A First-Timer’s Guide to Visiting New Brunswick’s Own Little Paradise

So it is your first time heading to Grand Manan Island? Here’s how to plan your trip.

Perhaps you’ve heard that writer Willa Cather once fell in love with the island, regularly visited for nearly two decades and even wrote at least one story about it. Or maybe you learned that ornithologist and painter John James Audubon – of Birds of America fame – was a frequent visitor for bird-watching trips.

You may have seen its Swallowtail lighthouse on Canada Post’s recent “From Far and Wide” stamps series, or perhaps you read about the colourful sea glass bounty available on some of its beaches.

No matter the reason, now you’re daydreaming about sun, sand and seashells. And like many folks before you, your heart is set on planning your first trip to New Brunswick’s own little paradise, Grand Manan Island.

When we were planning our first trip to Grand Manan Island back in June, we actually didn’t make it there on our first attempt. At the time, we would have loved a detailed, practical guide to planning our itinerary, so as to not waste hours planning a trip that didn’t see the light of day. That’s why I am writing this now.

At the time, we had, perhaps foolishly, tried to pack it into a much longer road trip along Fundy Coast, not realizing that this particular aspect of any road trip needed to be at least a full-day adventure on its own. That is simply due to the logistics of getting to and from the island.

Still, when we did make it there on our second try a few weeks ago, we soon realized that, while one day does work if you are in a pinch (craving islands, of course!) and want to skim the surface, flitting from a few of the most popular places on a tightly scheduled itinerary, a really good Grand Manan Island trip would be at least two or even three days.

For an ideal vacation, where you have the chance to slowly take it all in – with room in your schedule for surprises, island-hopping, and picturesque sunsets and sunrises – you should definitely make your trip at least five days.

First things first: getting there

Book your ferry ride in advance!

Grand Manan is the largest of the Fundy Islands, as well as the largest of the Grand Manan Archipelago, which also consists of White Head Island, North Rock, Gull Rock, and Machias Seal Island.

Tucked away at the south-westernmost point of New Brunswick, Grand Manan is a Canadian island much closer to the American state of Maine (at a distance of just 15 km) than mainland New Brunswick (at 32 km.) It straddles the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine.

That means in order to access the island, you must take a 1.5-hour ferry from Blacks Harbour, NB (which is at the south-west of the province.) It passes just four times a day throughout most of the year except for the summer months (between June 22 and September 19) when it passes seven times a day.

You can see the schedule and book your ferry ride in advance here. It really is recommended that you book your ferry tickets well in advance since there is a maximum amount of people and vehicles per trip and this is a pretty popular spot in the “Atlantic Bubble.”

To car, bike or walk?

Passengers can board with a vehicle or as a pedestrian but if you want to make the most of your Grand Manan trip, you will likely want to bring a vehicle at an added cost. That is because, while the island is relatively small (you can drive from North to South in less than an hour and from East to West in about half an hour), many of the popular tourist attractions, hikes, beaches or restaurants can be a good half hour drive away from the ferry landing.

You wouldn’t want to spend your whole day walking – especially if you are only there for one day!

Most vehicles cost $35.80 to board the ferry but it can vary depending on type and what you are carrying in your vehicle. You could also bring a bicycle for $4.10 or a motorbike for $12. As for people, tickets cost $12 per adult, $5.95 per child between the ages of five and 12, and anyone under the age of five has free access.

Even if you bring your vehicle on the ferry, however, you will not be permitted to stay in it while aboard the ferry. You have to get out and spend your time upstairs in the lounges, the restaurant or up on the deck. Starting spring 2020, masks are required on the ferry once outside your vehicle due to social distancing regulations.

On choosing the right time for you

Since we knew we were just spending one day there, we booked the earliest ferry ride possible – 7:30 a.m. That time slot was part of the special summer season when there are three additional ferry rides each day. After September 19, the earliest ferry leaves at 9:30 a.m.

As well, since we knew that we live in Moncton, which can be a two- or three-hour drive to Blacks Harbour, not including stopping for coffee or a wash room, we ended up leaving home that morning while it was still pitch black, at 4:45 a.m. We would be returning that same day on the 5:30 p.m. ferry so we would still have time to drive back home another two or three hours and go to bed at a reasonable hour.

If you are planning to head to Grand Manan for more than just a day, your ferry time may not matter much. For a day trip, however, you may want to consider a similar kind of schedule.

