The Essential Cape Breton Island
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The Essential Cape Breton Island


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By Vic Williams

Sometimes it’s tough to pin down the native poetry of a place. The rhythm and meter, its vital images and word choices. You’re either blasting through in a day or two with no time to hear the verse or too caught up in modern distractions to get into the groove of fully being there. You need more time and space and a spate of simple, fleeting quiet.

But make that place Cape Breton Island and the poetry wafts your way the minute you step off a plane in the port city of Sydney, arriving from Halifax or Toronto and origin points farther afield such as New York or Boston. Or if the flight terminated in Halifax, you’ll feel it as you cross the Strait of Canso, which separates the heart-shaped island from the rest of Nova Scotia — at three kilometers not a wide expanse by any means but more than enough separation to have given Cape Bretoners their own songs to sing over the five centuries since Italian-born explorer Giovanni Caboto laid claim to its hilly, wooded hide for his English employers, who called him John Cabot.



And sing they do — through Friday-night Irish Ceilidhs in crowded church halls, in the pubs of any village along the Cabot Trail, via summertime rock concerts in front of thousands on a balmy riverside dock or wherever the mood strikes them. This Maritime archipelago of some 150,000 souls has chorus and verse, melody and harmony running through its veins with greater vigor than many places you’ll find on the map.

The courses forming the heart of the Golf Cape Breton consortium have their own songs to sing, too, and we heard them all during a weeklong jaunt around the island at the height of the summer season. An unusual heat wave made some afternoon rounds feel more like Florida than Canada, but with the wider lens of full immersion firmly in place, we had no problem remembering where we were, what we saw, heard and tasted, and who treated us like they treat all guests: as long-lost but forever family.

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At Cabot Links, the Cape’s newest resort in the former mining town of Inverness, we heard the unmistakable linksland rhythm — Gulf of St. Lawrence surf on sand, westerly wind through fescue — coming at us in a warm tumble across dunes that once shared the land with coal mine tailings but thanks to the vision of a handful of people including Toronto transplant Ben Cowan-Dewar, Bandon Dunes creator Mike Keiser and Alberta-born architect Rod Whitman were transformed into Canada’s first true links course.

At Highlands Links, which resides inside the gates of Cape Breton National Park near the Atlantic fishing burg of Ingonish, we heard the deep, resonant refrains of the nation’s golf history as composed by the great Stanley Thompson, the north-of-the-border version of Alister MacKenzie or Donald Ross or Pete Dye, to be more birthplace-correct. And we saw the almost-complete results of what happens when a master composer’s “sheet music” — Thompson’s original drawings — are brought back to life by a modern designer with a talented shaping staff.

At both The Lakes near Sydney and Bell Bay in the lovely, centrally located burg of Baddeck — where Alexander Graham Bell kept a vacation estate, dying there in 1922 — we heard the lyrical lilt of mountain music wafting across Bras d’Or Lake with an orchestra of towering trees standing in for strings and woodwinds, with the courses themselves proving the perfect venues for such sight-and-sound symphonies.

At Le Portage in the Acadian outpost of Cheticamp, we heard the distant strains of New Orleans jazz that, unbeknownst to many Americans, can be traced straight back there — with a bar or two of Scottish jig and church bell peal laced in for good measure, and played the handiwork of a couple local guys who moved just enough dirt to come up with a unique municipal masterpiece.

Good thing music is the universal language, because for such a relatively small slab of land (just under 4,000 square miles), Cape Breton is an amazing melting pot of cultural and linguistic influences. While French is Cheticamp’s native tongue, locals elsewhere speak with a heady mix of accents. Listen closely and you’ll hear hints of Irish, Scottish, Mother Country English, straight-out Canadian (eh?), a dash of French and smattering of the truly original Mi’kmaq tongue. Driving the 185-mile Cabot Trail that traces coastline and mountain passes along the island’s northern half, then heading south to Inverness and back around to Baddeck, we spotted many a road sign in both English and Gaelic, igniting an Ireland flashback or two. Guinness flows in great draughts from every pub’s tap; so do such local brews as Propeller Pale Ale or Alexander Keats. And if you swing by Glenora Distillery just 10 minutes inland from Cabot Links’ first tee, you’ll savor some of Canada’s most lovingly brewed whisky, aged in barrels of American oak.

In all, Cape Breton’s heady and relaxed mix of golf, music, food, drink and hospitality makes it an emerging Essential Destination of the most memorable kind. The weather is on a par with what you’d get in Ireland or Scotland. And it doesn’t take a red-eye across the pond to get there, which should make it even more attractive to East Coast golfers looking for the next great thing.

Then again, this rich little corner of North America has moved beyond “next.” It’s here, and its profile on golf travel’s world stage is rising by the day. We are now Cape crusaders, unified by the same common thought engendered at golfing hotspots such as Bandon Dunes: To truly experience Cape Breton’s golf getaway horsepower at full throttle, you’ve got to block out a week minimum. Two rental cars, seven days, five courses, six sweet lodging spots, at least that many restaurants serving ... well, let’s start with the fresh lobster and several seafood chowder recipes, plus some otherworldly French baked goods, local whisky and even some Lick-A-Chick (say what?), and go from there … you’ve got a lot of ground, game and calories to cover on Cape Breton Island.

LAKE, SEA OR BOTH?

The three of us flying into Sydney on an Air Canada puddle jumper from Boston by way of Halifax — where many visiting Americans will clear customs coming and going — noticed one salient feature of the island: Water is everywhere. Of course, right? Well, yeah, but the huge body of water at its heart, all 424 square miles of it, is unique to the vast Canadian landscape. Bras d’Or Lake is actually an inland sea, fed both by rain and snow from the highlands to the north and by the North Atlantic to the east and south. One of our guys drove in from Portland, Maine, a two-day, 700-mile journey that would take him along much of the Big Bras d’Or south shore. Once we were all gathered in Sydney — with Golf Cape Breton’s Katherine MacDonald on board as our über-knowledgeable, incredibly organized and often hilarious hostess for the week — we’d all get the first of many eyes-ful of Little Bras d’Or, basically the lake’s northern extremity, where one of Cape Breton’s golf courses is in full flourish and the region’s brand of laid-back tourism takes full root.

