‘Arris does Cape Breton

cabot_sign_st.jpgWords: Rob Harris. Pics: Rob Harris unless otherwise specified (Title: Steve Thornton)

The Cabot Trail should be in the top three to-do rides for any Canadian motorcyclist. And why? Well, it’s a 300-km serpentine flow of asphalt that circumnavigates around the northern arm of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.

This loop takes you along the edge of the Gulf of St Lawrence on its western side and down the rugged Atlantic coast on its eastern edge. It pauses for the occasional Gaelic and Acadian based villages along the way.

I’m a little ashamed to say that although I’ve lived in Canada for more than 20 years now, I hadn’t taken the time to head east and explore this part of the Maritimes.

However, my recent move to New Brunswick meant that the Trail was now in my back yard, and a proposed informal journalist get-together by Honda Canada on the Cape didn’t hurt either.

Honda’s plan was to get everyone out to attend the last round of the National Superbike Series at Schubenacadie (Honda sponsors the CBR125R series) and then head up to a resort in Margaree Harbour for general corporate updates followed by a day riding a selection of bikes around the Trail. Altogether not too shoddy.

Being a proper moto journalist I wasn’t just satisfied with getting a couple of nights comp courtesy of Honda and promptly phoned the Nova Scotia tourism board to make a five-day trip out of it so I could include getting there from Sackville, NB and an excursion to the Fortress of Louisbourg while I was in the area.


I was quite excited about this trip. The CBF600 long termer was ready and packed and all I needed to do was get a good night’s sleep and an early start the next day.

The good night’s sleep was broken by a sudden and strong stomach flu that sent me to the bathroom for a short but violent chat on the big white phone to God (“Oh God, balaaghhhh .., oh … uh, oh God … balaaghhhh”).


The name is a lot more romantic than the road, but then it was more interesting than the highway.
map: novascotia.com 

Needless to say there was no early start and to extend my recovery time I decided to opt out from the day at the races. I ended up leaving late in the afternoon and instead of taking the fast Trans Canada I chose to check out the romantically named Sunrise Trail that meanders along the northern shore of Nova Scotia.

Though what could be best described as ‘pleasant’ the Sunrise Trail also suffers from too many slow urban areas (due to my late start I was a little twitchy to get some miles under my tires) and the bane of many a ‘coastal’ road – only the occasional glimpse of the coast.

The Trail crosses the Trans Canada at New Glasgow, which is where I hopped off it and onto the TC and sped my way to the Canso Causeway that is the gateway to Cape Breton Island. By now the sun was setting and I meandered my way up the west side of the Cape in a spritely fashion.


Keep an eye out for these buggers and fiddle players.
Photo:Nova Scotia Economic and Rural Development and Tourism.

If only I hadn’t had to keep my eyes scanning the bush on either side for things with big racks (and moose too) I would have had a thoroughly enjoyable cruise to Margaree Harbour, replete with setting sun over the Northumberland Straight.

As it was, I arrived just as the sun had popped its clogs to be greeted by a rather over-enthusiastic host, who was obviously overjoyed to see the first Honda Canada guest show up (albeit a tad late).

Her relief was short lived when I told her that I wasn’t riding with the others and that I suspected that they may be a little later still. Oh, and where’s the bar?

Sure enough a scotch and a pint or two later and a slow-moving train of single headlights could be seen approaching in the distance. Seems they had a late start, too.


The Cabot Trail was constructed in 1932, but it has had a bit of a history of neglect and for a while was so badly beaten up that it was really only good for dual sports.


Cape Breton Island.
map: novascotia.com

Thankfully that changed recently and a lot of the trail is now covered with new, smooth, grippy asphalt, and those bits that are not are in the process of being refurbished. Also the areas where you need smooth pavement the most (the hilly and twisty bits) are the best kept, enabling for knee out fast sweepers without fear of a jarring bump mid-corner.

Being a loop you can choose to either ride the Trail clockwise or counter clockwise. Adding a couple of days to this trip allowed me the luxury of doing it both ways – today being counter as that seemed to be the general consensus of the gaggle of hacks I was riding with.

All Honda requested was that everyone be back by 6:00 pm for dinner, and with a midday departure that seemed an easy target.

The Trail is a whole mix of road types, from sections of straight highway to gorgeous mountain switchbacks, with a goodly amount of it clinging to sloping hillsides that slide dramatically into the ocean below.


It’s as good as it looks.
Photo:Nova Scotia Economic and Rural Development and Tourism.

Of course the choice is to either ride the road or check out the views. Don’t try and do both unless you fancy a rather long and painful tumble, ending in an unceremonious splash into a watery grave.


Recent repaving work makes for fabulous cornering.

The most spectacular part of the Trail (and the one that makes it into all the brochures) is the northern half. This circumnavigates Cape Breton Highlands National Park and it’s where there are lots of elevation changes and plenty of switchbacks.

It’s also the place where we decided to stop for an impromptu photo shoot, having just found a stretch of road known as ‘Old Smokey’ that climbs steeply up the side of a hill and then dramatically — and abruptly — swings sharply to the left before continuing its upward ascent.

Steve Thornton did the honours of scrambling up the inside cliff of said corner with his camera while the rest of us swung up and down trying to get enough speed up to get some sort of half-dramatic action shot.


He got the shot.
Photo: Steve Thornton

Now there’s something quite disconcerting about redlining through the gears, heading directly toward a yellow sign with a little black arrow pointing to the left and perched between an Armco barrier, the big blue sky and a vertical drop to the sea.

After each pass, as I snuggled into the side of the road, clutch in and waiting for the last rider to pass by in front of the lens, I let my mind ponder the drop behind the yellow sign and felt a little shiver run down my spine.

But then I’d have to block that thought out before dropping it into first, checking my shoulder and giving her before dropping my knee out and railing around.

Click. I hope he got the shot.

Although six hours to do 300 km sounds reasonable enough, with all the photos, coffee stops and someone running out of gas (don’t worry Mr Thornton, your secret was safe with me) we didn’t get back till 8:00 pm, which despite their strict instructions before leaving, didn’t seem to be an issue with our Honda handlers after all.

Next week we’ll delve into part 2 as ‘arris and Thornton head to Fortress Louisbourg for a trip back to the 1700s. Just don’t expect us to dance.


  1. This will give some reference to “redlining towards a yellow sign with left turn arrow against blue sky”. * Disclaimer no redlining on my part 🙂

    [url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZUl5iynQl8]Link Text[/url]

  2. Great article, Mr. ‘Arris, and may I say as a native Cape Bretoner that you do the Island justice. Looking forward to Part II, where you get invited to dinner at the coffee server’s home and spend the weekend at a kitchen ceilidh with three fiddlers and a 14 year-old guitar picker who makes Johnny B Goode sound like a rank amateur.

  3. I’ve done the rain and fog bit, and even with that it was a superb ride. If my wife’s back is up to it, we’re thinking about heading down again; it’s been too long. If we do, a phone call to Patrick sounds in order for sure.

  4. Hey Doug,

    The best times are July and August. I find September to be great riding weather with less RV’s. The first couple of weeks of October, although sometimes cool in the morning can be very good for riding and seeing the fall colours. We are pretty busy in October…There is a saying here, if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes….If you come prepared, you will no doubt have a great time! 🙂

  5. Great Article, so what are the other two must-rides?

    Also, when’s the best times to go weather-wise? The only people I know who’ve ridden the Cabot Trail brought back horror stories of cold, rain and fog. Are all those tourism photos actually taken on the one sunny day per year?

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