What happens on the ferry…

Most people just sat and chatted, inside in warmth or outside in the cold. Some people slept on benches with blankets. Blankets, always a good idea! A lot of people took photos up on the deck, even though it was pretty cold on the fingers to do so that early in the morning.

While on the ferry, we were surprised that the coffee was better than expected (even black, as I take it) and that there were some vegetarian and vegan breakfast options available. As a vegan, I had gone into the trip as I usually do, expecting I might be a bit hungry/hangry for most of it, especially in the morning when most establishments only offer bacon and eggs. I thought I would not be able to eat on the ferry or, really at all on the island until lunch when I might be able to find a sandwich, but the ferry restaurant was a welcome relief. They had bagels available with peanut butter. Sounds pretty simple, I know, but to me, at that very early and very hungry time, I was ecstatic. It often is “the little things.”

From there, we went upstairs and out to the deck. I have to tell you it was perfect timing.

I don’t mean it was not absolutely frigid and that I didn’t wish I had brought a blanket or a big jacket. No, it was cold – much, much colder than it was on land (and I’ve lived in the Arctic.) What I mean is the sun was up and sparkling beautifully on the water… and dozens of harbour porpoises were out swimming near the water surface. It was a gorgeous scene – so majestic and calming.

As my caffeine had not quite yet started to sink in, I forgot that I had brought my much more powerful camera lens in my bag, so I snapped a bunch of photos without realizing I could have zoomed in much more if only I changed the lens. By the time my husband reminded me that I had another lens in my backpack, and I switched them, the porpoises had left. Sad face. Learn from my mistakes – if you want good pictures of porpoises, make sure you are well caffeinated and have your most powerful lens on, ready to go, about half an hour to an hour into your ferry trip.

It was just about another half an hour from there when we would begin to see Grand Manan Island off in the distance, with its quaint lighthouse as the first picturesque view of the place.

Of course, in just one day, it was not possible to do or see all of the things we had wanted to, but we were able to squeeze a lot into it very efficiently.

So, if you’re going to plan a short trip, in one day or two or three, this is what we did – tried, tested and true – and the things we would have done if we’d had a second or third day too.

Here is how we spent our day

When planning the trip, I wanted to keep our activities as efficient as possible. I tried to make our voyage over the island fit onto the map like a large circle that would loop us back to the ferry in time for our departure late in the afternoon.

Of course, there were some things that would be better suited to a lower tide, so I opted to plan the closest attractions to the ferry that were not dependent on the tide to come first, and the closest attractions to the ferry that were dependent on a lower tide, to come later in the afternoon on our way back.

For that reason, the first thing we did after getting off the ferry, was go for a hike to Hole In The Wall rocks. It was quite nearby and did not require tide in the same way that, say, beach-combing would.

Hole in the Wall rocks

Located less than one kilometre away from the ferry, in the village of North Head, Hole In The Wall is a rock formation that, you guessed it, includes a hole in a wall. It was created thousands of years ago through erosion.

To get there, you drive just a couple minutes north through the part of the village with cute, colourful houses. These rocks can be found by hiking a pretty short, family-friendly trail at a place called North Head Camp and Hike Park (formerly known as Hole In The Wall Campground.)

You need a hiking day pass to enter but that costs just four dollars per person. The pass will allow you to come and go as you please throughout the day, in case you wanted to do one hike in the morning and another in the afternoon after going some place else.

To reach the Hole In The Wall rock formation on that trail, it is about a 30- to 40-minute hike, covering a distance of 0.29 km. There are miniature animal and gnome statues scattered around for a children’s scavenger hunt. The trail also goes along high, rocky cliffs that lead down to the water.

Swallowtail Lighthouse

Next stop: the first lighthouse to be built on the island. The same lighthouse that is visible from the ferry just before you enter the harbour. Located at the northern tip of the North Head peninsula, it was built in 1859, two years after a shipwreck killed 21 people.

This lighthouse was lit for the first time in 1860 and was an important part of Grand Manan and New Brunswick marine trade life for over 120 years. It was automated and de-staffed in 1986. Since 2009, the Swallowtail Keeper’s Society has been managing the lighthouse but it was previously owned by the Village of Grand Manan.

The lighthouse grounds make for a beautiful scene, with a sweeping trail that leads up to the iconic structure, including a long stair case off a cliff and a narrow bridge that goes over a sliver of the bay.

The lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling are located on the same grounds, with its fog bell displayed on a wooden deck.

Lunch at the Old Well House Café

You know the comfy, chill vibe you get in a Montreal café with its vintage, mismatching plates and tea cups, its flea market finds hanging from the wall, and an old record player whining out 60s folk classics? Well, the Old Well House Café does the same thing but somehow feels more authentic and without pretense.

