In the heart of the Fortress of Louisbourg, where 255 years ago French soldiers fought British invaders for some of France’s last ground in Canada, 21 Grade 8 students hunker down for the night. While many visitors might prefer staying at the Hampton Inn, the bunks and lumpy straw mattresses at the King’s Bastion Barracks in the famed Nova Scotian fortifications are actually a special treat — only a lucky few have slept in these quarters since the 1700s.

The class from Caronport Elementary School in Caronport, Sask., near Moose Jaw, is on Canada’s Coolest School Trip, the all-expensespaid grand prize in the annual contest of the same name run by Parks Canada, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Nature Canada and the Historica-Dominion Institute. This year’s trip to Cape Breton ran from June 3 to 7. The contest challenged Grade 8 classes across Canada to create a print, audio or video advertisement for Cape Breton Highlands National Park or this year’s 300th anniversary of Louisbourg.

“We knew that we had something special with our video, but we had some very strong competition. So we were pleasantly surprised to be first,” says Laurie Pylatuk, the winning class’s teacher.

Morning comes quickly for the students, but they don’t mind — they’re visiting a place they spent months researching. “The trip brought to life the place they daydreamed about in their funny and creative video,” says Ellen Bertrand, director of external relations at Parks Canada.

The trip is full of firsts for the students. When they stepped off the bus at Louisbourg, they were treated to a fanfare of media, a fife-and-drum duo and Parka, Parks Canada’s beaver mascot. “It felt like we were totally famous, like celebrities or something,” says student Alicia Gibson.

The next few days are a flurry of excitement. After exploring the Fortress of Louisbourg, the students tour part of the Bras d’Or Lake (a brackish inland sea) by boat at Eskasoni First Nation, the world’s largest Mi’kmaq community, where they also participate in a smudging ceremony, an aboriginal ritual that aims to cleanse the spirit through sweetgrass smoke. At the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck, the students learn about the famed inventor before taking a short drive to his summer retreat, Beinn Bhreagh. There, Bell’s great-grandson, Hugh Muller, walks the students through the grounds around Beinn Bhreagh Hall, where the Bell family spent much of its time.

Flight school

The winners of Canada’s Coolest School Trip — the Grade 8 class of Caronport Elementary School in Caronport, Sask. — were treated to another surprise as part of their prize: a tour of Air Canada’s facilities at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. The students got an exclusive peek inside the cockpit of a Boeing 767, an Air Canada maintenance and repair hanger, Air Canada flight planning (where pilots prep for flights), the airline’s mission control centre and check-in services. It was another opportunity to explore an integral part of the country.

The following day is all about Cape Breton Highlands National Park, with a drive up the breathtaking Cabot Trail, on the edge of where the highlands meet the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The views from the park’s Skyline Trail, a 7.5-kilometre path and boardwalk that runs through the boreal forest and out onto the top of French Mountain, has everyone speechless — a rare moment. After many photos and much coaxing back to the bus (and a moose spotting), the students head to the day’s next stop. There’s excitement in the air as the bus rolls up to Ingonish Beach, just off the Cabot Trail. Everyone races off the bus to wade in the water.

“Many of them haven’t dipped their toes in the Atlantic or the Pacific,” Pylatuk says. “It was fun to watch.”

The bus ride back to Cape Breton University, where the class spends its final night, is quiet. Most of the students sleep or watch a movie, exhausted from the full week of activities.

“I think when we get home and they’re rested, they’re going to realize how significant it was,” Pylatuk says. “Nova Scotia and Cape Breton will be a special place in their hearts.”

Watch the class’s contest-winning video, “I Wish I Was at Fort Louisbourg (Video: Jess Wiberg·)

The students, led by teacher Laurie Palytuk, file into Toronto's Pearson International Airport, after their flight from Regina, Sask., and are greeted by Air Canada staff, including Captain Bernard Lavell. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

The class begins a tour of Air Canada operations at Pearson airport with a look at one of the many art installations, including this sculpture in Pier F. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

The students get a tour of a Boeing 767 and a chance to sit in the cockpit with Captain Bernard Lavell. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

Next, the students are given a tour of an Air Canada maintenance and repair hangar. (Photo: Ellen Curtis)

At flight planning operations, the class learns how pilots prep for their flights. (Photo: Ellen Curtis)

In Nova Scotia, on the way to the Fortress of Louisbourg, students from Louisbourg’s George D. Lewis School wave at Canada’s Coolest School Trip winners. The classes met later that day for some activities at the fortress. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

As the students file off the bus, they are met by a fife and drum duo which leads them to the King’s Bastion Barracks. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

At the barracks, the class is presented collector coins celebrating the 300th anniversary of Louisbourg at a special Royal Canadian Mint event. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

For lunch, the class is served traditional Louisbourg fare, fish and root vegetables (plus spaghetti and meatballs for the picky eaters) at the Grandchamp Inn. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

The students take part in a scavenger hunt through the fortress. (Photo: Ellen Curtis)

Two students are dressed for the times (1740s), part of some of the activities held at the fortress. (Photo: Ellen Curtis)

The students stand at attention as they are given a lesson in being a soldier at the fortress. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

A haunted walk leads the class from building to building at the fortress as a Parks Canada employee tells them spooky stories before they overnight in the soldier's barracks. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

The next morning, the class says goodbye to the fortress and heads to Eskasoni First Nation, a Mi’kmaq settlement on Bras d'Or Lake. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

The class is treated to a guided boat tour of Goat Island on Bras d'Or Lake. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

The students are then invited to participate in a special Mi'kmaq smudging ceremony, where sweet grass is wafted over the individuals to cleanse their spirit. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

After a traditional lunch with moose meat, the grade-eights take part in some traditional Mi'kmaq games and activities. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

The next stop on the tour is Highland Village Museum in Iona where the students get a taste of the Gaelic culture in Nova Scotia. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

Next, it's a hop, skip and a jump over to the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck where the class makes kites and gets a tour. (Photo: Ellen Curtis)

The contest winners receive an invitation to Beinn Bhreagh, Alexander Graham Bell’s estate, where they meet the inventor’s great-grandson and get a tour of the family’s summer home. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

After a long day, the class stays at the Inverary Resort in Baddeck for the night, where a campfire, music and a s’mores bar is waiting for them. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

The students try to catch some lake creatures off the docks. (Photo: Ellen Curtis)

The class rises early the next morning to drive the Cabot Trail. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

The Skyline Trail, on the top of French Mountain in Cape Breton Highlands National Parks, has many in awe of the scenery. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

The students take in the view. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

The grade-eights head to Ingonish Beach, where many of the students dip their toes into the Atlantic for the first time. (Photo: Michela Rosano)

The water was freezing! (Photo: Michela Rosano)

The students spend the last night of the trip at Cape Breton University, where the students take part in one last tour, the Louisbourg 300 Exhibition: The Most Suitable Place. (Photo: Ellen Curtis)

See you soon, Nova Scotia! (Photo: Michela Rosano)