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Cape Breton Road Trip to North Sydney Ferries

When planning longer drives on road trips, it's always a good idea to make several stops along the way. Road trippers planning to visit all of Canada's Atlantic provinces will need to travel to the town of North Sydney on the northern tip of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island to catch a ferry to Newfoundland. Today's post suggests two stops to make as you travel on a Cape Breton Road Trip to the ferries in North Sydney, Nova Scotia.

Plan to spend an hour or two touring St. Peter’s village and canal. The quaint village has restaurants, picnic provisions, and boat rentals. St. Peter's National Historic Site is a worthwhile stop to stretch your legs and explore a unique site. With good timing, visitors can watch as boats move through the lock system between the lake and the ocean.

looking along a canal to a lock fence with a boat inside the lock and the lockkeepers building to the right
St. Peters on the Canal

Another stop good for an hour or two of exploration is Glace Bay, a former coal mining town and site of some of the worst strikes in Canada's coal mining history.

A small settlement of a couple of dozen small homes built on the flats above ocean bluffs.
Glace Bay

Cape Breton Rte 4 to North Sydney Ferries Road Trip

The only road crossing from the mainland of Nova Scotia to Cape Breton Island is over the bridge at the Canso Crossing. Once on the Cape Breton side, road trippers will decide to travel north along Rte 104 or Rte 4.

The quickest and most efficient way to North Sydney is via Rte. 104, which passes through the town of Baddeck (see my Baddeck post here) to the west of Bras d'Or Lake. Those travellers who choose to stay in Baddeck while exploring Cape Breton may want to visit the two communities in this post as day trips.

The less-travelled route described in this post follows Rte 4, skirting the eastern side of the lake. This route adds an additional hour to the drive (not including stops).

St. Peter's on the Canal

As frequently happens on road trips, I found this community by chance. I was following Rte. 4 only because I have a friend who lives in a teeny, tiny community along the highway whom I was planning to visit before catching a ferry to Newfoundland. An attractive roadside sign caught my eye, so I decided to make a stop and check it out.

signpost advertising St. Peter's Village on the Canal with an image of a sailboat sailing along a canal

Back in the 1630s, French merchants set up a little fortified town called Saint Pierre in Cape Breton. It was a strategic location on a narrow bit of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Bras d'Or Lake. Nicholas Denys saw the potential for fur trading, so he got cozy with the local Mi'kmaq and began trading European goods for their furs. This trade relationship was so beneficial that an old portage trail was converted into a skidroad to drag Denys' ships across the land.

the top of a white canvas teepee as seen through a dreamcatcher
Outdoor Mi'kmap display at St. Peter's

After a fire wiped out everything in 1668, the fur traders left. The Mi'kmap returned to their traditional lives until Acadian settlers moved in during the early 1700s. Port Toulouse became the supply centre for nearby Louisbourg Fortress for several decades until the British took over in the middle of the 1700s. The village of St. Peter's was established as trade increased, and Denys' old road was again used to haul ships across the isthmus.

While dragging the ships worked, it was apparent that it wasn't an easy or elegant solution. In the mid-1800s, a canal was proposed. This massive project took 15 years to complete. Several more upgrades have been made to widen the channel and increase the size of the locks. This became a National Historic Site in 1985. Today, recreational boaters are the most frequent users of the lock system.

St. Peter's Canal National Historic Site

The St. Peter's Canal National Historic Site includes a small shipping canal with a tidal lock, outdoor exhibits, trails, and a nearby village with restaurants and tourism services.

Opening Hours

Closed mid-Dec to mid-April

Shoulder season Mon - Fri 08:00 - 16:00

Summer season daily 08:00 - 18:00

Admission: free

Exhibits along the canal path and around the lockkeeper's station explain the lock's unique construction, which includes double gates with swinging doors that create a diamond shape when closed. Friendly park staff and the lockkeeper were delighted to share stories and explain the lock's workings.

Beside the canal lock

Most locks have a permanent "high" and "low" side, but here, due to the tides of the Atlantic Ocean, the water elevation on the ocean side can be either higher or lower than the lake level. This issue was solved by the lock's unique double gates with swinging doors. When closed, the doors create a diamond shape that compensates for the tidal differences. Outdoor exhibits explain and detail the engineering.

a line of weathered mooring stantions

I was excited to learn that a large boat was expected. I was encouraged to explore the trails, visit the local museum, or sit in one of the iconic Parks Canada Red Chairs to enjoy the sunshine and watch the action.

