It’s six-twenty-something and the sun is rising on a shoulder of Cape Breton highland. Fishing boats bob in a protected harbour, foxes scamper through the beach’s marram grass-peppered dunes and a gull pecks at something that can’t be identified but smells unmistakably of ocean.
The scene is repeated every morning in countless coastal idylls on Cape Breton, which Travel + Leisure magazine famously rated one of the world’s very best islands for visitors. And yet many of them have come away underwhelmed by the infrastructure and services.
Which is where this shoulder of highland, this harbour, this grass, this beach – plus a game-changing new seaside golf course – have entered the picture. The tiny former coal-mining community of Inverness is being reshaped, and the island’s beautiful but underdeveloped Gulf of St. Lawrence coast is along for the ride.
After decades of false starts, Cabot Links is finally draped across the former mine site
between Inverness and its three-kilometre beach. The course, Canada’s only true links, has been feverishly anticipated
in North American golf circles for years. Ten holes and a
restaurant opened last year, and just weeks after June’s official opening of the full 18 and Cabot Links Lodge, the development
is already redefining the community: visually, economically and even culturally.
Cabot Links was built for golf, but the development is bringing an entirely new standard of service to Cape Breton, tilting its tourist map toward Inverness and the surrounding region. In a market previously typified by economy lodgings and floral bedspreads, Cabot’s hotel and food are distinctly upscale and modern – “barefoot luxe” on the Gulf, acknowledged from opening day as the best the island has to offer.
Ben Cowan-Dewar, an impeccable 33-year-old Toronto-born entrepreneur, spent eight years navigating local and provincial politics, enticing investors, finessing land purchases, vetting course design candidates and relocating his family on
the way to fulfilling a lifelong dream of building a great golf course.
Still, “as much as I love golf, I’ve come to love food even more,” he says over a glass of California cabernet and Nova Scotia lamb. This evening, Cowan-Dewar and his wife Allie Barclay are playing host to a large table of friends and visitors at Panorama. The restaurant overlooks half the golf course, the beach and the Gulf through its two dozen windows, although there’s a tendency to focus on the plate when the food arrives.
Panorama’s “are-we-really-in-Cape-Breton” menu, overseen by husband-and-wife chefs John Haines and Tracy Wallace, has quickly won over tourists and islanders alike.
The evening’s smash hit is lobster-stuffed chive ravioli, an appetizer that’s come recommended by the starter on the first tee and several others. It’s full of texture, salty and spicy and creamy all at once.
Our table is heaving with the kind of high-end visitors Cabot Links hopes to attract: a Toronto investment banker, a prominent Halifax doctor, a former media executive and others, most with non-golfing spouses who are just as tickled to be here.
These are the kind of details Cowan-Dewar and his principle partner, American golf developer Mike Keiser, have spent years chewing over. Barrier-free WiFi? In-room espresso? Sunset vistas across the links from each and every room? Check, check and check.
Keiser’s wildly successful Bandon Dunes project on the coast of Oregon has served as a test. Case in point: While Bandon’s inn serves its golfing patrons well, the washrooms haven’t fully met the needs of non-golfing guests, Cowan-Dewar says. At Cabot’s 48-room lodge, the spacious washrooms average 95 square feet, replete with indulgent tubs, shower stalls and his-and-her sinks.
It all still feels a little surreal for Inverness, whose 2,000-plus residents are still adjusting to the rapid lurch from second fiddle to top bill.
On previous visits over the past decade, the vast beach and its sunset view seemed like consolation prizes for the community’s high unemployment rate and declining fortunes. Now, new businesses are opening, traffic is becoming an issue and unfamiliar faces are prowling the back streets for lots with views of that very beach.
(Local sellers are putting some “very silly prices” on some of it, said one agent, shaking his head at property listed for double to quintuple its previous worth.)