Is there anything better than a coastal road trip, with breathtaking ocean views at every turn?
Let us introduce you to a lesser known route in beautiful Nova Scotia – the Cape George Scenic Drive, also known as the ‘Mini Cabot Trail.’
This picturesque driving route follows the edge of a triangular shaped piece of land jutting into the Northumberland Strait.
The curving path passes several lighthouses, rocky coves, working wharfs, tall rugged cliffs, small rural communities and a number of beautiful beaches.
The route’s nickname is a nod to Nova Scotia’s famous Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island, which shares some landscape similarities. The ‘mini’ part refers to the shorter distance (100km vs 300km) as well as the scale of the scenery.
While the Cape George Scenic Drive doesn’t replace a visit to the Cabot Trail, it does provide a great alternative for those short on time or folks who have already driven the aforementioned route.
Taking the Cabot Trail comparison completely out of the picture, this region of Nova Scotia is a destination in its own right.
Think calming coastal beauty without the crowds yet still within easy reach of Halifax. There’s very little traffic to contend with and no big communities to navigate. If it’s peace and quiet you’re after, the Cape George Scenic Drive definitely delivers!
In this post, I’ll share everything you need to know about the Cape George Scenic Drive, including all the best roadside stops, restaurants and places to stay.
Here’s what to expect:
- Introducing Nova Scotia’s Mini Cabot Trail
- Mini Cabot Trail: Where to stop, stay and eat
- Road trip planning: essential tips and advice
The Cape George Scenic Drive is located on Megumaagee, land of the Mi’kmaq. We visited the area in mid October 2022 in partnership with Tourism Nova Scotia. This post was published on 29th October 2022.
There are some affiliate links in this post. If you click one and make a purchase, we may receive a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you.
Introducing Nova Scotia’s Mini Cabot Trail
The Cape George Scenic Drive is a 100km long driving route in Nova Scotia, Canada, and is sometimes referred to as the Mini Cabot Trail.
Starting (or ending) in Antigonish, the drive follows the Northumberland Strait coastline to Sutherlands River, near New Glasgow.
The Cape George Scenic Drive is part of the longer Sunrise Trail, which follows the length of Nova Scotia’s Northumberland Shore.
Why you need to go
I don’t know about you, but I love coastal road trips. I’m all about the endless ocean vistas, salty air and relaxed vibes!
The Cape George Scenic Drive / Mini Cabot Trail also offers the chance to eat fresh seafood, check out some historic lighthouses, meet friendly locals and explore a number of gorgeous beaches.
As previously mentioned, this driving route is a great option for anyone who enjoys solitude and/or travelling off the beaten track.
How to get there
The Cape George Scenic Drive starts (or ends) in Antigonish and travels towards Cape George Point on Highway 337 and then west towards Malignant Cove. Here, drivers need to turn onto Highway 245, which continues to Arisaig, Merigomish and Sutherlands River (end point).
The Mini Cabot Trail can be driven in either direction. Having driven both directions, however, I would say that I personally enjoyed travelling west to east more (Sutherlands River to Antigonish).
A highlight of the route is driving the curvy section between Cape George and Ballantyne’s Cove. The views of the ocean and coastline are better when driving towards Antigonish.
An insight into local history
The Mi’kmaq have lived and travelled this region for thousands of years, utilising St George’s Bay as a seasonal base. Antigonish’s name is derived from the Mi’kmaq word N’alegihooneech, which translates to “place where branches are torn off.”
Expelled Acadians from the Grand-Pré area settled in Pomquet, just east of present day Antigonish, in the late 18th century. Following the American Revolution, 3000 free black citizens travelled to Nova Scotia, with some eventually settling in Tracadie (east of Pomquet).
Scottish, and Irish, immigrants arrived in large numbers in the 19th century, attempting to escape famine, overcrowding and discrimination in their home countries.
Today, the Antigonish region retains a strong Scottish connection with some multicultural influences. Gaelic signs are prominent on the Cape George Scenic Drive and also in Antigonish.
Fishing, forestry and farming are significant local industries. Antigonish is a regional centre, with a historic university and hospital.
The Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation (Paqtnkek meaning ‘by the bay’) is located 24km east of Antigonish.
Mini Cabot Trail: Where to stop, stay and eat
Intrigued by the idea of driving the Mini Cabot Trail?
In this section, you’ll discover all the best places to stop, stay and eat on the Mini Cabot Trail / Cape George Scenic Drive. JR and I have tried and tested each suggestion, unless otherwise stated.
This guide is designed to be followed from east to west, starting in Antigonish and ending in Sutherlands River.
