can compete now. People always knew the golf course was great and that the lodge was a special place but we can truly say we are world class now.”

He continued, “It’s been a lot of work in a short time and we’re not done yet but I think people will be really pleased to see it all.”

With hesitation, we parted Keltic Lodge and Highlands Links. We did so with the assurance that the 75-year heritage was not only being respected but was now prepared to meet the needs of modern travellers.

Well done Keltic Lodge, well done.

(Part 2 – Hitting The Cabot Trail and Our Visit To Cabot Links will follow on May 11)

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