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A Shore Thing – Touring Cape Breton

Two brothers riding completely mismatched motorcycles make a blitzkrieg strike of the Maritimes and Cape Breton. Their mission:  find those places to which they will someday return.

There might be more unsuitable bikes for a long-distance tour, but I’d be hard-pressed to come up with one seemingly less suitable than my Warrior. I bought Yamaha’s top of the range XV1700 Road Star Warrior a couple of years ago because I liked the look of it, it received excellent reviews from motorcycle journalists and a recent second-hand unit happened to come up at the right time. I particularly liked the high-tech componentry with the traditional North American big ’n’ lazy engine configuration. Most of all, I liked its lack of self-conscious ornamentation and frippery. I cannot claim that the low-slung dragster look is in any way practical: there’s nowhere to carry anything and no weather protection. Moreover, anyone shorter than six feet might not be able to get used to the bad-boy, ape-like posture. But, because I liked the look of it, I was prepared to give it a try even after having been spoiled by the supremely comfortable Honda Varadero XL1000V long-distance adventure tourer which I’d ridden in Europe. The colour purple, however, was a whole other issue … to me it’s indigo.

My brother Stephen was far smarter. He was to join me on this trip since we both wanted to see what Canada looked like east of Montréal but, following his arrival on holiday from England, he arranged to buy a BMW K1200LT described by many as being the Cadillac of motorcycles. I thought that meant it had loads of chrome and broke down a lot. But, in true BMW manner, it was dead reliable … except for the stands. It had an electric centre stand that would work only with a full battery and flat, level pavement. The side stand was for temporary use or else the pooled oil in the casings would emit clouds of noxious gas on startup. 

Of the four ferry crossings on our route, car drivers in the holds could be forgiven for losing their direction off the ferry when the dense black cloud engulfed them. 

LEAVING TORONTO, WE FOLLOWED THE 401 EAST TO GANANOQUE, then turned south to make the border crossing near the fabulous 1000s Islands Parkway bordering the St. Lawrence River and just sort of drifted through New York and the New England states for a few days. 

At this point the Warrior was looking to be getting about 200 kilometres from 10 litres which I thought was rather good since it was fully loaded up and previously I had been getting only about 180 kilometres to the tank. I had even run out on one doomed trip on a 400-series highway—that’s a tough way to learn the limit. Thankfully, after a bit of pushing to the gas station, it started again without trouble. Of course the BMW is in a different league and was capable of going twice as far on its 20-litre tank) but  Stephen was happy for the smoke breaks. 

ON HIGHWAY NINE, TRAVELING EAST ACROSS A QUIET PART OF Maine, we approached the New Brunswick border at Calais, accompanied by persistent fog and rain. This wasn’t an enjoyable ride but regular coffee and gas stops broke up a GPS-guided trek  to Saint John where we took passage on the ferry Princess of Acadia, which made the crossing to Digby, Nova Scotia. It’s an interesting fact that a digital camera has some infrared ability, because a photograph of just plain fog out at sea and taken shortly after I heard a ship’s fog horn near the pier, showed the venerable 35-year-old Princess where nothing was visible to the eye. Sadly, it will need more than a couple of damp bikers to keep that lovely, aged ship in service much longer. 

The Princess made the sailing with immense style as the evening skies cleared. That didn’t stop us from forming our own storm clouds though. Later that night, over dinner at the Admiral Digby Inn, my brother and I got into an argument about the Isle of Man TT and whether or not the races should be permitted to continue despite the death toll. We’ve seen some of the greatest racers show their brilliance there (only to get killed elsewhere) and we have heard of many others regularly meeting their deaths on the Island course. 

IN THE MORNING WE SWUNG SOUTHWEST TOWARD YARMOUTH and linked up with Highway Three, which runs along Nova Scotia’s South Shore. This is the fabled Lighthouse Route punctuated by coves and bays and containing landmark communities such as Peggy’s Cove and Lunenburg—a UNESCO World Heritage site, Lunenburg is home of the iconic Bluenose II and has been consistently voted Canada’s most beautiful small town. 

Because time at this point was not a huge concern we made a side trip down to Cape Sable, the southernmost point of the Maritimes, where a very dense mist suppressed all sound except for the fog horns out at sea. It had the feel of a Hitchcock film made all the more real by the spectre of abandoned wooden fishing boats. 

We continued on past Liverpool (ground zero for the freebooting privateers of the 18th century) and Mahone Bay, where mysterious 200-year-old digs on Oak Island are still regarded as one of the world’s great buried treasure stories.

In Lunenburg we visited the Bluenose and then moved on to nearby Chester for the Race Week regatta where my sailing brother was in his element. Perhaps that is why the barge-like proportions and sail-like screen of the BMW are so appealing to him; that and he can stow all his gear in the many lockers and cubbies on board. The trade-off on all that mass of bike is that the not infrequent U-turning on small roads—where they simply ended—was a bit of a tense affair. The Warrior is no lightweight but it carries its bulk much lower down and can be confidently turned about without bother. 

join Highway Seven, the Marine Drive, leading to Canso, a place I had wanted to see since I read about its history as the landfall for the first Atlantic telegraph cable. 

However, after an exhilarating sunny day riding along the coastal road, we spent a night at quaint Sheet Harbour and enjoyed a burger and pint in a converted oil drum which now houses a bar … well, why not?

Perfect weather and coastal beauty continued for the trip eastwards, which included an extended stop at historic Sherbrooke Village; effectively frozen in time in the late 19th century, the “living history” village is populated by some 30 restored buildings ranging from a general store to a photo studio. 