2 wooden outdoor chairs painted red

As promised, the yacht arrived from the lakeside and was closely followed by a small sailboat.

A multi-decked yacht entering a lock followed by a sailboat

The gates closed, and the lock filled, lifting the two boats to the same height as the Atlantic. A bridge at the end of the canal needed to be opened so the tall yacht and the sailboat's mast could sail beneath and out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Looking along the canal to see a swing bridge partially open

Glace Bay

Back on the road, drive north on Rte 4. Bypass the town of Sydney by taking Rte 125 northeast and rejoining Rte 4 at Grand Lake Road. Follow the signs to Glace Bay.

Glace Bay is a former coal mining town perched on a barren bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. During its peak, Glace Bay was home to eleven mines and employed more than 10,000 people. The coal from Glace Bay accounted for 40% of Canada's production. Those days have long passed, with mining operations slowing to a stop in 1984.

An old phot showing a group of miners posing in front of a mine entrance
Glace Bay Miners photo credit: Miner's Museum

The mine closures and the moratorium on cod fishing almost turned the community into a ghost town. Community determination and government grants have been used to build tourism and other opportunities to revitalize the town, with some success.

Exterior of a wooden duplex style house painted brown with white trim
Company housing for management

Visitors can tour the fascinating Mining Museum to learn about mining processes and the lives of miners and their families. Exhibits tell of violent clashes between mine owners and workers. The background music is recordings from The Men of The Deeps men's choir, which calls the museum home and sings mining songs. Visitors can also climb in a mine car and venture underground into the mines for a close-up experience.

A huge iron spoked wheel on display
A pulley wheel used in the mine

Walk around the museum's exterior to appreciate the size and might of the equipment used in the mines. Museum staff and volunteers are locals eager to ensure every visitor is welcomed and invited to listen to the stories of the families who have lived here for decades. Enjoy a meal at the on-site restaurant. Stop by the gift shop to pick up a unique souvenir.

Opening Hours

Jun 01 - October 15: 10:00 - 18:00 Daily

Off-season: 10:00 - 17:00 Mon - Fri (book underground tour in advance)

Admission: $25

North Sydney Ferry Terminal

It's a short (approximately 35 minutes) drive to the North Sydney Ferry Terminal from Glace Bay. Drive west back along Rte 4, bypass Sydney by joining Rte 125 and continue as it changes to Rte 305 and leads directly to the North Sydney Ferry Terminal. The route signage to the terminal and all directions to navigate through the terminal are very clear. Marine Atlantic provides ferry services. Two routes are available: one goes to Port Aux Basque (7 hours) and the other to Argentia, the closest port to St. John's (16 hours). Passengers must check in at least two hours prior to sailing. Travellers need to pass through a checkpoint at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency Plant Quarantine Station, where root vegetables will need to be disposed of, and the undercarriage of your vehicle will be sprayed.

Ferry at dock at the North Sydney Ferry Terminal

Travellers may not stay in their vehicles and may want to consider adding a cabin to their reservations, especially if taking the longer route. Reservations are strongly recommended. Sales may be available up to 3 hours before departure, but tickets are scarce on the most popular sailings.

small single story wooden houses built on the edge of a rocky shore in the fog
Arriving at Port Aux Basque Harbour

Weather can affect sailings, so make sure your plans are flexible. My return ferry was delayed 48 hours, causing a lack of room in local hotels and inns. Luckily, I had a tent and was able to find a spot at the Argentia campground. When our voyage finally got underway, the waters were still incredibly rough, causing a lot of seasickness amongst my fellow passengers.

Bonus: Other Things to Do and See in Nova Scotia

Louisbourg Fortress, Cape Breton

A little further west along Rte 22 and requiring a full day of exploration is Louisbourg Fortress. Originally a French fishing outpost, Louisbourg became a French Fortress and later a British Fortress. This outstanding living museum is a day trip of its own. For a full description of the Fortress, click here.

looking along a gravel road lined with 17/18th Century buildings and a water gate in the distance
Frederic Gate at Louisbourg Fortress

A Day on the Cabot Trail, Cape Breton

One of the most beautiful drives in the nation, the Cabot Trail circles northern Cape Breton Island, climbing the coastlines and highlands. A treasure for nature adventurers, this route includes stunning views and a range of trails suitable for almost everyone. To discover what to expect, click this link.

