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Authentic culture: Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on October 16, 2006. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Bermuda, Bora-Bora, destination, Dominican Republic, Greece, Hvar, island, Martha's Vineyard, Molly Feltner, Nova Scotia, Sabah, vacation package.

Authentic culture: Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

You don't need a passport to discover authentic Scottish Gaelic culture. On Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island, where thousands of descendants of 19th-century Scottish immigrants live, you'll find a Gaelic culture that's living and in many ways unchanged from the way it was a hundred years ago.

"Cape Breton Island is the only remaining Gaidhealtachd (an area where the Gaelic language survives as a community language) in North America," says Rodney Chaisson, director of Cape Breton's Highland Village Museum. "It is the only area in the world where certain traditions of Gaelic song, genres of storytelling, fiddle and piping styles, and dance styles remain. Every year in Scotland there is a festival on the Isle of South Uist where Cape Bretoners teach these traditions, which died out in Scotland several generations ago."

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A good place to start learning about the culture is the Highland Village Museum ($7), a living history museum and Gaelic research and preservation center on the Iona Peninsula. Then, stop by the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique to see demonstrations ($4) of fiddling, bagpiping, and other musical styles and tour the Glenora Inn & Distillery ($6) in Glenville, home of North America's only single malt whiskey distillery. If you have more time, you might want to sign up for a multi-day course at The Gaelic College in Englishtown that covers Gaelic arts such as highland dance and Cape Breton fiddling. Plus, you can take part in one of the many Gaelic festivals, like the Festival of Cape Breton Fiddling in August or the Celtic Colours Festival in October.

However, getting to know the locals by attending a church function or evening community dance is the best way to experience this culture, says Seumas Watson, the Manager of Gaelic Interpretation at Highland Village Museum. Rather than visiting in the most popular months of July and August, Watson suggests coming in September or October: "You'll have more of the island to yourself and are more likely to have those unique sorts of cultural experiences like being invited into people's homes."

Like Scotland, Cape Breton is also known for its spectacular scenery, although the island's thick deciduous forests and seasonal extremes are distinctive of Eastern Canada. For some of the best views of this wilderness, drive the Cabot Trail, a 185-mile loop that weaves along the island's spectacular coastline and surrounds Highlands National Park.

Trip planning

For information on accommodations, dining, and activities on Cape Breton, visit the Cape Breton Island Travel website. Average Cape Breton hotel rates range from $40 to $311 per night on TripAdvisor.

You can reach Cape Breton by flying to the island's airport, Sydney International. Round-trip fares from New York on Air Canada for travel next June (the beginning of the summer tourist season) start at $634 round-trip, including taxes and fees.

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