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Canadian Gothic

THE CLIFFS I am not really a partisan of the quaint. Give me the urban or its opposite: I don't condone twee half-measures. Five hours to the east, at the entrance to the Cabot Trail on the vast island of Cape Breton, the landscape winds and rises to wild grandeur: cliffs and crags and spray, in lieu of population.

I stay at theKeltic Lodge, the most famous resort in Nova Scotia. It is owned by the provincial government, and has a great deal in common with the mountain hotels associated with the Canadian Pacific Railroad—Banff Springs, Jasper Park Lodge, Chateau Lake Louise—a kind of packaged Canadian grandness.

I have mixed feelings about the grand old Canadian hotels, and, to be fair, they have mixed feelings about me. My career as a travel writer began with a piece about the Banff Springs Hotel; I wrote what I considered a humorous riff, as a result of which Canada's most respected magazine was pulled from newsstands across the Rockies, and my name dragged across nails on national radio. All because I interviewed the chambermaids instead of swooning over the scenery. Their colleagues called them "chamber sluts," I noted, and nobody would dance with them except pot washers, dubbed "dish pigs." I'm still fond of my original title for that piece—"Dead Brides and Dish Pigs: An Appreciation of the Canadian Rockies"—which was bowdlerized, alas, to "Rocky Mountain Highs and Lows."

These legendary hotels are all about vastness, about public spaces and vistas. The room you actually sleep in tends to be on the tiny side and generally disappointing. Few hotels, however, can boast a location as spectacular as Keltic's. The property sits on an isthmus at the far reaches of the Cabot Trail, thought by many the most impressive road and hiking path in North America: a stormy, Scotlandish coastline, with dense green forests standing at the edge of precipitous cliffs.

The lodge hogs one of the nicest bits of the trail, but there are hundreds of miles more: if you're not a hiker, driving the trail is a transcendent experience (insofar as a highway can be life-transforming). I drive it a bit too fast—it's the Mustang—and probably should set aside more time to wander off the highway to the myriad coves and inlets, where the scenery is even more staggering. There, you're generally at the foot of the cliffs, looking up, as opposed to careering around the top, trying desperately not to look down.

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