Nova Scotia’s Brier Island: Whales and Wilderness
Looking for a secluded get-away, fabulous coastal scenery and the chance to get in touch with your ‘wild’ side? Nova Scotia’s Brier Island is the answer: small yet perfectly formed at just l.5 miles wide and 4 miles long and with a population of around 300, this pristine paradise offers some of the best cliff top walking you’ll find anywhere in the world, not to mention breath-taking cruises into the Bay of Fundy to watch Humpback Whales at play.
Brier Island – a Hiker’s Paradise
The island may be named after its profusion of Brier roses but its meadows also sway with thousands of lupins, irises and rare orchids. Meanwhile, the boggy west boasts bizarre pitcher plants and skunk cabbage. Brier’s fierce cliffs and sheltered coves are the epitome of sea sculpted splendour – with towering basalt formations reminiscent of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
You can comb for amethyst, quartz, jasper and agate along the shingle beaches and keep your eyes peeled for seals, which swim a stone’s throw from the shore. Drive down one of the gravel tracks, park and take a stroll, or set off for a day of hiking around the whole island – it’s easy to follow the coastal trails. Green Head and Ridge Rocks offer jagged drama, while the north-western cliff tops are a wind-whipped home to gull colonies. Walk along the sandy beach at Pond Cove to view flocks of wetland birds on Big Pond.
The island is a stopover for thousands of migrating birds which nest over the whole western side; their number and variety are nothing short of spectacular. Big Pond and Whipple Point are protected but easily accessible on foot.
With a picnic in your rucksack, you’re free to explore the whole island. If it gets stormy, don’t lament your bad luck – just head down to the south-western tip and drink in the drama. It’s no surprise that the island’s treacherous off-shore rocks have created an unfortunate graveyard for passing ships over the years; the last was lost as recently as 1944. The ‘Aurora’ – a lumber ship – was smashed on the rocks in 1908 and yielded enough wood to build the community hall, while the British ‘Corinthian’ gave delighted Brier residents fine china, bedspreads and pork.
The island’s first lighthouse was built in 1809 on its western point, followed by another on Peter’s Island, in the harbour, in 1850 and the last on the north-eastern tip in 1901.
If you have a penchant for crashing waves and rugged coastline, you’ll be endlessly enchanted – whether viewing the island in the early morning mist, the blazing sunshine and blue skies of a bright summer’s day or the quietly radiant hours of dusk and sunset.
Dolphins and Seabirds and Whales ……… Oh My!
The Bay of Fundy is a whale-a-holic’s heaven, a location almost guaranteed to provide hours of fin flashing. Braving Eastern Canada’s chilly coastal waters may seem a strange way to spend your summer holiday, but once you’ve seen a Humpback breach alongside you, leaping clear out of the water, arching playfully through the air before diving back under, you’re sold. Flipping their 16 foot fins and distinctively marked tails, it seems as if Humpbacks ‘just want to have fun’.
On clear days, you can spot the spray from their blowholes from quite a distance but, in foggy weather, devotees need to be more canny. Sniffing the air for stinky whale breath works well, as does looking for ‘fluke prints’ – the foam left on the water from splashing whale tails. Even if you can’t see their spray, you can hear them expelling it. The effort involved makes a final sighting all the more thrilling of course. If you’re lucky, they’ll be feeling playful and will entertain you with jumping and frolics.
Finbacks and Minke are the first to arrive in the Bay of Fundy in spring and, by June, the Humpbacks have dropped in. The endangered North Atlantic Right Whale joins them in late summer; only 350 remain and two thirds visit the Bay each summer. It’s not unknown for Sperm, Pilot and Beluga whales to be sighted and Brier Islanders even spotted a Blue Whale in their waters recently. As if this isn’t enough, dolphins, porpoises and seals, drawn to the area by abundant food, make the Bay their playground. It’s enough to warm the hearts of even the most world-weary.
WHALE WATCHING TIPS
Dress warmly – it can be 20 degrees colder out at sea. You want a hat, scarf and gloves, plus several layers of jumpers and a waterproof jacket. The Zodiac trip will give you warm overalls to put on over your clothes. The other boats have blankets on board – good for sitting on and tucking around your legs.
