Tiny island has much to explore


Islands. We love 'em.

Something about ferry crossings, perhaps. Or the smell of the seaweed, the call of the gulls, the storm-sculpted shores, the hospitality and the hardiness of islanders, and their frequently tragic stories.

So, whether it's an abandoned, windblown clump like the Blaskets off the southern coast of Ireland, little Beaver Island in the middle of Lake Michigan, or a sun-splashed tourist hotspot like Majorca in the Mediterranean, our Robinson Crusoe instincts are always turned on by the thought of discovering some new exotic plot that we can explore.

It was no surprise, then, that from the moment we heard about a tiny 2-by-3-mile spit of headland hanging off Nova Scotia's western exposure called Brier Island, that we should want to go there. And when we later read (in Trudy Fong's excellent Insider Guide, Off the Beaten Path (Maritime Provinces) about the world-class whale watching, expansive nature preserve, bird sanctuary, and still-active fishing fleet, we were irrevocably hooked.

Bonuses, if any were needed, came from the fact that Captain Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail singlehandedly around the world (1895-98), had spent much of his youth there, and that some 60 shipwrecks have occurred off the island's dangerous coast in the last 300 years.

Three lighthouses, one per mile, are obviously no match for the appalling Atlantic weather, jagged cliffs, dangerous tides, and infamous fogs. This was our kind of place.

And so it was that early one Sunday morning, with a sea-view room booked for two nights at the Brier Island Lodge, we set out from Halifax on Route A1 bound for the island's "capital," of Westport, via Digby and Long Island, 180 miles and two ferry rides away.

A stop at the well-stocked and hospitable Kentville tourist office bolstered our anticipation.

"Going to Brier Island, are you? Oh, you'll love it there, dear. So beautiful. But so remote. Mind you take some extra provisions!"

Driving off the ferry in Westport later that afternoon, we found out what they meant; amenities of a touristic nature were strictly limited.

Westport itself is basically two paved roads, and when it's open, there's a general store, "gas bar" (one pump), and two small gift shops with maritime books, hats, T-shirts, jewelry, and collectibles.

There's also a laundry, a bookstore that looked closed, two churches, a fishery selling fresh lobster (in season), salted seafood, and "world famous Digby scallops," a couple of backpacker hostels, a restaurant, and three whale-watching outfits.

A quarter mile from the ferry dock, where the paved road abruptly ends, stands the Brier Island Lodge, which owner Virginia Tudor built a dozen years ago on a bluff overlooking Grand Passage and St. Mary's Bay.

It has 40 nicely appointed rooms, motel style, and a main block with reception area, library, and a surprisingly good restaurant with stunning views of the water. We had two excellent seafood meals - 3 stars for the food, 4 for the service. And make sure you try the local Acadian white wine.

But because it was the whales we were really after, early next morning we signed on with the scientifically correct "Brier Island Whale & Seabird Cruise" for a four-hour Bay of Fundy tour in a 45-foot former fishing boat.

In less than an hour, we had found what we were looking for - two magnificent 40-foot humpbacks immediately identified by the captain from their dorsal fins as Flash and Lunar. For the better part of an hour, we hung with these two amiable behemoths as they swam and snacked on the plentiful herring and mackerel.

Reluctantly we moved off so another boat could come in for a look-see, but it wasn't long before two more humpbacks appeared - Raccoon and Pieces (hey, we didn't name them!) - as well as an unidentified Minke whale, some harbor porpoises, and shearwaters.

Over the years, we've had the great privilege of watching some impressive cetaceans in the seas off Alaska, the Outer Hebrides and South Africa, but never have we been so close and so personal for so long. Awesome!

The rest of the day was spent exploring the island, walking an exquisite shoreline littered with the spars and masts of ships long gone, where seals bobbed and sunned in rocky coves.

But next day, the fog came in, heavy and opaque, and we left the island to the Westporters, who were probably more than happy to see us go.

For, as local historian Phil Shea says, "Fog makes fish bite and gardens thrive, puts the bloom in the children's cheeks, and, best of all hides the island from the mainland."

And isn't that what islands are all about?