If you’re the sort that revels in historical maritime mysteries, digs pirates, or loves a good ghost story, Graves Island has lots of enticing potential from its name alone. Being located a short 25 minute drive from fabled Oak Island only amplifies this allure. One can easily imagine tales of buccaneers doing battle and being laid to rest, perhaps with untold riches, on a now haunted and booby-trapped Graves Island. Alas, no such legends exist, and the Graves in Graves Island arises from the anglicization of the surname of its earliest settler, the Graff family.
At slightly less than an hour drive south of Halifax, Graves Island made an ideal home base for our trailer as we spent a few days exploring the Nova Scotia capital area and the famous landmarks nearby like Peggy’s Cove and Lunenburg. We’d also wanted to camp alongside the ocean during one of our stops on this trip and the Halifax area was the perfect time to do just that. That being said, we weren’t too interested in camping in some of the more popular oceanfront campgrounds which too often look like nothing more than grassy parking lots on a cliff. Spectacular views, sure, but with kids in tow we felt something perhaps a little safer and with more space between us and our neighbours was warranted. After a bit of hunting around, Graves Island seemed to check our boxes the best and we booked in for four nights.
It’s funny how two dimensional our brains can get when researching campgrounds online. With all the technology and information at my disposal, it never once dawned on me that Graves Island might not be flat. As I spent countless minutes trying to decide which site would offer the best views combined with convenience to amenities, I still managed to arrive at Graves Island and be dumbstruck that it’s a big hill. Google really needs to offer topo maps in conjunction with satellite images.
Graves Island Provincial Park has two camping loops with a total of 95 sites, 33 of which have water and electricity. The website describes the sites as 81 open and 14 wooded, which is absolutely correct but it is worth knowing that the wooded area rims the entire island, not unlike male pattern baldness. So while the majority of sites are completely open, or very near, the views from many of them are partially or completely obscured by tall trees. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re heading there expecting to sit around a campfire and stare dreamily out at an island-dotted ocean you will be disappointed, as very few sites offer such magic.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t some magical sites. A couple near the peak on the east side of the island offer pretty views. But if I were coming to Graves specifically for a memorable vista I would camp in one of the walk-in tent sites. Down the slope and closer to the shore, a couple of these looked absolutely stunning though obviously not suitable for those of us with trailers and motorhomes.
Our site was nice and spacious. It was open, a risk I seldom take, but the weather wasn’t unbearable during our stay, so I survived easily. Our view to the south was patchy. The wide-open sites surrounding us left little privacy but the spacing was generous. We never felt like the neighbours were intruding. Each site comes with a picnic table and a nice, big, keyhole shaped firepit with movable cooking grate on top. These were by far the best firepits we encountered our entire trip, being both excellent for cooking and campfires.
Speaking of campfires, firewood is available for $5 a bag. It was a good-sized bundle, similar to, if not bigger, than the bags we had been buying at National Parks earlier in the trip for more money. A small bundle of kindling could also be purchased for $3. Of course, the good price reflected a somewhat inferior product. The wood is stored outside, on an island, in the Atlantic Ocean so it shouldn’t surprise you that the wood was a bit wet. As such, we had more difficulty getting a quality fire going compared to our other stops. We did manage it, eventually, but it took more time and coaxing and the resultant blaze was smokier than we’d have liked.
On the other hand, smoke has its advantages. They are few, but they do exist. One is that smoke can deter mosquitoes from attacking you. When the sun dropped and the temperatures cooled, if there was no wind the bugs came out in force at Graves Island. During our last night, the wife and I attempted to play cribbage at the picnic table and lasted all of one hand before retreating to our trailer. We had avoided mosquitoes our entire trip until that point, but they were numerous and thirsty at Graves, so bring appropriate weapons to fend them off.
Before I regale you with all the things Graves Island does have, I feel it important to highlight something it doesn’t have; a playground. The map on the website indicates the existence of a playground, but it was nowhere to be found. It has either been removed or is well-hidden. Regardless, an obviously family-friendly place like this should have a robust, central playground for kids to enjoy. Bar none, this was the biggest failing of the park in my opinion.
A close second would be the washrooms. There is a large, full-service shower house near the registration office at the entrance to the main camping loop. It’s an older building and the facilities within are somewhat dated, but you’ll find everything you need here to relieve yourself or cleanse yourself. The showers are free, though they use the dreaded push buttons so you won’t have control of temperature. For the most part, things are kept clean.
However, with continued use I recognized some problems. One of the floor length urinals splashes water quite haphazardly when flushing, something that isn’t particularly welcome, especially when wearing sandals or flip flops. One of the toilets was plugged. It was either a rock someone had inexplicably tossed into the bowl or one of the guests really needs to see a doctor. And, finally, one of the showers had no curtain, resulting in water splattering all over my belongings in the changing area of the shower stall. The place needs some attention.
