Lobster boats in Cape Breton
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Sydney (Nova Scotia) Overview
Sydney is a city in transition. For a long time it was known mainly as an industrial center, one of Canada's major coal and steel suppliers. In the past, cruise passengers typically left the town for nearby excursions, like the beautiful Bras d'Or Lakes area and town of Baddeck, where Alexander Graham Bell lived and worked. The Fortress of Louisbourg, the largest historic reconstruction in North America, lures many visitors, and the Cabot Trail is one of Canada's most scenic drives.
But today's Sydney is an increasingly interesting place to visit. When the mills and mines closed for good in 2001, the city turned its eyes to the harbor and the 70,000 cruise-ship passengers who arrive each season. By concentrating on tourism, Sydney is making the most of its rich history and its position as the major city on beautiful Cape Breton Island.
British loyalists fleeing the American Revolution founded the town in 1785, and the settlement soon prospered from its rich natural resources. In its industrial heyday, jobs in the steel factories and coal mines attracted settlers from many lands, including many who emigrated from the Scottish Highlands. Their influence is still evident. Cape Breton is one of the rare places in North America where Gaelic is still spoken, and Celtic music is heard everywhere. Visitors can have their photos taken just outside the cruise terminal with the world's largest fiddle, a 50-foot reminder of this musical heritage.
The North End of town will remind a bit of New England, with six buildings built in the late 18th century, including steepled churches and homes dating to the 1780s. Enthusiastic guides help bring the past to life. A growing boardwalk along the ocean winds near the handsome Open Hearth Park. Opened in 2013 after a 10-year restoration, it is visible proof of the city's rejuvenation, replacing eyesore waste dumps from the old industries with green lawns, walking paths, playgrounds and ball fields.
The city's native Canadian Mi'kmaq community known as Membertou has its own Heritage Park with a museum and excellent shop of native crafts. And Sydney is emerging as a culinary center, with talented young chefs bringing an international flavor to town.
This is a festival town, as well, with many events timed for the peak cruise season. The late summer Action Week is a nine-day community festival featuring concerts, street performers and parades. Creative chefs have inspired the growing annual Right Some Good food festival in late August, and October brings the music-filled Celtic Colours International Festival.
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Other Canada & New England Cruise Ports:
Bar Harbor • Bayonne (Cape Liberty) • Boston • Charlottetown (Prince Edward Island) • Halifax • Montreal • New York (Manhattan) • Newport • Portland (Maine) • Quebec City • Saint John (New Brunswick) • St. John's (Newfoundland) • Sydney (Nova Scotia)
Try a mug of Sydney's favorite beer from Big Spruce Brewing, made locally in nearby Baddeck.
Cape Breton is famous for its many resident artists and artisans. Sydney's Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design shows off the best work from throughout the island. Affordable items like hand-knit woolens, leather, glass and art make unique souvenirs. Take time to look at the excellent changing exhibits in the upstairs gallery and to look in on the classes downstairs. (322 Charlotte Street; 902-270-7491; open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday)
Everyone speaks English, but the many nationalities who came for work in the mines and mills and the large native Mi'kmaq population in Sydney mean that you might hear a smattering of other languages. You might even hear a bit of Gaelic.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency in Sydney is the Canadian dollar, but many shops will accept American dollars. If you don't want to risk it, you'll find an ATM at the cruise pavilion. For the most updated currency-conversion figures, visit www.xe.com or www.oanda.com.
Where You're Docked
Ships moor in town, a five-minute walk to Charlotte Street and the town center.
Besides offering information and walking tour maps, The Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion at the dock is a destination in itself. You can spend hours here, browsing a crafts market with some 55 vendors, nine boutiques selling jewelry, clothing and fine crafts, and an art gallery. Upstairs, a mini-museum has attractive exhibits and dioramas introducing Cape Breton Island, its history and attractions. There's also a small cafe and the Ceilidh Fiddle Bar.
Along with the world's largest fiddle outside, the pavilion boasts what might be the largest indoor lighthouse. It houses a theater with changing videos, including one on the making of the big fiddle. The main stage arena hosts live concerts, especially during festivals.
On Foot: The sights of the town are easily walkable from the pier.
By Car: Taxis wait outside the pavilion for those who want guided tours or want to explore farther destinations. Most major car rental companies including Avis, Budget and Alamo, have offices in Sydney, and will send a car to bring cruise passengers with reservations to the rental office.
Watch Out For
Sydney is a safe city, but as in any port of call, it's best to leave unnecessary valuables and cash in your stateroom's safe.
