The Top Reasons to Visit Grand Manan Island, a Little Known Gem in the Bay of Fundy

Canada’s three maritime provinces, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are all stunning in their own right. But, of the three, New Brunswick frequently gets the short end of the stick when it comes to holiday choices. It shouldn’t.

A few years ago, I visited the province’s Grand Manan Island and was dumbstruck by its rugged beauty.

“Look starboard, 11 o’clock,” bellowed the captain of the Grand Manan V. The ferry slowed, and then came to a full stop as we all rushed to watch five pairs of North Atlantic right whales splashing and cavorting in the Bay of Fundy. Grand Manan’s welcome generated a happy excitement as we pointed at the rambunctious mammals’ courtship rituals and began to chat with complete strangers about their plans to explore the island’s picturesque fishing villages, trails and craggy coastline.

Located in the Bay of Fundy, the 142km2 island is a 90-minute ferry ride from Black Harbour, which is an hour’s drive from Saint John. Grand Manan is paradise for hikers, bikers, kayakers and birders. Voted one of the World’s 7 Best Small Islands by Reader’s Digest magazine in 2018, Grand Manan is a salty paradise where you can eat fresh-caught lobster on secluded beaches, stay in a variety of B&Bs, and spy more than 360 species of birds,

After checking into the cozy Compass Rose Inn, my husband and I stocked up on goodies at the North Head Bakery and then headed out on a whale watching tour. We wanted to see more of the welcoming leviathans and we weren’t disappointed.

The captain pointed out Finbacks, Minkes, Humpbacks and dolphins. As an added bonus, we were treated to a fly-by by a small group of puffins.

While on the tour, we learned that the North Atlantic Right Whale Critical Habitat was established in 2009 to provide additional protection for the endangered species. An area east of Grand Manan, including the Grand Manan Basin, is important to right whales while they are in the Bay of Fundy.

One of the reasons for the whales’ shrinking numbers is that they move slowly and are often hit by fast moving ships. Last year a speed restriction of 10 knots was in effect from April to November for larger ships in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence. Monitoring the situation, it seems this action has made a bit of difference, but more needs to be done.

Once back on land, we wanted to get a feel for the island’s geography and purchased a trail guide.  Every day we followed a different marked path that passed stunning shorelines, fragrant woods and grassy meadows.

One afternoon we took a sea kayak tour and paddled in calm coves past the rocky arch known as Hole-in-the-Wall, herring weirs and curious seals. A delicious beachside lobster picnic dinner fixed by our guide capped the day.

Old herring smokehouses dot Grand Manan and many locals told us about their first jobs stringing, smoking and boning the small, silvery fish. The island’s once-mighty herring fishery sustained islanders from the late 1800s until the 1990s.

At Seal Cove, a Parks Canada plaque explained how residents fished the rich waters along the coast, while others, many women and children, processed the catch. Wandering the area, we noted around 54 smoked herring stands, or buildings, designated as historic sites. Gazing at the wooden structures, I could almost see the people bustling about, curing this treasured food cherished by American and West Indian markets.

Driving along the island’s main drag, Route 776, we saw many signs advertising dulse for sale. Checking out one of the shops, we learned that the purple seaweed grows on rocks and is harvested by hand at low tide and then dried in the sun. Crispy, salty and vaguely fishy, it is packed with vitamins and eaten as a snack or used as seasoning in salads and soups.

Digging into the island’s history, we visited the Grand Manan Museum. Permanent exhibits included the Allen Moses Bird Gallery, Lincoln Harvey Bird Carvings, Willa Cather exhibit, Graham family hearse, Dark Harbour Hermits (bachelor brothers who harvested dulse in the 1920s-30s), Shipwreck Gallery, lobster trap display, reconstruction of a fisherman’s shed, historic farming equipment, and a gallery devoted to the ferries of Grand Manan with photos, paintings and memorabilia.

Grand Manan Island is one of the top locations in North America for birders since it is on a major eastern flyway. John James Audubon visited in 1831 to document Herring Gulls and Atlantic Puffins, both on the decrease due to settlers taking eggs from the gull nests and using Puffins as fish bait. Thankfully, these populations have recovered. Today, more than 360 species of birds have been identified on the island, 100 of which breed there. Special tours can take visitors to see nesting seabird colonies, including those of puffins, razorbills, and common murres.

Birdwatchers who make the pilgrimage to Grand Manan can give thanks to Allan Moses, a fisherman with an ornithological passion who was born on the island in 1881. Due to his efforts, several bird sanctuaries were created on Canada’ eastern coast. Grand Manan Migratory Bird Sanctuary opened in 1931 and in 1935, Bowdoin Scientific Station on nearby Kent Island was established to identify, conserve and monitor a network of sites that provide essential habitat for Canada’s bird populations. One of these sites, opened in 1944, is Grand Manan’s neighbor, Machias Seal Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

Around the time that Moses was helping to preserve habitat, Willa Cather, an author known for her stories of the American West, was enjoying Grand Manan as a place of refuge and creativity. Every summer from 1922 to 1940, she arrived with her partner Edith Lewis from their home in New York City and settled into a cottage to write, free from urban distractions. Her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, was finished in 1940 during her final summer on the island. The cottage eventually became part of Inn at Whale Cove and recently the inn was switched into a single rental property.

COVID-19 has stymied many travel plans. But it won’t be with us forever. Grand Manan is a gem that should not be overlooked. Aren’t we all dreaming of a little refuge and recovery?

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