Exceptional Golfing in Nova Scotia

Pierre Le-Tan

The Highland and Cabot Links on Cape Breton Island may be Canada’s best courses.

One late afternoon last summer, the Canadian golf architect Ian Andrew stood near the tee of the par-three fifth hole of Highlands Links (greens fee, from $70; 247 Keltic Inn Rd., Ingonish Beach; 800-441-1118; highlandslinksgolf.com), in the northerly wilds of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. He studied a black-and-white photo that had been taken from the very same spot in 1941. Several differences between then and now jumped out, the most obvious being the shapes of a pair of bunkers to the right of the green. On this day, one looked like a simple round pot, alongside a Y-shaped hazard—at best, they were reminiscent of a child’s slingshot and its projectile.

The vintage photo told a different story, though. The boring old slingshot had once been a fantastic mythical beast—a recumbent dragon with the pointy-eared head of a…Doberman pinscher?—its serpentine neck recoiling in order to belch forth a ball of fire.

“Stanley Thompson,” Andrew sighed. “He really was a bit of a nut, wasn’t he?” Trudging back down the hill, Andrew marked the turf with spray paint and picked up an edging tool. “I think the ears will be easy. Let’s see what we can do.”

Since last April, Andrew has been working to restore Golden Age architect Stanley Thompson’s Highlands Links design to its original glory, undoing the results of a misguided renovation in the ’90s that degraded the character of the bunkers. By this summer, all but three of the holes will have been reworked. But the changes only serve to reaffirm Highlands Links’ long-held status as the great Canadian golf course. Sprawled over 300 acres, it’s an epic journey from first tee to final green. Where a typical course might be a four- or five-mile walk, Highlands is a full eight miles—and yet most golfers, spellbound, won’t mind at all. Rambling across rumpled hillsides, through birch-lined valleys, over coastal inlets and alongside the rushing Clyburn Brook, players encounter new facets of the majestic Cape Breton landscape at every turn.

The course was conceived as a Depression-era make-work project by the Canadian government, hoping, as it does still, to spur tourism in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The story of the course’s construction was one of Fitzcarraldoesque struggle, as the tyrannical, heavy-boozing Thompson (not for nothing was he nicknamed “the Toronto Terror”) worked with a crew of local farmers to carve the course out of the mountainous terrain. Around 30 farms were expropriated, an act that is remembered—sometimes bitterly—to this day. To stretch the farmers’ work out as long as possible, the course was built almost completely by hand.

There’s no denying that Thompson made the most of his enormous canvas. The creativity on display is breathtaking and sometimes quite witty. Paying homage to the game’s Scottish roots, the architect designed the second green in the shape of a Tam-O’-Shanter (it’s a joy to play), while the blind tee shot on the short par-four eighth evokes the vaulting nature of the caber toss. One of Andrew’s most challenging tasks this summer will be restoring a bunker complex on the sixth hole depicting “Muckle-Mouth Meg”—an allusion to a Scottish lass from a Robert Browning poem, described as a “mile-wide-mouth’d monster.”

This is not to say, though, that Highlands is more about gimmickry than great golf. In fact, the course possesses one of the best collections of par fives in the world, as well as a brilliant variety of two-shot holes—from the feisty fourth, which plays to a high-plateau green, to the excellent long 13th, where a spine bisecting the fairway can cause trouble on both the drive and approach. Every hole is its own self-contained world, and it all adds up to a fantastic challenge.

One of the best things about Highlands Links is that getting there is almost as enjoyable as actually being there. The famous Cabot Trail, a 185-mile-long highway skirting the island’s northern coastline, opens up jaw-dropping scenery around every bend, from lonely lakes and boreal forests to exposed hairpin passes, where the sea collides with the mountains in spectacular fashion. The village of Baddeck, on the shores of the vast Bras d’Or Lake, is generally considered the trail’s starting point, but Ingonish, an hour to the north, makes for a better base. Here, the best-known option is the Keltic Lodge Resort & Spa (rooms, from $190; 383 Keltic Inn Rd., Ingonish Beach; 800-565-0444; kelticlodge.ca), but it’s hard to determine if it’s also the best one. For its location—it’s perched on a high bluff mere steps from Highlands’ first tee—and ability to offer the amenities of a full-service resort, yes, but the interiors feel rather tired. (That may change soon, though, as the lodge is currently undergoing a million-dollar renovation, which will be completed in early June.)

