A WEEKEND GETAWAY TO GRAND MANAN ISLAND

On a beautiful day in August 2019, we decide to spend a few days on Grand Manan Island, in New Brunswick, Canada. It’s the largest island in the Bay of Fundy, where the tides rise and fall more than 16 meters (52 feet) each day, higher than anywhere else in the world! The island’s size is 655 km² (253 sq miles), and 2,360 residents lived here in 2016.

We take the ferry in Blacks Harbour, and hope to see some wildlife, so we walk right up to the deck. Some animals who call this area home are puffins and other seabirds, porpoises, minkes, humpbacks, and the North Atlantic Right Whale. Although we don’t see any nearby, we love the picturesque ocean scenery, and even spot a bunch of little islands. So our trip is off to a great start, and suddenly, some fishing weirs and a lighthouse, the gateways to Grand Manan Island’s North Head village, appear in the distance.

Our first stop is the Surfside Motel, where we’re staying tonight. It’s been around for more than 40 years, and has 22 nice, standard rooms, with one or two beds. I love hanging out on the lawn with picnic chairs in the back of the building, and admire the view of Stanley’s Beach, Long Island, and Flagg’s Cove.

Soon the brisk and clean marine air makes us hungry, so we head to the Compass Rose Heritage Inn for dinner. It was established in the early 20th century, as a post and telegraph office. Their dining room is equipped with antique furniture, and guests can watch the Bay of Fundy and the buzzing North Head fishing harbour from their table. Like many restaurants on the Canadian east coast, their specialty dish is lobster. But tonight my travel companions are in the mood for haddock, and I order a curry pasta dish. Everything’s super yummy, and we’re very happy with the service. Of course, we can’t leave this place without trying a slice of their homemade pie! So it was more than worth it to come here. Maybe we’ll stay in one of their quaint guest rooms during our next visit to Grand Manan Island?

It’s getting late now, but that doesn’t stop us from driving to Southwest Head, on the opposite side of the island. According to the Official 2019 New Brunswick travel guide, this is the “best sunset spot” for Instagrammers, and guess what, they know their stuff!

In the morning, we check out Grand Manan’s Farmers Market at the old North Head Hall, right across the street from the Surfside Motel. This event has been around since 1984, and occurs from late June to mid-September, every Saturday, from 10 am to 12:30 pm. There’s a variety of awesome handmade goodies to find, like jewelry, beauty products, arts, crafts, books, and baked foods. As a local economy supporter, I can’t resist buying some earrings for my mom, and cat nip for Lemmy, my friend Steffi’s cat. Unfortunately, the Farmers Market was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19, but hopefully it’ll be back as usual this year!

Our next stop is Swallow Tail Lighthouse, one of Grand Manan’s most popular tourist attractions. It was completed in 1860 on an isolated peninsula in North Head, and is operated by the Swallow Tail Keepers Society, a non-profit organization. It’s still an active lighthouse today, although there’s no light keeper, as it was automated in 1986. We need to walk a bunch of concrete stairs, then across a wooden bridge, before arriving at the lighthouse, but it was 100% worth it! There’s also a walking path, but be careful, as the entire peninsula is framed by rocky cliffs, that are more than 30 meters (100 feet) high! A bunch of picnic tables and benches are available, if you feel like taking a break. Besides, Swallow Tail Lighthouse is supposed to be perfect for watching the sun or moon rise, and lighthouse tours can be booked on request. Don’t forget to visit the Welcome Center and Gift Shop (both open 10-6 daily in July and August), where you can find more unique items!

The front of Swallow Tail Lighthouse, looking at the bay from the top, and items for sale at the Gift Shop. The latter is photo courtesy of Andrea Kelter.

After this exciting morning we have lunch at The Rainbow’s End Treats & Sweets. It’s a cozy family-style restaurant near the ferry wharf in North Head, and we refuel ourselves with some coffee, tea and a few pastries. They are super yummy, and the attentive server tells us they also sell burgers, steaks, fries, and seafood! This little spot is open 7 days a week, and breakfast is served daily until 11 am.

Next, we want to soak up more local culture at the Grand Manan Art Gallery, established in 1993, and operated by the Grand Manan Historical Society. It shows artwork by artists from Grand Manan Island, the Bay of Fundy region, or further away. This tourist attraction is open from June to late September, every day of the week. After paying the admission of C$ 2.00 each, we enter the art gallery, and I’m glad we gave this place a chance! My favourites are Wendy Moore’s “Flowers” painting (it’s similar to Sean’s painting style), and Marie-Paule Paulin’s “Misty Morning” and “Sunset”, as I think it represents the laid-back lifestyle often found in the Maritimes. Unfortunately, the Grand Manan Art Gallery exhibit was also closed due to COVID-19 health concerns in 2020, but it was possible to look at various visual art galleries on their website.