Within minutes of touchdown we hit the road for our first tee time fully loaded with our suitcases, modern clubs for two of us, hickories for the other two and assorted camera gear — and running a head of steam born of several weeks of anticipation and nearly hour-to-hour planning.

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“How far to The Lakes?” I asked Katherine.

“About 45 minutes.” Not bad, and one key to Cape Breton’s assured success as a golf destination: The participating consortium courses — the five we played, plus Dundee, one of the island’s original resort layouts — are no more than a couple hours from each other, with a few mom-and-pop munis along the way if you really want to get down with the natives.

The tiny settlement of Ben Eoin (pronounced “yawn”) proved the perfect place to start our trek. That’s where The Lakes finds its merry way through the lower reaches of a popular ski hill overlooking Bras d’Or, stair-stepping and swooping from one killer view to the next. Toronto-based architect Graham Cooke took the reins here and acquitted himself nicely, giving the course a muscular yet affable parkland-mountain rhythm thanks to fairly wide driving lanes tempered by ample bunkering. More than a few approach shots are off slightly sidehill lies to greens clinging to a slope, cradled in a copse of trees or rising above them, into the full breeze. No. 6, pretty much the Lakes’ signature hole, is nearly drivable if that breeze is coming off the mountain and toward the lake, but it’ll take big poke over a semicircle of cross bunkers to get close. We grabbed a moment to take in the view from the hole’s elevated tee — the lake stretching below us from horizon to horizon, dotted with sailboats and ringed in densely forested hills. We’d finally arrived, and if this was a sign of the vistas to come, we were in for quite a week.

So were our swings and scorecards. After a challenging back nine with its 3-3-3 configuration (including three 5-pars that yielded only three collective pars among us), none of us scared the 80s. One of us notched the lone birdie on the par-3 11th, balanced by my stellar 10 on No. 16 — at 514 yards, it’s reachable in two unless you blow a tee shot wide right into the tall grass, tack on a couple cold-tops, add a dead yank 3-wood emergency approach deep into the forest, take a drop, pull off a bunker chunk and finish with a three-jack. Don’t try that at home. Or anywhere.

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Like several of Cape Breton’s public courses, The Lakes was built mostly with a mix of public and private financing, according to Patrick Laderoute, who came on as golf operations manager a few months before we arrived. A founding group of a couple hundred locals put up the loonies and toonies to hire Cooke, come up with the plans and work with the ski resort’s developer to blend the course into its lower slopes, thereby giving Ben Eoin — which is really a tiny Sydney suburb — a year-round destination.

The course opening boosted bottom lines of nearby businesses like The Birches, a 12-room bed-and-breakfast next door where we spent our first night, an all-too-short visit sandwiched between a trip into Sydney for the annual “Rock the Dock” music festival (if you haven’t heard of a Canadian band and YouTube sensation called Walk Off the Earth, brace yourselves, because they’ll be conquering America one of these days) and an excellent continental breakfast of bagels, pastries and fresh fruit.

“Our business has increased markedly since they opened in 2009,” says Barb McPherson, who owns and operates The Birches with her husband, Larry. “We opened in 2004 and do a lot of business with The Lakes, a lot of cooperative marketing — stay-and-play packages that include room, green fees, electric cart, breakfast and so on. Our busiest time of year is from June until late September. We are open year-round except for the month of January when we close for our staff holiday.”

The McPhersons moved to Sydney in 1999 after 35 years on Prince Edward Island, where Larry was deputy minister of tourism for a decade. He helped facilitate the opening crop of that island’s fine resort courses, including Crowbush. Now they see Cape Breton approaching PEI in popularity.

“We have high-quality courses now,” Barb says. “People can come for three, four, five days and have a different golf experience every day. And the natural beauty of the place and hospitality of our citizens, the Celtic traditions and music are definitely assets for all of us. My husband says golfers are like gunslingers, they love notching up courses. The more they can notch up on a trip, the happier they are. And they love to have good service, good food and quality accommodations. We built the Inn before the golf course was here, and it was very debatable [whether we’d make it]. We are very happy it has become a reality; we’re one of about 150 shareholders in the course, a public-private partnership.”

GOING BIG IN BADDECK

Views of Bras d’Or filled our windshields for the better part of the next two days, revealing not only its epic expanse but vital importance to the island on many fronts, especially economic. And the lakefront burg of Baddeck is, according to guys like Scott MacAuley, the hub of Cape Breton’s tourism wheel. Through high season it fills up with second-home owners and extended vacationers tugging all kinds watercraft behind them from Halifax, Sydney and points beyond in Nova Scotia and Canada at large. A heck of a lot of them pack their sticks, too, salivating for another shot at Bell Bay.

MacAuley — who owns the Thomas McBroom-designed course along with Dundee Golf Course (about an hour’s drive south on the other side of the lake); the Inverary Inn in Baddeck, where we spent our second night and dined in the excellent Lakeside Restaurant; and several other island properties — is a second-generation resort executive born for the job, with the unguarded, utterly unpretentious and helpful manner of the buddy next door. His parents were first to jump into tourism, and he got the bug right away.

“I was a young kid when my folks bought the Inverary as a retirement project,” he said as we worked our way through a caprese salad appetizer, chowder, five-leaf salad, oven-roasted halibut with portabella mushrooms, lobster risotto, double-bone pork chop and a couple of killer desserts from Chef Tim Lockhart’s considerable repertoire, including a light, lemony pastry created by MacAuley’s mother back in the day. “I’ve grown up in the business. It’s always been my dream to take something older and make it look good and work good. It’s what I’ve been doing all my life.”

In 1990, MacAuley hired architect Robert Moote to design Dundee, marking his first foray into the golf realm. “We put together a partnership in order to revitalize the 60-year-old lodge and bring some new product to Dundee,” he recalls. “When I went there on Labor Day weekend, there was actually one employee working, and now September is one of our busiest months. It’s really come a long way.”

