Spotlight on Business Magazine sat down with AJ and Paula, to learn how Kirribilli EcoRetreat – Pictou Island Yurts came to be and what it offers those looking to get off the grid and back to nature. It does not take long to discover why this truly unique tiny coastal island between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in the Northumberland Strait has people traveling from all over the world to experience the island’s natural beauty and rejuvenating power for the mind, body, and soul.
While AJ and Paula Law, owners and operators of Kirribilli EcoRetreat – Pictou Island Yurts describe their company as a micro family-run business, what is clear from the start of our conversation is that it is more of a lifestyle brand than it is a family business. The entire family is very much involved, including their four children. They greet guests at the dock, get their gear ready for transport, and plan excursions, you know all the day-to-day stuff. Plus, everyone in the family helped in designing the logo, setting up and managing the website and social media accounts, and the hundreds of other things that go into operating the business from day to day. The Law’s have and continue to put a tremendous amount of effort and love into this endeavor.
So how did everything come together? Nearing retirement, AJ’s sister Julia dreamed of creating an eco-retreat. Julia was looking to escape the high-paced corporate lifestyle. In 2008, Julia began her search for the perfect property. This search took her to Pictou County, specifically Pictou Island – a place that at first, she didn’t even know existed. And like so many maritime communities when she went and explored the island. She was struck by the love, kindness, and the strong sense of community she found there. She knew this was the place for her dream eco-retreat.
So how do AJ and Paula come into the picture? Well, it was one heck of a sales pitch that is for sure. It is easy to ask family members to get involved with a business venture in the kitchen while having something to eat or drink, but sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. And Julia knew as an experienced business executive just how to close this deal. So where does she make her pitch? On the very piece of property on which their future family dreams would be set, of course. “Julia took us down to the wetlands. She obviously picked the most beautiful time of day; the sun was setting, just glistening along the water,” said Paula. “Even though the view was absolutely stunning, the timing was ideal and the location seemingly perfect but there was a problem. She desired to build the retreat on the other side of the wetlands.”
Sold on the idea, the process starts, with one of their friends, Steve, drawing a design for a potential 250-foot bridge across the wetlands on a napkin during a meeting. Once the design was completed, it was a matter of acquiring all the required materials and shipping them to the island. In 2010 with the trusses underneath the bridge, construction began. This meant maintaining the natural habitat and securing access to the future yurt site and stunning white sand beach.
Kirribilli EcoRetreat – Pictou Island Yurts was coming to life. Soon running water, an outdoor kitchen, and a beach pavilion were in the works. Julia was able to host a few day retreats. However, life had other plans for their journey, and tragedy struck the family. Julia was diagnosed with cancer and at that point, the business came to a standstill. Julia passed away in 2016 and the facilities were used to host Julia’s celebration of life – with an amazing marching band leading the entourage down the beach. After Julia’s passing, the family decided to continue her legacy. They also shifted gears, hosting group retreats – both wellness retreats as well as some small business retreats.
When the calendar flipped to 2019, the Law’s decided it was time to start taking the business to the next level. They started the process of investigating the logistics of opening for bookings with the general public. However, we all know what was coming for the entire planet that year, COVID hit, and government restrictions put a damper on so many personal and business plans, and the Kirribilli EcoRetreat – Pictou Island Yurts was no different. The Law’s were now looking straight ahead into an empty tourist season. “We had to shift gears very quickly as we have common shared spaces not conducive to provincial covid protocols. The constantly shifting sands under our feet during COVID left us with many unknowns,” explains Paula. As with most businesses, the pandemic forced the owners to quickly adapt their business and customer focus. They limited bookings to one family group at a time, reducing the occupancy, thus allowing guests to still visit the eco-resort and get outdoors and enjoy the island but not spread the virus. This change in strategy allowed their business to open to accommodate guests during the height of the pandemic.
Currently, Kirribilli EcoRetreat – Pictou Island Yurt can offer its full slate of accommodations and amenities to guests from all over the world. They are hoping for like-minded people, who love nature and want to escape the constant hustle and bustle of modern life, will come to the EcoRetreat. Guests can disconnect as much as possible from the outside world and reconnect with their mind, body, and soul while surrounded by the natural beauty this tiny coastal island offers. “When guests are on the island, and especially when they come to our place, they tend to put down their cell phones and stay outside. They do not look for their phones again unless it is to take a picture,” said Paula.
Getting to Pictou Island is usually done by passenger ferry which you catch at the Caribou dock. For most travelers, you will be familiar with this location as it is the same location at the end of Highway 106 where you would travel to get the ferry to Prince Edward Island. Rather than driving on the ramp you hang a right and head down to a small fishing marina. Guests park their vehicles adjacent to the ferry terminal after dropping off their gear and supplies at the dock. Guests need to remember the island is completely off-grid and access to supplies is very limited.
