A few years ago, my friend Katrina and I took a trip to Nova Scotia during our off season from guiding. It was a wonderful experience but left me feeling like we could have done things better. For starters, we traveled in November because that’s when our schedule allowed us to take time off, but that meant everything was closed. Katrina was a road trip veteran, whereas I was a total beginner and worried our car would get stolen at every pull-off.
Having been employed as backpacking guides, all our gear was lightweight and small, meaning that when we were stuck in those November downpours we were cramped and far less than cozy.
“There’s gotta be a better way!” I remember exclaiming, like I was on some daytime television infomercial. Little did I know I’d find myself in a position to revisit this beautiful landscape with several big trips under my belt, all the best car camping gear I could wish for, and a budding road trip enthusiast (though she might say otherwise).
For this year’s GO FAR, I drove to Cape Breton Island, NS, with my girlfriend Mary to spend 4.5 days luxury car camping in the Highlands. We brought the coziest gear we could, a box of activities to keep the passenger entertained, and we hit the road.
When I pitched this trip to Mary, she was hesitant to say the least. Long car rides are her least favorite activity, with motion sickness ruling out reading and tv watching, and a general need to move making sitting still for long periods of time difficult. To help make the drive more manageable, we planned our trip in stages to split up the drive. No single push was meant to be more than 7 hours, except for our last driving day. This allowed us a more relaxed pace but meant that we often arrived at our destinations after dark. We would spend our first night on the border in the town of Calais, then wake up early and drive to Cape Breton. From there, we’d spend two nights on the western side of the island and two nights on the eastern side, before driving due south to Yarmouth where we could catch a ferry to Bar Harbor, Maine and drive home.
The drive to Calais was uneventful and the campground was exactly what we wanted it to be. We pitched a simple camp that night, only unpacking the tent, pads, and sleeping bags. Already, I knew this was going to be a far more comfortable trip. On my last visit to Cape Breton every campground was closed, including the Canadian Provincial and National Parks, so we slept in the car in pull offs and parking lots. While Mary was on board for that kind of trip, we were both relieved and excited to know where we would be able to settle in. The next day, we woke up excited and crossed the border, facing a 6.5-hour push to Glenora Inn & Distillery, the first real destination on our trip.
The Glenora Inn!
While laying out the plan, I knew I wanted to go to Glenora. On my previous trip, my friend and I made an 8-hour push to arrive for dinner service only to have the Inn closed for the season. I viewed it as the greatest disappointment of that trip, which made it a high priority for this GO FAR.
Glenora Inn & Distillery is the continent’s first single malt whiskey distillery. Nestled against a backdrop of dark forests and mountains, it felt like driving into another world as we entered the grounds. We arrived just in time for the last tour of the day and spent an hour learning all about their distillation practices and the methods they’ve adopted from Scotland. Afterward, we sat down in their pub for an extravagant dinner for our anniversary — only to find out that someone had paid for our meal! We took this as a sign of good things to come, tipped bigly, and started off towards our first National Park campground at Cheticamp.
We highly recommend the distillery tour.
By the time we arrived, it was pouring rain and pitch black, presenting the first challenge of the trip. Dreading setting up the tent in the rain, we strategized a plan to keep us as dry as possible and went right to work. The Aurora Highrise™ tent went up so quickly that I couldn’t believe it. All through the night, the wind blew and the rain fell, but we were warm and dry inside.
The Aurora Highrise™ was the perfect size for waiting out the weather.
We went to bed planning to hike our first full day in the Highlands, but we woke to dark skies, rain, and blowing wind. As we got into our car and started driving, our resolve to hike quickly vanished, and we pivoted our plan to take in the sights and be as unashamedly touristy as possible. We stopped at every pull-off to take pictures and to admire the sea crashing against the cliffs. We even set up our Stargaze™ chairs on the beach during a brief break in the rain!
We would often leave the main road to visit the small fishing villages that dotted the shoreline, or to follow forest roads up into the mountains. After spending most of the day sightseeing, we returned to camp to relax and read. Mary had the great idea to rearrange our tent and turn it into a sanctuary against the storm. We set up our Stargazes and wrapped ourselves in our sleeping bags to lounge away the afternoon. The lantern hook and clothesline loops made it especially cozy in the tent and allowed us to thoroughly dry out.
Ample room to relax, warm up and dry gear.
When we wanted to get a change of scenery, we located one of the many cooking shelters scattered through the campground and played board games and sipped tea. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned about these types of trips is that downtime is not your enemy. There’s too much to see in one trip anyway, so spend your time the way you’d like and enjoy yourself.
Our second full day was a transition day. The plan was to pack up camp and head east to Ingonish Beach, but we decided to make the most of our travel day. Even though the weather was gray and misty, we decided we would brave it and hike that day no matter what. Breaking camp was a breeze, and we quickly made our way to the Skyline trail, a 5-mile roundtrip hike through boreal forest and coastal cliffs that features an astounding view of the Cape Breton coastline.
