There’s an old joke in Canada that the people of Cape Breton are just Newfoundlanders who ran out of money on their way to Toronto. The quip never fails to make people laugh, but neither Cape Bretoners nor Newfoundlanders like it very 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 to the northeast, and the island is connected to mainland Nova Scotia via the Canso Causeway.
The island of Newfoundland is part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Discussing this can be a little confusing, as people sometimes say “Newfoundland” to refer to the province as a whole and not necessarily the island. It weighs in at around 42,000 square miles, making Newfoundland the fourth largest island in Canada. About 57 percent of people in Newfoundland and Labrador claim British or Irish ancestry and about 6 percent identify as having French heritage. Its largest city, St. John’s, is also the provincial capital.
So whether you’re lost 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.
1. Transport and travel
Most people visit Newfoundland by air to St. John’s or by ferry from Cape Breton Island. Ferry passengers can choose between short routes to Channel-Port aux Basques or the longer trip to Argentia (not far from St. John’s). Additionally, some visitors visit by flying to alternate airports like Deer Lake and Gander. It is also possible to arrive by car through Labrador and then crossing via the ferry to Blanc-Sablon, Quebec (which is right on the Labrador border).
The DRL bus offers public transit between St. John’s and Channel-Port aux Basques with two dozen stops in between. It’s reliable and reasonably affordable (going to Channel-Port aux Basques is about $152) but slow. All of these stops add up and those who do the full route can count on a 14-hour day. For most visitors, renting a car at the airport or taking your vehicle across the ferry is the most pragmatic option.
Those who visit Cape Breton Island almost always do so by car from mainland Nova Scotia. Most visitors enter the province by flying into Halifax or via 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 from Newfoundland can take the ferry!
Maritime Bus provides public transit in Cape Breton, with service to Port Hawkesbury, Whycocomagh, Wagmatcook, North Sydney and Sydney. However, just like in Newfoundland, having a car is the most practical option for almost all visitors.
Get ready for a debate! Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland Island have incredibly loyal fans and are also famous for their stunning scenery.
Cape Breton Island is notable for its northwest coast, home to the famous Cabot Trail. This scenic oceanside drive is often hailed as one of the most beautiful drives in the world and is a must-see attraction.
While Cape Breton is all about rolling hills and ocean views, Newfoundland is more extreme in many ways. It is, as the locals like to say, a rock in the North Atlantic. Nothing really resembles him. There are many arid areas, where stark beauty and delicate wildflowers are often overlooked in favor of much more spectacular places, such as Gros Morne National Park. This popular destination for unspoiled nature seems to be at home among the Norwegian fjords.
Cape Breton and Newfoundland are home to many fishing villages, but those in Newfoundland are arguably the most famous, located in steep nooks and crannies battered by the sea, often extremely isolated from their neighbours.
Cape Bretoners and Newfoundlanders are famous for their accents. As someone who has lived in both regions, I don’t notice it — but apparently I’m the only one! A little research tells me that Cape Breton has three distinct linguistic areas: the Western or Scottish Gaelic accent (Inverness, Judique, Mabou, the Margarees), the industrial accent (Sydney, Glace Bay) and the Acadian French (communities surrounding Chéticamp, L’Ardoise and Île Madame).
Newfoundland has its own distinct dialect, Newfoundland English. It is heavily influenced by the old Cornish dialects of England and those of south-east Ireland, as well as generations of fishermen and traders from Europe. Some visitors make the mistake of assuming that those who speak Newfoundland English may not be particularly sophisticated, but in fact the opposite is true – many of the words and phrases you hear are sprinkled with notes of Spanish, Portuguese, French, etc.
4. Cultural identity
Speaking of the power of words: most people who live in Cape Breton are happy to be called Capers or Islanders. Sometimes you may hear someone point out that it’s Cape Bretoners first, not Nova Scotians.
However, those who live in Newfoundland do not always appreciate the term “Newfie”. Although they often use it among themselves (and with pride), the term has been used pejoratively and even insultingly by other Canadians. Telling “Newfie” jokes is not appreciated at all.
5. Food and drink
Cape Breton and Newfoundland are traditional “meat and potatoes” destinations. Root vegetables, meat, seafood, and homemade baked goods feature heavily at both locations.
Cape Breton Island’s growing conditions are generally more favorable than those of Newfoundland and capers also have the advantage of being easily connected for transportation with the fertile Annapolis Valley in southern New Scotland. So you’re more likely to find a wider variety of fresh produce in rural Cape Breton than in rural Newfoundland — in general. But in reality, it varies from city to city. In both places, 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 serving of cold turkey, ham , several kinds of potato salad, assorted vegetables and salads like coleslaw or macaroni, and maybe a few pickles on the side).
Other Newfoundland favorites include moose (if you see sweet and sour moose served over rice, get it!), Toutons (fried bread dough with butter and molasses), apples in the oven (a pale berry known as blackberries in Scandinavia), fries-dressing-sauce (fries covered in sauce and a bread dressing infused with summer savory) and cod au gratin (cod is king at Terre -new and this creamy cheese dish was noticed in the Broadway play Come from afar).
On Cape Breton Island, keep your eyes peeled for unique Acadian dishes in the community of Chéticamp. Chicken fricot, a delicious chicken and vegetable soup with small dumplings, is a year-round comfort food. Another Acadian favorite is the dense meat pies, filled with pork and beef. Bread from Aucoin Bakery is enjoyed throughout Western Cape Breton and is commonly referred to as “Cheticamp Bread”. Meanwhile, around Sydney and Glace Bay, you’re likely to find homemade pierogi and other Ukrainian and Eastern European-influenced dishes, a testament to the region’s mining heritage.
In both places, few things are as important as tea. As a drink, it is served strong and Newfoundland, often with a dollop of evaporated milk instead of fresh. But tea is also an act, a service and an experience. You will see tea being offered at community meetings, village concerts, and about an hour after meals. It is accompanied by homemade cookies, squares, biscuits and sandwiches. In Cape Breton, Fat Archies (chubby molasses cookies) are common, while in Newfoundland it can be Lassy Buns (they’re like a cross between Fat Archies and a tea cookie).
In general, you can expect to pay more for goods and services in Newfoundland than in Cape Breton. This is the price to pay for being in an isolated region. However, there are some expectations. As St. John’s is a provincial capital and a much larger city than Sydney, there are many more shops, which is good for competitive prices. I have also found that basic rural lodges and cafes are often cheaper in Newfoundland than in Cape Breton.
Pro Tip: Helping Islands Rebuild After Hurricane Fiona
Unfortunately, Cape Breton and Newfoundland have one very sad thing in common 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 devastating. Visitors can help support affected areas by donating through the Canadian Red Cross and letting people know that the tourism industry is still thriving and working hard to help rebuild damaged communities.
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