The Cabot Trail — Considerations

While the purpose of this blog is primarily to keep family and friends informed about our scooter trips, it occurs to me that others might stumble onto the blog while planning their own trip to Nova Scotia or Cape Breton Island, others who might benefit from our experience…so this post is for them.  Therefore, in no particular order, are some considerations for anybody looking to take this trip (which, by the way, I would recommend to everybody!).

First, there are some great websites to visit.  Begin with www.novascotia.com.  Not only does this website give you a good sense of what there is to do and see in Nova Scotia, there’s a place where you can order a map and the official visitors’ guide — be sure to get it!  This guide lists lodging and restaurants and attractions in every town in Nova Scotia, and we found it invaluable.  Every day in the early afternoon we would decide how much farther we wanted to ride that day, look on the map for a likely town within that distance, and then check the visitors’ guide for a phone number to call to secure lodging; a fabulous resource.  If you’ll be traveling by motorbike, be sure also to request the Motorcycle Guide — it gives you turn-by-turn, route-by-route descriptions of every road in Atlantic Canada! The other website to check out, designed for motorbikers, but useful to all, is www.cabottrailbiker.com.

This website is the brainchild of one Daniel Ross, who has done great work to make the province biker-friendly.  This contains a wealth of invaluable info for riders but also identifies some great scenery and attractions that anyone would want to see.  Ross organizes a charity ride every September 11 to Bangor, Maine, and those interested in joining that ride can find contact information about it there as well.

along the road to Cape Blomidon
along the road to Cape Blomidon

Those interested in riding the Novastar Ferry should visit http://novastarcruises.com, where you can find a great deal of useful information about riding the ferry.  I will say, however, that it was easier to actually book the trip by phoning them, as the website would only allow me to schedule one scooter for passage (WTF?).  But we would always take the ferry rather than driving the length of New Brunswick into Nova Scotia, so this website will give you the basic info you need to plan your trip.

Incidentally, it would be a huge mistake to look at this blog and think that what we did is all there is to do in Nova Scotia!  We didn’t even go near the major cities or the southern coast; nor did we visit Kejimkujik National Park, which is reputed to be gorgeous and a great destination for canoe campers.  But the visitor’s guide divides the province into regions, which we found very helpful.  We perused the guide, decided which things and regions we most wanted to see, and crammed them into the ten days we had available.

Which brings me to a very important point.  It would be awful to ride days and days across states and provinces and ferries to see the Cabot Trail, only to get there and see nothing because it was foggy and raining.  For that reason, we highly recommend planning three or four days on the Trail.  Of course, if your objective was simply to race around the trail as quickly as possible, you could do so in six to eight hours, according to the good folk at the Cape Breton Island Visitor Center (more on them later!). But why would you want to do that?  There are so many great hikes and whale watches (reserve ahead for these!) and ceilidhs and restaurants here and you would miss them all.  We stayed three nights on the Trail, but left an additional day open in case the weather proved bad.  We were lucky, and all the bad weather occurred either at night or as we were leaving, but the point is — we had the option to lay over someplace a day or two to wait for sunshine and epic views.

walking on the ocean floor at Burntcoat Head
walking on the ocean floor at Burntcoat Head

The Visitor Centers across Nova Scotia, by the way, are fabulous.  They are staffed by people who know the province inside and out, know how to get where you want to go, and are willing to pick up the phone and call for you, to help you make reservations for whatever you need.  Just outstanding, can’t say enough good things about them, and I think the Maine Tourist Bureau could take a lesson from them.

One interesting consideration for anybody traveling the Cabot Trail is, what direction do you take?  Cape Breton Island is shaped like a mitten with the “thumb” pointing east; you can ride around it clockwise, or you can ride around it counter-clockwise.  We went counter-clockwise on the recommendation of Daniel Ross, and after doing it, we would say that he was right.  Going that way puts you on the scenery side of the road, so the views are much better.  Also, it puts the pull-outs (the Canadians call them “look-offs”) in your lane, instead of having to cross a lane of traffic to enter and exit them.  There was, fortunately, little traffic when we were there, but it is possible that you will have to negotiate around RVs and camper vehicles in the blind curves, with people suddenly deciding to pull off the road into a “look-off”; going counter-clockwise made that particular hazard much easier to deal with.

Now, a point specifically to bikers: in my opinion, the Cabot Trail is not for beginners.  Mind you, Robin had about 5,000 miles on her bike when we left for Nova Scotia, and both of us are only in our third season of riding, so we are far from grizzled world-traveling veteran motorbike touring experts.  But there ARE four steep mountains on the Cabot Trail and countless sharp curves, many at the bottom of breathtakingly steep (9%-12%) grades.  John, Cindy and Willie at LORE Motorcycle Education would have been very proud of Robin, because her brake light never once came on in a curve!  But riders need to be experienced and capable enough to deal with, among other things, moose and wildlife on the roads, gravel and debris in the curves, blind curves, hairpin turns and steep grades, emergency stops, and vehicles crowding your lane around the blind curves; along with fog, rain and high winds.  In my opinion, the MSF Basic Rider Course should be a prerequisite for riding the Cabot Trail, I was also damned glad to have the Experienced Rider Course under our belts, and I suggest that those in northern New England should try some less-demanding mountain routes first, like the Kancamagus Highway (#112) in New Hampshire and the Acadia National Park Loop Road in Maine.  Motorcyclists can try the Mount Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire as well, although it is not open to scooters.  And speaking of scooters, remember that we never had to manage a clutch and a shift-pedal like actual motorcyclists would have to do.  Anybody taking a motorcycle on the Cabot Trail better have shifting and braking down to a science, and second nature — it is definitely NOT the place to be fussing with a clutch or wondering which lever to grab!

And finally, we benefited enormously from having taken some overnight and 3-4 day trips before we undertook to ride across Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island.  We had our luggage system figured out, we had a good idea of what gear we would need and want (good idea for a wintertime blog post, that!), and we already knew about what our limit was for time in the saddle.  We were lucky with the weather and, really, in all respects on this trip — but this, in my opinion, is too big an undertaking to be a first trip.  I would also remind any bikers reading this post that you can be pretty sick, pretty injured, or at least somewhat out of it in a car and still get around, and still finish your trip.  Heck, you can even drive a car with a broken leg if you have the foresight to break the left one!  On a motorbike, however, you need to be at the top of your game mentally, and feeling good physically, or it’s just plain dangerous to be riding.  So what happens if you get sick or injured on this trip? Something to think about before you go….

In conclusion, I hope that this post is helpful to anyone contemplating a trip around Nova Scotia and the Cabot Trail.  In my opinion, the Trail in particular, but Nova Scotia in general, is a bucket-list kind of place, like the Grand Canyon — something everybody should get to see at least once in their lifetime.  It is absolutely deserving of its reputation as one of the great motorbike roads in North America.  My wish is that everyone who undertakes this ride has as great a time as we did!

along the Cabot Trail
along the Cabot Trail

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