As previously mentioned, the Mini Cabot Trail can be driven in either direction so simply reverse the directions when travelling from west to east.
Use the below map for orientation and to help locate the recommended activities, restaurants and accommodation options.
The Cape George Scenic Drive is 100km long, with the driving time just less than 90 minutes without stopping. Most visitors should expect a day of exploring. Want to stop everywhere mentioned in this post? Consider an overnight trip.
Situated at the base of the Cape George Scenic Drive, Antigonish is an ideal launching point for your road trip. Though the year round population of this small town is only around 5k people, it’s much more vibrant than you may imagine due its status as a regional centre and university town.
It’s also rich with influences from the past, particularly those of Gaelic origin. For example, the town is host to the longest continuously running highland games outside of Scotland (held in July each year).
Those interested in Antigonish’s historical origins (or a personal Gaelic connection) should take a trip to the Antigonish Heritage Museum. The Cairn Park, an area dedicated to the Scottish families (clans) that settled in Antigonish, is also worth a visit.
Antigonish’s downtown is an ideal place for a stroll, with a number of independent boutiques and varied selection of modern restaurants alongside two craft breweries (Candid and Spindrift). There’s a distillery close by as well (Coldstream Clear Distillery).
If you need to stretch your legs, head for Antigonish Landing. It takes around an hour to walk the 4km return trail along the river. Be sure to keep an eye out for eagles, osprey and ducks! Find the parking lot at end of Adam Street.
Where to eat: Antigonish’s dining scene is pretty impressive for such a relatively small place. Our favourite discovery was the Townhouse, an intimate downtown restaurant with an elevated yet casual food menu.
For lunch, I’d highly recommend trying the seafood chowder at either Justamere Café or the Snow Queen Family Restaurant. For more information and other suggestions, check out our Antigonish guide.
Where to stay: Antigonish’s newest hotel is the Microtel Inn and Suites. Overlooking the highway, it takes less than five minutes to drive downtown from here. The rooms are large and well organised with stylish furnishings.
The Maritime Inn is situated on the eastern side of town, an easy walk to everywhere downtown. Guests receive a complimentary breakfast at the delightful Main Street Café, which is attached to the hotel.
Antigonish to Cape George
Welcome to the Cape George Scenic Drive! Start your day with a visit to the drive-thru at Swick’s Bakery to pick up some sweet treats, Montreal style bagels or flaky croissants.
Continue on to Mahoneys Beach, the first of many lovely sand beaches on this stretch of the ‘Mini Cabot Trail.’ It’s the perfect spot for sunrise, if you’re up that early!
Feel like a hike? Backtrack to Fairmont Ridge, a hiking network featuring a series of looped paths through the forest and up onto the hills above.
Beach fans should make another stop at nearby Cribbons Beach; ind it at the end of the left fork on Cribbons Road. The right fork leads to a wharf. Before descending to the latter, look for the coastal viewpoint at the top of the hill.
Back on the main road, Sunset Vista Day Park offers sweeping views of the ocean, cliffs and road ahead. Just around the corner is Ballantyne’s Cove, one of the prettiest local wharfs.
Take a break to explore the beach and enjoy some seafood (see below). The Bluefin Tuna Interpretive Centre is also worth a look. Fun fact – the largest tuna ever recorded was caught right in this area!
The next section of road includes a series of sharp turns as it ascends to the top of the cliffs. It’s very reminiscent of the famed Cabot Trail and the main reason why this route is compared. The turnoff for Cape George Lighthouse lies at the top of the hill.
Where to eat: Situated in Ballantyne’s Cove, casual takeout Fish and Ships operates from mid June to mid October. Unsurprisingly, its best known for fish and chips, but also serves burgers and ice cream.
Fish and Ships had unfortunately already closed for the season when we visited but hopefully we’ll get to try another time! Bring your own picnic if you also visit outside of summer.
Where to stay: Accommodation options are pretty limited in this area, with less than a handful of B&Bs and vacation rentals.
Cape George Lighthouse
Cape George Lighthouse is a definite highlight of driving Nova Scotia’s ‘Mini Cabot Trail.’ So much so that I thought it deserved its own section within this guide.
Perched at the top of 100m high cliffs, Cape George Lighthouse hosts commanding vistas of the Northumberland Straight and Cape Breton Island. It has a rugged and isolated feel, despite only being 25 minutes drive from Antigonish.
Built in 1968 (the third structure on this site), Cape George Lighthouse is looked after by a team of local volunteers. The lighthouse is also the setting of a popular children’s book by Robert Munsch.
500m west of the lighthouse is Cape George Point Day Park. There is a picnic area, outhouses and a hiking trailhead. The latter leads to the Cape George Heritage Trail network, which features 37km of looped paths.
