Grand Manan Island: Queen of the Bay of Fundy

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The dramatic cliffs at Southwest Head on Grand Manan island. Mary Gilman photos.

The dramatic cliffs at Southwest Head on Grand Manan island. Mary Gilman photos.

Off the coast of New Brunswick Canada, a rustic and untrammeled fishermen’s haven

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Any trip to Grand Manan island, about 20 miles off the coast of New Brunswick Canada, begins at Black’s Harbour.

The Swallowtail Lighthouse, dating back to 1860, is kept up by proud locals.

The Swallow Tail Lighthouse, dating back to 1860, is kept up by proud locals. The hike over rocks to get here is magical!

This small coastal village is the launching pad for the two large ferries that travel the route daily, bringing everything the islanders need and every visitor and resident to Grand Manan.

The island’s airport handles only general aviation flights, with no more than 15 passengers, and there is no scheduled air service.  It’s either your own boat or the ferry, for just about anyone who wants to come.

Departing in a Fog

Our ferry departed in a fog and the 90-minute trip the 20 miles to Grand Manan was relaxed and pleasant.

It was a perfect opportunity to catch up on email using the ship’s Wi-fi, and enjoy more seafood, this time chowder and grilled cheese from the ferry galley.

Modern and comfortable ferries make the 2 1/2 hour trip to Grand Manan a pleasant journey.

Modern and comfortable ferries make the 1 1/2 hour trip to Grand Manan a pleasant journey.

With our car secured in the hold, (the ferries hold 65 cars and 300 people) we disembarked in the small village at North Head and headed north.

We had learned that there was a great hike waiting for us at the Swallow Tail lighthouse. Indeed, that was an understatement!

While we scrambled on the rocks toward the lighthouse in a stiff wind, all around us was the undulating Bay of Fundy.  A ferry approached, in the distance, and we looked down from the high cliffs  on a herring weir, circular traps set up to catch the small fish.

The white light house with red trim had been painted recently by island volunteers, who are proud of this light and their untouched pristine island. So they all chip in and help keep the light looking sharp.

Island Lodging

Each room has a name and its own personality.

Each room has a name and its own personality.

Our accommodations on Grand Manan had a literary theme. The Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Willa Cather, spent many summers here at the same lodge, the Inn at Whale Cove, beginning in 1922, with her special friend.

Cather’s home here had neither indoor plumbing or electricity, but today the Inn has both plus high speed internet and a cozy restaurant too. You can even stay in Willa Cather’s former cabin at the Inn at Whale’s Cove today, it has two bedrooms, two fireplaces and its own kitchen.

Cather loved the remoteness of Grand Manan, where could live her life with Edith Lewis as she wanted to here, no prejudice or discrimination was found here.  It was clear that this far out from the mainland, prejudice was left on the shore, and people here are free to be who they are. Many others, from John James  Audubon, to Winslow Homer, have also fell in love with this island during their lifetimes.

Kevin Sampson runs the Compass Rose Inn and a kayaking business on Grand Manan.

Kevin Sampson runs the Compass Rose Inn and a kayaking business on Grand Manan.

With entrees like halibut Nicoise and crabcakes  with chile lime aoli, the dining room at the Inn at Whale Cove feels like having dinner with friends. Just outside, the colorful adirondack chairs face the sea, and are a great place for a before dinner drink or morning coffee.

An Authentic Island

What is it about Grand Manan?

Part of its charm is its remoteness….that long ferry ride shuts the door on day trippers, so most of the people here are locals. The people you see are fishermen, and workers, there are no hoards of tourists.

It seems that nothing is crowded with tourists, despite the proximity to the ocean. Imagine this on Cape Cod…it would be mobbed!

Grand Manan feels authentic….it’s a true fisherman’s island, and today, 90% of the people there work in fishing.  You see that when you drive the only main road, Rte 776, that winds its way up and down the eastern coast.

After Seal Cove, the road just ends at the cliffs, there is no way to get to a large part of the island, it remains wild and people-free.

At the Inn at Whale's Cove, a few seats with great views in the early morning light.

At the Inn at Whale’s Cove, a few seats with great views in the early morning light.

Lobster Profits Soar

Kevin Sampson, the owner of the Compass Rose Inn, runs a kayaking tour business on the island, and he said that today Grand Manan is one of the richest islands in Canada. “Most of the lobster boat owners and the crews, are making more than ever. Every single lobster they catch is grabbed up by the Chinese market. It’s never been so lucrative a fishery.”

Grand Manan Island is a seafood lovers haven.

Grand Manan is a seafood lovers paradise.

Sampson added that many Americans bought homes on Grand Manan after GW Bush became president. Today 52% of the houses here are owned by off-islander Canadians and many Americans.

Lobsters All Gone

We were lucky that we were dining in August, because Sampson told us that his supply of day-boat caught lobsters had run out, and the season wouldn’t start up again until November.

Later we visited a fish market up island where the owner said fishermen still get lobsters, but they have to go much farther out, to the “grey zone,” where only larger boats can make the long journey.

Kayaking to the Hole in the Wall

One activity not to be missed is an afternoon-long kayak trip from the beach near the ferry terminal around the North Head and past the famous “Hole in the Wall,” just past the Swallow Tail Lighthouse.  As we paddled out of the harbor, we learned about the many herring weirs that are set up along the coast.

You can also hike a trail just past the Swallow Tail light that has a camping area.  A steep and narrow trail through the woods takes you to the point just above the Hole in the Wall, pictured at right.  Highly recommended at sunset!

The Hole in the Wall near Whale Cove, Grand Manan Island New Brunswick. Mary Gilman photos.

The Hole in the Wall near Whale Cove, Grand Manan Island New Brunswick.

The circular traps called weirs attract herring to enter and are still used to catch sardines, which are young herring, and larger fish. The island also has many salmon farms out on some outlying islands.

Man Overboard!

As we paddled our kayaks near the Hole in the Wall, one member of our group turned around quickly to look at some seals, and capsized.  With the chilly water in the Bay of Fundy averaging about 56 degrees fahrenheit, it was a chilly dip.

Thankfully, he quickly got himself back in the boat with help from our guides and didn’t suffer any hypothermia which would have resulted in a longer time in the frigid water.

Driving Down the Coast

Seal Cove is unchanged from the 1860s, here it shows the dramatic Bay of Fundy at low tide.

Seal Cove remains unchanged from the 1860s, here it shows the dramatic Bay of Fundy at low tide.

On the morning of our departure, we decided we needed to see more of the island, so we changed to a later ferry and set off down Rte 776, the main road, toward Seal Cove.

Historic Old Sheds

This part of the island is a national historic site of Canada, and still looks just like it did during the island’s herring heyday, when millions of boxes of the smoked fish were sent all over the world by local fishermen.

The beach at Seal Cove, Grand Manan island, New Brunswick.

The beach at Seal Cove, Grand Manan island, New Brunswick.

Along the way we found a pretty arc of a beach, where a couple of moms and a gaggle of kids enjoyed the cold water and running along the beach.

The old fish-smoking barns you can explore here at Seal Cove bring you back hundreds of years.

Grand Manan is a remarkable place, mostly because it’s so hard to find somewhere that remains untouched by commercialism and tourist hordes.  With its remote location and ferry-only access, it’s likely to stay that way for many years to come.

But go see it yourself, just in case.

Find out more about the island: Grand Manan tourism,  and Tourism New Brunswick.

GoNOMAD had assistance from New Brunswick tourism for this trip, but the opinions are the author’s own. 

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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.