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 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 on the east coast of Canada, joined to the northeast end of the province of Nova Scotia by a causeway.
For nine days and nights, hundreds of internationally renowned and local musicians perform an astonishing array of 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.”
Here are 10 reasons to visit Cape Breton Island during the Celtic Music Festival
This Celtic 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. Titled “Forever in our Hearts,” the performance will include the likes of the Carlos Núñez Band, Symphony Nova Scotia & Scott Macmillan, Ashley MacIsaac & Mary Elizabeth MacInnis—and many more.
That’s enough name dropping. But—just so you know, Carlos Núñez is the world’s most famous player of the gaita, the bagpipes of Galicia, a region in Spain that is renowned for its Celtic music.
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.
3There are 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.
4CBC Main Street Live
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!
5The 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.
6The 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.
Throughout the island, community groups and organizations prepare meals that are simply delicious, ranging from 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!
8Cape 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.
9The world-famous Cabot Trail
Discover for yourself why the Cabot Trail is one of the top scenic drives in the world.
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.
10Fall Colours on Cape Breton Island
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.