So, we’re all friends here, right? I mean, I tell you about deeply personal things like falling in love, or being infested by monsters. You’ve even seen a photo of my panties. And you keep showing up, tolerating my endless rambles. (Thank you!) I think we might be there – that point where I can trust you with one of my best secrets of all – I have spent time in a sanatorium. This isn’t your average asylum though, it’s a secret hideaway – Grand Manan, a little gem of an island in the Bay of Fundy. This is my sanctuary.
Every year, usually around early June, a friend gingerly, oh so carefully tip toes in my direction. She’s lost the rock, paper scissors match among my friends. Bravely, she places her hand on my arm, tilts her head in that cute puppy dog way, and gently says “Michelle, it’s time. You need to go now.” She ducks, waiting for a string of curses that would impress a sailor. But instead, I know she’s right. I am raw, cranky and maybe a tiny bit mean. I need to go to my version of rehab. I need to go to the east coast.
Sometimes in life there is simply too much going on – from omnipresent gadgets to this incessant need to be all grown up and pay the hydro bill. A constant chatter buzzes around us, from terrifying news to something called a Kardashian (Star Trek, right?) And apparently I have a breaking point. I can only take so much before I start to become a bit of a beast. And what we know about beasts? They’re best banished to the far edges of society and seldom seen. That’s exactly what Grand Manan offers me.
I pack my little beetle up with all the essentials – gummi worms, camera, camping gear and e-reader. Nothing else is required. It’s a bit of a drive to the coast, about 14 hours from the Greater Toronto Area, so make sure you have a brilliant car tunes playlist ready. Arriving in Black’s Harbour, New Brunswick with sugar high shivers, I always regret not making a reservation for the ferry… as I’m left waiting in the line up for non-planners, biting my nails, hoping there’s room for me on the boat once everyone else has boarded, casting shame at me as they drive by. I’ve always managed to get across, but I’ve been pushing my luck. The ferry takes about 1.5 hours, perfect for catching both a glimpse of a whale and a solid nap (or sugar coma).
Grand Manan is a sleepy little island, home to about 2500 people. You have breakfast at one end of the island, buy your gas and groceries in the middle, and find dinner at the south end. Take a meander from the main road, and you’ll be rewarded with gobsmacking cliff views, lush forests, charming lighthouses, weathered fishermen and maybe even a bald eagle. No matter where you go, make sure you stop in at the bakery for a butter tart. I simply demand it.
This beast however demands solitude. There are two ideal spots for this – my absolute favourite campsite on the planet, and my favourite cabin on the planet. At the north end of the island is Hole in the Wall campground. Score yourself a cliff site – unless you have small children or a tendency to sleepwalk. It’s rather precarious for me, given my tremendously clumsy nature, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take. Perch your tent at the edge of the cliff, sit back and congratulate yourself on your outstanding brilliance.
Once I brought a non-camper with me. He was rather nervous about the whole concept of sleeping outside – a small twig snapping in the night clearly meant bears or Jack the Ripper. So when he claimed to hear breathing, I simply mocked him. Until of course, I heard it too. Deep, monster sized breaths. Of course, I immediately slipped out of the tent to investigate. It was just your friendly neighbourhood whale swimming by to splash around and say hello. Followed by seals, schools of jumping fish, and a bald eagle. I’ve stayed on the island countless times, and each visit I am simply riveted by Mother Nature’s show and tell. I seldom leave the campsite, unless I’m restocking my butter tart supply. One important hint though – choose a site that’s halfway between the two light houses. Just trust me on that one – unless you adore the tent vibrating song of a foghorn, you want to be as far from each of them as possible.
If camping isn’t your thing, then you simply must stop by the Castalia Marsh Retreat. Actually, if camping is your thing, stop here anyway. This little nook along the side of a stunning coastal marsh hosts a collection of charming eco-friendly cabins. I perched in The Birdhouse for a few days and have been aching to go back ever since. Each cabin, created by the retreat mastermind James who you really should have a pot of tea with, is full of character and offers a private piece of island paradise. It’s worth staying for the firefly light show alone.
While you’re not staring in awe from your campsite, or lounging at your rustic cabin, or simply gorging on butter tarts, there are oodles of other discoveries to be made. Go to the southern tip of the island and hike along the Flock of Sheep Trail. Better yet, get a different perspective of the island from the water during a sunset kayak with Adventure High. Of course, if you prefer a slightly bigger boat, then catch a whaling or puffin tour with Sea Watch Tours. And for the birder or photographer, Machias Seal Island is an absolute dream. Unless of course, you don’t like getting up close and personal with comical puffins.
If your inner beast craves a bit more solitude, consult someone who understands tides well and can show you how to walk over to Ross Island without getting more than your feet wet. It’s a tricky one, as I don’t understand those tide charts, so be careful – but this abandoned island is equally creepy and beautiful and worth a wander. Don’t tell the ladies at the gift shop though, they will fret over you until you come back and show them you’ve survived.
That’s my other favourite part of the island – once my inner beast has been subdued by the peaceful nature of the island, and an ungodly number of butter tarts, I emerge ready to deal with people again. A simply stop for a cup of tea and you’ll not only learn about what has brought the shop keeper to settle on the island, but you find yourself pondering why you haven’t done the same, as you clearly have a new best friend. Sometimes they take a few minutes to warm up to you (though, that could simply because I have been living in a tent for too many days) but soon they reveal a kind heart and a genuine smile. I skipped visiting one year, and upon my return I was recognized by a handful of people, and quizzed about my absence. The folks on Grand Manan are my caretakers, an integral part of my recovery.
It’s then that I know it’s safe to return to my bustling life at home. I’m well rested, gained a few butter tart pounds, left my grumpies on a trail, and have soothed my inner beast. My stint at rehab has done the trick… for now. I’m sure I’ll be back. Maybe I’ll see you there?Also: While I’ve been to Grand Manan several times and have fallen in love with it without any prompting, I was a guest of Tourism New Brunswick in the summer of 2013. The opinions, and butter tart gorging, are entirely mine. Give the tourism folks a call, they’ll help you assemble a wonderful New Brunswick itinerary – there’s something for everyone.