Perhaps it is the fact that most of the flea market items found on the wall are actual historical items related to Grand Manan – large posters about how to fish for lobster, or lobster crates, a giant lobster claw mounted on a piece of wood, fish net hung like garlands.

But it is not just the decor you are coming for at Old Well House Café. Besides, you might even take your lunch or dinner outside on the large patio, where the decor is a bit more minimal. The food is yummy and healthy, and personally I have never tasted a better hummus.

I ordered the Heavenly Hummus wrap, which is grilled veggies and hummus wrapped in a toasted tortilla, as well as a peach iced tea. It comes with a side of tortilla chips and that divine hummus. In fact, we came here twice that day. Once for our lunch, and then again right before taking the ferry back home.

My husband ordered the same. We are simple people with simple needs. (As you can see in the above photo, if you have facial hair, the sandwich might be a little messy.)

Beach at Pettes Cove

We had been told that Pettes Cove would be a spot where you might be able to see seals, but unfortunately, we did not see any that day.

It was a rocky beach, so we did find a few pieces of sea glass, but it wasn’t quite the sea glass jack pot that we discovered at another Grand Manan beach.

There were not many other people at this beach at the time we visited besides a group of people setting up a cute wedding altar. They had placed lobster cages down in rows as seats. Adorable!

To be honest though, besides catching glimpses of a romantic event, this was my least favourite beach there. My reasoning: if you’re going to be a rocky beach, at least be bountiful in sea glass please. Oh, and it was mostly because numerous spiders kept darting out toward my feet and I only had my flip flips on.

You may want to wear closed toe shoes there.

Beach at Seal Cove

This beach was the sandiest one we saw on the island. It would be a good spot to lay out a blanket and picnic, or sunbathe and swim. Some groups of people we saw there were throwing a frisbee or ball back and forth and were wading into the shallow part of the water.

It had more warmth than Pette’s Cove did, but maybe that was just because it was getting later in the day by then.

Further increasing its esthetic value, when you enter this beach, there are old herring sheds, boats and lobster cages you pass by to charm you. Additionally, this beach has a lot of driftwood and drift logs laid out in the sand.

There was no sea glass that we could see, which makes sense since it is a sandy beach and not a rocky one, but there were heaps of abandoned crab shells and sea weed sprawled out in neat rows from the tide.

Combing the beach at Stanley Beach

This is where you want to search for sea-glass. Since it is a rocky beach, sea glass gets caught in the rocks when the tide goes out, so it is just a matter of sitting and digging a little all over the beach and you will be unlikely to leave without at least 20 smooth pieces. I’m all for accessibility in the sea glass collectors’ community, so here are some of my tips.

If you can spend more than an hour there and are really dedicated to your sitting and digging through a couple layers with intent, you can likely double or triple that amount.

We found the most sea glass on this beach about halfway between the parking lot and the motel (where the beach curves out), in clusters. We found that they were most common near piles of seaweed, so we would just sit by those, find a good rock that could serve as a shovel, and dug a few inches deep in the whole area around us.

There was a lot of white or clear sea glass that was dreamily softened, as well as some lavender, green and brown. Of course some of the glass we found was not quite smoothed or ready yet to be called sea glass but that was a very small proportion.

One family told us they had just found some blue sea glass there but we didn’t see any.

My husband also really liked this beach for its flat rocks that were excellent for skipping over the water.

Taking it all in

By the time we were done with Stanley Beach, it was nearly time to catch our return ferry trip. We were also quite hungry and ready for second lunch or pre-dinner. We went to see if another restaurant there might have vegan options but it didn’t appear to, so we circled back to the Old Well House Café for seconds of that heavenly hummus and for more coffee. Conveniently, the Old Well House Café is right by the ferry harbour so it was for the best.

Next time we come, we will be sure to make a full weekend out of it – at the minimum.

Since ours was just a day trip, we didn’t manage to make the time for the Migratory Bird Sanctuary, or the whale-watching boat tour. We also didn’t have enough time to go puffin watching or take some of the longer hikes on or around the island and we weren’t fortunate enough to see whales or seals at any of the beaches we did go to or have any hope of hopping to other nearby islands with that short budget of time.

Now that we know all that is in store for us at Grand Manan Island, our next trip will be much longer to really take advantage of all the plentiful treasures the place holds.

Third time’s a charm!


All photo credits: Courtney Edgar and David Marineau Plante.