Accessible by ferry only, the journey to Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick takes 90 minutes from the small community of Blacks Harbour which lies halfway between the city of Saint John, and the picturesque summer tourist town of St. Andrews by-the-Sea.
The largest island in the Fundy Isles, Grand Manan is only 34 kilometres long and has 2400 permanent residents. There is one grocery store, one gas station, one liquor store, and no traffic lights. The slow pace of life here, combined with stunning scenery and natural resources, makes it a laid-back paradise for kayakers, hikers and bird-watchers. Surprisingly for such a remote island, Grand Manan is also a great place to eat, with several excellent restaurants, a cool coffee scene, and even a Mexican food truck.
Bird Watching at Castalia Marsh
Grand Manan is an important site for the breeding, wintering, and migration of many bird species. Its importance in the bird-world is perhaps best reflected in the fact that famous ornithologist John James Audubon visited the island in the 1830s.
One of the most relaxing and quirkiest spots to stay on Grand Manan is the eco-lodge at Castalia Marsh, where a variety of brightly painted self-contained cottages, huts and yurts are hidden in the reeds. On reaching the complex, visitors are requested to leave their car in a small parking lot and follow narrow paths through the trees and bushes, to find their accommodation. Need help with luggage? A wheelbarrow is provided for carrying bags!
On our visit to Grand Manan, my friend and I stayed in one of the grandest cottages, Fern Alley, a large rustic building which had huge picture windows on the main floor, and a stunning sun deck above.
I am not a bird-watcher, but a few minutes on this sublimely peaceful deck, overlooking convinced me to try my hand at the sport. My friend, a novice ornithologist, showed me the ropes: apparently, all you have to do is look – and listen!
Although previous visitors to Castalia Marsh have reported seeing species such as the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, Short-billed Dowitcher, Sandpiper and Plover, the only birds I was able to identify were a group of LBJs (little brown jobs). Despite my failure on the birdwatching front, simply having coffee on that beautiful deck (and pretending to birdwatch!) was in fact, one of the most peaceful, lovely, moments of the trip.
Swallowtail Lightstation: Saved from Destruction
These days, a visit to the lighthouse offers a vigorous walk, and a glimpse into maritime life via a museum that is located within the lighthouse itself. Climb to the top to see why the residents of Grand Manan were so passionate about saving this building. The view out to the Bay of Fundy is unsurpassable.
Adventure High and the Compass Rose Heritage Inn
Adventure High is a kayaking outfitter established by local, Kevin Sampson. Like most people from the island, Sampson tried his hand at fishing but became seasick on each journey. His solution, to open up a kayak outfitting operation, was unusual at the time.
“When I started nobody was kayaking,” he says, “back then, the ocean was not a place to play, it was a place to work.”
After many years of success with Adventure High, Sampson and his wife, Linda Stackhouse, decided to buy the restaurant and inn next door, The Compass Rose Heritage Inn, which has a superb menu of fresh salads, and lobster dinners. Now, a kayaking visit can be seamlessly connected to bed, breakfast…and delicious food.
Coffee Scene on Grand Manan
For a small island, Grand Manan has an incredible variety of delicious places to eat and drink, and refreshingly, not one fast food outlet or Tim Horton’s in sight. Our first stop after the ferry docks is Karen’s Sweet Treats, tiny little red and yellow kiosk, owned by Karen MacDonald, who is not from the island but has been here 30 years.
“I am the Tim Horton’s,” she jokes, ” I just make plain coffee, but I make it good and strong.”
As we chat, MacDonald treats us to a bag of freshly deep-fried mini donuts, coated in fine white sugar. “These are better than Tim Horton’s,” she says. She is right.
Another fantastic place to eat on Grand Manan is the Old Well House Cafe. This was our first meal on the island and was completely unforgettable. In a cosy atmosphere, a reasonably priced menu offered soups, sandwiches and treats that were served quickly with a smile. The coffee here was amazing and came any way you like: cappuccino, latte, hot chocolate.
Owner Keira Dall’Osto first came to Grand Manan from Townsville, Australia as a Rotary Youth exchange student, but couldn’t get Canada off her mind. After many travels across the country, including a brief affair with Saskatchewan, where she met her husband, Dall’Osto kept finding herself on Grand Manan. Finally, the pair returned to Grand Manan to take over the Old Well House.
“I’m from away, but I’ve been embraced,” says Dall’Osto, “…one of my favourite things is asking how people ended up here because it’s always an interesting story.”
Mexican Food Scene on Grand Manan
Speaking of stories, take Jennifer Sewell, whose family is from Grand Manan. 10 years ago she travelled to Merida, Mexico and immersed herself in the food and culture. Years later, when the food truck revolution happened, she jumped on board, bought a truck from Ontario, and along with her three children, moved back to the island to serve delicious Mexican food.
“Living on Grand Manan is a dream,” she says. “I personally got up this morning to see the sunrise….it was orange and pink and beautiful.”
The Island of Grand Manan offered so many surprises during our short visit. I can’t wait to get back with the family to experience the friendly people, stunning scenery, and downright quirky food culture on this cool little island in the middle of the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick.