From across Louisbourg Harbour we had our first view of the impressive fortress. Surrounded by a stone wall, the Fortress of Louisbourg can be seen on its prominence as it takes over the end of the cape. This view made us excited to see what we’d find inside.
Our Great Canadian Road Trip brought us to the south eastern corner of Cape Breton to see this important site in Canada’s history.
Even before you enter through the fortress walls you get a preview of what’s inside. An 18th century Louisbourg innkeeper, dressed as if it were the 1740s, comes out of his inn to greet you. As you walk toward him, a cold wind blows in from the North Atlantic Ocean. The innkeeper invites you inside his inn to warm up by the fire while he tells you some of the history of the fortress. The fire feels nice after walking even a short distance in the strong, cold wind. The innkeeper explains that the fortress was built under French King, Louis XIV. There was so much cod at that time that it was a very profitable fishing location for France. The fortress was built to protect this important industry.
As you walk through Dauphin gate and enter inside the fortress walls , you feel as if you’ve been transported back in time to the 1700s. Be warned not to wear red. Since British soldiers wore red uniforms the French sentries, guarding the gate, will assume you are a British soldier or spy. The sentries will single you out and question your reason for being there. It’s all in good fun as the staff play their roles as 18th century French soldiers at war with Britain.
The entire fortress is now a museum. The lower part of the complex is an 18th century French colonial village. It’s fun to wander through the village streets imagining how life was for its inhabitants. You’ll pass local Louisbourg residents dressed in period costumes, going about their day. You may even see French and British soldiers in uniform.
The village was built to provide homes for the fishermen and other workers needed to keep the cod industry going. There are over 50 buildings inside the fortress walls, many are open to visitors to explore. When you enter one of the homes you’ll be greeted by French homeowners who will explain what their life was like in the 1700s. They describe the rooms in the house; how their clothes are made; how they stored food; tools they used; and their work in the village. Most were fishermen, but there were also bakers, carpenters or shop owners. Several homes had servants, possibly even slaves. And like a normal village there were shops, taverns and bakeries.
Outside of a couple of homes are small gardens where they grow traditional vegetables from the time. The attached stables are filled with small farm animals such as goats, sheep, geese and chickens. If you enter the bakery you can purchase fresh bread being pulled out of the wood burning oven. Inside the warehouses you see goods stored in wooden crates, burlap sacks and barrels. Each building has staff, dressed in appropriate clothes for their role. They provide insight into life in the original Louisbourg.
Building of the fortress began in 1719. The location was selected because it was the perfect position both to protect the lucrative cod industry and be difficult to attack. Located on a cape at the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence it was surrounded by water on 3 sides. The fortress had 11 m thick stone walls and only 3 entrances. These factors made the French believe that the fortress was impenetrable.
Cod fishing was so profitable at that time that hundreds of fishermen were brought over from France each season. By the mid 1700s over 4,000 people lived and worked in Louisbourg during fishing season. The British and French often battled for control of this important area. By 1758 the British conquered the French to assume control. British soldiers dismantled the fortress to ensure that the French could never return.
The fortress as it stands today is a re-creation of the original structure and is actually only 1/4 of the original size. It is a National Historic Site run by Parks Canada.
On a small hill above the village is the King’s Bastion, guarded by sentries. While the buildings below provided residence for common villagers, the Bastion was the government and military’s side of the fortress. In one half of this impressive building you can walk through the elegant rooms comprising the Governor’s residence. There is a grand dining room, private bedrooms and an opulent church. The other side of the Bastion is for the soldiers. Large rooms are crammed full of rickety bunkbeds. These tight quarters are in stark contrast to the lavish rooms for the governor.
For views of the village and the fortress walls, walk along the top of the ramparts behind the King’s Bastion. It gives you a better perspective of the fortress and its location.
From the edge of the village you can see Louisbourg Lighthouse on the other side of the bay. A long winding road leads to the cute lighthouse on a rugged cliff. The current building is over 100 years old, but this spot was the site for the first lighthouse in Canada built in 1734.
The largest city on Cape Breton is Sydney. It is not a destination city, but rather a place stay before visiting Louisbourg or to catch the ferry to Newfoundland. There are a couple of streets with heritage buildings and a lovely harbour front. Enough to keep you busy for a couple of hours.
The small city is known for its hospitality, though. Over the years a few international travelers arrived in Sydney believing they had booked a flight to Sydney, Australia. All of these travelers raved about the warm welcoming they received from the Cape Bretoners and they all enjoyed touring the sites on the small Nova Scotia island, instead of the big island of Australia!
Where to stay
The nearest large centre is Sydney. There are several hotels and restaurants in Sydney and North Sydney. Note though, we stayed in North Sydney before our ferry and were shocked when all of the restaurants closed at 7 pm. A good option is the town of Louisbourg which is across the bay from the fortress. Although it is small, it has a few small hotels and bed & breakfasts. Many people stay in Baddeck. Even though its 50 km away, it is set up for tourists with several hotels and restaurants.
Tips for Visiting Louisbourg Fortress
The best time to visit the fortress is during the summer months. It is open year round but with limited hours during low season.
Tickets and parking is available at the Visitor’s Centre. There is a shuttle bus that transports visitors from the Visitor Centre to the Fortress and return. It’s a short ride and the shuttles are in continuous rotation so you don’t have too wait long. There is a shuttle schedule at the Visitor Centre.
Even during the summer the weather can be unpredictable and harsh at the fortress so bring an extra jacket or sweater. Since you can’t easily run back to your car you may want to bring your own water and snacks too. There is a restaurant at the fortress offering typical basic meals from the 18th century.
Louisbourg Fortress is operated by Parks Canada and there is an entry fee. If you plan to visit another national park in the next year consider getting an Annual Discovery Pass. We found our annual pass to be very useful on this trip.
Coming Next – Newfoundland’s Scenic West Coast
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