The other side of Cape Breton

Hard to say which looks more bald …

On-Trail Excitement: “Turn right at the red barn”

Saturday was an early start, with the bikes packed up early for the trip into Sydney to search for a tire. We found one at Gords Sports Centre Racing Ltd., the local Kawasaki/Suzuki dealer, but it was Saturday and they had nobody to install it.

Bummer.

But the good guys behind the desk had a solution. They called ahead to Jim, a small independent dealer, who was along the way to the Cabot Trail, and Jim said he could install it. All we had to do was remember “turn right at the red barn, head down the road seven kilometres, and he’s on the left.”

Ya gotta do what ya gotta do: Matt straps down his newly-purchased tire for the ride across the island, looking for a dealer to install it. Thankfully, Matt remembered his Boy Scout knots and it didn’t fly off at speed.

We turned at the red barn (actually the Red Barn, a restaurant), but seven kilometres later, no shop. We kept on riding, trying to figure out where we’d gone wrong, then realized our guide had probably meant to say seven miles, and sure enough, that’s where we found Mackenzie Motorsports. Jim and his henchman (or is that a wrenchman?) had us roll the 919 right into the shop, where they had the tire change done in about a half-hour.

That half-hour gave me some time to roam around the garage and take in the scene. This was (is) a proper motorcycle shop, with a couple of vintage airheads stored in back, some Harley-Davidsons in for repairs, a cool shaft-driven GS1000L (in mint shape!), a KLR250 in the parking lot … it reminded me of the kind of small-town shops I used to hang around as a wet-behind-the-ears motorcyclist on PEI, run on a shoestring budget but owned and staffed by real-deal motorcycle enthusiasts, guys who knew a lot about every kind of older motorcycle there is. And the kind of guys who don’t mind changing your tire on a Saturday morning when they know you’ve got to finish your tour and get home.

Mackenzie Motorsports, the only motorcycle shop on the Cabot Trail. If you’re going to break down on a road trip, this is the kind of place you want to find.

A rip down the Margaree River to the coast, lunch in Cheticamp, then Matt and I were in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, starting the stretch of road that people are really thinking of when they talk about the Cabot Trail.

There’s lots already written about the Cabot Trail’s views through the park, but very few people talk about how it’s the only place in the northeast that offers cliffside riding. It’s not just Canadians who get excited about the Trail — motorcyclists from New England and even farther away come to ride here. It really is something special, and you’d have to go to the Rockies to get the same sort of thrills. It’s nothing like the endless stretches of mountain and canyon riding that make the American Southwest so special, but it’s enough to give most people a yearly fix.

Time to eat at Le Gabriel restaurant! While Cape Breton is well-known for its Scottish heritage, there’s also a strong Acadian culture. Lunch in Cheticamp (a very French town) was this sampler of Acadian dishes, all good, except for the canned baked beans. Le sigh …

Mid-way on the trail, Matt and I met CMG hangaround Charles Landry, who’s spent the last couple of summers doing road construction on the Cabot Trail — that’s the kind of local guide you want! Not only does Charles know all the scenic lookoffs and twisty side diversions, he also knows where it’s worth taking it easy, as his job means he has inside knowledge of the crashes and other mayhem on the mountains here.

Charles recommended we divert down the White Point Road, which proved an excellent decision. The road is more winding than the stretch through the park, and the isolated towns here are beautiful, unknown gems in an area that’s still mysteriously unspoiled by tourists.

Charles gives us a reconstruction of an accident that occurred here the week before. Incredibly, the rider walked away from the crash, after flying over a cliff edge at speed.

The locals here still mostly make their living in commercial fisheries, the way their ancestors did, and that’s why the towns are nestled into tiny harbours that offer minimal protection from the raging Atlantic. Most of the buildings are modest, although you occasionally see more ostentatious houses built with out-of-province money. If the locals here are striking it rich in the lobster fishery, you’d never know it from outward appearances. Even the boats are small when compared to the gale-busting vessels we saw tied up at Cheticamp earlier.

Of course, this scenery and these curves are what bring riders to the Cabot Trail year after year.

Charles wanted a bite to eat, so we stopped at the Clucking Hen, where a local gave some hints as to why we didn’t see any local sportbikers on the trail, only oldsters aboard Gold Wings, Harley-Davidson tourers or BMWs (mostly GS adventure models).

Our server was young and in his 20s, and told us he’d bought a CBR a few years back, but after taking a hard look at his street riding habits on the Trail, he’d decided to give it up — he was having way too much fun going way too fast. And in an area of Canada where cruisers are the norm, it’s easy to see why local sportbikers might shy away from the Trail: even if they decide they can handle the risk of warp speed on the mountainous curves, there’s a good chance you might end up stuck behind a bagger anyway (at best! at worst, it might be an RV).

The Red Shoe Pub in Mabou: Well worth the late-day ride.
The Night Riders

Matt and I dumped our luggage at the Silver Dart Lodge and thought about supper. There’s no shortage of eateries in Baddeck, and the Lodge itself had a restaurant, but there was one place I’d wanted to try for some time now — the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou.

Anyone who knows anything about Cape Breton knows its most famous export, now the coal mining has ended, is the Rankin family, musicians from the Mabou area. First, family members performed together, then some of them had solo careers. Along the way, four of the Rankin sisters bought the Red Shoe Pub. Now it’s known as much for the local musical talent that performs there as it is for good food. If you want to experience Cape Breton culture, this is arguably the best place to do so.

We headed through the middle of the island on the West Lake Ainslie Road, yet another unexpected gem, and rolled into Mabou just before dark. We worried we wouldn’t find seats when we saw how busy the pub was, but we managed to get a great table, right across from Joe MacMaster, who was tearing up a storm on the fiddle and bagpipes, as you can see in the video below.

This isn’t your typical Saturday night pub experience. Nobody was here to get drunk. The room was full of locals who wanted to hear their culture’s music, and as you can tell from the stomping, they loved it. And so did we. The supper was good, too.

Finally, it was time to boogie back across the island to the hotel. As we suited up, we told ourselves we’d keep to the speed limit and be careful in the dark and blah blah blah. Turned out the 252 back to Baddeck was so much fun that we kind of forgot to stick to that plan …

9 thoughts on “The other side of Cape Breton”

  1. Oh how I wan’t to retrace your ride! I already bookmarked it and if it’s not going to be this fall, it’ll be next year.

      1. Yes please Zac. I would love to get more detail info, especially on the places you stayed overnight. How do I contact you through PM?

  2. We did the Cabot trail and around the Bras d’Or by car several years ago. We concluded that ‘scenic’ on the route signs was actually Gaelic for ´pothole’! Beautiful country and friendly folks, though.

  3. The ride report is excellent! And thanks for adding in the google maps feature, that is brilliant! I’ve done this rip about six times now, but you managed to add a few roads to my list for my next trip out that way.

    Can’t wait for the next tour, On the DR650? 🙂

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