Most of these trails are impassable after Hurricane Fiona in late September 2022, but I would anticipate cleanup and reopening in spring 2023.
Cape George to Arisaig
From Cape George, the road starts heading west but still stays close to the coastline. Livingstone’s Cove Wharf Park hosts far reaching views of the route ahead, as well as two rocky beaches and a wharf. It’s the best place to watch sunset. Another small beach awaits at Malignant Cove.
The small community of Arisaig is another must stop on this scenic driving route. Start your visit with a trip to Arisaig Lighthouse. This cute red and white building is a replica of the original version which burned down in the 1930s. Ice cream is sold here in the summer months.
Just a minute down the road is Arisaig Provincial Park. As well as being the perfect place to enjoy a picnic, this coastal park provides an interesting insight into the past. An exposed section of Silurian rock is found here, featuring 400 million year old fossils.
A 1.6km long loop trail leads from the parking lot to the shore, where two different viewing platforms offer a chance to observe the cliffs and fossil deposits.
Please note that access to the park is temporarily unavailable at the time of writing (October 2022) due to hurricane damage. Check the current status on the Nova Scotia Parks website.
Finish up your time in Arisaig with a drink at Steinhart Distillery. On sunny days, enjoy a tasting flight with spectacular views of the ocean (and Arisaig Lighthouse) from Distillery’s sunny patio. Whatever you do, be sure to try the maple vodka – it’s flavourful yet surprisingly delicate.
Where to eat: Situated right at the intersection of Highway 337 and Highway 245, it’s very easy to miss the Cabana if you’re not looking for it! This casual seasonal takeout spot offers wood fired pizza as well as burgers, fried fish and lobster rolls. Again, it had already closed for the season by the time we visited but it’s on the list for next time.
The Schnitzel Shack at Steinhart Distillery is another welcome food option in this area (also seasonal). The ocean views are fabulous and the German themed food apparently very tasting and filling. Breakfast is served until noon.
Where to stay: Steinhart Distillery is host to two fully equipped cottages with ocean views and private hot tubs. Of course, another highlight is being located just a few steps from the distillery building itself.
Arisaig to Sutherlands River
The final section of the Cape George Scenic Drive travels further inland but still offers glimpse of the ocean here and there.
MacAdam Brook Falls lies just outside of Arisaig, hidden below the road. Drive 1.5km west of Steinhart Distillery and park by the bridge (look for railings on both sides and the green ‘Mac Adam Brook’ sign). A wide path on the northern side leads into the forest, becoming narrow and very steep as it descends to the creek.
Just down the road is Knoydart Farm Cheese, the Maritimes’ only grass-fed certified organic dairy farm. The self service shop is open seven days a week from 8am to 8pm, with a variety of milk, cream and cheeses available. I’d recommend picking a couple flavoured cheddars plus the Dunmaglass.
Anyone with an interest in local history should stop at the Culloden Memorial, which remembers three local settlers who had fought in the battle of Culloden in Scotland. The 150m long grassy path leads to an oceanside cairn, which includes rocks from the battle site itself.
The last must see on this stretch of the scenic drive is Big Island Beach. This 10km long peninsula features some of the beach beaches on the entire route. Keep a look out for fossils in the rocks – they are prevalent in this area.
Where to eat: The Schnitzel Shack at Steinhart Distillery is the only restaurant on this stretch (details above), but you can pick up cheese at Knoydart Farm and local produce at the Merigomish Schoolhouse Marketplace (Sundays 10am to 1pm, April to December).
Where to stay: Extend your tour of the Cape George Scenic Drive with two nights (or more!) at Fossil Farms Oceanside Retreat.
Experience real bliss as you escape to this 45 acre coastal property (a 200+ year old farm!) featuring seven beautiful, fully equipped winterized cottages. Some even have ocean views.
There’s no real reason to leave the farm, with a swimming pool, sauna, bikes, hiking trails, chill out areas, gardens, beach and an outdoor kitchen to enjoy.
And don’t forget to swing by and meet some of the local residents – seven bee hives, a flock of chickens and three super cute Babydoll sheep.
And as for the name, yes, you really will find fossils at Fossil Farm! 330 million year old ones to be specific, which litter the nearby beaches. Choose a canoe or kayak (also included) and paddle out onto the ocean to find them.
Sutherlands River to Antigonish (return route)
To complete a circular route, take Highway 104 from Sutherlands River back to Antigonish. The drive is both fast and easy, taking only 35 minutes on the wide four lane highway.