It’s getting close to dinner time now, so we buy some BBQ food at Your Independent Grocer, the largest grocery store on the island. Then we check in to Pa’s Place & Beach Front Cottages, our accommodation for the next two nights, which is further down the island, in Seal Cove. This place was founded in 1912, and guests can either stay in the 2-floor main building, or one of their private cabins. Our cabin has two bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, living room, bathroom, and a porch with BBQ. Another bonus is the private Seal Cove sand beach, only a few foot steps away. It’s quieter than last night’s accommodation, as it’s further away from the main road, so later, all we can hear while falling asleep is the soothing sound of the ocean.

The cabins from the outside, partial living room and kitchen at our cabin, and Seal Cove sand beach. The first two are photo courtesy of Pa’s Place & Beach Front Cottages.

The next day, we tour the Grand Manan Museum, another popular attraction. According to their website, they intend to teach visitors about the 200-year old rich, maritime heritage of Grand Manan Island, especially the fishing industry. The museum exhibit features various displays of natural and human history, e.g. Fisherman’s Shed Exhibit, Upper and Lower Marine Gallery, and Communications Exhibit, with an old telephone, typewriter, and post office desk. My favourite is the wall painting of marine creatures though, as it must have taken a long time (and talent) to put it together! At the entrance of the museum, there’s a gift shop, too, with soap, jewelry, printed and painted artwork, and birthday cards for sale. But there’s more! You can also check out their outside exhibits, e.g. “A Walk through time”, that shows photos of the early settlement and social and economic development of the island, or the Deep Cove School House. The latter was the longest running one-room school house on Grand Manan Island, from 1889 to 1947, and up to 19 students attended it at a time. Don’t miss the nearby sign post, to learn how far away certain places are from the island! The Grand Manan Museum is open from mid-June to late September, from Monday-Friday (June & September) or Monday-Saturday (July & August). Between October and May, the museum is open by appointment only, and the admission cost is C$ 7.00 for adults, C$ 5.00 for seniors and students, and children 10 years and under are free of charge!

The Communications Exhibit, wall painting of marine creatures, replica of a vessel used around Grand Manan Island in the late 19th century, and the outside sign post.

We decide to stay in our cabin for the rest of the day, to recover from all the action. But if you’d like more excitement, here’s a list of other things to do on Grand Manan Island:

  • Sea Watch Whale and Seabird Watching Tours. This business was founded by Captain Peter Wilcox and his wife Kenda in 1969, and their tours are a great way to meet some marine animals living in this area. Their 5 ½ hour “Puffin – Machias Seal Island” tour takes guests to a nearby sea bird sanctuary that can be accessed by up to 15 people a day. Often sighted birds on the way and the island are puffins, razorbill auks, common murres, as well as eider ducks and black guillemots. The cost for going ashore Machias Seal Island is C$ 175 per person, for all ages. Their whale watching tour takes 4 to 5 ½ hours, depending on the whales’ location, and can be booked from early July to late September. During this tour the vessels move to the open water, beyond Whitehead Island. Captain Wilcox and Mate Durlan are happy to share some of their extensive knowledge about wildlife and the sea, and answer guests’ questions. The coolest thing is whale sightings are guaranteed, or your tour is free! The cost is C$ 75 for adults, and C$ 55 for children 12 years and under. 
  • Adventure High Sea Kayak tours. This local business has been known for their guided eco-friendly adventure tours, for all ages and skill levels, since 1989. Their tours can be booked for a half, full, or multiple days, and include experiences like a Kayak Tour & Dinner on the beach, island hopping, enjoying a bonfire by the beach, and exploring areas only few people know about. All tours include basic paddling and safety instructions, and kayak and safety equipment. The multi-day tours also include accommodation (either camping or at the Compass Rose Heritage Inn) and meals. The rates range from C$ 55 to C$ 140 for half and full day tours, and up to C$ 1,450 for their 5-Day kayaking tours. Adventure High also offers Specialty tours (e.g. painting, photography, and yoga, in addition to sea kayaking, of course!), a paddling school, cabin/cottage accommodation, and bike rentals. These services can be booked from May-October. But wait, there’s more! You can also book Atlantic tours in Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, Polar Kayaking Adventures in Antarctica, and Tropical Kayaking Adventures in Florida, Honduras, and the Bahamas! 
  • The Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station. This small natural history museum sounds perfect for people eager to know more about the marine conservation of the Bay of Fundy, and the animals living in it. Their displays include whales, seabirds, seals, sharks, and fish, and you can symbolically adopt a North Atlantic Right Whale! You’ll also learn why these amazing creatures are endangered, and the efforts to protect them, as well as the Harbour Porpoise Release Program. The latter is about how porpoises and other large marine animals entangled in fishing weirs are safely released into the wild. This museum is open May to October, and has a gift shop, too. There’s no admission charge, but donations are always appreciated!
  • Anchorage Provincial Park. This sounds like an awesome camping spot, as it provides “picturesque campground vistas”, according to the Official 2019 Explore New Brunswick Travel Guide. It also has tons of hiking and cycling trails, a scenic sand beach, picnic areas, and is home to the Grand Manan Migratory Bird Sanctuary. 
  • Numerous little islands. An example of an island close to Grand Manan Island is Whitehead Island, the only island with a year-round population. It’s accessible via a free ferry from Ingalls Head, or boat, and is known for its sandy beaches, salt marsh and the Longpoint Lighthouse. Cheney Island is privately owned and apparently, is haunted by “Old Man Cheney”, the ghost of its first settler. Ross Island is where the first settlers of the United Empire Loyalists landed in 1784, and the remains of Fish Fluke Point Lighthouse and their stone foundations can still be visited. During low tide, these islands are connected, and can be entered by foot. More details about other islands can be found on the Grand Manan Tourism website. 
  • Summer festivals. Here are a couple events on Grand Manan Island that sound pretty cool: The Grand Manan Island Rotary Festival during the August Long Weekend. It includes a craft festival, music events, lobster supper, a parade, and more! Each year, it’s got a different theme. Then there’s the 2-day Summers End Folk Festival at the end of August, only a few steps from the ocean. Fingers crossed these and other events can happen this year!
  • Search for sea glass. Lots of beaches within the Bay of Fundy are fantastic spots to find sea glass, which, of course, includes Grand Manan Island! Most of these little treasures are formed by pieces of glass bottles thrown into the ocean many years ago, and over time, their sharp edges become smooth. The most common colours are white, brown, and green, but blue, red, purple, turquoise are also found sometimes. The best spot to find sea glass on Grand Manan Island is Pettes Cove in North Head, near the Ferry Terminal and Swallow Tail Lighthouse. What a special souvenir to take home, and make crafts out of, plus, it’s free!
Our collection of sea glass. Note: We found this on a beach within the Bay of Fundy, but not Grand Manan Island. Just want to show you what they look like. 🙂

