by Lee Foster
“My grandfather used to spread lobsters on the fields as fertilizer,” says Percy Mallet, a French descendant in Canada’s Atlantic province of New Brunswick. “Schoolboys of his era would hide the fact that they had lobster sandwiches in their school lunches. Lobster was a poor man’s food. Cod was a fish you could salt and dry and export, but lobsters were worth little. There was no refrigeration and transportation technology to market lobsters. Lobsters were almost worthless.”
How times have changed in Canada’s Atlantic province of New Brunswick. Today the lobster and snow crab fisheries produce and export record catches. A visitor here during the busy summer season, mid-May to mid-September, will be tempted to indulge at the source in lobster, snow crab, oysters, mussels, clams, salmon, cod, halibut, and trout.
Two compelling attractions atract visitors to New Brunswick.
First, there is the joy of nature, especially the highest tides in the world along the Fundy Coast at the Hopewell Rocks, where the tidal change is 48 feet. A nearby drive, the Fundy Trail Parkway, shows the car traveler, bicyclist, or hiker some of the most dramatic coastal terrain you will find anywhere on the planet.
Second, the area boasts a dramatic and forlorn history found nowhere else. The story involves Loyalist British who could not tolerate life in the American colonies after Independence from Britain was declared. They migrated north to St. Andrews and other towns. The second tale is the dramatic story of the Acadians, a French-speaking minority who were expelled in 1755 by the dominant British. The British even split up individual families to destroy the culture. Acadians were spread throughout the eastern U.S. colonies, where they were seldom welcome. Longfellow wrote about their plight in his famous poem Evangeline. Somehow the resilient Acadians survived and trickled back to New Brunswick. Today they proudly wave their Acadian flag, but only in this generation, in the 21st century, could it be said that they are a relatively secure and prosperous people.
New Brunswick has positioned itself as an “experience collection” destination, facilitating personal growth for the traveler. The tourism authority assists visitors who want to plan such experiences. To explore the First Nations culture, for example, you could learn about sacred medicine with an Elder at the Metepenagiag Heritage Park . Learn how to salmon fish on the Miramichi River. Work with a chef to prepare a gourmet meal. You can also explore on your own, both the natural and cultural sides of the province. Try sea kayaking in St. Andrews, at the southern end of the province, or visit the Acadian Historical Village, at the north end, which portrays Acadian life from 1770 to 1940. You can walk into tourism assistance centers here and select from the Experience Collection or do-it-yourself trip plans.
In a week of rambling along the New Brunswick coast, moving south to north, I sampled the possibilities and found I could usually combine some nature and some history each day, then relax with fine dining (especially seafood) and comfortable lodging in the evening. Here are my favorite discoveries in nature and history, enough for a week of adventure.
Some care must be taken when planning a trip, putting the nature and historical elements together, because the driving distances are considerable. The optimal travel season is also relatively short, mid-May through mid-September. Only in those months can you be assured that all the nature and history attractions are open and accessible.
The Joy of Nature: Highest Tides and the Piping Plover
Here aresome prime natural experiences, south to north along the New Brunswick coast:
*Sea kayak off St. Andrews.
Seascape Kayak Tours (www.seascapekayaktours.com) is a small, locally-owned adventure company. I kayaked out to Navy Island with a guide, who had a good natural history knowledge of the region. We enjoyed seeing plenty of osprey, eagles, and harbor seals, as well as the boats in the St. Andrews harbor. The company’s main base of operation is on Deer Island, accessible by ferry. From there the company runs day and overnight trips around the Fundy Isles. This is an ocean kayaking milieu where an expert guide is a distinct benefit. Seascape Kayak Tours showed an appropriate concern for safety. The tides and the currents are strong, and fog is frequent, so you want a guide with a good map, compass, and local knowledge of the terrain. In this chilly water an overturned kayaker would perish in a few minutes.
On my next trip I hope to have time for a whale-watching excursion either by kayak or whale-watching boat. The Bay of Fundy is one of the great whale-watching areas on earth. On a summer outing from mid-July through August you might see finback, minke, humpback, and even rare right whales. It is estimated that three-fourths of the remaining 400 right whales frequent the Bay of Fundy.
*Explore the Fundy Coast near St. Martins along the Fundy Trail Parkway.
