If you love the outdoors and want to explore beyond the beaten path in Atlantic Canada, look no further than beautiful Brier Island, Nova Scotia. This tiny 7.5km by 2.5km island can only be reached by two short ferries from the Nova Scotia mainland (unless you have a boat handy of course).
Once on the island, you’ll find a laid-back fishing community of around 200 full-time residents. There is one general store, one gas station, two restaurants and a handful of places to stay.
Travelling around town, there are no traffic lights, no queues and few paved roads. But that is why it is so special. Instead, you’ll find stunning coastal scenery to explore and intriguing local wildlife to spot. To help you plan your own trip to this island paradise, here is a quick guide to Brier Island, Nova Scotia
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Things to do on Brier Island, Nova Scotia
Brier Island may be small but punches well above its weight when it comes to places to see and things to do. We visited the island for a two-night break and found it to be an ideal length of time to explore and unwind.
Brier Island whale watching
If there’s just one thing you have time for Brier Island, it has to be whale watching. Some say the whale watching on Brier Island is the best in all of Nova Scotia.
Considering the trip we took in late June with Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises, there is definitely something in that statement!
As a former tour bus driver, JR is lucky enough to have experienced dozens of whale watching tours in his lifetime. As he attests, our Brier Island whale watching experience was up there in the top three.
Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises offer two types of tours – up to 2.5 hours (Zodiac boat) and up to 5 hours (regular whale watching boat). We chose the Zodiac tour, preferring to get to the whales quicker.
The Zodiac is also much smaller, with 12 passengers compared to 50 when full. The Zodiac’s size meant that we sat directly on the inflatable edge of the boat and bumped around with every wave on the Bay of Fundy. It also allowed us to get amazing views of the two majestic humpback whales we soon came across.
Watching these incredible creatures at such close quarters was a magical experience. Most notably, we were the only whale watching boat in the area viewing these humpbacks, something that is apparently pretty common in this area.
There are a few different operators for whale watching on Brier Island, but all have agreed to adhere to self-imposed regulations to avoid harassing or overwhelming the whales.
The main Brier Island whale watching season is mid June to September. Aside from humpbacks, it is also common to see finback and minke whales plus harbour porpoises and white-sided dolphins.
Other Brier Island wildlife
Whales aren’t the only animal attracted to Brier Island’s shores. Over 300 species of birds call Brier Island home at one time of the year or other, as it is a popular spot for migrating birds.
For this reason, Brier Island is known as one of Canada’s ‘Important Bird Areas.’ Peter’s Island, at the southeastern tip of the island, is protected by the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
Besides birds, there is also a seal colony located in the aptly named Seal Cove, close to the Western Light. To reach Seal Cove, follow the short coastal trail (less than ten minutes) west of the lighthouse.
Lighthouses on Brier Island
There are two lighthouses on Brier Island – Northern Light and Western Light. Both are easily accessible by road at their respective corners of the island. Northern Light has an adjacent coastguard station.
The red and white striped Western Light sits on its lonesome near bird nesting grounds. Both Western and Northern Light are perfect places to watch the sun set into the Bay of Fundy.
Brier Island also has views of another lighthouse, on nearby Peter’s Island. There is a viewpoint located at the southern end of Water Street. In addition to the views of the lighthouse, there is also a monument here to remember Brier Island local Joshua Slocum, who was the first man to sail single-handedly around the world.
Brier Island hiking
If you like hiking, Brier Island is a must visit. It is possible to circumnavigate the whole island via hiking trails, with the majority of time spent directly on the beautiful coastline. This would take a long day of around 6-7 hours.
We checked out a couple of sections of the coastal trail during our visit, starting at Western Light and Pond Cove. The trails are fairly easy to locate, with clear parking areas at the trailheads and interpretive panels between Western Light and Pond Cove.
Most of Brier Island’s inhabitants live in Westport, so hiking along the coastline here felt far away from civilisation despite being so relatively close. For the most part, it’s just you, the wildflowers, hundreds of birds, the waves against the rocks and the neverending Bay of Fundy beyond.
Talking of wildflowers, Brier Island is one of only two places in the world where the Eastern mountain aven plant grows. The flower is a wonderfully sunny bright yellow, not dissimilar to a buttercup. If you go hiking on Brier Island, try to spot these delicate plants.
Whether you’re a rock hound, have an interest in geology or just like to search for pretty stones from time to time, you’ll love exploring the coastline of Brier Island.
