The wheelbarrow for my luggage had a little sign that said “return immediately”. Already I was breaking the rules. It simply couldn’t be helped, there was a giant bald eagle involved. He was just perching there, all majestic and beautiful in what was to be my front yard for the next few days. Being gobsmacked will win over wheelbarrow returns all day long.
I had pretty high expectations for the Castalia Marsh Retreat on Grand Manan island, a gem in the Bay of Fundy. This was my fourth visit to Grand Manan, I consider it my mental health care facility. There comes a point every year where someone will say to me “You’re swearing an awful lot these days. I think you need to head back to your island. Don’t come back until you’re nice again.” It had a big job ahead, I was crankier than usual and could teach a sailor to swear.
The Castalia Marsh Retreat was a new stop for me. As soon as I pulled off the road the greenery swallowed up the car, and I knew I was somewhere special. I entered the office, just past the chicken coop, and discovered an eclectic collection of chairs, tables covered in sea shore knick knacks, and shelves full of information pamphlets and books to borrow. And not a soul in sight. A note by the phone instructed me to call for assistance.
“Oh hello, you must be Michelle,” said the voice on the other end. I later discovered it belonged to James Bates, the mastermind behind the retreat. “I’m just having dinner with some friends, can you settle in yourself, and we’ll chat tomorrow? There’s a map by the phone, you’re at the Birdhouse.” I was instantly charmed – a man who chooses dinner with friends over work, even though he knew I was going to write about him. He’s got it all figured out.
I scooped up the map, figured out where the wheelbarrow was stashed, circled the main path a few times before finding the teeny off-shoot that led to the Birdhouse. As I entered the wee cabin, I was instantly giddy. This was supposed to be my home for two sleeps, but how would I ever be able to extract myself? This was bliss – a small kitchen, cozy living room that could barely contain the futon and coffee table, and an adorable little fireplace. A solar shower outside, tucked into the trees, inviting you to embrace your inner nudist. But it was the view that stole my heart. I was on a small peninsula that reached out into the Castalia Marsh – a bird watcher’s paradise. The yellow binoculars on the window ledge soon revealed a riot of birds – song birds, waterfowl, a heron, and of course, my ill-tempered looking bald eagle.
Later that night, I climbed the ladder to the loft – my very own bird nest. A little nook, surrounded by windows, perched high above the marsh. Below me, in the marsh grasses were one million fireflies, in fierce competition with the one billion stars above, all doing their best to out-twinkle each other. I was simply dazzled. I recall waking up a few times in the night just to be sure it wasn’t just a dream.
Over the next couple of days I had a few encounters with James. He was always on his way to or from a task, but greeted me with a warm smile and a few minutes to chat. By my last day, I had worked my way up to a cup of tea. He dished on the culture of the island, shared stories of his schooner adventures – he started off in BC, stopped long enough for some fun in the Caribbean and Carolinas, and was drawn to settle his wandering spirit on Grand Manan. This was a trend I was to discover throughout the island – more than half the island is owned by folks ‘from away’.
The retreat offers a selection of rustic, hand-crafted cabins. James has been on the property for nearly 20 years, adapting a couple of existing buildings and constructing the rest, each with their own character and catchy name – Fern Alley, Frog Hollow, all tucked into the landscape, hidden by their lush surroundings. Chickens will race to the fence to offer a greeting, thriving vegetable gardens show off their produce. The retreat has all the amenities you could need, just bring your food, and desire to relax. Laminated signs were posted throughout, almost becoming another host, information ranging from how to take care of the shower, to how to take care of your soul. While this is not a five star retreat, but from the view at the birdhouse, I’d estimate it as a five billion star retreat.
Two sleeps, and my cursing had subsided. Well done, James.
Contact James Bates at cabins@castaliamarshretreat, or better yet, give him a call at (506) 662-8997.
The writer was a guest of Tourism New Brunswick. The tourism board did not review or approve this article.