The Fundy Trail Parkway is an outstanding scenic drive. On a leisurely day I drove this 11-mile stretch of coast road and stopped at many of the 40 turnouts to gaze up and down the coast between Black’s Point and the Big Salmon River. Particularly enjoyable was the promontory overlooking Melvin’s Beach. Also memorable was a ladder climb down to the elegant hidden waterfalls known as Fuller Falls. The terrain is dramatic because cliffs rise steeply from the sea and the shore twists around to good advantage, exposing the intimate beaches to your view. Hills behind the coast rise several hundred feet, affording an optimal perspective. Parallel to the roadway are two other trails. I walked one stretch of the rustic Hiking Trail. Bicyclists and walkers wanting a smoother surface can partake of the third trail, the Multi-Use Trail. On my next visit I look forward to a bike outing along this trail or perhaps a sea-kayaking expedition along the shore. Bikes and kayaks can be rented locally. Along the trail, the Heritage Sawmill Project recreates the lumbering scene on the Big Salmon River.
*See the highest tides in the world at the Hopewell Rocks.
This is the signature world-class nature experience of New Brunswick. The high and low tide differential–as much as 48 feet–is an astonishing sight to see.
Tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon. The highest tides occur at the new moon, when the sun and moon are in alignment with the earth and on the same side of the earth. The world’s highest tides happen to occur in the Bay of Fundy partly because of the gradually narrowing funnel shape of the bay. Another factor is the graduating shallowness of the bay, forcing the inrushing water upward. The water exchange during the tidal rush in the Bay of Fundy is said to be 100 billion tons of water.
To get the full effect of the tidal change, I visited the Hopewell Rocks twice, first at low tide and then again at high tide, eight hours later. At low tide I could walk out on the beach and gaze up at the rocks. The tides have torn away at the soft rock in several vertical formations, leaving what looks like a giant’s whimsical flowerpots. Pine trees are the “flowers” at the top of the rocks. The beach is accessible from three hours before minus tide to three hours after. At high tide the water is lapping at the pine trees on the top of the rocks. Kayakers paddled by in the water, 40 feet above the beach I had just walked on a few hours earlier.
*Visit the piping plover sanctuary at Bouctouche.
The wealthy Irving family of New Brunswick has funded the preservation of a large coastal dune environment. Known as the Irving Eco-Center “La Dune de Bouctouche,” the entity has as its mission “to preserve and restore one of the few remaining great sand dunes on the northeastern shoreline of North America.” These white sand dunes extend eight miles across Bouctouche Bay. Access is along a one-mile boardwalk over the dunes.
The most celebrated residents here are birds known as piping plovers. These plovers are endangered. Only about 5,000 of this bird species remain. Five nesting pairs flourished at Bouctouche when I visited.
The area is a major shorebird resting place on the long migration route. Between 1 and 3 million sandpipers are the most numerous species. Some shorebirds fly without pause for three days from the Arctic before landing here. While in the area, they double their body weight, feeding on sea worms and mud shrimp. Peak bird migration time is late July and early August. The sanctuary’s symbol, the great blue heron, can be seen spearing fish throughout the salt marsh.
*Explore the coastal dunes at Kouchibouguac National Park.
Kouchibouguac National Park occupies a large area of choice coastal terrain on the Northumberland Sea, north and west of Bouctouche.
I stopped at Kelly’s Beach to walk the boardwalk out to the dunes and ocean, crossing several life zones, from a forest to a salt marsh. There were osprey and eagles, plus kayakers and canoeists.
Inland, within the park, stretch miles of hiking and biking trails, some with natural history signage. The forest is particularly diverse here in both conifer and broadleaf species.
Kouchibouguac is a term in the language of the local indigenous tribe, the Micmacs, meaning “river with long tides.”
As you bike and hike the trails here, the park’s substantial wildlife resources can sometimes be seen, including moose, bear, fox, and beaver. Birdlife is also plentiful. Kouchibouguac has one of the largest colonies of terns in North America.
*Visit the Shippagan Aquarium and Marine Centre to see the famous blue lobsters.
Shippagan is the main fishing port in the northern, French-speaking, Acadian region of the province. Here you can see the colorfully painted and modern boats that harvest snow crab and lobster.
The Shippagan Aquarium and Marine Centre exhibits the fin fish and shellfish species that flourish nearby in the Bay of Chaleurs and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Most amazing among the displays are the royal blue lobsters. Apparently, there is a pigment mutation in roughly one of each 30 million lobsters. Local fishermen occasionally bring in blue, green, and other colored lobsters, which end up in the tank at the Aquarium. Also on display is a mounted lobster that became the Aquarium mascot. This 28-pound lobster was 80 years old when it died.
