Nova Scotia: A House on the Cape

It's never too early to plan your summer vacation—especially if you want to rent a cottage on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton. The hard part is waiting until July.

In the late afternoon, we drove to the top of the cape while Willa napped in the car. At Bay St. Lawrence, on the northern coast, Nick and I felt as if we were at the end of the world--which, it turns out, is actually a creepy sensation. So we hurried over to the Keltic Lodge complex in Ingonish Beach, where we had deliciously light snow-crab cakes at the Atlantic Restaurant.

Fiddle music--and dancing to it--had always been an integral part of Cape Breton's Scottish heritage. But after the rise of rock and roll, that tradition seemed to be going the way of Gaelic. A 1971 documentary, The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, spurred a renaissance that continues to this day, and a number of music festivals and concerts are held around the island. The hugely popular nine-day Celtic Colours takes place every October, while the Broad Cove Scottish Concert is held on the last Sunday in July, when we were in town.

I don't know why, but hard-driving violin music sends me into a tizzy. I rushed us through breakfast at the Coal Miners Cafe in Inverness so we could make it to the concert. Sure enough, when fiddler Buddy MacMaster and the piano-fiddle team of brothers Robbie and Isaac Fraser played, my feet were bouncing off the grass like it was a trampoline. I needed to dance. I was like Billy Elliot, but without talent. I studied a pair of girls, how they kept their upper bodies ramrod straight as they kicked and hopped. Willa joined them, stomping around like a punk in a mosh pit. But she's a little kid, so people found it charming.

When Nick left to take Willa to the beach at Port Hood, where the water truly is 75 degrees, I stayed behind, determined to find my own lord of the dance. Things looked promising when two brothers in their late 50s performed a rousing dance and spoon-playing recital. Afterward, one made his way through the crowd. "I wish I could dance like that," I said wistfully to him.

He snaked an arm around my waist and asked if I'd be at the dance later in Dunvegan. When I said no, he flashed me a bawdy smile and replied, "Too bad, lassie. We coulda had some fun."

Over the next few days, I tried other avenues. We went to the Highland Village Museum in Iona, an animated exhibit that shows the evolution of the cape's Gaelic settlements. In addition to mingling with folks in "ye olde" costumes, visitors can attend demos of oatcake baking, fiddling, and dancing (we missed it by two hours). At The Red Shoe Pub in Mabou, there's a euphoria-inducing chocolate sticky toffee pudding, nightly music, and occasional dancing--but no lessons. On our second-to-last night, I got desperate and drove to a dance in Judique, only to chicken out in the parking lot. And that was why, while Nick and Willa were on one of Donelda's Puffin Boat Tours, I was trying to wheedle a dancing lesson from my hiking guide.

On our final night, after fish cakes and beans (a Cape Breton specialty) at Lynwood Inn, Nick, Willa, and I went to a ceilidh, which means "to visit" in Gaelic and is pronounced kay-lee. Ceilidhs are a winter tradition: Locals drink, sing, and play music in someone's kitchen. In summer, tourist-friendly public ceilidhs are held nightly in one town or another.

The Baddeck Gathering is held in the parish hall every summer evening, starting in July. This being a tourist thing, I expected fiddle lite. Instead, I got local stars Shelly Campbell and Robbie Fraser switching off on fiddle and piano, playing so hard that the entire room seemed to be sweating.

Anna MacDonald of Trad Dance began step dancing, and I sensed possibility. After a few sets, she announced that she'd be leading a Scottish-dancing lesson. I looked imploringly at Nick, who gave me the OK. I turned to Willa. "You can watch four Blue's Clues and eat as many fruit leathers as you want if you sit quietly while Mommy and Daddy dance," I said. She took the bribe.

Nick and I shuffled to the front. Anna showed us what seemed like more of a square dance, and I was a little disappointed. But then Shelly lit up the fiddle, and Robbie pounded the ivories. I felt a tingle of anticipation zing in my chest and travel down my legs, which were already tapping to the beat. I took Nick's hand. Anna started the calls. And it no longer mattered whether we were doing a strathspey or a pirouette or a pogo. We were dancing.

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CANADA'S CELTIC SEACOAST

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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