Looking along a winding coastal route snaking through the hills and woods on a foggy day

Baddeck, Cape Breton

The heart of Cape Breton, Baddeck is the largest town. Located on the shores of Bras d'Or Lake, Baddeck is the home to the Alexander Graham Bell Museum, a lovely lighthouse, amazing lobster dinners, and more. Baddeck is the place to make your base for exploring Cape Breton. Follow this link for more information.

A two story industrial building painted red with white trim. Sign on the side reads "Baddeck Marine" on a dock in front are piles of fishing debris and wooden palettes

Halifax, Nova Scotia

The capital city of Nova Scotia has a historic citadel, a lively food and beverage scene, a vibrant waterfront, and summers full of festivals. Check out what to see and do here.

The upper 3 story dome shaped clock with a weathered copper roof
Top of the Halifax Town Clock

Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia

A tiny fishing village clustered around a cove with one of the most famous lighthouses in all of Canada (and we have a lot of lighthouses!) No visit to Nova Scotia is complete without seeing Peggy's Cove. Check out that post here.

A 3 story 4 sided concrete lighthouse painted white with red trim
Peggys Cove Lighthouse

South Shore Drive to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

A stunning coastal drive featuring hidden harbours, charming coves, adorable towns, lighthouses, and an immersion into Maritime history and culture. Get more information here.

a horse pulling an open carriage driven by a costumed driver passing in front of a large Victorian home

Final Thoughts

As you continue your road trip through the Atlantic provinces, be sure to include a couple of stops on Cape Breton Island for a fascinating glimpse into the area's history and engineering marvels as shared by enthusiastic locals. The locks at St. Peter's Canal and the mines of Glace Bay demonstrate the culture, warmth, and ingenuity of the people of Cape Breton.

For visitors with more time, Cape Breton is worth at least a full week of exploration that includes spending time on the Cabot Trail or discovering the genius of Alexander Graham Bell in the town of Baddeck.

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11 opmerkingen

20 mei

Another excellent post on travelling and road tripping in Canada. Having read your blog for a while now I feel like I get to know every inch of your country. I agree with you, as fun as road tripping is, one needs to make regular stops along the way and not just drive through to the next check point. Once again Canada's Cape Breton includes the classic Canadian coal mining heritage site, a culture rich community and lots of hiking potential for a longer stay.

Carolin | <a href="">Solo Travel Story</a>

Reageren op

A road trip is the best way to explore outside of the urban areas of Canada and I'm glad to have you along on the journeys.


Nova Scotia has so many places I'm just itching to see. It looks like a wonderful province to explore. I had no idea that the ferry to Newfoundland was so long, but I love the additional places you can see on the way to the terminal. I'm a sucker for a historical site, and a mining museum is always interesting to see. And of course the trails are always high on my list. Overall I think there's plenty on this road trip to keep me occupied

Reageren op

Nova Scotia holds a special place in my heart and I'm guessing it will steal yours too. I recommend a nice long road trip around all 4 Atlantic provinces.


13 mei

These are beautiful places to get lost to. I wonder about the Lunenburg town if there's any relationship with Lüneburg in Germany? Different continent and different spelling obviously but you never know if the two shares something in common. I think drives and stop overs like this, requires a good set of music as accompaniment. I wonder what's your top three favorite? #flyingbaguette

Jan -

Reageren op

There are many places throughout Canada with names from the "Old Country". During the times of mass migration from Europe, settlers often came in groups from the same town or village. Naming their new settlements the same gave them a sense of home and belonging in this strange new world. When in the Martimes, my playlist always includes "trad" music... lots of Celtic folk. In Nova Scotia, that will always include tracks from Men of the Deeps, Ashley MacIsaac, and the Rankin Family. I also listen to a lot of classic and contemporary jazz. I try to make a point of listening to local musicians when I travel.


10 mei

What a great place to visit. I imagine winter travel is difficult in that area. The mining history would be really interesting to learn more about. What a lovely area to spend a relaxing vacation

Reageren op

Winter travel would be more challenging. The road conditions would be dicey, and more than that, much of the tourism industry closes during the winter season. I found the history of the coal miners' fight for decent working conditions to be very interesting. The brutal reaction of mine owners and government to miners' strikes was horrific and I truly admire the workers for their determination and perseverance.


There is so much more to this part of Canada than I ever imagined.

It certainly has a long and varied history and that canal looks impressive (and I had never even heard of it).

It's amazing that so much has been preserved for posterity in what would have been such an isolated area in the past.

I also never knew that this area was such an important coal-mining centre in the past.

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