The Beach at Neils Harbour

by Sherry Ballou Hanson 



Far out around the northernmost reaches of the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia lies the fishing village of Neils Harbour. Here, you'll find a tiny beach loaded with beach glass, remnants, no doubt, of hundreds of years of sea going folk and their stuff! Just beyond Cape North on the Cabot Trail visitors will come to this small village, first occupied by Newfoundlanders of Irish and English descent who fished seasonally here. Each spring these fishermen left Newfoundland to fish off the rich banks of Nova Scotia, eventually bringing their families and settling permanently.

My sister and I stayed in a seaside cottage at Neils Harbour for a couple of days in early May. There were still pockets of snow in the rocky ledges below our cottage, but the sun was brilliant and the days were long so far east toward sunrise. Just a short walk from our cottage lies the little tidal beach, down four levels of wooden steps from the roadway above. This was not my first visit, but it was hers, and on that first morning as the tide was coming in I found her on hands and knees examining the bonanza of glistening chunks of glass, smoothed and polished by the action of the sea rolling jagged pieces smooth against the sand.

The beach is small, the outer end inaccessible without walking through swiftly flowing water at low tide, which puts it pretty much out of reach except during summer. At high tide that whole outer bar is under water anyway. Whatever treasures lie out there during the cold months of winter will have to wait for a summer visitor to find them.

In the early days of the settlement at Neils Harbour, when every fisherman farmed and farmers also fished, boats brought in coffee, sugar and flour to supplement the peas, carrots, potatoes, and turnips grown locally. By the 1800s coastal steamships made regular stops at North Sydney, the last of these being the Aspy III that made its last stop in 1964. Passengers, supplies, even a cow for a farmer could be shipped this way.

In an area known for wild storms there must have been some wrecks, and the frosty, lavender hued, glass mug handle my sister found may have been rolling in the sea for hundreds of years. We are still trying to figure out the origins of the beautifully polished, half-inch thick, four-inch long pale green chunk I picked up. We found several good pieces of cobalt blue, and there were lots of clear transparent hunks that caught the sunlight like the miniature icebergs we also found on the morning tide.

We walked to that beach four or five times in the two days we were staying in the cottage at Back Cove, and on every tide there was a fresh crop. Each time a wave broke and flowed back out to sea, there would be a new fragment or two of glass in its wake. We never tired of the spectacle and would look for those sparkles in the sun. In the end, we left much of what we found for the enjoyment of other visitors to the little cottage. We'll go back again, for this is one beach that when you leave it and travel on, you're not sure it happened. It's that magical.

Other websites of interest:
Northern Highlands of Cape Breton
Cape Breton Island Tourist Information
Nova Scotia Tourist Information

Sherry is a writer and poet living in Maine. She enjoys walking the beach, hiking, biking, inline skating, kayaking, skiing, archery and studying the night sky. Her collection of poetry, "A Cab to Stonehenge," is available for $12.50 shipped. Email for more info.

You can contact her at

Text ©Sherry Ballou Hanson, 2007
Photos ©Sherry Ballou Hanson, 2007 except for "Neils Harbour Early Days" ©Bushducks, 2007

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