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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine July/August 2007
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New Brunswick, Canada

Smiling Faces and Unlocked Doors Welcome Visitors

As someone who ventures to Canada often, I’ve come to know Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Vancouver almost as well as my hometown—bright lights, big city boutiques of high fashion, sushi bars, and Starbucks outlets spicing up virtually every corner.

Welcome to New Brunswick, where none of that holds true. Whale-watching outpaces people-watching, and lobster supplants sushi. Chain stores don’t exist.

Just north of Maine and skirted by the astounding Bay of Fundy, the province’s allure lies in beauty that’s natural, not manmade. In fact, there aren’t all that many humans—a population of 756,000 scattered over 73,400 square kilometers, made up primarily of descendents of the Loyalists, who scuttled across the border when they lost the War of Independence; Irish, who came seeking better times during the potato famine; and Acadians, living where French explorer Champlain first set foot in 1604. In fact, New Brunswick is the only official bilingual province in Canada; the further north you travel, the more you’ll be tempted to dust off your high school French. No gangs (unless you count the seals on the rocks), no violence (except that wrought by the trailing ends of southern hurricanes), no need to lock the door.

We started our journey in St. Andrews, from whose outskirts you can squint at Maine. It’s the quintessential seaside resort town (pop. 1,500)—the Canadian version of Bar Harbor, they told me, but far cozier and less patrician. No parking meters, no neon signs, no attitude.

But not without its share of pedigree, as witnessed by an avenue of mansions hugging the hills above Water Street, the main (5-block) drag—once home of the head of the Canadian Pacific Railway, another built by Lord Beaverbrook. The Georgian mansion now housing the Ross Memorial Museum invites visitors to admire the elegant furnishings of former days. Clustered beside it stand the historic Charlotte County Court House of 1840, a miniscule jail of that era, and the stately white Greenoch Presbyterian Church of 1824. Aside it, wander through a rustic cemetery where many a tombstone bears no body beneath it, commemorating someone lost at sea.

For originally this was a shipbuilding and fishing village, as many plaques on Water Street’s more modest, and even older, establishments explain. Visitors can bed down in historic quarters too, ranging from an enchanting cottage called the Pansy Patch to the swank Algonquin Hotel of 1889, where Price Charles and Princess Di (and I, a much later and shabbier arrival) spent the night. Its broad terraces, tennis courts, pool, and golf course overlook the bay. But so does the town’s tent and trailer park, which welcomes campers.

Kingbrae Arms—one of those worthwhile splurges—was once manor house of the estate adjacent to it called Kingsbrae Garden. Now I’m not one to prowl through formal gardens, but this is different. Guides are quick to point out in the rose garden, the white garden, the perennial patch or the heirloom berry garden (which visitors are free to plunder) how even rank amateurs can transpose these schemes to plots at home. There’s also a sensory garden for the blind, a raised plot that allows those in wheelchairs to get close, and an entrancing children’s garden with playhouses. An adjoining gallery of local artists holds occasional watercolor painting classes, too.

Dinner at the Arms celebrates a garden of a different sort: Young chef Mark LaTuilppe grows his own organic, heirloom vegetables and delights in showing off his rows of tomatoes, squash, and beans to guests. He’ll also gladly tell you how he meticulously sources the local sturgeon (and its caviar), game, and scallops that highlight his nightly menu.

St. Andrews scores high as a quirky artists’ colony. Along Water Street, Serendipin’ Art Gallery hosts fine collectibles created solely in New Brunswick (think jewelry, blown glass, wood carvings, silks, ceramics), enhanced by a chance to chat with their makers. So does Crafts Collection, which carries unusual yarns and unique handmade knitware. You’ll spot it seaside, next to a cannon from the War of 1812 that never quite reached here (but just in case).

Across the wharf, the guys at Fundy Tide Runners offer daily 2-hour whale watching expeditions in rubber Zodiacs ($50). Hobbling like a gaggle of Michelin Men in our orange flotation outfits, we squirmed into the boat, which then proceeded, via a thriller ride, to reach the waters where the humpbacks were hanging out. We spent an hour—bonding with six Francophones on a team-building expedition—watching the mighty humpbacks breach, spout, and simply loll in the water, then sped back close to coves of seals and nests where bald eagles hovered. (The less-adventurous can head for St. Andrews Atlantic Salmon Interpretive Center instead.)