There are a few pit toilets located in the campground if you’re not inclined to walk to the flush toilets every time nature calls. It’s not a short walk from the further reaches of the campground. I prefer constipation to pit toilets and thus happily made the walk each time I needed to do so.
There is an expansive day use area at the island entrance with mowed grass and picnic tables. There is a newer, fully enclosed picnic shelter. The shelter was locked so we didn’t get inside it but managed to slide the doors apart just enough to sneak a picture of the tables and wood stove. This area offers a nice spot for group gatherings for locals and, in fact, one such event was transpiring when we arrived. What makes this day use area ideal is that it is separate and distant from the campground, so noise and such is not an issue for campers.
Directly beside the short causeway providing access to the island is the boat launch which is suitable for all sorts of small watercraft.
A covered dishwashing station is located nearby the shower house. That’s not the most convenient location for many of the sites, tenting sites, in particular.
The island map also indicates the existence of a swimming area. This is not a beach, folks. It’s just a rocky bit of shore offering easier access to the water than the rest of the shoreline. I’m not inclined to swim in the cold Atlantic anyway, but don’t come here looking for a beach to play on either.
The registration building at the campground entrance houses a public area containing information and history about the park as well as some modest games for very young children and a seashell quiz for slightly older kids. There is no store for food or beverages. Chester is just a couple minutes away for anything you need. You can also access free Wi-Fi in and around this building. The signal doesn’t travel much beyond the building and you certainly won’t get it at any of the campsites, so if you need to catch up with the digital world you’ll spend some time in this building.
Access to the campground is controlled by a pass card that controls a bar that blocks the roadway. It was not functioning during our stay enabling us to come and go as we pleased. When it is operating, you will be required to leave a deposit for use of a pass card.
Just outside the registration building is a unique bit of trivia for those who enjoy geocaching. A large plaque in a small garden reveals that the very first geocache in Canada was placed at Graves Island. That original cache no longer exists, as far as I can tell, but there are two others on the island along with a night cache and an earth cache.
We spent a bit of time hunting down the two regular caches as we strolled the path system that rings the island. It’s not an elaborate trail, but it’s well-groomed and takes you through the forested portions of the park. There are scenic spots to rest along the way and every so often a small placard will share some historical fact about the islands’ first settlers. We saw pretty flowering bushes with bees busily feeding on nectar and some ducks paddling along the woody shore. You wouldn’t consider this a hike by any stretch, but it was a delightful walk after lunch and offers a much different environment than the open, rocky campsites up the hill.
The trail also took us past the group campsite which, from what I could see, really isn’t of much use to anyone other than tenters. It’s a somewhat private, wooded area with a pit toilet and no doubt makes for a fun outing for friends or youth groups but you won’t be lining up a string of RVs in here.
This is a popular campground and was rarely empty during our stay. RVs would leave in the morning and by afternoon the sites were filled. No doubt lots of travelers use this as basecamp like we did, but there were also plenty of folks, likely local, just enjoying it as a campground for relaxation. This regular traffic does have implications for the two outlet dump station.
On Sunday morning, there was quite a line-up of trailers and motorhomes waiting to use the free dump station. It’s located in an odd spot next to the registration building. It’s not noticeably disconnected from the campground road system either which made for some confusing congestion between those using the dump station and those trying to exit the park. Thankfully, we left on a Wednesday morning and had no trouble getting in and out of there quickly.
It did rain that night and early morning, however, and a portion of our site was actually flooded. Not all sites suffered from this but ours definitely did which made for a messy, wet packing up. The sites are level but the gravel pads are not elevated and rain tends to pool in the grass portion of the site and then spill onto the gravel. Bad luck on our part, I guess. With the regularity of rain in this part of the world, though, I imagine this is a regular problem with our particular site and probably others also.
When all was said and done, our stay at Graves Island Provincial Park was satisfactory. I can’t really give it a glowing review but don’t feel inclined to bash it either. It was adequate as a place to store our trailer while we explored the incredible places nearby but I’d hardly view it as a destination on its own. With no playground or beach, there is limited entertainment for the kids. The issues with the bathrooms/showers need addressing. And as an “oceanfront camping experience” it falls a little flat too, unless you’re in those walk-in sites. I’ll give it 3 out of 5 Baby Dill Pickles. That’s a rating that could easily climb with a little investment in the park. And, again, if you’re just looking to park your rig and sleep while you adventure elsewhere during the day, Graves Island will do nicely.