It seems somehow fitting that we can thank a doctor for the existence of Canada’s number one golf course, the Highland Links, which lies directly adjacent to the venerable Keltic Lodge Resort and Spa.
Back in the 1890s it was Dr. William Morgan who ordered fresh air and rest for the ailing wife of wealthy Akron, Ohio rubber industrialist Henry Clay Corson. A guest of Alexander Graham Bell at his summer residence in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, Corson found in nearby Ingonish the ideal retreat for his delicate consumptive spouse, Julia. Here he purchased Middle Head Peninsula and subsequently built an opulent summer home, which the couple christened Keltic Lodge. Dr. Morgan’s treatment must have worked because Julia rallied, carried on for another four decades and outlived her husband.
In 1936 she sold the property to the Canadian government, which was in the process of establishing the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Then began the ambitious task of constructing a luxury resort and world-class golf course in what is still a very rural and isolated part of Nova Scotia. The renowned golf course architect Stanley Thompson was hired in 1939 to design the Highlands Links, around the same time work began on renovating Keltic Lodge to turn it into a luxury hotel. The resort opened its doors in 1940, and 66 years later it remains a favorite destination for nature lovers and golfers.
In late September, my wife, Krista, and I found ourselves wending our way up the 300-metre slopes of Cape Smokey, anticipating a chance to sample the luxuries of Keltic Lodge. Clear blue skies and stunning sea vistas greeted us as we followed Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail. The leaves were already displaying gold and crimson tints, presaging glorious autumn colours.
As we approached Ingonish Bay we could see a large, elegant building straddling the peninsula of Middle Head. This was Keltic Lodge, and it was easy to see why Henry Corson chose this site for his residence. We rounded the inlet, passed the rolling fairways of the Highland Links and drove through sun-dappled woods to reach the lodge. Engraved in marble at the entrance was the Celtic greeting Cead Mile Failte, meaning “100,000 welcomes”.
We were indeed warmly welcomed and assigned a room with a great mountain and ocean view. Since the hotel is located on a narrow peninsula, there is no such thing as a room with a bad view. Dinner time was nearing, and we had reservations at the Purple Thistle Dining Room.
One great feature of Keltic Lodge is that the room rate often includes a meal plan for supper and breakfast (Modified American Plan). However, the cuisine was hardly the basic fare usually found when meals are included. Rather, Chef Dale Nichols provides gourmet menus reflecting fresh local seafood and produce.
I had to overcome one glitch before dinner, however. I had forgotten to pack a pair of dress pants. Most restaurants will offer to lend you a tie, but the Purple Thistle went one step further in offering me a kilt, perfectly acceptable formal wear in Cape Breton. In the past, kilts made Highland troops the most effective soldiers in tropical climes during the height of the British Empire. Ordinary infantry wore wool pants and were subject to horrific rashes and fungal infections; not so the Highlanders with their well-ventilated garb — especially since no undergarments were worn
Dinner was a delight with starters of stuffed quail and tangy fresh seafood chowder, washed down with a crisp Woodbridge Sauvignon Blanc. My main course was maple-glazed fresh Atlantic salmon. For dessert I had a chocolate concoction rich enough to sate the most jaded cocoa addict. I also stole a slice of my spouse’s roasted Nova Scotia Lamb, also luscious and worth the crack on the knuckles my larceny earned me.
The next morning dawned, once more to sunshine. We started the day with a hike around Middle Head, guided by naturalist Dupie who gave a great rundown on local geography and botany. Afterward, to soothe stressed leg muscles, we proceeded to the on-site Aveda Spa for a foot scrub, massage and decadent soak in the hot tub.
Suitably refreshed, we next headed for the Highlands Links. I found my kilt so comfortable I decided to wear it on the course. The 18-hole, par 72 Highland Links consistently rates in the top 100 courses in the world and merits its designation as the best golf course in Canada (Golf Magazine 2005). Cape Bretoner Joe Whitty struck up a conversation with us on the course and offered to snap a few shots of Krista and me. He complimented me on my innovative golf attire. Apparently, though commonly seen on Cape Breton, kilts are not considered typical golf wear.
After a round on the golf course, the outdoor heated pool at the lodge provided a refreshing diversion. Afterwards, we dined on haddock and juicy steaks, then enjoyed live Celtic music washed down with a special “Keltic Coffee.” Sleep wasn’t long in coming that night, lulled by the sound of the waves breaking on the nearby cliffs.
The next morning, Krista and I decided to investigate some of the other attractions northern Cape Breton has to offer. The Cabot Trail circumnavigates the Highlands National Park, and provides unparalleled hiking opportunities, including cathedral-like 350-year-old maple forests. Rushing streams and waterfalls abound.
For whale watchers, there are plenty of boat tours for seeing the many different species of cetaceans that feed in the waters off Cape Breton. Over the years, numerous shipwrecks, some treasure-laden, provide a scuba diver’s dream in areas such as Aspy Bay and St. Paul’s Island. Art lovers will find no shortage of local artists working in many different media.
Along the eastern shore of the park, sheer cliffs are often broken by pristine sandy beaches, the perfect venue for a family picnic. One such stretch of sand, Ingonish Beach, is adjacent to Keltic Lodge. If you don’t like swimming in salt water just go to the other side of this beach, which fronts on a fresh water lake.
Another place worth a stop is the Lone Shieling, a reconstruction of the stone, thatched-roof dwelling of an 18th-century Scottish crofter. Nestled in one of the last old growth hardwood forests in Atlantic Canada, the building was a bequest of Donald MacIntosh, who donated 40 hectares of land to the province on the condition it be maintained as a park. A stream tumbles along by the Shieling, and in the half-light of towering sugar maples, the area is imbued with a profound peacefulness.
I was told the Cabot Trail becomes more rugged as one heads west. Given the spectacular scenery so far, I found this hard to believe. Sure enough, as we rounded the trail, we climbed mountains, skirted shear cliffs and had close views of sea stacks and roaring surf. With the exception of Newfoundland, the Atlantic coast of North America has no comparable views. One Californian I spoke with felt the Cabot Trail gave Big Sur a run for its money.
We soon reached the francophone community of Cheticamp, greeting visitors with its towering cathedral and its vital Acadian heritage. To the south the Margaree River tempts anglers with both salmon and scenic pools.
Krista and I agreed Cape Breton truly offers something unique for almost every holidayer’s taste. Keltic Lodge was a perfect base from which to explore this historic and scenic island and to tee off at Canada`s number one golf course.
IF YOU GO…
Middle Head Peninsula, Ingonish Beach,
Nova Scotia, Canada B0C 1L0
Phone: (902) 285-2880
Fax: (902) 285-2859
All photos by George Burden
View of Keltic Lodge
Author in traditional Scottish garb, trying out the Highlands Links
Another view of Keltic Lodge
View of Cape Breton coast from Keltic Lodge club house Highlands Links guest room Keltic Lodge (model is my wife Krista)
This piece first appeared in The Medical Post