Cavorting on the Cabot Trail | Departure

Biker friendly trail in Canada.

Remember Sebastian Cabot, the bearded and erudite actor who played Mr. French, the butler, in the 1966-'71 series Family Affair? I was a big fan of his. Apparently, so were the Canadians, who named a scenic trail around the northern half of Cape Breton, in Nova Scotia, after him. Some actually believe the Cabot Trail was named after John "Giovanni" Cabot, an Italian navigator who discovered the coast of North America in 1497. I'm having none of this, however, because the Cabot Trail's 185-mile circumference approximates the dimensions of the late, portly actor.

I have long wanted to ride the Cabot Trail. Everyone I've spoken to who's been there has raved. Furthermore, it's in Canada, one of the most motorcycle-friendly countries in the world. When you combine the advantages of proximity, shared (kind of) language, a favorable exchange rate, great roads, sparse traffic, nary a speck of trash and seafood to die for, what's not to love? Little persuasion was needed to enlist my usual riding buddies, Bill, Jon and Pat, for the trek north from Virginia.

We had only eight days to play with, which would necessitate a lot of time in the saddle, especially given our desire to avoid interstate highways. Our plan, necessarily cursory, was to spend two days riding to Portland, Maine, take an overnight ferry ride to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, spend three days touring the Cabot Trail, relax for a day on the ferry back to Portland and then make the two-day return ride to Virginia.

We rode across Pennsylvania, then up along the Delaware River and Water Gap into New York state. At Albany, we headed due east across Vermont and New Hampshire to arrive at the Portland Marine Terminal for our overnight trip on the Scotia Prince. The ferry, which holds up to 250 cars, is very comfortable and has good food at a reasonable price. If you want to save some money and don't mind sleeping in an easy chair, you can forgo the $40 per person for a berth. One advantage of the ferry is that motorcycles are loaded first in Portland. That means we ride off first, and reach customs first in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. It took us only 30 minutes to clear and begin our explorations.

Heading north out of Yarmouth on U.S. Highway 101, which runs along the western coast, we immediately noticed several things. First, there was absolutely no trash along the highways. In fact, after a 100-mile stretch, I asked if anyone had seen that coffee cup on the side of the road 40-50 miles back. Everyone had, so noticeable was this errant piece of refuse! Second, the roads were virtually without traffic. Even in the height of tourist season, one might go several miles between car sightings, especially on the limited access roads in the southern sector. Since less than 1 million Nova Scotians inhabit an area approximately the size of West Virginia, this is not surprising.

As we plied our way north, stopping at the Spitfire pub in Windsor, one could hardly miss the number of towns with Scottish names: Argyle, New Edinburg, New Glasgow, Caledonia, Glengarry, Scots Bay, Inverness.... We also noted how many town names, like New Germany, Liverpool, Denmark, Sydney and Ohio, attest to the island's openness and hospitality. Of course, all this internationalism was reined back into focus with the McLobster sandwiches we consumed at one of the local McDonalds.

We arrived at Port Hastings, gateway to Cape Breton Island and the Cabot Trail, 350 miles later. The temperature had dropped considerably, reminding us how far north we'd traveled. The mlange of aromas-from lobster restaurants, seaweed, salty air and smoking freighters-along the Strait of Canso was exotic and inviting. By midafternoon we had already ridden 400 miles and were ready for a good meal and cold beer. We stopped for the night in Whycocomagh, a small village about 20 miles south of Nyasa and the beginning of the Cabot Trail. We planned the next day's ride with maps spread out all over our hotel room, a bottle of single malt scotch and a few Cuban cigars.

The next morning was brisk and dewy as we set out for the Trail. One is not disappointed with the sights and spectacular vistas here. There are rock outcroppings along the coast whose beauty easily compares with that of Big Sur in California, quaint fishing villages whose colorful boats bob on placid waters, unspoiled forests, pristine lakes and, oh yeah, twisty roads. We rode the Trail in a clockwise direction, hitting the coast, the park at the top of the cape and the windy section in that order. Some of our number, who enjoy beauty more than twisty roads, said they would ride the western coast road in both directions next time. I say you have to do it in its entirety.

Cape Breton Highlands National Park sits at the northern end of the Trail. A park ranger told us that 6000 moose reside in the park, and that sightings are common. They are indeed. Not two miles after leaving him, we came across several cars, a bus and about 20 people standing along the side of the road. Fearing an accident or some other catastrophe, we found instead a moose munching contentedly on some bushes not 10 feet from the road. I was reminded, in a bizarre and even fatalistic way, about perspective from that episode. Seeing a 1500-pound animal makes the threat of an encounter with a "measly" 150-pound deer seem crazily less intimidating.

The Trail offers some unique challenges for a ride. First, one will have to make agonizing choices about where to stop for a sumptuous seafood feast. Second, one needs to be concerned about gas, though not from the delicious food. Gas stations are few and far between on the Cabot Trail, so don't let your bike run low. Third, the temperature is variable, even in mid-August, so staying comfortable can be a challenge. I donned or removed my wind shirt six times in one day. Finally, leave some room in your luggage for a tire repair kit, some spare fuses, cables and anything else you might need to remain roadworthy. Nova Scotia's four largest cities (Halifax, Dartmouth, Sydney and Glace Bay) have a combined population of less than 235,000, and there are fewer than 10 other towns with populations between 5000 and 10,000. So, unlike the United States, you will not find bike shops along the way. But even if your mechanical skills are not advanced, don't let the prospect of a lonely breakdown deter you from enjoying the Trail. You will meet scores of motorcyclists throughout your journey, and will have no trouble finding assistance.

We were disappointed when we completed our trek around the Cabot Trail, but had little time to wallow in our misery. After a full day on the Loop, we made a 200-mile dash to Halifax to spend the night. The next day we set out early to visit Peggy's Cove, a nearby fishing village. Even though we arrived in a fog you could cut with a fork, our visit was worth it. There is a spectacular lighthouse perched on an enormous rock, and the Sou'wester Restaurant offered a killer breakfast (try the fishcakes) and all the bustling activity associated with the fishing industry. My only regret on the trip was that we didn't have more time to spend in this intriguing small town.

We were chasing our ferry, though, and had to rush to make it to Yarmouth on time. This time we were loaded last onto the ship, and were the last off in Maine. Unfortunately, we hadn't made a reservation in Portland, and we rode for four hours without finding a vacancy. The ride back to northern Virginia was scenic, but uneventful, apart from an exciting ferry ride on a rickety paddle-wheel boat across the Susquehanna River. The latter ferry, unlike the Scotia Prince, did not have a hot tub, dining hall or lifeboats. We were mildly concerned about the latter, though the two-mile passage in less than 10 feet of water might seem more daunting to less hearty travelers.

In short, we had a blast. Next year, we're going back to the Maritime Provinces to ride Prince Edward Island, which we hear is magnificent. Maybe we'll see you up there. I'll be the guy in the lobster hat with drawn butter dribbling down his T-shirt.