Cape Breton Island Vs.  The island of Newfoundland

Cape Breton Island Vs. The island of Newfoundland

There’s an old joke in Canada that the people of the Cape are just Newfoundlanders who ran out of money on the way to Toronto. The joke never fails to get a laugh, but neither Cape residents nor Newfoundlanders like it much. As both groups will tell you, the two islands may have a lot in common, but they are very different places.

Cape Breton Island is part of the province of Nova Scotia. Its 3,981 square miles are home to approximately 137,000 people, many of whom claim Scottish, Irish, English, Acadian or Mi’kmaq heritage. Its most populated area is the city of Sydney in the northeast, and the island is connected to mainland Nova Scotia by the Canso Causeway.

The island of Newfoundland is part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Talking about it can get a little confusing as people sometimes say “Newfoundland” to refer to the province as a whole and not necessarily the island. It measures approximately 42,000 square miles, making Newfoundland Canada’s fourth largest island. About 57 percent of people in Newfoundland and Labrador claim British or Irish ancestry, and about 6 percent say they have French heritage. Its largest city, St. John’s, is also the provincial capital.

So whether you’re lost while trying to find Toronto or just want to explore eastern Canada, understanding the differences and similarities between these two islands will help you have a better trip.

A ship arriving at Newfoundland

A ship arriving at Newfoundland

Photo: one pony / Shutterstock.com

1. Transportation and movements

Most people visit Newfoundland either by flying into St. John’s or by taking the ferry from Cape Breton Island. Ferry passengers can choose from short trips to Channel-Port aux Basques or the longer trip to Argentina (not far from St. John’s). Additionally, some visitors visit by flying into alternate airports such as those in Deer Lake and Gander. It is also possible to get there by road through Labrador and then by ferry to Blanc-Sablon, Quebec (which is right next to the Labrador border).

The DRL bus provides public transportation between St. John’s and Channel-Port aux Basques with two dozen stops in between. It’s reliable and reasonably affordable (going all the way to Channel-Port aux Basques costs about $152) but slow. All these stops add up and those doing the full route can count on a 14-hour day. For most visitors, renting a car at the airport or transferring your vehicle from the ship is the most realistic option.

Those who visit Cape Breton Island almost always do so by road from mainland Nova Scotia. Most visitors enter the province by flying into Halifax or driving over New Brunswick — and in some cases taking the ferry from Maine to Yarmouth. There is an airport on Cape Breton Island that serves limited commercial flights to Sydney. And, of course, those in Newfoundland can take the ferry!

Maritime Bus offers public transport in Cape Breton, with service to Port Hawkesbury, Whycocomagh, Wagmatcook, North Sydney and Sydney. However, as in Newfoundland, a car is the most practical option for almost all visitors.

Newfoundland landscape

While Cape Breton is all hills and ocean views, Newfoundland is more extreme in many ways.

Photo: Russ Heinl / Shutterstock.com

2. Geography

Get ready to talk! Both Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland Island have incredibly loyal fans and are equally renowned for their stunning scenery.

Cape Breton Island is notable for its northwest coast, home to the world-famous Cabot Trail. This scenic drive by the ocean is often praised as one of the most beautiful drives in the world and is a must-see.

While Cape Breton is all hills and ocean views, Newfoundland is more extreme in many ways. It is, as the locals say, a rock in the North Atlantic. Nothing like it. There are many barren areas where the stark beauty and elegant wildflowers are often overlooked in favor of far more dramatic spots like Gros Morne National Park. This popular destination for unspoiled nature seems to be at home among Norway’s fjords.

Both Cape Breton and Newfoundland are home to numerous fishing villages, but those in Newfoundland are arguably the most famous, on rugged nooks and crannies, often extremely isolated from their neighbors.

3. Language

Both Cape Bretoners and Newfoundlanders are famous for their accents. As someone who has lived in both areas, I don’t notice — but apparently, I’m the only one! A little research tells me that Cape Breton has three distinct language areas: the Western or Scottish Gaelic accent (Inverness, Judique, Mabou, the Margarees), the Industrial accent (Sydney, Glace Bay), and the Acadian French (communities around Cheticamp, L’Ardoise and Isle Madame).