A comfortable alternative is the Castle Rock Country Inn (rooms, from $130; 39339 Cabot Trail, Ingonish Ferry; 888-884-7625; ingonish.com), which has views of the Keltic Lodge from its clifftop location on the other side of Ingonish Harbour. A bit farther afield, the Chanterelle Inn (rooms, from $145; 48678 Cabot Trail, Baddeck; 866-277-0577; chanterelleinn.com) is tucked away on a remote hillside, where chef-owner Earlene Busch forages the wooded grounds for the prized fungi. The dining experience is in keeping with everything else about the inn: simple, rustic and imbued with a warm, genuine spirit.

After following the Cabot Trail around the glorious top of the island, a curious sight comes into view—the French tricolor flag modified with a gold star in the top left corner, flying proudly in front of everything from hooked-rug co-ops to accounting offices. This is Chéticamp, Cape Breton’s most prominent Acadian community, where the descendants of 16th-century French colonists have kept their unique culture fully intact. Be sure to stock up on baked goodies at La Boulangerie Aucoin (14 Lapointe Rd., Petit Étang; 902-224-3220; aucoinbakery.com) before continuing south to Inverness, where the island’s second world-class golf course awaits.

Last summer’s soft launch of Cabot Links (rooms, from $225; greens fees, $70; 15933 Central Ave., Inverness; 855-652-2268; cabotlinks.com), which officially opens in late June, immediately raised Cape Breton’s profile as a golf destination by an order of magnitude. This was due in no small part to the fact that the development bears the imprimatur of none other than Mike Keiser, the visionary behind Oregon’s Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, and there are, indeed, easy parallels to be drawn in positioning Cabot as “Bandon East”: Both are hidden away in sleepy villages in the middle of nowhere; both offer sandy soil, firm and fast fescue turf and a traditional, walking-only links design; both sit on windswept sites on the western shore of a major body of water. And sunsets over the Gulf of St. Lawrence are just as sublime as those over the Pacific.

Cabot is the brainchild of Toronto entrepreneur Ben Cowan-Dewar, a 33-year-old former banker and golf-tour operator who discovered the property in 2004 after hearing a provincial politician talking it up at a dinner. The site had once been a productive coal mine—Inverness’s lifeblood—but with commercial mining on the wane since the 1950s, the town had entered a long period of decline.

It wasn’t that the land’s golf potential was a secret—two groups had tried and failed to develop a course: one with a routing by Jack Nicklaus; the other with Quebec architect Graham Cooke. Cowan-Dewar happened to talk to the right person at the right time, but more importantly, he seized the initiative. One of his major early challenges was in tying up 13 parcels of land, held by various provincial agencies and private owners, to create a unified property.

In selecting an architect, Cowan-Dewar passed over the big “signature” names in favor of Alberta-based Rod Whitman. Like so many of today’s more imaginative designers, Whitman honed his skills as an associate of Pete Dye. While working for Dye in the 1970s, he befriended fellow associate Bill Coore. Later Whitman would go on to play a prominent role in the construction of several Coore & Crenshaw courses, including the famed Friar’s Head on Long Island. Whitman’s solo designs have also received high marks—most notably Sagebrush, in British Columbia, and Blackhawk, near Edmonton.

Both Cowan-Dewar and Whitman moved to Inverness full time to ensure that the course’s construction would receive their undivided attention. As part of the process, however, Whitman and Cowan-Dewar also conducted field trips to the great links of England and Scotland to identify the aesthetic and strategic touchstones that would make Cabot stand out. Rejecting the crumbly edged bunkers that have been all the rage in recent years, the two drew inspiration from the smooth-grass faces on bunkers at places like Muirfield, near Edinburgh, and Woodhall Spa, in the north of England. “I always wanted to do something a little retro,” Whitman said. “It’s a handsome, timeless look,” Cowan-Dewar added.

