Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 24, 2021
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Cape Breton's Fabulous Foursome

It's more than just smooth courses that make "The Island" home to the best golfing in Canada

"If you grew up in this countryside you'd be forever homesick for it," said my husband Bill. We were entering Cape Breton Highlands National Park along the Cabot Trail -- nature's masterpiece of windswept coastlines, rugged highlands, steep canyons and craggy cliffs. We were en route to Highlands Links, ranked as the number one golf course in Canada by SCORE golf magazine.

Highlands, plus three other championship courses -- Bell Bay, Le Portage and Dundee -- were reason enough to head east. But if that wasn't enough, the price was definitely right. You can play all four of Cape Breton's Fab Fore courses and stay in lovely resorts for less than the price of one round at Pebble Beach ($300 US). The fantastic golf is paired with friendly downeast hospitality, plentiful lobster suppers and kick-up-your-heels Celtic music.

No golfer within driving range of Highlands should miss it. And even though it's number one in Canada, it's still a bargain with green fees starting at $58.

Perched high on a cliff at Ingonish is the red-roofed Keltic Lodge, where the doorman, sporting a tartan kilt, pointed out that we were "just a five-iron" from the Highlands Links club house.

The late Scotsman Stanley Thompson (also the architect of the Banff Springs and Jasper courses) claimed that God designed Highlands and that he merely discovered it. Each memorable hole on Thompson's so-called "mountains and ocean" course bears a Scottish name. Heich O'Fash (Heap of Trouble) aptly describes the fourth and Tattie Bogle (Potato Pit) sums up the bumpy terrain on 15. Highlands is ingeniously routed from rocky headlands to secluded wooded glens with fabulous mountain and sea views, brilliant bunkering and rarely a flat lie. The late George Knudson used to stroll the fairways without his clubs just to savour the scenery. Highlands Links was the first Audubon Certified Course in Atlantic Canada, so don't be surprised if you spot a bald eagle overhead or a fox trotting off with your ball.

After our game, we lunched at the Muddy Rudder, a rustic roadside spot where the lobster and clams are boiled in a big pot outdoors, there's a lively jig on the loudspeakers and you dig in at one of the picnic tables overlooking the sea.

For more sophisticated fare and surroundings, try the steamed Atlantic salmon and homemade whisky ice cream at the Keltic's Purple Thistle dining room.

The next day we toured the Acadian pocket on the west side of the island and played a scenic 18 holes at Le Portage, recently redesigned by David Moote, son of the original nine-hole architect, Robert Moote.

With its 60 bunkers and several ponds, Le Portage Golf Club in the fishing village of Chéticamp is a challenge that will require every club in your bag. Though not quite up to the manicured standards of its sister courses, this scenic slice of property is scheduled for a $2.2 million upgrade, including automatic irrigation and paved cart paths.

It was just 6pm when we joined a steady stream of cars rolling down the lane toward the Barn at the Normaway Inn, owned by Dave and Theresa Macdonald. The Margaree Valley locals know you have to arrive early to get a seat at Dave's Wednesday night ceilidh (Celtic for gathering, which translates to party in Cape Breton).

"Dave was Celtic long before Celtic was cool," chuckles Theresa. Such local talent as Ashley MacIssac and Rita MacNeil have filled Dave's barn. After the fiddling and folk songs comes the dancing. It was well past midnight when Bill and I finally left the floor and the joint was still jumping.

There's plenty of local talent in the kitchen, too. Chef Ruthanne Hart's homemade Scottish oatcakes and porridge bread bring such raves that Dave has printed recipe cards for guests. Normaway-raised Highland cattle, lamb and salmon trout are also house specialties.

Twelve holes at the Dundee Resort & Golf Club command panoramic views of the Bras d'Or Lakes. This roller-coaster course, also designed by Robert Moote, demands accurate targeting. From the elevated tees of the par-three 16th signature hole you'll feel like you're on top of the world. Mark Atchison, golf writer at the Toronto Star described the 16th as "one of the great holes in Canada." I can't argue. From here, it's an exhilarating downhill run all the way to the patio, where a cold beer and a pile of mussels await.


History buffs will want to spend the good part of a day at the Fortress of Louisbourg, North America's largest historic restoration. A brief history lesson: the French came to Louisbourg in 1713. As the seaport prospered, the inhabitants decided to fortify their town. All was relatively peaceful until 1745, when the British captured the town. It was returned to the French by treaty but, in 1758, it again fell to the British, opening the way for the British conquest of North America.

Today, visitors step back into history as they enter the gates of the restored garrison village. Thanks to the talented and witty cast of costumed characters who play the parts of the 18th-century townspeople, Louisbourg comes alive.

There are more than 50 buildings, including barracks, taverns, homes of the rich and poor and the King's Bastion. You can mingle with street vendors, soldiers and musicians, sample a ration of soldier's bread at the bakery, talk to the gardener about herbal remedies or have a lesson in lace-making. Choose to dine like a soldier and you'll get one spoon with which to eat your pea soup and meat pie at a communal table; officers get a full set of cutlery, hot buttered rum and a choice of fish or chicken.

Last stop was the Baddeck and the Bell Bay Golf Club (selected as one of Golf Digest's best new courses of 1998), named after the village's most famous resident, Alexander Graham Bell. Both high and low handicappers love the generous fairways and meticulous manicuring at Bell Bay, exactly what Canadian architect Thomas McBroom intended.

McBroom saved the most dramatic terrain for his final four holes: 15 is a demanding 470-yard par 4; 16 requires precision as it plays though a densely wooded fissure; 17 is an intimidating par 3 across a ravine with a sloping green; 18, the signature hole, is a long par 5 with a tee shot view of the village of Baddeck, the Great Bras d'Or Lake and Bell Bay (where Alexander Graham Bell and his family lived). In McBroom's own immodest words, "They are exhilarating to say the least, amounting to what I believe is one of the best finishing sequences anywhere." Bell Bay will play host to the 2001 Wayne Gretzky and Friends Invitational on July 1 and 2.

Just down the hill, at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, you can learn more about the man and his amazing inventions that include not only the telephone, but man-carrying kites, a hydrofoil boat and his experimental airplane, the Silver Dart.

Later, we followed our noses to Baddeck Lobster Suppers, where barbecue wizard Francis Chisholm was out back grilling his own creation -- sugar maple planked salmon -- over an applewood fire. Bill took the salmon; I ordered a gigantic lobster and all-you-can-eat seafood chowder, mussels, rolls, salads and desserts. Some local experts at the next table gave me a crustacean-cracking lesson and invited us to the ceilidh at Parish Hall. It was a serendipitous farewell to Nova Scotia.


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