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He opened Bell Bay in Baddeck seven years later and it immediately shot to the top of Cape Breton’s growing must-play list. MacAuley saw he had a hit on his hands right away, and he was able to tie it into his older course.

“I knew that with the establishment of Bell Bay, if we didn’t do something, Dundee would suffer,” he says. “We were pretty fortunate because it didn’t miss a beat. That kind of worked. It’s an hour from Baddeck to anywhere, so it’s central.”

Bell Bay rings true thanks to McBroom’s intimate knowledge of the Canadian landscape and his flair for pulling a brand of quiet, concentrated drama out of what, in lesser hands, could be just another northern woods back-and-forth exercise. Water touches only two holes, but not Bras d’Or; it’s a small inland pond on the back nine.

The big water still makes its presence known thanks to several broad, elevated views along the way that can, if you’re not careful, distract to the point of severe card damage. Our foursome’s scores would range from 77 to, well, a bit north of a C-note, which showed just how disparate our levels of concentration truly were and how tough this track is even from the white tees, with a slope of 135 (from the tips you’re looking at a brutal 144). It’s also a clear indicator of Bell Bay’s amateur and professional competition bona fides; indeed, it’s the leader in the clubhouse as a regional and local tournament venue, with plenty of lodging and dining options just down the road.

As with all of the routings we’d negotiate throughout the week, Bell Bay brings a sublime distraction to the party, starting from the very first hole, a slightly uphill 4-par to a slightly raised green framed by tall conifers. Two more two-shotters lead into the first of four excellent 5-pars, including each nine’s finishing hole. Though they’re all of similar distance (within 25 yards of each other), they’re quite different in character and movement, with only the 18th handicapped in the single digits, and rightly so; it demands one of the course’s straightest shots off the tee, setting up either a heroic all-or-nothing blast to a funnel-shaped green or a layup that must avoid a trio of stacked bunkers. Nobody matched par there.

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Dinner on the nearby lake beckoned, complete with a lager or two and glass of wine with our entrees — one of us celebrating what would be his best round of the week, the rest of us licking our wounds and hoping for a round that would do us proud and the next course justice. Bell Bay should have demanded a recount. Instead, despite the beating we gave its almost perfectly manicured bentgrass flanks under mostly overcast skies, it asked that we only remember it fondly.

And that we do. Pardon the cliché, but there ain’t a bad hole in the bunch.

The same train of thought applies to Baddeck as a whole: Hugging the lake as it does with the occasional kayak, sailboat, fishing vessel and even full-blown cruise ship sliding by, and centered by a short main drag presenting shops, small eateries and inns the way all self-respecting tourist towns should — then populating it with locals whose earnest, straightforward kindness simply can’t be faked — it’s near-idyllic. At the very least, it’s genuinely Cape Breton, with or without the golf, and that won’t change no matter how many people roll through for extended vacations, conventions, guy trips or whatever.

“One of the things I’ve always thought is the golf is great, but it’s the other elements — the entertainment, the culture — that really enhances our golf product as well,” MacAuley said as the sun set over the broad, grassy grounds of the Inverary and a Friday-evening wedding party posed for photos on the docks below the restaurant. “To be able to portray and present that is important.”

With that, MacAuley — a man who controls many millions of dollars’ worth of property and employs hundreds of people — volunteered to help Mitch procure a kayak for a quick video segment, even helping him into and out of the wobbly one-seater, just as a front-line worker would.

That pretty much says it all.

INTO THE HIGHLANDS

We had miles to go before we’d tee it up again, after a couple hours’ drive north to the fishing village of Ingonish, gateway to Cape Breton Highlands National Park and its famed Stanley Thompson golf course, Highlands Links. So before blowing out of Baddeck, we rolled through a ubiquitous Tim Horton’s drive-thru for coffee and breakfast sandwiches. By the way, Canada’s largest fast-food chain — bigger than even McDonald’s — has a golf connection, too. Its main owner, investor Ron Joyce, also owns Fox Harb’r on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, north of Halifax. Its course and resort rank among the province’s best. In fact, several times we were asked if we’d made it down there to play. Maybe next time.

Heading east to the Englishtown Ferry, we took a one-minute cable-tow across a finger of Atlantic inlet and immediately sensed the land changing around us. Rolling hills turned to stouter mountains and the signs of civilization that came along every few miles in the Sydney corridor got fewer and farther between. The road narrowed a bit and started to wind around our souls like a stretch of California’s Highway 1, especially as we made the gradual climb to a scenic overlook on Cape Smokey, just south of Ingonish. This was the edge of the island’s wild country, where moose probably outnumber humans and the next course east of Highlands Links is Waterville … in Ireland.

History has it that Stanley Thompson first laid eyes on the tumbling tract of farmland that would become Highlands Links in 1938, two years after Cape Breton Highlands National Park was established. He lobbied the government to hire him to build a “mountains and ocean” course with young Geoffrey Cornish as project manager — a fellow Canadian who later made his own name as the American Northeast’s most prolific architect.

“[Thompson] was an interesting entrepreneur,” says Graham Hudson, the colorful operations manager. “That was the Depression era, and he actually went to the prime minister and said, ‘Give me the money, I’ll take 200 men and a steamshovel, and I’ll create something you can’t believe.’ He walked it and visualized it — how he was able to do that is beyond me. When you look at holes 13 and 5, nobody in his right mind would think those would be golf holes, but they’re just marvelous.”

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The course started and finished on a narrow spit of earth just across the road from a large resort, the Keltic Lodge — which remains one of the island’s top summertime draws today — and then hewed to the semi-mountainous terrain, across fields and between stands of old-growth trees. But over the ensuing decades, nature began to reclaim the land, encroaching on Thompson’s original tees, greens and sightlines. Ocean views got harder to come by, but the course was so remote — a largely unseen jewel in Thompson’s nearly 30-course Canadian crown — that it didn’t get the attention and funding it deserved. Only a 1964 telecast of “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf” featuring pros George Knudson and Al Balding gave many Canadians a clue that this masterpiece even existed.

