Residents are seeing increasing numbers of people “from away” turning up in golf shirts at the harness track, the coffee drive-thru and the Hoff, a local roadhouse. A new driving range has been hacked from the bush north of town and planted with grass seed. Expectations are changing.
Back at Cabot Links, a few details are still being ironed out. Workers are finishing a bank of rooms, the on-course trash bins remain on order and a few of Cabot’s young staff continue to feel their way through the nuances.
“The majority of our staff have not worked at the higher end of hospitality, or in hospitality at all. They’ve been hired for their incredible attitudes and we feel that we can teach them everything else,” says general manager Andrew Alkenbrack, recruited from the luxury Aman Resorts chain with a mandate to get the details right.
Between golf, food and the region’s growing charms, it’s tempting to spend a week in Inverness itself. But all of Cape Breton is within easy range, making the town and its services a good base for golfers, families, even budget travellers.
The island can be completely circumnavigated by car in less than 10 hours, so anything is possible as a day trip – even the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, at the opposite tip, which can be reached in less than three hours and is worth the effort.
But it’s the Gulf coast that will get the real boost, now that visitors have a high-end option to trump the central B&Bs of Baddeck and remote Keltic Lodge in Ingonish.
After crossing the Canso Causeway from the mainland, many visitors make a beeline for the Cabot Trail, which begins near the island’s centre and winds through the pastoral Margaree Valley to Cheticamp and the highlands. It’s a traditional journey with roots in the dirt tracks of the settlers, but it bypasses some of Cape Breton’s best scenery and culture on the Ceilidh Trail.
From the causeway, the Ceilidh Trail emerges at Creignish, high above the St. Lawrence, where if you stand on your toes, you might see 30 kilometres across St. George’s Bay in clear weather. Judique and Mabou are all about Celtic culture and the snug Red Shoe Pub, owned by the musical Rankin family. The Glenora Inn, south of Inverness, offers tours and seminars at North America’s first single-malt whiskey distillery, rooms, and a restaurant that might be second only to Cabot’s Panorama.
Try anything made with the in-house spirits, especially the palette-cleansing whisky sorbet.
North past Inverness, the rugged shore harbours warm-water beaches and the pretty harbour at Margaree Harbour and Belle Cote, where drivers can pick up the Cabot Trail for Acadian flavour, whale-watching at Cheticamp and the iconic Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
This tartan of beauty and charm hasn’t yet made the Gulf coast prosperous; the next step depends on Inverness and Cabot Links. Despite the resort’s deepening footprint, it faces an uphill battle to conquer Cape Breton’s distant reputation and North America’s contracting golf market. Cowan-Dewar takes heart in Keiser’s experience at Bandon.
“Even in the current golf climate, Bandon continues to draw golfers from all over the U.S. and Canada. They go for the seaside location and the fun of links golf,” he says. “If we’re successful, it’ll be because we’ve embodied those characteristics.”
Many golf courses bill themselves as links, but Cabot Links is the real thing – sandy and well-draining soil, ocean views, fescue grasses, healthy winds and firm conditions that encourage shots along the wrinkled ground. Walking is the order of the day; caddies and pull carts replace the motorized cart. Consensus has it as the only true 18-hole links between Bandon and Ireland.
Cabot’s greens are hardy, but their putting speeds are relatively slow, allowing for the kind of character and contour often lacking in modern golf. The caddy becomes coach and sounding board for every approach: A putt, lob, bump and run, bank shot, knockdown or spinner might be best employed to reach the flag. Albertan designer Rod Whitman, who tramped the Cabot Links property for 31/2 years with Cowan-Dewar and Keiser, found holes that reward creativity rather than obedience.