Photo courtesy of Cape Breton Island Tourism.

Cape Smokey, Nova Scotia

Reinventing Itself For The 21st Century

Ski Hill: Cape Smokey
Map: Location
Vertical: 305 metres (1000 feet)
Snowfall: 381 cm

It’s not easy to reinvent yourself, especially if you’ve been celebrated as Cape Breton’s highest, most beautiful and challenging ski hill for over fifty years and counting. Yet that’s precisely what Cape Smokey (formerly Ski Cape Smokey) has been doing with mounting success.

Community ski areas can be found in every Canadian province and territory, from Whitehorse, Yukon to London, Ontario and from Prince Edward Island to Vancouver Island. Community Ski Areas: Stories from the Heartland of Canadian Skiing shows you who created these areas, why and when they came into being and how they’re continuing to make skiing accessible, affordable and fun for everyone, from coast to coast to coast. || Creative Director: Gordie Bowles. Writer: Dave Fonda

The Birth Of Ski Cape Smokey

Cape Smokey is named after the fine, smoke-like, early morning mists that come up off the Atlantic here. Like much of Cape Breton, the area is teeming with heart-stopping vistas, delicious seafood and warm and friendly characters. Which explains why Owen Carter and his wife would come to vacation every summer, almost without fail.

A successful Quebec City lawyer, Owen had been involved in Stoneham, a sprawling, family-oriented ski area near there. In 1970, he formed a partnership with two Sydney seafood magnates named Nickerson and Leonard. Together with two other ‘silent’ partners, they began transforming magnificent Cape Smokey into a ski hill which they aptly named Ski Cape Smokey.

Photo courtesy Cape Smokey Holding Ltd.

Photo courtesy Cape Smokey Holding Ltd.

The Early Years

The Carter group had an access road to the summit built, a half-dozen trails scoped and cleared and a ski lodge built. The Poma Corporation came in to install a new, double chairlift. Among their crew was Harald Harb, the now legendary ski instruction guru whose books and videos finely detailed the art of carving perfect turns. Ski Cape Smokey immediately drew skiers from nearby Ingonish, Sydney, Saint Francis Xavier University and Antigonish. But for all its charms, conditions could be daunting. Says Frank Simms, an electrician/ski instructor who worked on the original installations, “we typically had snow from Armistice Day until Christmas. Then it would rain until Valentine’s Day and then start snowing again until well into April.”

“Community ski areas are places where things aren’t done on an industrial level, but rather for the love of winter and the love of activity. And everybody strives to have a beautiful winter.” 

– Martin Kejval, Chief Executive Officer, Cape Smokey Holding

Successive New Owners: Little Change

In 1979, fire razed the lodge. Though it was rebuilt and reopened in 1982, the atmosphere had changed. Having lost interest, the Carter group sold the hill to the Province of Nova Scotia which tried to revive it with a new quad. Alas, skiers simply weren’t buying it. In 1993, it announced that Smokey was closing. That’s when some community-driven businesspeople who called themselves the Ingonish Development Society bought the struggling ski area. Faced with increasingly fickle weather, no government support and no massive financial backing for long-term, infrastructure investment, the hill floundered. Some locals tried to kickstart the operation using the old surface lifts, but by 2000, Ski Cape Smokey had essentially closed.

Two locals enjoy the view at the top of Cape Smokey.

Photo courtesy of Cape Breton Island Tourism.

New Owners Bring A New Vision

After carefully studying the area, a European investment group offered to buy Ski Cape Smokey in 2019. Says CEO, Martin Kejval, “we’d decided it wasn’t just about the winter skiing, because winters are extremely unpredictable here. We decided it was also about the summer operation.” 

Voted Canada’s number one island destination, Cape Breton regularly draws tourists from far and wide. They come hungering to feast on the spectacular views along the Cabot Trail. The Europeans clearly recognized the area’s true appeal. Says Martin, we saw it as an opportunity to “get people here to excite them and then expand the winter tourism.”

“When you stand on top of Smokey the view is almost like you’re in an Indiana Jones movie hunting for some sort of treasure. That’s how beautiful and dramatic it is.” 

– Martin Kejval, CEO

Atlantic Canada’s Very First Gondola

The European group soon erected a comfy gondola so visitors could enjoy a stunning bird’s eye view of their magnificent surroundings. They then renamed the area Cape Smokey, marking it as a year-round destination and not just a ski hill. Says Martin, “our goal is that we have over fifty different attractions, so that the whole family can come here and enjoy themselves year-round.  The attractions will include: tree walks, hiking, mountain biking, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, ice fishing, fly fishing, kayaking, paint ball fields and all kinds of outdoor activities.”

Photo courtesy of Cape Breton Island Tourism.

Photo courtesy of Cape Breton Island Tourism.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Thus far, the plan seems to be working. In its first year of operation, Cape Smokey drew 58,000 visitors. The vast majority came in summer and spent a couple of hours admiring the vistas on the mountain. To prolong their stay, the group is constructing twenty-seven small villas. Unlike North American developers, the Europeans are financing and building the condo units themselves. Then, says Martin, “we’re selling them and we will be operating them.” Once the proper infrastructure is in place, the group is eyeing a complete, self-sustaining, multi-generational village.

Yes, But What About the Skiing?

Not surprisingly, Cape Smokey is also drawing more and more skiers. In addition to the new gondola, the area now boasts snowmaking, fifteen runs and a tubing park. While most skiers hail from nearby Ingonish, Antigonish and Sydney, growing numbers are coming from Truro, Dartmouth and Halifax. Says Martin, “winter, for us, is an emerging market. We have about 150 to 200 season passes. We work very closely with three local schools and we are trying to add more. If all goes well, we also hope to double the size of the skiable terrain in five years.”

Which may well prove that if you build it properly, they will not only come, they will also stay. 

Photo courtesy of Cape Breton Island Tourism.

Cape Smokey – More than a Winter Getaway

If you have a story about this or any other community ski area in your province or territory that you would like to see us add to this collection, please contact: [email protected]