Four years later, the original greens were raised and replaced to improve drainage, but the incredible original routing remained intact, leading to a 1996 renovation at the hands of Graham Cooke and Steve Miller. They cleared out trees, rebuilt bunkers, added new tees and cart paths, making the course more tourist-friendly (though hardy locals choose to walk it even now — nearly eight miles in all, perhaps two holes of it anywhere close to flat).

Still, good as Cooke’s work was, earning Highlands Links No. 1 rankings in Canada and Top 100 status worldwide as well as Audubon certification, the course’s wild heart somehow remained concealed. In 2008, Hudson came on board to put a new master plan into motion with Ian Andrew heading up the field work.

“Because it’s the park system, we have all the documents, all the pictures, so Ian was able to access all of that,” Hudson says. “Bunkering is back to the original size, shape and location. He followed the pictures. All the greens are original except for 13, which was raised two feet. So many greens had lost their size and shape over the past 70 years, and we lost pin placements, but now they’re all back.”

Back with a vengeance, as we discovered during our 18-hole battle with Thompson’s ghostly genius and Andrews’ thoughtful and reverent handiwork. Having played Highlands Links once before — or, rather, 15 darkness-shortened holes of it during a whirlwind three-day visit to the island in October 2011 — I went in knowing how good, and how gloriously tough, it really is. But still I came away surprised while my cohorts, especially Brian, couldn’t get enough of the place. The greens, though not fast, veer to the large side, with some carrying severe Alister MacKenzie-caliber slopes. And while there’s always an opening to the fairway, the slightest off-line approach will most likely find one of those big ol’ refurbished bunkers or, worse, the nearby forest.

The opener may be Canada’s finest — straightaway, uphill, the fairway rumpled and canted, the green way up on a broad knoll daring you to take enough club for a shot at a two-putt par. Make sure to gobble one of the grill’s homemade cinnamon rolls before taking it on.

It just gets more interesting from there, with a handful of blind and semi-blind tee shots dictated by the lay of the land not some ill-advised architectural agenda (think Lahinch in Ireland or the iconic No. 8 at Pebble Beach); uphill and downhill holes unfurled in equally effective measure; just enough water to further stir the senses and focus the mind (especially the back-tee shot on “Bonnie Burn” No. 11, which must clear the Cyburn River — and make sure to take a detour down the lovely, relaxing river path between the No. 12 green and 13 tee if you’re walking); an abundance of flora and fauna, particularly on the course’s farther reaches around holes 9 and 10; and, yes, scads of incredible scenery. The views of Franey Mountain looking north and west are stellar enough, but with ongoing tree clearing it’s the vistas of ocean that not only reveal what Thompson saw some 75 years ago but give the place a taste of pure links magic even though it’s not technically a “links” by the strictest definition.

“Years ago you might have seen the ocean on four holes; now you can see it on 11, and when we’re finished you’ll probably see it on 14 holes,” Hudson says. “It changes the dynamics of the game because it opens up the wind, but it also helps with turf growth — sunlight, fresh air. It’s bringing back the course exactly the way it was. You don’t get that opportunity every day.”

Nor do you get greeted by Stanley Thompson himself — a bronze statue near the first tee and a life-size cardboard cutout in the entrance to the low-key, two-story clubhouse. And you don’t often get to total your foursome’s score on a deck overlooking such rare and remote beauty, augmented by another hearty bowl of chowder, a grilled sandwich and a cold brew.

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Nor do traveling golfers often get to follow up a round with a two-hour whale-watching excursion via inflatable Zodiac launched from nearby Pleasant Bay. Suited up in waterproof gear and fortified with Dramamine, we joined eight friends for the choppy high-speed jaunt under gray skies. Our captain, Kinnon, headed straight for known pod hangouts, and his hunch didn’t disappoint — we got up close and personal with a 60-foot finback whale (second largest in the world) and caught a glimpse of breaching dolphins and more than a few diving, swooping seabirds. Suddenly the immensity of the Atlantic and 50-mile views of the Cape Breton coast put in perspective the triple-digit score I’d perpetrated on Highlands Links. The dozen-plus golf balls I’d pumped into the forest (props to one of my mates for, miraculously, playing the entire round with a single ball) meant nothing; only the experience counted.

And what an experience it is.

We returned to land high, dry and mercifully still in possession of our lunch. Our photographer was fired up to get back to the course, snap a photo or two and perhaps play a few holes.

I joined him in the twilight as Katherine and our other two guys headed to the Castle Rock Inn. We rejoined them as the long summer day finally gave way to evening; pulling into the parking lot, we spotted them kicking back in big wooden rocking chairs, nursing a glass of red and gazing out on Ingonish Bay and the ocean beyond. It struck me as the perfect Cape Breton tableau, visually rich and redolent of the relaxed yet hard-working old-school spirit pervading this place.

Only one thing was missing.

We needed lobster. And lots of it.

We’d fill that void in a big way, at a big table in Castle Rock’s “Avalon” dining room with proprietor Kim Isabella Magistro there to greet us and keep the vino flowing as Hudson joined us for dinner. The table was covered with newspaper and decked out with the telltale implements of serious lobster lust: those plier-like shell crackers and tiny forks that’ll get at the really sweet meat hiding away in the claws and crannies. After we plowed through Magistro’s signature dish of mussels steamed in Kefir lime juice, coconut and chili broth, out came bowls of coleslaw and potato salad and warm, fresh bread — the supporting cast of a classic Cape Breton lobster feast — soon followed by a procession of big, whole, steamed beauties that had no doubt been scuttling along the bay’s floor just hours earlier.

We dug in with our own techniques and agendas. Some went for the tail first; others attacked the claws or the meaty part of the body cavity though, in reality, nearly every bit of the beast is edible, even the green tomalley in the gut, considered a delicacy by many pure lobsteroids. “Nah, don’t touch that,” said Hudson, whose idea this off-the-menu feast was in the first place (American-born Magistro, who’s also the Inn’s executive chef, has since added it as a regular offering for those seeking an authentic Cape Breton experience). I gave it a go. It’s an acquired taste, yeah, but edible. So is the red roe and just about everything else except the stomach and the dark sac between the eyes. Nothing like the wondrous white flesh we all know and crave, however, and while it takes some doing to get all of it, I can’t think of a more rewarding brand of work.