Give your operator a ring before you head down to the harbor; you may find your trip has been cancelled if the weather is bad (wind plus fog is usually the culprit). They’ll give you vouchers to redeem on a future date.
Don’t bring very young children. You’ll be out for around 4 hours with less than half of that time spent looking at whales. Unless they are super keen, under 8s are likely to get cold, tired and grumpy.
Allow ample time to make the journey from Digby if you are going whale watching on the same day. If you miss a ferry, you may miss your tour.
Bring a drink and a snack with you – as nothing is available on board the boats.
Don’t forget your camera – set your digital to continuous mode, to ensure you don’t miss those magic moments as the whales breach and dive. If you don’t already have one, splash out on the best zoom lens you can afford; you’ll get plenty of opportunities to use it.
WHALE WATCHING OPERATORS
From June to October, several operators run small cruises out of the island’s Westport harbor (others set off from nearby Freeport and Tiverton on Long Island and from East Ferry and Digby – at the top of the Neck).
Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises (42 and 50 foot boats, with on board toilets) in Westport www.brierislandwhalewatch.com
Mariner Cruises in Westport (50 foot boat with toilets) www.novascotiawhalewatching.ca
Zipping Zodiac Tours in Freeport (their 20 foot inflatable zodiac takes only ten guests per trip and gives you a fast ride out to the whales) www.zippingzodiac.com
All charge similar prices – of around C$50 per adult (with some concessions for children, students and seniors) – and run several trips each day; do book well in advance though as they get busy, particularly in the summer and at weekends.
Fly to Halifax (well served internally by United / Continental / Delta /American Airlines) and then drive down to Brier Island (just under 4 hours by car). Flying from the UK, Halifax is served directly by Lufthansa from Heathrow, for about £800 return.
What to see on the drive down
Part of the fun of Brier Island is its seeming inaccessibility. The final part of the journey involves driving down Digby Neck. You take a 2 minute ferry across Petite Passage to Long Island, drive the short distance to the other end and take a second quick ferry across the Grand Passage, to Westport on the Island. The two ferries are timed to coincide nicely – and run continuously at busy times to ensure that no one is obliged to wait long. It costs a token few dollars for each.
Stop for lunch in Digby – world renowned not only for its scallops but for lobster (much of Maine’s lobster actually comes from this neck of the woods). There are plenty of seafront venues to choose from and it’s impossible to find a café that doesn’t have the local specialties on its menu.
Once you’ve been restored with a steaming bowl of chowder or some butter sautéed seafood, you can make your way down Digby Neck, a slender ribbon running between the Bay of Fundy and St. Mary’s Bay. Countless small roads lead off to bays, with Sandy Cove particularly worth a visit; drink in its perfect arc of beach and flocks of seabirds.
After taking the first ferry across Petite Passage to Long Island, look out for signs to the intriguing Balancing Rock on the left hand side. A 20 minute forest walk leads you to steep steps down the side of the cliff. As you wind your way towards the bottom, a sliver of basalt, perched perilously on crumbling boulders, comes into view.
WHERE TO STAY
Brier Island Lodge has super sea views from its cliff top location and is ideally placed for walking to Seal Cove – a path leads from behind the hotel. Goats and sheep graze on the lawn and a mother hen and chicks scratch in the flower beds. The cosy lounge area is a good spot for an evening drink and perusal of local flora and fauna guides. Rooms with Jacuzzi cost around C$139 (+tax) or you can book a great value package to include meals and whale-watching. (www.brierisland.com)
WHERE TO EAT
On the island, Brier Island Lodge is the top eatery. Its rustic dining room has panoramic views over the sea – simply breathtaking – and the menu is fabulous. Choose from whole lobster, succulent steak, juicy local scallops and a huge range of fish – topped off with home-made desserts that will have you swooning.
Petite Passage Café in East Ferry is famous for its seafood chowder, teaming with lobster, scallops and haddock, but also offers sandwiches, pies, cakes and cookies.
Freeport has Lavina’s Catch – a waterside restaurant with a suitably fishy menu, overlooking the channel towards Brier Island.
Digby Scallop Days Festival (www.digbyscallopdays.com) runs from 5-9th August in 2009. Witness the scallop net knitting contest, lobster crate run, radically recycled raft race, scallop shell skipping and the crowning of Digby’s Scallop Queen.