Grand Manan, the largest island in the Bay of Fundy, would almost be in spitting distance of the United States if the wind weren't so strong, but it feels older and wilder than anything to the south. According to archeologists, the 253-square-mile outcrop was likely a waypoint for the marauding Norse some thousand years ago. The pirate Captain Kidd, artist and ornithologist John James Audubon, painter Winslow Homer, and novelist Willa Cather visited more recently. There is no single guestbook, but the 2,400 people living on the island's east coast, accessible by water and road from New Brunswick, keep track of who comes and goes. A sort of ruggedized Nantucket, Grand Manan is more used to seeing whales than celebrities.
The first thing to do on the island is to get off of it. Whales-n-Sails Adventures, which operates from a 60-foot sailing yacht that is docked just two minutes from where the ferry drops visitors off in the town of North Head, offers a premier cetacean-watching experience. Laurie Murison, director of the Grand Manan Whale Seabird Research Station, accompanies most Whales-n-Sails tours and acts as head spotter for sea mammals (harbor seals and grey seals, porpoise), whales (including humpbacks and the rare northern right whale), and seabirds (petrels, shearwaters, phalaropes, eiders, and puffins). The sailboat motors six miles off the coast before Murison begins her watch. On foggy days, humpbacks frequently laze around the hull between dives. On bright days, they are more likely to breach.
After whale watching, most visitors walk to the Swallowtail Lighthouse – a lighthouse trail connects the island's 10 beacons – then stop by Island Arts Café to drink strong coffee amid mismatched tables and chairs and ask for directions. After renting a bike at Adventure High, a local outfitter, take the main road south to do some birding at Long Pond – look for waterfowl on the pond and shorebirds on the bay before searching the forest for warblers.
Roughly four miles south lies the small community of Seal Cove, home of McLaughlin's Wharf Inn. The inn is in an old general store perched on the edge of a small harbor. All the wooden buildings ringing the harbor are built on stilts to accommodate the famous tide that rises and falls about 26 feet twice a day. According to Brenda McLaughlin, the owner of the inn, Seal Cove was a thriving community when there was a sardine cannery in town. "It employed 103 women," she says. "Then one day it was sold and that was that." Today, with lobster fetching under $5 per pound, it no longer makes sense for the lobstermen to even motor out. Still, the walk along the wharf is as picturesque as it must have been 50 years ago, and the McLaughlin's beds are comfortable.
The community will need visitors to make the onerous but pleasant trip to its shores if it hopes to survive. There are no crowds yet, but the Norse knew a good thing when they saw one.
More information: The ferry to Grand Manan departs from Blacks Harbor, New Brunswick, four times a day starting at 9:30 am. The simple rooms at McLaughlin's Wharf Inn cost as little as $89 a night. A rental bike from Adventure High costs $25 a day.