I plowed through two entire lobsters, plus a purloined morsel or two, making me the leader in the crustacean clubhouse. And we all found room for homemade apple pie a la mode and another glass of wine. Such gluttony would no doubt lead to comatose-like sleep later that evening, and did — good thing the rooms were as comfortable and quiet as the food was delicious, and that the Inn’s staff, including Magistro herself, fit right into the “now you’re family” sub-theme this journey had developed from the start.

In fact, Magistro and her partner got the same vibe during a 2006 visit from New York. “We stayed at the Keltic Lodge and fell in love with the place,” she recalls. “He’s a big golfer, and he went and played Highlands Links. We’d traveled all over the world together, to Europe and other places, but we’d heard about Cape Breton, so I called the tourism agency and we drove up from Halifax, took the Cabot Trail, and that’s how it all started.”

They’d stopped at the Castle Rock for chowder, and upon returning the following year found the property near foreclosure, so they decided to take the plunge and buy it, then apply for government “facade improvement” funds. “It’s been a lot of work, but every year we’ve made improvements,” she adds. “They paid half the expense, so that really helped. We started out at zero stars, then moved up to unranked, and now we’ve gotten it up to four stars.”

Though it took some getting used to — “Life is so much slower here than in New York, but I have no regrets” — Magistro now embraces Ingonish’s pace, people and peace, as do her customers, most of them couples and families who “make golf the center of their visit” and enjoy her Asian-fusion menu of organic ingredients and super-fresh seafood. Not exactly Scottish fare though the town itself carries strong echoes of the auld sod.

“It’s really fascinating,” she continues. “Here I get to experience the life of a fishing village. People who come here from Scotland say it’s more like Scotland here. It’s very traditional.” They now keep the Inn open year-round, and during the winter months Avalon is the only place to get a hot meal along the Trail between Ingonish and Chéticamp, our next destination on the island’s western shore, a good two hours’ drive away.

The following morning, after a hearty Castle Rock continental breakfast, we headed north again, stopping for one last look at Highlands Links and another chat with Hudson out on the deck under leaden Scottish skies as the locals loaded the tee, most of them towing trolleys. With Andrews’ refurbishment at the finish line, the pride in what Hudson’s team has pulled off is palpable, driven by an acute desire to show off this Thompson gem to a wider world audience.

“I’m a little passionate,” he says. “I don’t need to fake it. We’re pretty proud of what we’ve got. We’ve had our rough times, but now we’re on the right track. And the island itself is coming together as a golf destination, with Cabot Links coming on board. It starts that cluster of very unique golf courses, not just cookie-cutter ones. It’s a reason to come here. We support them, they support us, and it’s working very nicely for all of us.”

THE FRENCH CONNECTION

As we cruised along a high, relatively flat stretch of road near the Skyline Trail, a moose came right at us — yearling, velvet on the rack, but already big enough to potentially total a pickup in a head-on dustup. He lumbered along in the oncoming lane, chased by a small sedan and clearly fearing for his life. We slowed down and watched in wonder as the magnificent animal finally made the right decision, bounding onto the shoulder and ultimately disappearing into the forest.

A few seconds earlier, we’d spotted a full-grown relative in the trees, and a few minutes later we crested a ridge near the Trail itself — a picturesque three-hour interactive hike — and started our descent to the island’s mountainous western shore. Another California coast flashback, another phenomenal ocean view, this time of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, looking west. Stopping at a popular vista point — there are several camera-worthy pullouts along the Trail, as well as a few villages populated by artisans and crafty types — we scanned the horizon for whale spouts. No dice. We were spoiled for all this wildlife.

For the golf, too. Three courses down and not a bum in the bunch. Quite the contrary — we’re talking designs, settings, service and conditioning of the highest order, spiced with variety, framed in views rivaling anything in North America. Surely we couldn’t keep this roll going, though I knew, having visited Cape Breton once before, that Cabot Links was the real deal.

The one remaining wild card? A little local layout called Le Portage.

Actually there’s nothing “little” about this homegrown course anchoring the northeastern section of Chéticamp, on a stretch of forest and scrubland once used by canoeing traders to get from the inland hills to the sea, hence the evocative French name. It sneaks up on you like a big, gentle friend with an aggressive streak, and pulls you into its wide-open, natural, come-and-get-me world within a few holes, if not sooner. Come to think of it, Le Portage is the perfect mirror for the people who most often play it — the Acadian-speaking locals hanging out in the homey and comfy clubhouse grill where we’d end up nursing a beer after a toasty Sunday afternoon round, watching Rory McIlroy run away with the PGA Championship on the big screen. They’re Cape Bretoners through and through, carefully and proudly keeping their unique culture alive; it dates to the 16th century and is intimately connected to the much better-known Louisiana Acadian way of life. They celebrate a far more subdued version of Mardi Gras and throw a weeklong mid-Lent party called Mi-Carême, sort of a cross between trick-or-treating and a town dance. It’s a vibrantly insular place even as the outside world shows up in ever-greater numbers.

Even Dave Deluzio, general manager and head professional, is what natives call a “CFA,” or “comes from away.” Leaving a private club gig in the southern Canada city of Windsor — which sits just over the river from Detroit — he quickly embraced the town’s much slower pace and never-lock-your-doors allure.

“It’s a small community of 3,000 people. Everyone knows each other and you have great friends,” he says. “The private club lifestyle, though it was enjoyable, was a different pace and maybe you didn’t develop relationships you might here. The people here are very hospitable. Friendship, good conversation and a good bite to eat are what fuel them. That’s their happiness.”