Much of the island is composed of basalt, causing the creation of straight-sided columns. There are beaches too, filled with agates, unusually shaped pebbles and glittering rocks. I have no doubt if I’d left him there, JR would still be rock hunting on Pond Cove beach now!
Where to Stay on Brier Island, Nova Scotia
Brier Island has one hotel, a motel and a handful of B&Bs and vacation rentals. We stayed at Hooking by the Sea B&B at Brier Island Wood Farm. This 200-year-old schoolhouse has been lovingly and carefully restored by host Victoria, who is also an avid rug hooker, farmer and animal lover.
Behind the schoolhouse is a herd of heritage sheep, watched over by alpacas. Victoria uses the high-quality wool in her own work and also sells from the on-site hooking studio.
Staying at Brier Island Wood Farm is ideal if you’re looking for an authentic Brier Island experience (plus the home-made breakfasts are fab). Victoria and husband Floyd are a wealth of information about the island. They also happen to be some of the kindest folks you’ll ever meet.
Where to Eat on Brier Island, Nova Scotia
On Brier Island, eating out is all about quality over quantity. And if you like seafood, you’re in luck!
Bare Bones Cafe
The Bare Bones Cafe (formerly the Lighthouse Cafe) serves up fast-food done well. The prices are reasonable ($26 for a Lobster Supper including 1lb lobster, clam chowder, fries and coleslaw on our visit) considering the distance from mainland Nova Scotia.
There are around ten tables available for seating inside, or take-out is an option. All of the take-out containers and cutlery used are biodegradable.
Brier Island Lodge Restaurant
Located at the hotel, the Brier Island Lodge Restaurant is the second restaurant option on the island. Breakfast and dinner are both offered in a comfortable dining room with ocean views. More on the fine dining side of things, the menu features cocktails and plenty of seafood.
The Captain’s Daughter Restaurant, Long Island
Victoria, our B&B host, highly recommended (check name), located just across the ferry terminal on Long Island. Being that is it free to cross the ferry as a foot passenger, this restaurant offers another option for eating while staying on Brier Island.
We missed the hourly ferry by just a minute, so decided to take it as an omen and eat on Brier Island itself. The Captain’s Daughter serves a lunch and dinner menu featuring lots of seafood plus sandwiches, burgers and other Canadian pub-style classics.
How to Get to Brier Island, Nova Scotia
Brier Island is reachable from mainland Nova Scotia by two ferries. Each ferry costs $7 for the return journey, payable on the outgoing trip to the Island.
The current timings for the ferries to Brier Island are as follows:
- Digby Neck (East Ferry) to Long Island (Tiverton): Departs on the half-hour e.g. 10.30am, 11.30am, 12,30pm etc.
- Long Island (Freeport) to Brier Island (Westport): Departs on the hour e.g. 10am, 11am, 12pm
In the other direction, the ferries run:
- Westport to Freeport: Departs 25 minutes past the hour e.g. 10.25am, 11.25am, 12.25pm
- Tiverton to East Ferry: Departs on the hour
Brier Island ferry tips
- There is a 24-hour ferry service but they do run on-demand overnight
- Each ferry takes around 15 cars (less if a commercial truck or RV is on board)
- Bring cash for the ferry charges, ideally smaller bills and change
- The ferry journey time is just less than 10 minutes
- The drive from Digby to East Ferry is approximately 45 minutes while the journey from Tiverton to Long Island is about 15 minutes
- Ferry timings are roughly coordinated so if you want or need to catch them both in a row, simply drive straight through
On the Way to Brier Island: Balancing Rock Hike
Columns of basalt can be seen around the coast of both Brier Island and Long Island. One of the most interesting demonstrations, however, can be seen at Balancing Rock on the eastern coast of Long Island. Here, one 9 metre tall narrow column of basalt is balanced almost impossibly on its tip.
It is a pretty impressive sight up close. The trail through the lush forest to the viewing area is also plenty interesting, with interpretive panels explaining the local flora and fauna. Balancing Rock is reached by a 2.5km return trail including 235 stairs.
If visiting Brier Island, I’d highly recommend stopping at Balancing Rock to take in this short hike. We arrived on Long Island on the 11.30 ferry, hiked to the Balancing Rock and then took the 1pm ferry to Brier Island.
Big thanks go to Tourism Nova Scotia, Hooking by the Sea and Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises for their help with our visit to Brier Island, Nova Scotia