Indeed, classic touches abound, as Whitman borrowed from the playbook of the great early American architect Charles Blair Macdonald to take full advantage of the site’s naturally strong areas and to enliven weaker ones. The 11th hole is a bite-off-as-much-as-you-can-chew Cape design that plays around Inverness Harbour—fishing boats are the backdrop on the approach shot—while a Biarritz-style swale adds interest to the green of the 247-yard par-three seventh, which plays across plain ground. For his part, Mike Keiser, who signed on as Cabot’s principal investor in 2007, proposed a double green for the fourth and 13th holes. Whitman responded with a 30,000-square-foot behemoth that undulates like the ocean waves. Of course, what truly stands out to any golfer is the highlight reel of holes running parallel to Inverness Beach. On this continent, seaside-links golf of Cabot’s caliber is matched only by Bandon Dunes. Heading east, the next stop would be Ballybunion, in Ireland.

Many courses market themselves as “Scottish-style links,” but few have any ammunition to back up the claim. Cabot Links eschews using such a clichéd phrase to describe itself, even though it happens to be true—both on the course and off. Cape Breton’s west coast around Inverness is possibly the most Scottish place on this side of the Atlantic. The sound of the Highlands is easily detectable in the local accent, as well as in the music. In season, it’s easy to find ceilidhs—dance parties centered around fiddles, piano, bagpipes and whatever other instruments people bring along—all over the island. Near Cabot Links, the Red Shoe Pub (11573 Rte. 19, Mabou; redshoepub.com) in Mabou is a major venue for traditional music. Another ceilidh spot is five minutes from the course, at the Glenora Inn & Distillery (13727 Rte. 19, Glenville; 800-839-0491; glenoradistillery.com), the first producer of single-malt whisky in North America. While the distillery’s accommodations can’t compete with Cabot’s 48-bedroom lodge, which will open on June 29, it’s a great place for dinner and drinks. Glenora’s premium offering, Battle of the Glen, is the real deal—made in Scottish copper stills using Scottish distilling techniques. Sipping a dram in Cabot’s bar while watching a pod of whales at play in the waters off the course, the happy thought occurs that in this “new Scotland”—the meaning, after all, of Nova Scotia—the spirit of golf’s homeland has successfully crossed an ocean.

Capital Gains: Halifax and its Environs

While the closest airport to Cabot and Highlands links is in Sydney, on Cape Breton Island, landing in Halifax (an hour’s flight from Boston and a little over two hours from New York) is well worth the five-hour drive north. Though the skyline of Nova Scotia’s capital is modern (and somewhat blocky), the essence of the city remains Victorian. In the lovely Halifax Public Gardens (5665 Spring Garden Rd.; halifaxpublicgardens.ca), which dates to 1841, statues commemorating the heroes of long-ago campaigns tower over the flower beds, while the elegant façades of Halifax City Hall (1841 Argyle St.; halifax.ca) and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (1723 Hollis St.; artgalleryofnovascotia.ca) convey a sense of civic pride and prosperity.

Halifax grew up around one of the world’s finest natural harbors, but only recently has the city revitalized the industrial waterfront as a cultural destination. A boardwalk links a pair of worthy heritage institutions—the Canadian Museum of Immigration (1055 Marginal Rd.; pier21.ca) and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (1675 Lower Water St.; museum.gov.ns.ca)—with plenty of shops and restaurants in between. A good lodging option, the Westin Nova Scotian (rooms, from $150; 1181 Hollis St.; 877-993-7846; thewestinnovascotian.com) is in this area as well. Rooms are on the small side, but many offer lovely views of the harbor and its islands. Also nearby is one of the city’s best restaurants, da Maurizio (1496 Lower Water St.; 902-423-0859; damaurizio.ca), where chef Antonio Mantolino serves up a gnocchi Bolognese that’s out of this world.

For a non-golf day trip out of Halifax, the picturesque communities of Lunenburg and Mahone Bay are a little more than an hour’s drive south. Founded in 1753, Lunenburg has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its well-preserved 18th-century architecture—painted wooden houses that make it the quintessential Nova Scotia fishing village.