“Look Mum, I think I found something!” My daughter solemnly holds up the remnants of an iron grate that she has found during our walk along the marina at the Atlantica Oak Island Resort and Conference Centre, a family hotel overlooking the famous Oak Island just outside Nova Scotia’s Mahone Bay. Her “rare find” is probably a barbecue pit cover, or an old sewer grate, but her imagination has taken hold: “Do you think it might be part of the treasure?”
For families with young children, the mystery of Oak Island is a fun and accessible puzzle that can be explored during a visit to Nova Scotia’s South Shore. Although your children can’t actually go digging for treasure on Oak Island (nor would you ever wish them to, seeing as there’s a curse attached!), there are plenty of ways to immerse yourself in one of the greatest Canadian treasure hunts of all time. Perhaps your family will notice a salient artifact or clue amongst the evidence – something all the other treasure hunters haven’t noticed!
In all started in 1795, when a boy named Daniel McGinnis was exploring near his home on Oak Island, and came across a curious depression in the ground. When he and his friends dug deeper, they uncovered layers and layers of dirt, logs and coconut fibre stacked up as platforms inside the shaft. They were convinced they had found pirate treasure – not an unlikely prospect, since this was shortly after the Golden Age of Piracy in Nova Scotia.
Since that first summer, the treasure hunt has never stopped, and the questions have grown. Why were oaks trees planted on an island where oaks do not usually grow? What is the purpose of the long shaft known as “the money pit”? Who built the elaborate booby-trap that fills the tunnel with seawater every time a hunter digs? How did coconut fibre find its way deep inside this man-made pit, when the nearest coconut trees are two thousand kilometres away?
Theories abound as to what lies beneath, range from pirate gold, the Holy Grail, or even William Shakespeare’s folios! There have been countless books written about the subject over the years.
One of the best books for kids is Oak Island and the Search for Buried Treasure by Joan-Hamilton Barry: a simple, clearly written book with excellent photos and graphics that will have your children’s imagination racing in anticipation of their visit to the South Shore.
On TV, you can catch up with the two most recent treasure hunters: Rick and Marty Lagina, two wealthy American brothers who have teamed up with the History Channel to document the continued quest for treasure on Oak Island. According to legend, seven people must die in search of the treasure before it is found. Six people have died already. One has to wonder if the Lagina brothers are playing with fire. The Curse of Oak Island is currently in its third season; this summer (2016), they’ll be back on the island filming season four.
Although Oak Island is privately owned, you can explore it by foot with the Friends of Oak Island – a society of volunteers that offers a 2-hour long “Walk the Myster” tour. The guided tours are only $15.00 each (kids under 5 are free), and include a visit to a new museum. If you are a true enthusiast, you can even buy a membership to the Friends of Oak Island Society for only $10.00!
For those who wish to discuss their theories outside the public eye, private tours are sometimes available by appointment through Oak Island Tours, the private group that owns most of the Island.
There are other nearby places which offer clues and information. A very small museum inside the Atlantica Oak Island Resort boasts some interesting photos and a good model of the island. A second interpretive centre can be found at the Chester Train Station, a visitor information centre in the picturesque sailing town of Chester, about 20 minutes away.
At the time of writing, the Nova Scotia Museum also had their collection of Oak Island treasures on display at the Museum of Natural History in Halifax. This small exhibit shows a variety of artifacts collected on Oak Island over the years, and some original maps, including one drawn by treasure hunter, Robert Restall, only days before his tragic death in 1965. The collection also displays Mi’kmaq artifacts and a couple of Spanish coins, exactly like the ones the Lagina brothers found in one of the episodes of their show. (As a reality check, the myth de-bunking staff at the museum inform us that 17th century coins are a common archeological find in coastal Nova Scotia).
Back at Oak Island, there’s the chance to kayak or paddle board around the Island with “Outdoor Ed”, the manager of the Atlantica’s Outdoor Adventure Centre. With Ed, you can view up-close the enigma that is Smith’s cove: a manmade beach that experts agree was built as part of the elaborate flood-tunnel booby trap.
Oak Island can be seen from most places in the Atlantica Oak Island Resort, which despite the fancy name, is actually a reasonably affordable, laid back, very family-friendly hotel.
When we stayed at the Atlantica Oak Island in March 2016, I asked local resident and manager, Angela Steeves to tell me the truth about Oak Island, and her reply was interesting: “I believe there was some sort of peculiar action there. It wasn’t normal. For me, the mystery is why they came to this one little island out of 365 islands in Mahone Bay”. Later in our conversation, she affirms what my family already knows: “There is treasure in the story”.
There are plenty of options for accommodation at the Atlantica, from a regular room with a sea view, to a (pricier) seafront chalet, from which the Island is almost close enough to touch. If you visit in the summer of 2016, you can combine mystery with outdoor luxury by booking a Cursed Coves Mystery Tour through East Coast Glamping, which has erected a luxury campground in an apple orchard, just steps away from the shore.
Or, if you’re a sailor, moor up at the marina and join the Oak Island crowd for dinner!
Whether you’re a glamper, a sailor or a regular hotel guest, on warm summer evenings, you and the kids can gather around the campfire to hear the stories of Oak Island, told by hotel staff, while you roast s’mores in the shadow of the island itself. Whether you find treasure or not, there is indeed treasure in the story.
Still Curious? Further Reading for Moms and Dads:
“Treasure Hunt: The Mystery of Oak Island”
A copy of an article, printed in 1965, which sparked the recent wave of interest in Oak Island
(From The Rotarian, 1965)
“Death on Treasure Island”
A tragic account of the Restall family’s life, and tragedy on the Island
(The Ottawa Citizen, October 29th, 1965)