Cape Breton Island Celtic Festival

Reasons to visit Cape Breton Island during the Celtic Colours International Festival

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I’ve heard it said about Cape Breton Island that if you shake a bush a fiddler falls out and a step dancer is never far behind. Cape Bretoners have deep roots, a storied history and large hearts. And they love to share their Cape Breton music. So visiting when the island’s international Celtic music festival is on is an event to mark down in your travel calendar.

Attempting to capture the essence of Cape Breton Island is like trying to grab the moon with your bare hands.

Picture a fairly large island (10,311 km²) with some of the most stunning scenery on the planet, located in Atlantic Canada, joined to the northeast end of the province of Nova Scotia by a causeway.  

Of the many fun things to do in Nova Scotia, attending the music festival should be at the top of your list. 

Cape Breton music
The landscape of Cape Breton Island inspires the amazing Cape Breton music.
Cape Breton fiddle
Cape Breton music is everywhere on Cape Breton island.

For nine days and nights, hundreds of internationally renowned and local musicians perform an astonishing array of Cape Breton music in different venues throughout Cape Breton Island.

The venues range in size from large concert halls, arenas, and school auditoriums to smaller places including churches, community halls, clubs and pubs.

Scores of instruments come into play including pianos, guitars, bagpipes, accordions, harps, flutes—ad infinitum.

But the one thing that glues it all together, regardless of the instrument or style of music, is its Celtic flavour.

It’s unmistakable.

It’s also addictive.

I’m returning for my fifth season and am now a “lifer.”

Cape Breton Island

1Cape Breton music festival

Celtic music festival
Cape Breton music is the focus of the festival.

Here are 10 reasons to visit Cape Breton Island during the Celtic Music Festival

1- Cape Breton Music

Celtic music festival
The Cape Breton music festival is celebration of Celtic music.

This Cape Breton music festival is the most prestigious international Celtic musical gathering in North America.

The opening concert in Port Hawkesbury alone is worth the flight or drive to get there.

2- Cape Breton attracts International talent

There are 174  “billed” solo artists, bands, and choirs representing the US, Canada, UK, Wales, Ireland, Spain, Scotland, Japan and Russia who will perform in the festival.

It’s a phenomenal collection of talent.

And these are only the ones who are part of the “officially” sponsored festival performances.

Scores of others (upwards of 400) will be performing all over the island, morning, noon and night.

3- The Cape Breton music festival has over 200 official events

Want to learn how to square dance? Or how about joining a milling frolic?

Perhaps you’d fancy learning a few words of Gaelic.

No problem.

There are countless learning opportunities and activities that you can sign up for.

Some charge a small fee but many are free.  

4- CBC Main Street Live

Cape Breton Music
Cape Breton Music. Left to right: CBC Main Street Live; Community food events; The Bells Series. Photos: Sandra Phinney.

This event takes place at the Knox Church in Baddeck from 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. from Monday to Friday.

The sessions are hosted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and are free.

Journalist Wendy Bergfeldt interviews different international musicians every day, and they also perform.

The church is semi-circular and charming.

But if you want a seat, go early!

5- The Bell Series

For only $2.40 CAD (fee to enter the museum) you can enjoy demonstrations and talks featuring festival artists as they give a behind-the-music perspective into their life and work at the Bell Series at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck.

The sessions run from Monday to Friday starting at 1.30pm and there’s a bonus. 

Factor in some time to visit this extraordinary museum, and to learn about the life and times of Alexander Graham Bell—scientist and innovator—who did much more than invent the telephone.

6- The Festival Club

For a fun and value-added perk to the end of any given day, head to the Festival Club at the Gaelic College in St. Ann’s, where artists who performed earlier in the evening step up to the stage in a more informal setting and get to strut their stuff yet one more time.

If you’ve attended a concert that night, hold onto your ticket stub and you can get in for $10; otherwise it’s $20.

The music usually starts around 10pm and carries on until the wee hours of the morning.  

7- Community Meals   

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Cape Breton Music festival has other activities focused around food too.
Cape Breton Music
Cape Breton Island is a lovely place to visit during the Celtic Colours festival.
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Sample fresh seafood at Cape Breton Island.

Throughout the island, community groups and organisations prepare meals that are simply delicious, ranging from local Atlantic Canada food to a hearty “Celtic Breakfast” in Port Hawkesbury to “St. Ann’s Songs and Supper” (stories and songs from a Maritime artist and a meal of homemade baked beans and fishcakes).

One of my favourites is the Thanksgiving dinner at the Mabou Community Hall where they make over 200 pounds of stuffing to go with the turkey dinner!  

8- Cape Breton Island – Farmer’s Markets

There are five major farmer’s markets that take place around Cape Breton Island during the festival. 

These markets are popular community affairs that feature fresh local produce, baked goods, local and ethnic foods, crafts and artisanal products. 

9- The world-famous Cabot Trail

Discover for yourself why the Cabot Trail is one of the top scenic drives in the world.

Part of the magic of the Cabot Trail lies in the fact that it is home to Parks Canada’s Cape Breton Highlands National Park, where hiking, biking and kayaking opportunities abound.

Staff at one of the two visitor’s centres will happily provide advice and insider information on what to do and places to visit based on your interests.

10- Fall Colours on Cape Breton Island

Cape Breton Island
Cape Breton Music is inspired by the landscape.

It’s a chance to view some spectacular autumn colours. 

This time of year, because the hills and highlands in Cape Breton have many hardwood trees, the leaves change from various shades of green to riotous splashes of red, yellow and gold. 

WARNING: Once you’ve visited Cape Breton Island, your heart will never leave.

The Celtic Colours International Festival is from 11 to 19 October 2019.

cape briton island

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sandra phinney
My byline has appeared in over 60 publications, on topics spanning everything from business and health, to food and travel. The fact that Atlantic Canada is in my own back yard is a bonus for me. I contribute content and photos about Atlantic Canada to several guide books, and am considered to be the go-to person when people are looking for content (or advice on where to travel) specific to this region.