Like most New Brunswickers, I’ve been to St. Andrews dozens of times: the postcard-perfect seaside town is a favourite summer destination for tourists, locals — really, anyone who likes fudge, fresh seafood and whale-watching. Somehow, though, I’d always missed Ministers Island, which you’ll find if you head just a couple hundred metres down Bar Road right outside St. Andrews.
It takes a bit more planning to see Ministers Island — named for Reverend Samuel Andrews who built a house on the island in 1790 — because you need to factor in the tide times and make sure to arrive at the natural sand bar joining the mainland to the island during low tide. Each day there is a window of about three or four hours when you can drive across, pay the $10/adult fee, and wander the island solo or on a guided tour. You also need to make sure you’re there during the time of year they’re open: the island closes for touring at the end of October, but will reopen Saturday, May 19, 2018. Mark it in your calendar!
My partner Alex and I planned to go during the late-afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 12. I had checked the online schedule (ministersisland.net) — but when we arrived it was immediately apparent that I should have checked it twice. There was no sand bar visible and, according to a sign where we parked, we missed our window by several hours. Other tourists had made the same mistake and, upon examining the physical sign, they drove away in a huff.
Luckily for us, the next low tide was to occur the next morning — Friday the 13th — so we ate a meal at a Water Street pub, then headed back to our room at Rossmount Inn (a gorgeous attraction in its own right), and got an early night.
Friday morning was cloudless and crisp. The first sightseeing stop on the island was Reverend Andrews’ house and the creamery, which was under renovation, but we peered in the windows and could see that the late-18th-century interiors were intact. We snapped a few photos, but were eager to get to the main event — Covenhoven — so we hopped back in the car and drove along a tree-lined gravel road. In a pasture on our left, white, brown and black horses grazed lazily.
You can’t go to Ministers Island without hearing/seeing one name repeated over and over: Sir William Cornelius Van Horne. Though the name rang a bell, I had no real knowledge of him prior to our visit. Coles Notes version: Van Horne (1843-1915), from Illinois, worked on the railroad from a young age, and eventually became president of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1888. Van Horne is known for investing in the Cuba Railroad Company, and he also launched a sea transport division of the of the CPR, creating a regular service between Vancouver and Hong Kong. He pushed CPR into the luxury hotel business, and worked on the design of famous Canadian buildings including the Château Frontenac in Quebec City. Through his ambitious career he became wealthy enough that he was able to maintain not only a mansion in Montreal, but an expansive summer estate — called Covenhoven — on Ministers Island, N.B., next to CPR’s resort town of St. Andrews.
On a more personal level, Van Horne was a governor at McGill University and was one of the first Canadian collectors of artwork from the French impressionist movement. He was a talented painter himself, and Alex and I were lucky enough to see many of his works displayed in the home.
We strolled through the network of rooms at Covenhoven and got a feel for how Van Horne, his wife Lucy, his children and a full staff of servants spent their summers. It takes a while to see the entire thing simply because there are so many rooms: my favourites were the billiards room where Van Horne would challenge visitors to games, the cozy kitchen with a huge wrought-iron stove, and a particularly beautiful dining hall displaying lavish place settings where the family entertained high-profile guests.
We laughed at some of the descriptions of the Van Horne family displayed throughout Covenhoven; they were written with such flourish that we suspected some editorializing, especially concerning Benny Van Horne, the “ne’er-do-well” son of William, who unlike his father preferred drinking and gambling more than painting and raising livestock. Other amusing stories included one about Van Horne himself, who loved smoking cigars (a holdover from his time in Cuba) being told later in life that smoking more than three cigars a day would kill him. His solution? Have three gigantic (as in, almost two-foot-long) cigars made for him to smoke daily. I got the impression that he was what my mom would call “a character.”
Each building on the estate is a standalone sight. Most of them are made of irregular-shaped stones, giving them a sort of rough-hewn, patchwork look. The greenhouse where gardeners grew vegetables for meals, the two-storey bathhouse with winding staircase leading down to a natural pool formed in rock by the ocean — Covenhoven is more than a mansion.
And for all the manmade marvels, there’s no shortage of natural wonders to Ministers Island.
Before the trip we had no real concept of the size of the island. We got our bearings a bit by walking along the wooded trails for an hour or so, which make up the majority of the 2.8-square-kilometre island. Although seven kilometres in perimeter with smaller trails bisecting the grounds, these paths were all but deserted. We didn’t encounter another person, probably because more visitors opted for the guided tour that focussed on the buildings.
The provincial and federal governments have invested in renewing Ministers Island this year during Canada 150 celebrations, and it shows: the place is a thriving historical destination with the power to draw tourists even during St. Andrews’ off-season. In fact, we noticed that all of the other cars’ licence plates were from places as far as Massachusetts, Connecticut, British Columbia — there wasn’t one local plate. Obviously, the word is out that Ministers Island is one of New Brunswick’s most fascinating finds.