Migrating whales congregate in the Bay of Fundy because of its churning tides—the highest in the world, and that means as high as a four-story building—offers up twice-daily buffets to feed upon. Wander a bit farther north, through St. George with its covered bridge (one of 67 for which the province is renowned).

We stopped in Saint John, New Brunswick’s largest city, and a somewhat grim one, based on shipping. Here in the Old Town avenues of Loyalist houses presented their Georgian facades as we headed to the harbor’s Old City Market of 1876, whose roof resembles an overturned ship. It’s a grand place to chat with local purveyors of everything from blueberries and maple syrup to shellfish extraordinaire, along with “dulse”—bags of dried seaweed consumed like potato chips, and decidedly an acquired taste. But do taste the array of local wines poured with gusto by their makers.

And did I mention lobster? Scoop it up still shiny with seawater, or cooked and served while you wait. Better yet: spend a night at Inn on the Cove, a B&B overlooking the mighty bay at Saint John. It’s run by Willa and Ross Mavis, cookbook authors and hosts of a TV cooking show. They sat down to chat with us during a breakfast of smoked salmon benedicts and warm pumpkin muffins, proving that what was told to me is true: “Right off folks around here always offer food to guests. We’re mostly Irish, so we’ve known hard times. And we’re always ready to help one another out. Besides, we’re probably all related,” Ross adds with a saucy grin.

Just up the road, St. Martin (pop. 200) is the perfect photo op with its stacks of lobster pots, two covered bridges, and one of the cheery white lighthouses that can be seen all along the coast. We’re headed for Fundy National Park with its skeins of hiking trails lacing the green hills and trickling down to the coastline. Then it’s off to Hopewell Rocks Park. At the interpretive center a bilingual guide explains the sun-moon-earth relationships that govern the workings of the tide and why giant flocks of sandpipers blacken the sky during migration time, drawing hordes of birdwatchers. “Right here is the one stop they make in traveling from the Arctic to South America, to feed on mud shrimp,” he says.

Then down the wooded trails we go, down hundreds of steps to the ocean floor. “See that island?” he asks pointing to the horizon. “At low tide, you can walk out to it.” At the moment, we amble on the sand beneath pine-clad, rocky pillars that later will become floating flower pots as the tide comes further in. It’s so strong that stick around and you’ll see rivers run upstream and falls reverse themselves.

Shediac, another laid-back resort town on the coast just beyond in the heart of the Acadian region, stakes claim to being “The Lobster Capital of the World,” boasting a giant metal statue of a crustacean at the edge of town to convince doubters. We lunched at the Tait House, an inn newly restored to its Victorian glory by smiling Denis Landry, who’s also managed to snag one of the best young chefs in the region. The kid prepared a mango-lobster salad followed by duck breast on beet risotto and a maple crème brulee.

I snagged lobster every chance I could, while our driver and guide, Wayne, looked the other way. “Growing up here, kids took lobster sandwiches to school because there was nothing else in the house,” he says, remembering hard times that are not too far distant. Even today, when folks go out to celebrate, it’s steak—it’s never lobster. Still, Shediac hosts an annual lobster festival every July, bolstered with plenty of Acadian music, and also offers lobster cruises all summer—a two-and-a-half-hour adventure that covers the whole nine yards from fishing, cooking, and cracking, to devouring the tasty critters ($54).

We mentioned the word “oyster.” That’s all Denis needed to hear to scoop us into his dingy and motor us to nearby shoals, where he leapt into the knee-deep water to retrieve a sackful. Crack, spritz with hot sauce, and down the hatch.

On the way back to the airport, we pulled off the road at tiny Bethel for one last orgy—a taste of salmon smoked on the spot at Oven Head Salmon Smokers, run by Joe and Debbie Thorne, who love to walk visitors through the plant, stopping to add maplewood sawdust to the smoker as they go.

Time seems to stand still here in New Brunswick, even for the German and French tourists who are discovering it in droves, enticed by the wild natural wonders in abundance here. German tourists are particularly enthralled with the opportunities for hunting—bear, deer, and moose. The roads are easy to navigate, the people warm and friendly, the prices still stuck in the ’60s, and the scenery way beyond gorgeous. And no need to lock your doors.