Jost House: One of the oldest wooden buildings in town, this interesting home shows how life changed over two centuries. Guests are received in the restored 18th century cellar kitchen, where guides make history come to life, telling stories about life in the old days and pointing out the cooking fireplace, separate beehive bake-oven and beamed ceiling. Thomas Jost, a Halifax merchant bought the home in 1836, and it remained in the family until 1971. The ground floor reflects their lives into the Victorian era in the parlor, dining room, bedroom and a one-time store. Upstairs bedrooms serve as a mini-museum with a well-stocked early 20th century apothecary and a marine room with model ships. (54 Charlotte Street; 902-539-0366; open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday, June 1 to October 31; closed Sunday)
Cossit House Museum: The oldest home in Sydney still looks a lot like it did in 1785, when it was built by the Rev. Ranna Cossit, a British loyalist, who was given land by the Crown as inducement to move to the growing British colony. His wife, Thankful, might not have matched her name -- she died at age 47 during the birth of their 13th child. Members of the family lived in the house until 1975. Now restored with authentic period furnishings, the house's costumed guides tell what family life was like for the Cossits. Guides may invite visitors to partake in daily activities of the 1700s, like stitching a sampler or churning butter. Some of the upstairs bedrooms display early uniforms and clothing. (75 Charlotte Street; 902-539-7973; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, June 1 to October 15)
St. Patrick's Church Museum: Originally built as a Roman Catholic church in 1828, the building has a handsome hand-carved wooden ceiling resembling the hull of a boat, reflecting the town's maritime life. Some of the hand-hewn stones from the destroyed Fortress of Louisbourg were used in the 3-foot-thick walls. In addition to local worshippers, the church had congregants from many nearby towns who came to Sydney by boat each Sunday. Eventually, the membership outgrew the space and a new church, Sacred Heart, was built on George Street in 1874. The Old Sydney Society was formed in 1966 to restore the church, and it serves now as a museum with artifacts of the early years, including the old church bell that visitors are invited to toll. (87 Esplanade; 902-562-8237; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, June 15 to August 24, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on days when ships are in port, August 25 to October 30)
Been There, Done That
The Cape Breton Centre for Heritage and Science: Located in the Lyceum, a 1904 building, next door to Sacred Heart Church, this museum has changing exhibits focusing on the town's colorful history. Most town walking tours end there with refreshments that include oat cakes, a town specialty that can also be found in local bakeries. (225 George Street; 902-539-1572; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday, June 1 to August 24; rest of year, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday)
Membertou Heritage Park: For those interested in Native American history and culture, this is an interesting stop worth the cab ride. The Mi'kmaq tribes of Canada were removed from their land and relocated to reservations like Membertou. Interactive exhibits tell the story of Membertou then and now, and there are often demonstrations of dancing and drumming. The Petroglyphs Gift Shop features aborigine crafts, including baskets, sculptures, books, music, clothing, jewelry, potter, paintings, drums, and dream catchers. (35 Su'n Awti, Membertou; 902-567-5333; open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, June 1 to October 31; rest of year, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday)
Casino Nova Scotia: If you haven't had enough gaming onboard, you can try your luck at the 275 slots in Sydney's branch of Casino Nova Scotia. Table games like poker and blackjack don't begin until 5 p.m., too late for most cruise passengers. (525 George Street; 902-563-7777; open 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Monday to Thursday, open continuously from 11 a.m. Friday to 3 a.m. Monday; table games, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday to Sunday)
Cape Breton Miners' Museum: The best thing at this museum devoted to the island's coal mining past is the rare chance to go underground and tour an actual mine, the Ocean Deeps Colliery, led by a retired miner. There's also a recreated miners' village. (42 Birkley Street, Glace Bay, about 30 minutes from Sydney; 902-849-4522; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, June 1 to August 31 and September 2 to October 31, rest of year, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday)
Locally caught seafood is the first choice in Sydney, so look for lobster rolls, chowder and fish dishes on many menus. But creative chefs also have brought an international flavor, and Thai and middle-eastern dishes are well worth sampling.
Governors Pub & Eatery: The historic home of Sydney's first mayor is a family-owned restaurant offering cozy dining rooms, outdoor tables and an upstairs pub with a deck with ocean views. Fans of lobster rolls should not miss this one on a delicious homemade bun. Other specialties include thick seafood chowder, pulled pork sandwiches, coconut-crusted shrimp, Thai chicken wrap sandwiches and entrees like beer-battered fish and chips and coconut peanut Thai chicken stir fry. (233 Esplanade; 902-562-7646; open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday)
Allegro Grill & Deli: The front is not impressive, but this small cafe has excellent food, from light meals like sandwiches and chowder to eclectic entrees. Lunch choices include Montreal smoked meat platters, pad Thai, falafel on pita bread, interesting panini choices and burgers from classic to Moroccan lamb. (222 Charlotte Street; 902-562-1623; open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Saturday, dinner, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday)
Flavor Downtown: This downtown outpost of a local caterer has an intriguing fusion menu with local chowders and standards sharing space with unusual choices like its signature chicken, apricot and almond wrap, a crusted haddock wrap with mango salsa and truffle aioli, and the award-winning Poppin' Patty, filled with grilled chicken, Thai coconut chili mayo, bacon, tomato, spinach and mozzarella. You can build your own Thai coconut curry with a choice of noodles and rice, meats and seafood and different curries. (16 Pitt Street; 902-562-6611; open 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, closed Sunday)
Staying in Touch
The Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion offers free Wi-Fi and computer access for a fee.
Best for Appreciating the Town: Join a colorful costumed guide to explore Sydney's past on the 90-minute Historical Sydney Walking Tour. Visit St. Patrick's Church Museum, the 225-year-old Jost House, once the home of a prominent merchant, and the Cossit House, Sydney's oldest home. The tour ends at the Cape Breton Centre for Heritage and Science for tea and oatcakes.
Best for History-Lovers: Take a scenic 45-minute ride through Cape Breton's highlands to the Fortress of Louisbourg, the largest reconstructed 18th-century French fortified town in North America. Re-enactors bring 1744 Louisbourg to life.
Best for repeat visitors: On the Bras D'or Lakes Grand Tour, explore the scenic Bras d'Or Lakes region, including a tour of Highland Village, a 43-acre living-history museum celebrating Nova Scotia's Gaelic heritage, set on a hillside overlooking the lakes. Then, you'll have lunch and free time in Baddeck, the charming town that was the home of Alexander Graham Bell.
Best for Nature-Lovers: Named one of the best road trips in the world, the Cabot Trail winds through stunning landscapes, along the Margaree River through the rugged highlands of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Canada. This 7.5-hour trip travels from Sydney to Ingonish Beach. Lunch is included. Although there are scenic stops, you'll be on a bus most of the time during the trip.
For More Information
On the Web: Cape Breton Island Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Canada
IndependentTraveler.com: Canada Travel Guide
--by Eleanor Berman, Cruise Critic contributor