And our gain. With every hole, we built on the realization that the word “sleeper,” while apt, doesn’t begin to cover how good this nearly three-decades-old golf course really is, and why the town that created it and cradles it is justifiably proud. “I always joke that it’s quite a special thing that such a small place in Cape Breton has such a great golf course,” Deluzio says. “It was driven by the people. It was their idea. Their vision and hard work put it together. Over time it has developed into one of the better courses on the island. It’s part of their heritage.”

So how did Roland and Bernie Chiasson, two French-speaking locals, take an old Indian trail and turn it into 18 holes of such unforced, beautifully flowing, parkland-meets-heathland fun, bracketed by opening and closing holes that deserve mention among the best in the province, if not the entire country?

By rounding up $12,000 in initial seed money and several plots of land donated by locals — folks who weren’t even golfers, but wanted to enhance the community — rolling through the red tape necessary to nail down government grants for a “winter work” program, then hiring Dundee architect Robert Moote and future superintendent Terry Burns to devise nine holes, which became 18 a few years later. Turns out Moote studied under Stanley Thompson, which makes sense because the master’s influences are everywhere out there — in the cross-bunkering that heightens tee shot strategy, in the way green complexes never seem forced in placement or orientation, in the ebb and flow of hole-to-hole drama thanks to natural features such as wetlands, tree groves and waste areas. Moote knows his stuff, and like his mentor, he and his crew kept the building process simple.

“They basically did it with their own hands,” Deluzio says. “They had a tree program, a winter work crew, a spring work crew, and in time, the architect came to know he was the last apprentice to work under Stanley Thompson. So when you have that link with other courses like Highlands Links, one of Thompson’s masterpieces, and us being able to have one of his associates be the designer, there’s this nice sense of tradition. To have somebody from that camp makes it unique and very special.”

For us, Le Portage doled out one surprise after another and gave our friendly hickories-versus-moderns team match an added dimension of free-wheeling fun. Echoing a similar battle at Bandon Dunes in 2011, the match came down to the final hole, a rousing uphill par 5 that’s reachable if the ocean breeze is down. The moderns took it on a snaking 15-foot putt (constituting my lone positive contribution to the cause), but as we shook hands we knew that, in truth, we’d all won. We’re now lifelong lovers of Le Portage.

But Chéticamp’s charms extended far beyond golf.

Deluzio and Katherine met us on the No. 9 green with a mid-round treat of pork pies from Aucoin Bakery just up the road. They had nothing to do with pork and barely resembled a pie, but as bite-sized morsels of dates and maple icing with shortbread crust, we didn’t care — they’re incredible, as is every other goodie we sampled from the family-owned eatery, from cinnamon rolls to scones to cookies, to the fresh breads provided to most of the town’s restaurants and inns. And yes, they do make real pork and beef or chicken meat pies, too, plus full-sized fruit pies. That sealed it for us: We were officially as close to the mother country of France as we’d get on this trip, or perhaps ever. And all it took was some dough, yeast and several generations of know-how to get us there.

Then again, our accommodations for the night did their part, too. Though it has only been open a short time in its current form, Le Maison Fiset occupies a piece of land dating to the 19th century. “The house itself was built in 1895 by the local priest at the time, who had built our big stone church,” says Manager Lyne Larade. “He used the leftover rocks to build a foundation here, which was going to be home of the first doctor here, his brother, Dr. Fiset. We renovated it, opened in June of last year [2011] to receive our first guests. It’s the beginning of the future.”

It’s also a must for anyone who wants to finish, or start, their Cabot Trail trek in note-perfect bed-and-breakfast style. With eight rooms overall, including two suites decked out with bedside Jacuzzi tubs and ocean-view balconies, plus a daily full-on breakfast that’ll thrill French toast fans (the bacon is pretty darned special, too), Maison Fiset caters chiefly to couples. As well it should. Not that four guys won’t enjoy it just as much. We certainly did, though we must give it an asterisk: One night there wasn’t nearly enough.

We were back on the road in the morning, delaying our exit from Chéticamp long enough to tour the aforementioned church, Saint Pierre — a magnificent structure constructed by Acadian shipbuilders. After soaking in the sanctuary’s stained-glass majesty, we followed the friendly caretaker up three sets of stairs and ladders, into a dark attic fortified by huge wooden cross-members arranged in a V-pattern, like the hold of an old sailing vessel. A few more rungs took us to the bell tower for one of the finest views the entire island affords, with a few bell peals as soundtrack.

The church stands on a foundation of huge stones; they were slid over the frozen marina from the jetty beyond, in the dead of winter 1893. Nothing like a dose of Holy Spirit to get us back into the blessed-to-be-here golfing spirit as our journey’s grand finale beckoned another hour’s drive south.

MEN ON A MISSION

For a well-traveled golfer, the road from Chéticamp to Inverness might recall the Southern Oregon coast. We skirted the headlands for a while before darting inland through villages ringed in low hills and dense woodlands, then twisted back toward the sea and a suddenly bustling town where the island’s newest and already most famous golf resort resides. Fitting that the town carries a Scottish name because Cabot Links — like the Old Course at St. Andrews or Lahinch and Ballybunion in Ireland — sits cheek-by-jowl with its pubs, convenience stores, gas stations and motels, many of them sporting a new coat of paint. There’s an air of renewed pride in this former mining outpost, which was all but left for dead after the last coal plant closed in 1967. Vast reserves still remain along the Port Hood coal seam, but the relentless influx of seawater ultimately made it impossible, or at the very least too expensive, to capture. So the money dried up and the future dimmed.

But within two years, Inverness’ tight-knit community — most of them Scots through and through — started dreaming about a golf course. Many of them made the trip up to Highlands Links to feed their jones, but all they had to do was look out their front doors to see they had some fine linksland of their own.

It would take nearly 35 years for the seeds of their dreams to take root, thanks to a chance dinner meeting in 2004 between a young luxury golf tour operator from Toronto named Ben Cowan-Dewar and Nova Scotia’s minister of tourism, Rodney MacDonald.