It’s fascinating to see the legacy of varied industries in the communities that once thrived here. Hugging the coast road, we were somewhat surprised to see the GPS indicate the end of the road coming up. And with no apparent warning the road stopped at an inlet where a kindly gent asked for $5 for the ferry ride across to where the road picked up again. During this surprising ferry crossing, he mentioned how he’d chatted with various famous folks who had journeyed this way before. I expect there will be a bridge there in due course but, in the meantime, how nice to be forced to stop and smell the flowers, as it were. We had booked the next night at the Sea Wind Landing in Charlos Cove and what a gem of an inn it turned out to be—not cheap, mind you but nice enough to keep us there for two nights right on the ocean listening to the clang of the distant buoy, with top-class cuisine and a very respectable red wine from the province’s own winery.

We took the opportunity to complete the Marine Drive route to Canso but the place was a supreme disappointment and exhibited every sign of the province having turned its back on the community after the fisheries died out decades ago and the economic focus shifted to Halifax. In the whole province, this was the only sad note—Canso is one place in desperate need of help and it was the only area where gas and a nice place to eat were hard to find.

MY FIRST MOTORCYCLE TOURS WERE IN THE UK AND INVOLVED taking my ’77 Honda CB400 Twin from south of London, up the A1 to Edinburgh, and through the beautiful Lowlands and into the southern part of the Highlands. So the similar scenery in Nova Scotia was most welcoming, even when it rained. And rain it did , but it’s interesting to note that my luggage, all of it being the soft, blue ballistic nylon Oxford bags, got very wet on the outside but never let the rain in to any appreciable extent. I tend to pack my clothes, etc. in plastic bags before they go into the panniers anyhow, so nothing got wet even in the torrential downpours we experienced on occasion. I did take advantage of the extra outer plastic covers which Oxford provides and these store neatly into one of the external pockets on each bag. The tank bag’s cover is clear so I could still read the CAA TripTik maps if the GPS needed confirmation. The only trick with soft bags is to make sure you fasten a bungee cord over them to prevent billowing, movement, or contact with the huge muffler. None of these were concerns for the BMW of course.

The rain had largely ceased by the time we broached the Canso Causeway and selected a mixture of routes through Cape Breton Island’s Bras d’Or Lakes area which has been so prolific in terms of musical talent. My brother is a huge Rankin Family fan so we just had to visit Orangedale (no whistle heard but we did see a stranded train), Gillis Mountain and the Mull River. We ended up at Baddeck for the night, ready to tackle the Cabot Trail the following day.

The Cabot Trail is a 300-kilometre oblong route around the northern half of Cape Breton Island. Scenic cliff edges, coastal views and dramatic elevation changes through Cape Breton Highlands National Park make for a spectacular ride. Being bikers, we enjoyed shooting through the twisties, but it might be better to give yourself a couple of days and really make this treat last. Traffic was, perhaps, a little heavier than we liked, but it was mid-August. 

To cap off a brilliant day, Stephen’s birthday in fact, we spent the night in Glenville where we visited the 300-acre Glenora Distillery—Canada’s only malt whisky distillery—enjoyed local live music, excellent beer and great food.

THE LANDSCAPE LEADING TO SYDNEY RISES AND FALLS AS THE four-lane Highway 105 sweeps back and forth across hills, and finally rolls over North Sydney’s iron bridge. From Sydney we made the four-hour journey across the Atlantic to Channel-Port aux Basques on the southwest tip of Newfoundland. After a calm and uneventful crossing we grabbed a night’s sleep at the nearest motel and prepared for a two-day lightning tour of the province.

Newfoundland is a place unlike anywhere else in Canada. It’s big, bleak and undeveloped—but you knew that already. It’s also unbelievably beautiful and two days is dreadfully insufficient to take it all in, but this trip was more of a way to get a snapshot of the Atlantic Provinces to see what needs to be visited at greater length. Consequently we tore through the island at top speed. 

The first day, after 304 kilometres, we stopped for lunch at Corner Brook and took the time to check out a nearby ski resort in Humber Village where Brits are buying up real estate like crazy to create an artificial holiday environment. Some 258 kilometres later we were in Grand Falls-Windsor for the night and halfway across the island. 

My brother was well settled into his cruise-control, iPod playing touring mode but, lacking these luxuries, I had to vary my speed to maintain interest. I feel this was a test for the Warrior which actually proved to be extremely comfortable and easy to ride on those long riding days. Despite its tank size the performance cruiser was demonstrating its value as a tourer. I even got 230 kilometres out of one tank on one particular section so I guess the engine was still loosening up—it had 13,800 kilometres registered on the odometer at the start of the trip. 

The Mustang touring seat was the only alteration to the bike, apart from the soft luggage and Streetpilot III GPS attached to the handlebar where it was protected from the elements by Yamaha’s neat little fly-screen. 

More hard-charging on day two of our Newfoundland blitz led to our arrival at Placentia, where we spent the night. My brother set off for St John’s for the evening while I decided that I had ridden enough for the day and explored the area on foot. I’m not usually a fan of seafood, but I had the just the best fresh scallops and cod at place called Belle’s, washed down with a fine local beer.

Really, it is a tad embarrassing to say we spent no more than two days exploring Newfoundland, but after more than two weeks on the road it was time to begin making our way back, and we still intended to dispatch Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick in the same blitzkrieg fashion. But when I returned to Toronto after a 19-day absence, I had 8,500 kilometres logged on the Warrior’s clock and the red mud from the Bay of Fundy still on my boots.

by Andrew Todd, Canadian Biker #234


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