After years of restoration work, Ministers Island is ready to celebrate with restaurant-style dining, entertainment and history brought to life.
The Saint Andrews island, notable for its access road that stretches along the ocean floor, has several projects under development in hopes of a busy tourism season this year. The site normally opens in May.
Brian Usher, the executive director of the island, said it's hiring a chef to offer reservation-only meals on a daily basis.
The chef will cook in a full-size mobile kitchen that the island purchased a few years ago.
Guests will be served under an 80-by-40-foot marquee tent, with a dining capacity of 50 people.
"The chef will be looking at designing menus around special events, historical features … trying to reflect the spirit of the Maritimes," said Usher.
Over the summer, Usher said, the chef will also cater about five or six major events, including food tastings of local delights.
Ministers Island began a concert series in the summer of 2019, which was successful in its initial year but wasn't possible in 2020 because of the pandemic.
Usher said the series is moving forward with physical distancing in place for the summer, and about five concerts are planned.
Ministers Island has also hired a museum intern to curate video exhibits on Sir William Van Horne's legacy as a builder of the Canadian Pacific Railway, an artist and collector. He built the 50-bedroom Covenhoven Estate on Ministers Island in 1891.
"People don't take history terribly seriously because we tend to talk about it as if it's in the past and we don't make it relevant to the present," said Usher.
"We're going to really try and push some of the contemporary implications of what Van Horne was doing."
Usher said the exhibits will also focus on the history of Peskotomuhkati First Nation, also known as the Passamaquoddy, who long occupied the island.
The intern will create interactive exhibits on the history of each building that will be available through the OtoCast app.
Island guests who have the app downloaded will get a notification when they walk by an available exhibit and can choose to listen and read about the area they're standing in.
Usher said the goal is to bring the history of the island to life, and allow guests to take control of their experience.
The ice house and creamery will soon undergo construction. The venue will serve ice cream and house a coffee shop and beer-tasting venue.
Usher said he hopes this will be complete by next summer.
A longer, warmer tourism season
Ministers Island is planning to restore the heating system in the Covenhoven House to keep the expansive building heated through the winter months.
He said the restoration would allow for a longer tourism season, with events and restaurant dining available from March until December each year.
"We could perhaps have some special dinners in the old dining room … more activities," said Usher.
He said it will also mitigate damage to the building in the future.
"Over the winter period, that's when we have a lot of damage, because the temperature going up and down is not great for the walls, the plaster, the paint," he said.
Usher said he hopes to see funding for that project in 2022.
He said the island will soon repair the sea wall on the bathhouse and the foundation of the Covenhoven House and the Ministers House.
"We're trying to make sure, in some cases, that they just don't fall down, that there is something for the future," said Usher.
Ministers Island is run as a non-profit and is primarily funded by the provincial government, Parks Canada, Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and donations.
ACOA has contributed nearly $1.3 million into Ministers Island since 2016.
Steady tourism traffic through COVID-19
Usher said the site had 19,000 visitors last season, which was 23 per cent lower than the previous year.
But even that figure was a positive surprise for the island, which had expected a decline in traffic of at least 60 per cent.