“He was talking my ear off about this great site for golf,” Cowan-Dewar told us while standing on the tee at No. 14, a short 3-par where the huge green hangs over the sea like No. 7 at Pebble Beach or No. 10 at Pacific Dunes. “Everybody who is a non-golfer and has a couple hundred acres thinks he has a great site for golf.

“Rodney followed up with photos from a helicopter; you didn’t get a great sense for the undulation. It looked a bit flat, but what I could see was the four miles of ocean frontage, which was compelling enough for me to make a trip here. I came on a beautiful day in December, sunny and warm. We came back in January and it was cold and rainy; I brought Rod Whitman with me for that trip and he looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, I guess we can do sort of something here.’ He was a little later to catch the bug but obviously got there.”

Armed with funding from the government and a group of Canadian investors, Cowan-Dewar approached Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keiser, who flew to Inverness in the spring of 2005. Despite some nasty weather and the remote location, Keiser saw something in the project and jumped on board. After reportedly considering both Jack Nicklaus and Michael Hurdzan for the design job, Cowan-Dewar hired the Alberta-born Whitman on the recommendation of Bill Coore, who along with his frequent partner Ben Crenshaw has become one of the high priests of modern minimalist links design [and later signed on to build the resort’s second course, the highly acclaimed Cabot Cliffs].

A college golf teammate of Coore’s at Sam Houston State, Whitman got into the design game at Austin Country Club in 1980 after Pete Dye pretty much put the project into the young Canadian’s lap. He has since worked with Coore here and there and counts Saguaro at We-Ko-Pa and Talking Stick in Arizona among his best work. He seemed the right fit for Cabot Links even if his name didn’t ring a bell.

“It’s not Ron Whitten, who he’s constantly confused with,” Cowan-Dewar says, referring to the Golf Digest architecture editor and Erin Hills co-designer. “But I’d known Rod for a long time, had played his courses in Alberta and was a big fan of his work. It was an interesting choice, but I knew his ability, his long history working with Pete Dye and Coore and Crenshaw. I’d seen the work and knew it was there. I also knew we’d get a full commitment from him. Rod moved here and made this his home all through construction.”

Whitman had the routing in place by June 2005, its centerpiece a huge spine of dune running through the property’s heart — the nexus for three tee boxes and three greens (including a 100-yard-wide double green for holes 4 and 13). He and his team dug in and got to work, keeping in mind that in true links fashion, Cabot Links would be walking-only and therefore had to flow from green to tee in quick and effective order.

“To Mike Keiser’s credit, he pretty much let us do what we wanted up here,” said Whitman, who had joined me and group of golf-travel journalists back in October 2011 for a round at a still-raw and unfinished Cabot Links. “He gave us a small budget to work with the first year. We only had a small crew, three or four of us. We reworked all the holes at one time, and that’s when Mike got really excited, said, ‘You know, this is gonna be good.’ He’s a good owner, and good owners are hard to find.”

Still, Keiser is lucky to swing up to Cape Breton once or twice a year. This is Cowan-Dewar’s baby, the culmination of a vision that began when he started hand-drawing golf holes at age 6. By his early 20s he was making all the right connections and playing the world’s best courses through his successful tour business. Now he and his wife are fixtures in the Inverness community, and with a hand-picked staff led by Head Professional Joe Robinson, he’s putting in 16-hour days to make sure Cabot’s final product fits the dream — not only the course itself, but the clubhouse restaurant nudged up against the 18th green, the pro shop and 48-room lodge that overlook the putting green and No. 6 tee. He’s set the service bar high, too; bartenders, waitstaff and golf staff, and especially the caddies (many of whom are retirees or college-age kids from around the island), clearly take their jobs seriously.

It’s all come together nicely, and Cowan-Dewar is quick to share the credit.

“There’s a lot of people who go into making a golf course,” he says with a slight grin as a foursome that included Josh Lesnik of KemperSports, who was seeing and playing Cabot for the first time, stepped up to the 14th tee (Kemper runs Bandon Dunes in addition to other premium U.S. destination clubs, and lent a hand in Cabot’s operational planning). “Without Mike Keiser, neither of us would be standing here. There are so many things that stack up over time. You have the town people of Inverness, who since 1969 were committed to golf. The timing fell together, and we had a great team. I was drawing golf holes at a young age and I thought absolutely I’d build a golf course — that was the natural next step. But you realize how difficult it is. Obviously, from the first time I saw this property to today was a long time, a lot of hard work by a lot of folks to get us here. It’s unbelievably fulfilling to stand out here, see a busy day on the course, see people playing. I derive a lot of joy from that.”

There’s plenty of joy to go around and it never wears thin, no matter how many rounds you play — in our case, four rounds over three days. You feel it the moment you turn at the small “Cabot” sign into the parking lot and get your first good look at the telltale humps and hollows, shaggy fescue, blowout bunkers and flapping flags of a pure links site.

It ratchets up on the first tee, a short 4-par with a blind tee shot over a bluff, then intensifies from there, starting with No. 2, a heaving 5-par that bears some skeletal resemblance to No. 6 at Pebble. Making your way around the course’s jagged bunkers and through wide, angular corridors lined not with gorse but mountains of deep grass, native shrubbery (some of which could admittedly use a good, sharp machete) and low-spot wetlands stretches — with expansive water views at every turn — stirs up that same brand of giddy thrill you get at Bandon, on the Monterey Peninsula or Kiawah Island or the Lake Michigan shore. Pinch-myself-I’m-here stuff.

Clearly Whitman did his homework, injecting into Cabot Links’ design DNA the unmistakable and unforced elements of great old-country courses, from St. Andrews to Carnoustie, Royal County Down to Waterville. And there’s a solid nod to Bandon; holes 15 and 16 are as fine a beachside pair of 4-pars as anything at the famed Oregon resort.

The routing had changed a bit since my first visit, and it’s for the better. A delightful interlude that began as holes 8 and 9 is now 10 and 11 — the former a lovely mid-range 3-par that lays perfectly along a low ridge just below the town proper, followed by perhaps the greatest cape hole built in the past 50 years, wrapping around a tidal lagoon lined with dense wetlands to an elevated green that seems to ooze oh-so-naturally from a grassy dune, with a small marina of fishing boats as its backdrop. Close to reachable from the forward tees but a pure beast from the backs, especially with a prevailing southwest gale that push tee shots toward bramble-studded dunes to the right, it’s a model of strategic balance. And it’s simply exhilarating to play.