Before you join the highway, I’d highly recommend a detour to Park Falls. This roadside waterfall is just five minutes drive from Sutherlands River. Park on the gravel section next to the road and walk back to the bridge, where you’ll see water cascading into the canyon below.
If you have some extra time to spare, head to Keppoch Mountain for a hike. This four season recreational area is easily accessible from exit 30 and features 40km of non-motorized paths.
Operated by a non-profit, the signage, trails and facilities are first class. The summit loop hike is a great place to start – 5km total with 190m elevation gain. The hiking fee is $5/per person.
Side trip: Pomquet
Looking for more adventure? Extend your trip by continuing onto the small Acadian village of Pomquet (15 mins drive west of Antigonish). Keep an eye out for the starred tricolour flag as you drive towards Pomquet Beach Provincial Park.
This spectacular stretch of golden sand is backed by dunes and is one of our favourite beaches in Nova Scotia. The 3km long beach is supervised by lifeguards in July and August. It is also wheelchair accessible with a wide boardwalk, dedicated parking and beach access mat.
After an hour or two at the beach, head to the Chez Deslauriers property. Converted into a tearoom, this heritage home serves traditional Acadian lunches every Friday during the summer months.
The building occupies a scenic headland, with views out to the ocean, Pomquet Beach and the local harbour. A series of trails leads along the 20m high limestone cliffs into a white pine forest.
On our October 2022 visit, the paths were covered in blowdown from Hurricane Fiona. Fingers crossed for cleanup in spring 2023.
Where to eat: The closest restaurant to Pomquet is Mother Webb’s, a mainstay on the local culinary scene for more than 55 years! This traditional spot is best known for steak. JR’s bone-in New York rib steak was mouthwateringly good and also cooked perfectly to order (his preference is blue so it’s usually a hit and miss). Service is both fast and attentive – even if the restaurant is full, you won’t have to wait long to get in.
Where to stay: Pomquet Beach Cottages is situated on the ocean, just one minute from the entrance of Pomquet Beach Provincial Park. Five well equipped (and immaculately cleaned) cottages share water views, paddleboat equipment and beach access. The friendly owners are bilingual
Road trip planning: essential tips and advice
To finish, I’ll share some essential tips and advice for road tripping in this region of Nova Scotia.
When to go
The best time to drive the Mini Cabot Trail / Cape George Scenic Drive is late spring to early autumn (June to September). The weather is warmest during this time and it will be possible to enjoy the vast majority of the activities mentioned in this post.
The busiest time to explore is July and August, when Nova Scotia receives most visitors. Having said that, this area is quieter than other areas of Nova Scotia so even in high season, you won’t be fighting crowds.
Visiting earlier in spring and later in fall is also a good option. In mid October, the local hills light up with golden trees.
Love lobster? Consider timing your trip for fishing season, which runs from 1st May to 30th June in this area. While lobster can still be found outside of these dates, it’s definitely more plentiful during this time.
What to eat
Seafood chowder is a must eat while in this area of Nova Scotia. Several local restaurants in Antigonish are featured on Nova Scotia’s Chowder Trail, which celebrates homemade chowders featuring fresh local seafood.
Also look out for lobster dishes, most commonly seen during the months of May and June (the local fishing season). Again, some Antigonish restaurants are highlighted on Nova Scotia’s Lobster Trail.
Many farms lie along the Cape George Scenic Drive. Visiting the Antigonish Farmers Market is the easiest way to pick up locally grown fruit and vegetables, as well as locally produced meat, cheese and honey. The market is held every Saturday morning.
Essential road trip advice
- Slow down. In general, the pace of life in Nova Scotia pretty relaxed. Though it may be tempting to try and rush around to see everything, take a lesson from the locals and take things slow
- Be prepared to drive narrow, winding roads. The Cape George Scenic Drive is not a major highway. It is a two lane road (one lane in each direction). Some sections feature sharp curves
- Smile! This may sound like an odd tip to share, but Nova Scotia is a very friendly place. Prepare to be stopped by people while exploring. City folk may find this a little strange yet it’s very normal in this area of the world
- Look out for wildlife. Large animals (such as deer) may be on the road at any time, but more likely at dusk and dawn
- Expect to see some mosquitoes in summer, especially at dusk – be sure to bring (or buy) some insect repellent. If camping, I’d suggest a Thermacell repellent applicance or at least some mosquito coils to burn
- Ticks are prevalent in Nova Scotia. After exploring outside, perform a tick check. Wear long pants and long sleeves while hiking, preferably light coloured varieties (making them easier to see). Avoid walking through long grass when you can
Explore more of Nova Scotia:
One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure. JR and Gemma are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada