(This is a continuation of a feature travel story found in the May Print issue of Flagstick Golf Magazine. Part 1 can be found at this link.)
Hitting The Trail
As we headed for points north and west through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, it was in stark contrast to the driving weather we had endured just two days before.
The thin line of roadway hugged the coastline, then parted the great expanses of untouched land. A leafy canvas of red and orange hues, gleaming in the sunshine, were just about our only company on truly one of the greatest drives you can make in Canada.
Rolling along mountain ridges, a highland plateau eventually gives way to a breathtaking descent. This route, from North Mountain downward, is a dramatic exit to the western side of the park. We made sure to take advantage of the outlooks to be overwhelmed by the views.
As we worked our way down to the sea, passing through the scenic fishing village of Cheticamp (where they also have a fun golf course – Le Portage), our anticipation for what lay ahead was at full throttle.
On To The Links
In 2012, just a few days after its grand opening, I made a visit to Cabot Links. With family in tow at that time I had not expected to play. With the encouragement of Managing Partner Ben Cowan-Dewar (to whom I am eternally grateful) I did wander the property for a day and half.
I fell in love.
As many know by now, in Inverness, along the shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, there are now two very special additions to the Canadian golf landscape. They sit within a few miles of each other but Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs golf courses each have their own feel.
In five years Links has hosted golfers from around the world. The Rod Whitman design has enthralled traditionalists and novice golfers alike with its inherent features in line with the great links of Scotland.
Cliffs, as the sister course, had a big act to follow. Many say it has with its setting higher up the cliff tops, adding yet another dimension to the views it shares with the Links just south of it and closer to the town of Inverness.
We wanted to find out for ourselves.
There was not much time to fret about something as minor as a warm up (even a few putts) once we landed in Inverness. There was just enough time to toss our luggage in the well-appointed rooms of the Lodge, grab a quick lunch in the cozy Cabot Bar (tucked near the 18th green) and head to the first tee.
Two things we needed first though. They are an integral part of a Cabot Links visit – cookies on the first tee and a meet up with our caddies.
Cabot Links and Cliffs is non-cart golf and as such, has a thriving caddy program. They range from local teachers, to students, retirees, former executives, and even a marathon runner. What they share is a growing knowledge of the linksland and a way of adding a nice local flair to any game. Need an answer to local trivia? They’ve got it. Want to know where to get the best church dinner? They’ll let you know. And the lines on putts? That’s second nature.
It’s a caddy AND a tour guide, all in one. It’s worth the price of admission as they take on the burden of your golf bag. It leaves you free to enjoy a relaxing walk on some of the most revered fairways in the world.
Yes, that’s big praise for courses so young but recent polls by various publications have concluded the same.
A blow by blow account of that round is unnecessary. In fact, you’ll soon find at Cabot Links that things like scores are not really of concern. The chance to have water views for the entirety of your round and play over a layout that allows for all manners of creativity boosts fun up to the number one priority. This a land of joyful golf – where you feel exhilarated at your successes and quickly laugh off frustrations.
We had a fair helping of both during our tour. Extra joy came for me in seeing Jeff (Bauder) on the property and playing the course for the first time. I felt like a twelve-year-old as I kept saying “wait until you see the next hole” again and again. It was a reminder of a journey we made to Scotland together one year.
Being late in the year we raced the sun. We managed to finish up before it dropped into the gulf in a fiery display.
Scheduled to be just a quick trip, our time in Cape Breton was running short but we had much still left on our plate.
A priority for every Cape Breton visitor should be to immerse themselves in local culture as much as possible. Going back centuries, the people here had to be resourceful. That extended to entertainment. They made their own and they were very good at it.
As luck would have it, we had timed our visit to coincide with one of the biggest local music/culture festivals of the season. Celtic Colours has brought together the world since 1997 with nine days of concerts including a generous helping of local talent.
Celtic Colours takes place all over the island but we had the pleasure of watching a show at the Strathspey Performing Arts centre, just down the road from Inverness, in Mabou. well known as the home of the Rankin family, musical royalty in these parts.
We tapped our toes, yelped, and sang along with the performers who played to a sold-out house. How popular are these events? There were people lined up in the lobby looking for extra tickets.
It all capped off a very local night. We had dined earlier at the St. Michael’s parish hall where salmon was served out of a cooler and a good chat was easy to find. Five star it was not but it was delicious and nobody batted an eye at the people from “away” invading their space.
The only more local to celebrate was with a dram of Glen Breton, the single malt made just up the road. I managed to acquire a bottle. Nearby Glenora Distillery is always on my visit list. You can tour, sample, eat a meal or even stay at the distillery.
Here it was already, our last full day in Cape Breton. And we were going out in style.
When you think of the ultimate golf day, it must include 36 holes. Being able to do it on two world class courses just makes it all that much better. Places like St. Andrews, Pinehurst Resort, Bandon Dunes (among others) can make this possible and now Cabot Links/Cabot Cliffs joins them.
A double round day was our plan and it would take every second of daylight to accomplish that late this late in the year.
Admittedly we were all giddy as we hopped into our shuttle to Cabot Cliffs. A slight frost delay built up that anticipation. As we sipped coffee on the outdoor furniture between the 1st and 18th hole, we watched the world wake up before us. From the cliff top perch, we were treated to a panorama of ethereal levels.
Designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, I had high expectations for Cliffs. They were met, in spades.
While sharing the same coastline, Cliffs sits above the ocean rather than level with it, like Links, and it gives it a different feel. Links s slightly more refined (with the wind down) while Cliffs is more like the rugged younger brother. It requires more bravery in shot making. That really comes into play on 16, likely to become one of the most photographed holes in all of golf. With a green that seems to hang off the cliff side, the par 3 requires commitment to hit a tee shot that has any chance of finding the putting surface. Plenty of golf balls find their way to “Pro V1 beach” (as he caddies call it) some seventy feet below.
It’s exhilarating golf and when our whole squad re-assembled afterward we gushed on about the highlights of the design.
Fuelled by adrenaline more than energy, we quickly prepared to get back on to the Links for our final shot at Cape Breton golf glory.
To expedite matters we went with a two-man team matches to end the trip. The temperature had warmed, the winds had dropped and we set out on a walk of solidarity. It ended in a tie under a darkened sky and a green lit by the clubhouse lights.
While there was plenty of laughs and highlight moments during the round, I found myself spending much of the time observing the expression on the faces of my fellow golfers.
No matter how the outcome of their shots I sensed an inner joy in all of them, one that evolved over just a few days. Smiles came more easily, they spent still moments looking around, at the land, the ocean, and when they played shots it was often with a creativity lost at other courses. The same jubilation carried into our closing dinner at Cabot Links’ fabulous Panorama restaurant.
In a sense, it encapsulated our time in Cape Breton. This retreat from a more harried world provided salvation. But also, a reminder.
It prompted us to appreciate a place where natural beauty surrounds you, where people take the time to consider others, and where even the simplest aspects of life are appreciated.
Yes, there are now more modern comforts available in Cape Breton than ever: world class golf courses, restaurants, and resorts, but its roots as a refuge for the soul remain.
Here you can forget about your problems; find your inner happiness. It’s hard to ask much more of a place than that.
It’s an island full of wonder. And, thankfully, the people who live that are happy to share.
It’s the Cape Breton way.
Cape Breton Island
Golf Cape Breton
Keltic Lodge at the Highlands Links
Cabot Links / Cabot Cliffs