The 45-minute ferry ride to Pictou Island is subsidized by the government of Nova Scotia but you also have the option to charter your own boat if you wish. If you wanted to take your island adventure to the next level, you can charter a plane for your travel to the island or you can even share the 4 passenger Cessna airplane with mail and supplies. So, if you are driving down the main road of the island please be mindful of the plane landing zone. It is an amazing experience all on its own and the pilot might even give you a wing wave before you touchdown. This makes for an exhilarating and memorable way to travel to the Island for your stay.
From the air, you will see that the island is heavily wooded, with several clearings on the more sheltered south side. The island has a public wharf located at the west end and a breakwater protecting the fisher shacks at the east end. Several lighthouses are located on the island – south, east, and west.
It does not take long to understand that simplicity is the theme on Pictou Island for both visitors and the small year-round population spread throughout the island. The retreat offers the feeling of truly getting away without leaving the province. After your water transportation across the Northumberland Strait, you are picked up in an open-air people carrier and your belongings get transported directly to the retreat. The entire island is completely off the grid, there is no electrical connection to the rest of the province. As far as power goes, it is all about renewable energy as they use solar and wind to supply their energy needs. Like the retreat, every individual household must have their own way of supplying their energy needs on the island. In an emergency, the retreat has generators for backup.
“What we believe is the unique feature of Kirribilli EcoRetreat is the seclusion that we offer,” said Paula. AJ added, “One of our favorite guest quotes is, ‘It’s the most fun you can have doing nothing,’ it is just so relaxing and peaceful that you don’t want to do anything but enjoy it.” There is lots to do and experience as you soak up your surroundings and hang out in the hammock chair. If you choose to be more active, the retreat property offers several different ecosystems to explore. The wetlands support a variety of birds and other wildlife, there are fields of buttercups with fireflies dancing above them. There are tall grasses and woodland paths to explore.
Pictou County is known for its amazing beaches and Pictou Island is no exception, as it offers a beach in every direction. There’s a variety of beaches offering sand, bluffs, and a rocky shoreline. Paula adds, “Which beach do you want to explore today – north, east, south, or west?” Once you have the opportunity to explore each of them on your own, you will appreciate the distinctive features each offer.
At the most eastern end of the island is John MacCallum Memorial Park. It is a beautiful sandy public beach plus it is a great spot for walking and beachcombing. You will find beautiful rocks, shells, and beach glass.
Wharf Beach is also a great place for day trips to Pictou Island. The beach offers a great swimming spot, and it is near the South Lighthouse.
Head on up to the end of the Factory Road, and you will find the North Beach. This is the only other public beach on the island. The north shore has beautiful views and is the place where many of the old fishing factories were once located on the island.
Roger’s Point is located at the southern tip of the island – only a few steps away from Kirribilli EcoRetreat’s stunning beach pavilion. The beach has beautiful sandbars and warm water – a sunbather’s haven. On the north end of Kirribilli EcoRetreat is John Dan’s Cove. It boasts a navigated walking trail from the main road to the north shore.
Exploring your surroundings does not stop when the sun starts to set, some even say that it is the best time to enjoy the island. AJ explains, “One unique feature on the western end of the island at West End Beach, that isn’t easily found on the east coast, is an ocean sunset. Because you’re looking between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island toward the St. Lawrence, you can see the sun set directly in the ocean.” To have the perfect ending to your day, add to that image the sound of peepers, fireflies lighting up the grasses and trees, and the stars illuminating the skies.
The sights and sounds of the island are amazing but so are the amenities at the Kirribilli EcoRetreat – Pictou Island Yurts. The Pavilion is an elegantly appointed common space for all guests to enjoy. The yurts are lavishly decorated guest rooms, and the outdoor kitchen is fully equipped. Kirribilli EcoRetreat is full of its own little-known surprises that truly make it a unique escape destination including its woodfired sauna. Yes, we said woodfired and it easily can host up to 12 guests at once. The sauna is a special treat next to a small brook that runs through the wooded area. The retreat also offers mountain bikes to help you explore the island, making this truly a space for anyone who loves the outdoors, but who also enjoys the creature comforts of home.
You only need to explore the resort’s website and read the reviews to fully understand how loved Kirribilli EcoRetreat – Pictou Island Yurts has become. It’s because of the attention to detail, care, and most importantly time, that the Law family has put into growing Kirribilli EcoRetreat & Pictou Island Yurts, making this retreat like nothing else in Nova Scotia or the world. What started as a sister’s ambitious dream to create a place to nurture the human spirit on a tiny coastal island in the Northumberland Strait, has transformed into a lifestyle business and a truly unique destination that has captured the hearts, minds, and souls of visitors from all over the world.
If you get a chance to spend time at Kirribilli EcoRetreat – Pictou Island Yurts, one thing is for certain, you will leave the island, with a different perspective and a brighter smile, than when you first arrived.
by Allison McKinnon