The full palette of brilliant colored leaves flies by as I pedal past Virginia creepers, birch, larch and maple trees in Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Highlands National Park on the Cabot Trail. This 186-mile-long coastal route in Canada is considered one of the world's most beautiful landscapes. Each day we pedal along steep zigzagging highlands plunging down to the North Atlantic Ocean where whales spout and dolphins jump; we cycle on country roads past rolling farmland where herds of shaggy Highland cattle are grazing, and along wooded trails leading to salmon ponds or glistening turquoise lakes mirroring the brilliant foliage.
Peter, the guide/driver/bike mechanic of Freewheeling Adventures http:// www.freewheeling.ca spoils us to death. Sometimes he serves us picnic lunches of home made hummus, mango feta, cold cuts, fresh-baked Porridge bread and pumpkin muffins with chocolate chips. The snacks include Cape Breton's special molasses Fat Archie's cookies and homemade oat cakes, which Scottish immigrants introduced here. When we arrive to our rooms at the spacious and comfy inns, our luggage has preceded us. And the rooms always have excellent views of the mountains dressed in their autumn colors or above sparkling lakes. I love the food, especially lobster, snow crab, seafood chowder, homemade bread and Nova Scotia wines. But best is that I coincidentally chose to come to Cape Breton the week of the Celtic Colours International Festival.
In the 1880s, Celtic fiddling, piping, and singing made its way across the Atlantic from Scotland to Cape Breton where it has been a fixture since. The annual Celtic Festival invites the world's best Celtic musicians and singers to perform here daily, and each evening, we've gone to excellent concerts. I love the way the musicians first tell the story of what they're going to sing or announce a song such as "Ode to a Broken Heart" and then say, "Don't worry, it's not a sad song." Many of the performers sing in Gaelic, but their voices are so haunting and beautiful that I can easily feel the emotion. For every finale, all the musicians who have played (sometimes as many as 12) come back on stage and perform together, a melodic orchestra of voices, keyboards, guitars, mandolins, fiddles, accordions, harps, drums and bagpipers.
After breakfast, Peter hands us a detailed itinerary with a map, directions, distances, and suggestions of places to visit. Deb, a physician from Vancouver and I are the only two on this trip (two couples had to cancel at the last minute) so it's our own private tour. The two of us ride at about the same pace, and we always arrive at a new inn with time to relax before dinner or stroll the beach and watch the sunset. Up until last night, the weather was good, but then it poured. This morning, I was hustling into my rain gear when suddenly the sky cleared up and a giant rainbow arced across the sky.
We bike until around noon and if we're not having a gourmet picnic, we pull into local favorites such as The Dancing Goat Café for delicious chicken tarragon sandwiches on fresh porridge bread or The Clucking Hen for lobster salad. Often along the route we'll pass a shop such as "Sew Inclined" which makes funky bespoke hats or "Leather Works" where everything is handcrafted. My favorite place is Wreck Cove General Store, which has food, merchandise and a small café. I go to pay for a woolen Cape Breton cap and the owner, who's had the store 37 years, looks at my bike helmet and says, "Are you freewheeling the Cabot Trail?" I nod. "You deserve a medal," she says.
She's wrong. I feel as though I've been given a medal by cycling through these charming quaint towns -- sometimes flat terrain, sometimes rolling hills, and a few killer hills on the route, but always with the option of riding up in the van. I never get tired of looking at the scenery and meeting the locals and hearing great music nightly. I'm also becoming a Wikipedia of esoteric information because every town has a museum.
At the Alexander Graham Bell Historic Site, I learn that Bell's mother and wife were both deaf and that he invented the telephone as a hearing device. The director at the Salmon Museum tells me the largest salmon caught from the Margaree River was grabbed in 1927 and weighed 52.5 pounds. At les Trois PIgnons, a Hooked Rug Museum, I see world-famous hooked rugs, and learn that hooking is an indigenous craft to this area. The curator at the St. Paul Lighthouse Museum tells me the lighthouse keeper got $15 for every shipwrecked sailor he rescued. My favorite place is the Musical Instrument Museum in a private home near Cheticamp where the owner lets me try out an antique Hohner 6 Part Tremolo harmonica.
Sometimes we take a break from cycling and Peter leads us hiking on a gorgeous trail such as The Skyline. We walk through a forest canopy dappled with light, past undulating meadows and finally up a long wooden boardwalk to the summit. I look down the sheer drops to the water and see whales spouting. Going back down the trail, we see a mother moose and her calf less than twenty feet away, so close I can hear them chewing the shrubbery. Another time we cycle down a steep hill to White Point which must be the windiest point in Cape Breton. We hike up the alpine tundra to a cemetery of unmarked granite rocks, the graves of shipwrecked sailors. The wind almost blows us off our feet as we watch the waves crash twenty and thirty feet against the rocks into the air.
All too soon it is our last day. Not wanting the adventure to end, I cycle much slower than usual to take in my last views of the winding highway carved into the ancient highlands. This trip has been a feast for the senses: seeing the rainbows and brilliant fall colors in the soaring Cape Breton Highlands, tasting the mouth-watering local food, feeling the soft pine needles on wooded trails brush against my skin, smelling the intoxicating salt air, and listening to rollicking live music and singing in Gaelic. Just then, a golden eagle soars above me, a perfect ending to my Cabot Trail adventure.
Follow Margie Goldsmith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/margiegoldsmith