“It’s a hole where a lot of pictures will be taken,” says Robinson, who spent 39 years at Highlands Links before Cowan-Dewar lured him to Inverness. “That hole and 15 and 16 are signature holes. I knew this project was going to be special, and I just wanted to be part of it.”

CABOTCLIFFS-17-LAMBRECHT

Cabot Links finishes with one last par 3 on the penultimate hole, a slightly uphill number bordered by trees down the left, with a broad and beautifully bunkered green, followed by a closing two-shotter that demands a final blind tee shot and an approach that must bear right to avoid the encroaching clubhouse’s two stories of floor-to-ceiling windows or the low-walled patio beyond. You’ll likely have an ample audience for that last putt or chip, but in such a perfect, open, inclusive links setting — the way the game’s founders intended it — you won’t mind the extra pressure. The promise of a Guinness, bowl of seafood chowder (yep, it’s excellent here, too — possibly the best of all we sampled throughout the trip) and a big burger or full-on dinner feast fashioned by Chefs John Haines and Tracy Wallace (the rosemary and basil rack of lamb and roasted halibut are exceptional) just a few feet away in the Panorama Restaurant helps you get through it, too.

So does an evening’s detour to Glenora Distillery, a quick 15-minute drive away. It’s the first single-malt distillery in North America, and its 10-year-old Glen Breton Rare took gold at the 2011 International Review of Spirits in Chicago. We sampled that and several other varieties of single-malt aged in oaken barrels in a big barn out back, got the cook’s tour of the stills and fermenting tanks, then headed into the pub and restaurant for ribs, steak and salmon barbecued, roasted or grilled in a variety of booze-based sauces — Chef Andrew Kinnear knows his way around a reduction, gastrique and demi-glace. A sampler of Glen Breton Whisky Sorbet and some berry cobbler finished it all off. Had we gotten too much deeper into the spirits, we could have crashed right there in one of Glenora’s nine rooms on-site or six chalets up the hill. There’s live music or a Ceilidh most summer nights, though we’d actually gotten our fill of fiddles and square dancing at a little church hall session in Baddeck a few nights earlier.

Back at Cabot, the Lodge’s double-double, king or deluxe rooms designed by Nova Scotia architect Susan Fitzgerald serve up all the right golfer comforts — spacious bathrooms with big walk-in showers, flat-screen TVs loaded with sports channels, impossibly comfortable beds and, yes, a golf course and ocean view from both floors via window or balcony or both — in a sleek, bright, modern design.

Inverness’ aprés-golf amenities certainly softened the bogey blows we took in battle, especially after the 36th hole of our last day there as our feet begged for mercy, our muscles cried Uncle and the island’s continuing heat wave left us gloriously, sweatily spent. I’d played the links in a 50-degree chill as well, and shot anywhere from the low 80s to the upper 90s in my half-dozen rounds there, spraying balls into sandy oblivion and pulling off keeper shots in equal measure, with the same effect: pure, simple bliss.

“Day-in, day-out, it’s gonna be fun to play,” said Whitman during our 2011 sneak peek. “Sometimes you get a course that’s just too doggone hard. Here we’ll have a little of both.”

He’s spot on. Cabot Links is fun, tough and deserving of mention alongside the world’s great links. Mission accomplished, at least until ground broke for its sister course, Cabot Cliffs, on a 600-acre parcel a few miles north of town. Coore and Crenshaw are already on the case, walking the property and sketching out plans for what, by all accounts, even more closely resembles Bandon or Pacific Dunes in drama and flavor.

Set higher on a seaside bluff with a small brook breaching one corner, the land boasts at least one green site that merits comparison to yet another of golf’s most iconic courses, Cypress Point, as Cowan-Dewar’s dream keeps growing into a bigger and better reality while the Cabot brand rises on the world marquee.

CABOT-18-LODGE-BRIANOAR

“When you come here every day and stand here with people who are seeing it for the first time, and see their reactions, it’s great. It’s largely what interested me the first time I saw the property — feeling that warm air off the water and seeing the ocean from everywhere. It was a pretty easy thing to dream about.”

HOME STRETCH

Reality and the calendar crashed our party.

The time came to leave behind Cabot Links and the great golf that led up to it. We loaded up a week’s worth of memories, luggage and beat-to-hell sticks for the two-hour trip to downtown Sydney, overnight at Cambridge Suites and early-morning flights and drives. Along the way we retraced some of our steps, passing Baddeck and crossing Bras d’Or one last time. At a roadside fried chicken joint named Lick-A-Chick (we kid you not, right next door to the Lick-A-Treat), we bought T-shirts and coffee mugs, setting ourselves up for derisive remarks or at least a raised eyebrow back home. Perhaps our Cabot or Highlands gear would compensate with looks of admiration.

Then again, at this relatively early stage in Cape Breton’s climb up the golf-destination ladder, those course names might not yet register with some Americans. The same was true for Bandon until word-of-mouth reached critical mass and the media got on board. Thankfully, that’s already happening on Cape Breton. The buzz is real, and it’s powerful. And by the time Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs both have a few years under their belts, this truly unique island golf trail will be even wider and easier to access.

But there’s no reason to wait. Cape Breton Island is already an essential destination with a symphony of golf and memories we’d like to play again and again. And we’ll be back for another grand golf performance very soon.

Vic Williams is executive editor of Golf Tips Magazine, formerly co-owner and publisher of Fairways + Greens and GolfGetaways golf-travel magazines. He can be reached at vwilliams@madavor.com.

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About the author

GolfGetaways

GolfGetaways

The GolfGetaways crew of Darin Bunch and Mitch Lauarance have decades of golf travels and adventures to share, which they do here at GNN, on their "Talking GolfGetaways" podcast.

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