How to get to Grand Manan Island

From the Canadian side (by car): Drive to Blacks Harbour (35 minutes outside of Saint John), then take the ferry to Grand Manan Island. In summer, two ferries run every two hours, and the rest of the year, there’s one ferry, leaving every four hours, both during the day only. The journey takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes each way, and the cost per car is C$ 35.80, excluding the driver, per trip. Passengers and other modes of transportation are welcome as well. There’s a cafeteria on board, which is famous for their seafood chowder! 

From the US side (by car): First, take I-95 to Bangor, Maine, then head East on Rte. 9 to Calais, to enter Canada (make sure you bring acceptable ID). Then go East on Highway 1 for about 35 minutes, and take exit 60 to Blacks Harbour. From there, take the same ferry to Grand Manan Island as other tourists. 

During the summer, reservations are highly recommended, and passengers need to check in at Blacks Harbour maximum 45 minutes before the ferry departs.

As there’s no public transportation on Grand Manan Island, it’s recommended to have your own mode of transportation, like a (rental) car, motorcycle, or bicycle.

If you need to fly to New Brunswick first, the closest commercial airport is Saint John. 

Grand Manan Island is also accessible via private vessel, as long as you arrive at one of the commercial wharves (North Head, Ingalls Head, Seal Cove, and White Head). 

Grand Manan Island also has a 1000-meter long airstrip for private plane landings.

Map of Grand Manan Island.

As everyone knows, vacations always end too soon, but the memories stay with you for a long time. So we don’t know whether to be happy or sad when leaving Grand Manan Island the next day. What made this getaway special? I especially liked learning about Swallow Tail Lighthouse, witnessing the spectacular sunset at Southwest Head, walking on Seal Cove sand beach, and the great shopping! The locals we met made us feel welcome, such as by offering their help if needed, but didn’t get into our face otherwise. Although Grand Manan Island is a popular destination, the roads weren’t crowded, and it’s obvious that authorities care about keeping the island clean, and want to encourage people to make the most out of their visit. Another reason to travel to this island is to appreciate its unspoiled nature, e.g. by looking at the water, collecting sea glass, hiking, cycling, kayaking, or whale watching (the last two are on my list for next time!). I think there’s something for everyone, like history and culture enthusiasts, couples and families, beach fans, groups of friends, outdoorsy and adventure travelers, tourists interested in wildlife, and shopping lovers. In addition, Grand Manan Island offers a variety of places to stay (like campgrounds, Bed and Breakfasts, and cottages) and eat (lobster rolls, fried clams, scallops, pizza, burgers, sandwiches, vegetarian and vegan foods, etc.). Also, it’s known to be a perfect spot to relax and recharge from city life, but it’s got everything you need, to have a great vacation.

So I highly recommend planning a trip to Grand Manan Island in the future. 🙂

2 thoughts on “A WEEKEND GETAWAY TO GRAND MANAN ISLAND

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  1. Very good post. Highly informative for travellers who want to visit the Grand Manan Island. Nicely written. Keep up the good work.

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