Newfoundland has its own distinct dialect, Newfoundland English. It has been heavily influenced by the old Cornish dialects in England and those in south-east Ireland, as well as by the generations of fishermen and traders coming from Europe. Some visitors make the mistake of assuming that speakers of Newfoundland English might not be particularly sophisticated, but in fact the opposite is true—many of the words and expressions you hear are laced with touches of Spanish, Portuguese, French, and more.

Bras d'Or Lake in the center of Cape Breton Island

Bras d’Or Lake in the center of Cape Breton Island

Photo: TW / Shutterstock.com

4. Cultural Identity

Speaking of the power of words: Most people living in Cape Breton are happy to refer to themselves as Capers or Islanders. You may occasionally hear someone point out that they are Cape people first, not Nova Scotians.

However, those who live in Newfoundland do not always welcome the term “Newfie”. Although they will often use it among themselves (and with pride), the term has been used in a derogatory and even insulting way by other Canadians. Telling “Newfie” jokes is not appreciated at all.

5. Food and drink

Cape Breton and Newfoundland are old-fashioned “meat and potatoes” destinations. Root vegetables, meat, seafood and homemade baked goods feature heavily in both locations.

Cape Breton Island’s growing conditions are generally more favorable than those in Newfoundland, and Cape Breton also has the advantage of easy transportation links to southern Nova Scotia’s fertile Annapolis Valley. As such, you’re more likely to find a greater variety of fresh produce in rural Cape Breton than in rural Newfoundland — in general. But actually, it varies from city to city. In both locations, farmers markets are becoming increasingly popular and creative techniques are being used to extend the growing season.

In Newfoundland, visitors can expect to find Jigg’s Dinner (a hot meal of corned beef, root vegetables, cabbage and pea pudding) and Cold Plate (a huge portion of cold turkey, ham, various types of potato salad, various vegetables and salads like coleslaw or spaghetti, and maybe some pickles on the side).

Other Newfoundland favorites include moose (if you see sweet and sour moose served over rice, get ’em!), totton (fried bread dough with butter and molasses), bakeapples (a pale berry known as cloudberries in Scandinavia), french fries-dressing- gravy (French fries smothered in gravy and summer savory-infused bread dressing) and cod au gratin (cod is king in Newfoundland and this creamy, cheesy dish was made famous in the Broadway play Come from afar).

On Cape Breton Island, keep your eyes open for unique Acadian dishes in the community of Cheticamp. Chicken Friko, a delicious chicken and vegetable soup with small dumplings, is a year-round comfort food. Dense meat pies, filled with pork and beef, are another Acadian favorite. The bread from Aucoin’s Bakery is beloved throughout western Cape Breton and is commonly called “Cheticamp bread”. Meanwhile, around Sydney and Glace Bay, you’re likely to find homemade pierogi and other dishes influenced by Ukraine and Eastern Europe, a testament to the region’s coal mining heritage.

At both points, few things are as important as tea. As a drink, it is also served strong in Newfoundland, often with a dollop of evaporated milk instead of fresh. But tea is also an act, a service and an experience. You’ll see tea served at community meetings, village concerts and an hour or so after meals and accompanied by homemade biscuits, squares, cookies and sandwiches. In Cape Breton, Fat Archies (chubby molasses cookies) are common, while in Newfoundland it might be Lassy Buns (they’re like a cross between Fat Archies and a tea cookie).

6. Cost

In general, you can expect to pay more for goods and services in Newfoundland than in Cape Breton. That’s the price you pay for being in an isolated area. However, there are some expectations. As St. John’s is a provincial capital and a much bigger city than Sydney, there are many more shops, which is good for competitive prices. I’ve also found that rural bedrooms and basic coffee fare are often cheaper in Newfoundland than in Cape Breton.

Pro tip: Helping islands rebuild after Hurricane Fiona

Unfortunately, both Cape Breton and Newfoundland have a very sad audience these days. Both were severely affected by Hurricane Fiona in September 2022. Fiona was the strongest and costliest tropical cyclone to ever hit Canada. In northern Cape Breton and southern Newfoundland, the damage was nothing short of catastrophic. Visitors can help support the affected areas by donating through the Canadian Red Cross and spreading the word that the tourism industry is still thriving and working hard to help rebuild devastated communities.

For more about Canada, explore these articles:

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