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.)
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.
It's already been successful enough for exploratory work to begin on a second course on the oceanside cliffs north of Inverness. Respected designers Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have tinkered with a layout that includes a par three to a soaring promontory that could become one of the most photographed holes in Canada. Proper work could go ahead as soon as next spring.
Bouncing through the property in a truck, Cowan-Dewar is thinking about when, rather than if. He's talking about the second course, but it could be a hotel expansion, improved air access, a fully developed tourist economy or any number of ambitions for this part of Cape Breton.
"We're pretty optimistic."
IF YOU GO
Well-heeled golf visitors in private planes are already using the small airport in Port Hawkesbury, and there are hopes of expanding a strip north of Inverness to lure commercial flights. Until then, most visitors will arrive by car or fly into Sydney (WestJet and Air Canada; a two-hour drive from Inverness), Halifax (31/2 hours) or Moncton (five hours).
Award-winning Nova Scotia architect Susan Fitzgerald and interior designer Alexandra Angle teamed to create a geographically respectful yet stylish 48-room lodge. Rooms have wall-to-wall windows, L'Occitane bath products, soft Italian terry bathrobes, a Nespresso machine, goose-down duvet and pillows, walk-in rain showers and, with some rooms, outdoor terraces. (855) 652-2268; cabotlinks.com/accommodations; peak-season rates run from $225 to $280; off-season rates (Oct. 15 to June 29) start at $165.
A few hours is barely enough to scratch the surface at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site – you'll wish you had a full day to explore the site, where dozens of reconstructed buildings with enthusiastic staff depict the lives of 18th-century French officials, merchants, tradespeople and soldiers. Or go lighter on the history and enjoy the period restaurants and ocean-view trails. pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/ns/louisbourg/index.aspx
Cabot and Ceilidh trails:The summer ocean breezes of Cape Breton's Gulf coast give way to fall, when vast walls of colour adorn the highlands. Winter and spring are quiet, but these routes are open all year. novascotia.com/en/home/ourregions/scenic_travelways/default.aspx
Cape Breton Highlands National Park:It's 116 kilometres along the Cabot Trail from Cheticamp to Ingonish, but budget several hours to several days to properly explore the park's viewpoints, hiking trails, side routes and beaches. pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/ns/cbreton/index.aspx
If golf's your only game, you'll want to make time for the following courses:
Cabot Links: True links golf and stylish modern lodging along the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Standout holes include the par-5 13th, which encourages a running approach through a giant navel in a double green that tests all a golfer's creativity. 1-855-652-2268; cabotlinks.com; $65 to $130.
Highlands Links: Not a true links, but Ian Andrew's bunker restoration and tree removal (see photo) have restored mountain and ocean views and left this Stanley Thompson gem in its best condition in years. 1-902-285-2600; highlandslinksgolf.com; $54 to $89; (adjacent lodging at the classic Keltic Lodge, 1-800-565-0444, kelticlodge.ca).
Bell Bay: A strong alternative by Thomas McBroom in centrally located Baddeck. 1-800-565-3077; bellbaygolfclub.com; $46 to $79.
The Lakes: The new darling of working-class Sydney, astride a ski hill with views across the Bras d'Or from lakeside Ben Eoin. 1-902-828-4653; thelakesgolfclub.ca; $45 to 79.
Le Portage: A long-time local favourite beneath the highlands at Cheticamp. 1-902-224-3338; leportagegolfclub.com; $41 to $59.
Guy Nicholson's visit to Inverness, courtesy of Golf Cape Breton, was his fourth in nine years. He's looking for real estate (not at silly prices).