The Skyline trail was amazing!
We wandered in and out of moose exclusionary zones and through fields of wildflowers as the wind tried to blow the hoods off our heads. On the return trip, the sun started to shine, and we spotted three moose off the side of the trail — by far, the highlight of the day. We watched them for a few minutes before sneaking downtrail and back towards our car. After our hike, it was a relatively short drive to the next campground, but we made sure to stop when we felt like it and noted fun-looking hikes along the way.
By the time we reached Ingonish Beach the sun was shining, the wind was down, and it was downright pleasant out. Camp went up easy with our practiced hands, and with the good weather we were able to spend some time lounging outside of our tent. The last time I was at this campground, we tried to cook a luxury meal over an MSR Whisperlite stove in the rain, and I learned from that mistake. Bringing more car-camping focused gear meant we could have a 2-burner stove and a tote full of everything needed to make an extravagant camp meal.
Having a two-burner stove was luxury after utilizing lightweight backpacking stoves.
After dinner, we spent the night around our fire, another luxury I often skip in favor of traveling minimally. As the wood burned down to ash, we made the impromptu decision to head to the beach and try our hand at astrophotography. While the photos didn’t quite turn out, it was wonderful to play around with the camera and tripod.
Our campsite had everything we needed for a comfortable stay.
Our last full day in the Highlands was our most active day, but somehow also our most relaxed. Having scouted out trails on our drive to Ingonish, we had a rough game plan for where we wanted to hike and could enjoy a leisurely morning.
We made a hot breakfast and coffee before heading off to hike the Jack Pine trail. A short loop along the coast, this trail wanders through a Jack Pine forest, an ecosystem completely dependent on fire. From there, we hiked Broad Cove Mountain for a stunning view of the cove we were camped along. Our third and final hike of the day was Middle Head trail, which follows a narrow strip of land out into the middle of Broad Cove. This was one of our favorite hikes as it presented rocky cliffs and views on both sides of the trail. Knowing we faced an early morning the next day, we broke down most of our camp in preparation, made dinner, and spent the evening playing board games at the picnic table.
The Middle Head trail was my favorite hike of the trip.
The largest test of our flexibility came the next morning. Somewhere on the Cape Breton coast, I received an email from the ferry: Our departure had been cancelled ahead of the incoming hurricane. Mary and I did some quick thinking and GPS-ing and decided it would be worth going to Yarmouth, then driving home instead of just heading straight home and breaking up the day. According to the GPS, it would only be a 9-hour drive, but it would allow us to visit Lunenberg. Lunenberg had been on my list from my previous trip, but we never made it, so I was excited at the prospect of visiting this village.
A UNESCO world heritage site, Lunenberg is one of two urban communities in North America with this designation. With seventy percent of the colonial buildings still standing, it was a treat to wander the winding and hilly streets, taking in the contrast between the colonial architecture and the colorful coastal buildings that have cropped up around them. We arrived in Yarmouth after dark and treated ourselves to fish and beer at the Rudders, a local brewery and pub with excellent food and drinks.
Lunenburg is a unique visit with excellent food and drink choices.
The morning of our final drive we woke up early to get a jump on the day, only to discover our initial estimates were wrong. According to our GPS, what was supposed to be a 9-hour drive was in fact a 13.5-hour adventure — we forgot to remove ferries from our route!
Looking back, we should have checked our map more closely, but as a good friend often says: “Everything is or will be okay.” And it was. The trip home went much more smoothly than I would have expected and, looking back, we wouldn’t change a single thing.
NEMO Gear List:
Aurora Highrise™ 4P tent: With a spacious standing-height design, simple setup, and vibrant colors, the Aurora Highrise tent is the perfect car camping tent for any adventure.
Roamer™ Double Sleeping Pad: Like sleeping on your bed at home, Roamer is packable, self-inflating and luxurious.
Riff™ Down Sleeping Bag: Great for car camping and backpacking alike, Riff™ Spoon™ shape is great for side and stomach sleepers alike. Zip a men's and women's version together with a partner.
Fillo™ Luxury: Combined air and foam creates a lightweight, packable pillow option. A must-have for every overnight adventure.
Stargaze™ Reclining Camp Chair: Rock, recline, relax on the beach or at the campsite. The Stargaze™ is truly a gamechanger in comfort.
Moonlander™ Dual-Height Table: Great as a bedside table on it's lowest height setting and an excellent elevated side table around the campfire--Moonlander™ can do it all.
Chipper™ Sit Pad: Sustainably made, Chipper™ is a great companion on the trail and at camp.
The NEMO GO FAR (Get Outside For Adventure & Research) Program gears employees up and sends them out to spend time in interesting places in NEMO gear. We believe great design starts with real adventures, and are committed to making sure all NEMO employees get to experience it. Travis Gagliano runs point on the Dealer Services team at NEMO, managing retailer relations and order processing. He loves to hike and cross country ski, recently breaking into ski touring and downhill to better enjoy New England winters.