INVERNESS, Nova Scotia – Between the winding, coastal roads and ferry rides across lochs, the abundant seafood and even the accents of the islanders, a visit to Cape Breton evokes a charm with the familiarity of the British Isles.
But rather than menus offering fish 'n' chips or haggis, this isle's shoreline comes stocked with lobster. Visitors can enjoy traditional lobster suppers boiled in sea salt, spoonfuls of lobster chowder appetizers or even lobster with eggs at breakfast. You could probably even garnish a martini with a lobster claw.
The town of Inverness, home to the new Cabot Links, is the same name as the Scottish Highlands largest city, a direct result of an influx of Highlanders settling here in the 1800s. Today, the town is even home to a single malt whisky distillery and inn, Glenora Distillery. For a first-time American to the isle, the accents of the locals on the eastern edge of Canada is surprising; their tongues are more Scottish compared to the Canadianspeak you'd find around Ontario.
Golf courses and residents here are few and far between compared to the isles overseas, where a course is around every corner. There are less than ten 18-hole courses on all of Cape Breton, but two of them are among North America's finest. One has been in existence for seven decades, while the other is enjoying it's first summer in operation.
Stanley Thompson's Highlands Links in Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Since 1941, golfers have made the journey from throughout the northeast to Cape Breton's northern shore to play one of North America's most coveted classic courses, Highlands Links. Commissioned by the National Parks Service in 1939, course architect Stanley Thompson was given a marvelous piece of national park land to craft a gem that has stood the test of time.
Highlands Links is not a 'true' links (in fact, Thompson originally named it the 'Mountains and Oceans Course'). But despite soft turf and holes that wind along a valley river and through dense trees, there are traditional links characteristics here: fairways are riddled with huge humps that yield few flat lies and greens have gentle, natural contours. The course also has an St. Andrews-esque, out-and-in routing. From the 10th green, you're six kilometers from the clubhouse.
Hole names come with an old world flair like 'Canny Slap' and 'Hame Noo.' The sixth is a personal favorite hole name: 'Muckemouth Meg' (even though the dogleg around a small lake swallowed up four of my golf balls). The seventh, 'Killiecrankie,' is one of the most demanding and gorgeous par 5s anywhere: a narrow, 570-yard roller coaster through trees to an elevated green. A brute of a hole with the finest 21st century golf clubs, it's a mystery how anyone with persimmons could have possibly reached this hole in three shots comfortably.
But Thompson's agenda when building the course didn't have much of 'easy' in it. Even the walk, for pre-golf cart era design, is quite challenging. The distance between the 12th green to 13th tee is a quarter mile, but it's the most pleasant walk between holes you could imagine: a narrow path under trees that winds along the Clyburn River. In total, a walk at Highlands Links is an 11kilometer trek, just as it was back when the course opened to vacationers coming from New England seven decades ago.
'Golf was an all day affair,' described Graham Hudson, manager of operations at Highlands Links. 'The golfers would take caddies and bring a picnic.'
Pure links golf comes to Canada at Cabot Links
A spectacular three-hour drive down the coastal Cabot Trail from Cape Breton Highlands, Cabot Links stakes claim as the only true links course between Bandon, Ore., and Ireland's west coast.
Ben Cowan-Dewar, a Canadian golf tour operator and entrepreneur based in Toronto, was tipped off about an abandoned coal mining site in Inverness from a state official during a dinner in 2004. Developing the coastal site into a course and hotel would become his first golf course project. He called on a reliable partner in Mike Keiser, the man behind the golf mecca that has become Bandon Dunes in Oregon, who assisted with the vision and the checkbook. With a 48-room hotel and 18 holes now open, a second 18-hole course, Cabot Cliffs, may break ground as early as next spring.
'This [development] is going to save the town,' said my caddie for the round, Neil MacEachern, a born-and-raised Inverness local who worked for the phone company 30-plus years before retiring to become a caddie at Cabot Links. 'You wouldn't have to pay me to do this job.'
In fact, the majority of the 140 jobs at Cabot Links have been filled by locals. The head housekeeper, for example, was hired largely because she had a reputation in town to keep an exceptionally clean house. The last coal mine closed in 1958, but residents are finding work on this land once again – and for plenty more than the $1.25 per day the miners earned.
It's likely a mere formality until Cabot Links becomes Cape Breton's second to join the Top 100 ranks (Highlands is rated No. 42 outside the United States by Golf Digest). The course, designed by Rod Whitman, presents a player-friendly but proper links test full of wispy grass, deep bunkers and shoreside breeze to be negotiated. Among the design traits are a massive, 30,000-square foot double green shared by the 13th and fourth holes, plus wall-to-wall fescue turf. Every hole has a view of the gulf, while at the south end of the course, No. 10 and 11 present scenic diversion beside a calm harbor. From there, Nos. 13-16 all play along one-mile-long stretch of gulf to the left, where the course and beach is separated by a public walking path, much like many links abroad. To the right, the town of Inverness's skyline is dominated by separate protestant and catholic church spires, helping to add more ageless charm to a links that's shining new.
Getting to Cape Breton
The easiest way to get to Cape Breton, located just north of the mainland of Nova Scotia across the Port Hawkesbury Bridge, is to fly into Halifax International Airport (YHZ). Flights to most northeast cities like New York, Boston and Philidelphia are operated daily, as well as midwest cities like Detroit and Chicago. From Halifax, it's about a three-hour drive to Cabot Links and five hours to Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Another option is to fly into Sydney (YQY) a small town located on the west side of Cape Breton that has connecting service from Toronto and Halifax. If you fly into Sydney, you can play another new course, The Lakes Golf Club, which opened in 2010. Designed by Graham Cooke, the course plays alongside a forested ski hill and overlooks scenic Bras d’Or Lakes.
For more information, visit www.golfcapebreton.com