Sense of direction can be a little confusing in Cape Breton for those “from away”. Cape Bretoners talk about Down North – diametrically contrary to most people who go “down south” and “up north”. After all, the world spins sort of upright with the top being north and the bottom, south, doesn’t it?
Things become stranger when you hear them talking about going “down to Sydney” and “up to Halifax”. To get to either city you have to drive east or west on Highways 104 and 105 West! How does that fit?
OK. Let’s overlook the finer points of the compass! Let’s think wind. In the age of sail, if you wanted to sail Lake Bras d’Or from Baddeck northeast to Sydney, for the majority of your journey you would make use of the prevailing wind which blows most commonly from the southwest. Thus you would be sailing “down wind” and therefore (sort of) “down north”. Logically, therefore, on your return trip you would be sailing “up” to Baddeck against the prevailing wind.
Strangely no one seems to talk about traveling “Up South” – go figure!
Now we have solved what Down North means – Right? Well…No.
Cape Bretoners also have a specific area in mind. If someone, even if she lives in Glace Bay to the east, tells you she is going Down North to visit Aunt Janie, she means she is going to the north-western area of the Island, roughly from Neil’s Harbour up … er … down toward Capstick. The area was first settled by Scottish Highlanders in the late 1700s and early 1800s, but perhaps its biggest claim to fame is (despite Canada’s and Britain’s formal recognition of Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland, which wasn’t a part of Canada until 1949 anyway!) that explorer John Cabot is believed to have “discovered” Canada in 1497 by landing on the white sandy beach at Sugar Loaf. Now you know why the route around the spectacular Cape Breton Highlands National Park was named the Cabot Trail.
So if you are “Doing The Trail”, stop on your journey at Neil’s Harbour or Cape North, check out the museums, and explore the area for its alluring beaches and countryside, and interesting villages all the way to Bay St. Lawrence or Capstick.
And stay at a Bed & Breakfast or one of the cabin resorts, enjoy the warm hospitality of the people and be prepared to listen to a lot of interesting stories and history Down North.