The Shippagan Fisheries and Aquaculture Festival in July is the ideal time for a visit. I was fortunate enough to be here during this festival, which included a free tasting of all the sea bounty caught in the nearby waters. The amount of lobster, crab, oysters, mussels, clams, salmon, haddock, and arctic char served up was extraordinary.
Discovering History: From Loyalists to French Acadians
Here are my best history discoveries, moving south to north:
*Take an historic walking tour of “Loyalist” St. Andrews.
St. Andrews was settled by Loyalists who fled the United States, starting in 1783, after it became clear that England would no longer rule its American colonies. Some settlers literally dismantled their houses in nearby Castine, Maine, and reconstructed them in St. Andrews. An estimated 7,000 Loyalists fled the American Revolution to southern New Brunswick in the 1780s. About 250 of the 500 houses in the town are over 100 years old. Many have historic marker plaques on their exteriors.
St. Andrews was and is a cozy summer resort town. At the turn of the century, St. Andrews became Canada’s first seaside resort town. About 1,500 people live here during the winter. The numbers swell to 10,000 in summer. Sir William Cornelius van Horne, founder of the Canadian Pacific Railway, had a summer home here. Nearby, Franklin Delano Roosevelt enjoyed his beloved Campobello Island home, which can be toured. The more formal name for St. Andrews is St. Andrews by the Sea.
The landmark and historic hotel here is the Algonquin, now part of the Fairmont hotel family (www.fairmont.com). Sit out on the veranda of the Algonquin on a summer afternoon, gaze up at the red roof, listen to the forlorn tunes of a Scottish piper, sip your tea, and you could be transported back to the fin de siecle era. The Algonquin is a mini-Banff Springs, if you are familiar with other great hotels built by the railway.
One good way to experience St. Andrews is to take a heritage walking tour with a local historian. The tour may start at the period hotel, the Algonquin. Then it proceeds to the great summer houses, such as the Lord Shaughnessy House and the Hillcrest Cottage. You walk further to the Loyalist Burial Ground (first used in 1784), and to the oldest churches, such as Green Oak Church, from 1824. The guide points out that there could be no doubt about the Loyalist sensibilities of St. Andrews when one considers the street names, all recalling King George III, his queen Charlotte, and their 15 children. With a guide’s expertise, a visitor comes to understand that New Brunswick was tragically split between the British Loyalists, primarily in the south, and the French Acadians, mainly in the north.
*Visit “Le Pays de la Sagouine” site to learn about Acadian culture.
“The country of the scrubwoman” is the translation of this imaginative village, created to illustrate the lives of characters in the novel La Sagouine by Antonine Maillet.
Here you will meet various Acadian characters from the novel, such as La Sagouine, the wise scrubwoman, who is not short of opinions. There is Sullivan, a dreamy-eyed sailor; Maria Agelas, the bootlegger; and Michel-Archangel, the self-confessed ladies’ man. The novel was a call to the Acadian people to stand up proudly and embrace their heritage. Only in this generation has that dream been realized. Today’s Acadians exhibit a joie de vivre that belies their tragic and tortured past.
At the village, the spirited re-enactors also demonstrate the daily life and practical skills of the Acadians. A fisherman character, for example, shows how shellfish were gathered with long rakes in the winter after holes were chipped in the ice.
*Drive the Acadian coast from Bathurst to Caraquet and tour the Acadian Historical Village.
You’ll see plenty of Acadian flags flying from the tidy, small houses with wide lawns in this bucolic region. The lighthouse information center in Grand Anse is painted to approximate the Acadian flag, which is the French flag with a gold star on it.
The name Acadia is taken from the Italian word arcadie, harkening back to a Greek concept of an ideal place. Arcadie was chosen by explorer Verrazano to describe the beauty of the trees on the Atlantic coastal plain in Canada. Cartographers in the 16th century began using the name Arcadia to describe what are now Canada’s Atlantic provinces. Eventually the “r” was dropped, leaving Acadia.
There is a one-of-a-kind church at Ste. Cecile, painted in a pastel psychedelic manner by the otherwise proper parish priest, Father Gerard Astrous. He completed his spray-can masterpiece in 1995. You’ll wonder if his only drug of choice was sacramental wine. Throughout the Acadian stronghold there are strong, ambivalent feelings about the Catholic Church. Acadians are likely to express appreciation that the Church saved them at the time of British oppression, preserving their French language, their traditional worship, and their cultural cohesiveness. But, in the next breath, they will comment how the Church later also enslaved them, draining resources from the small villages to build magnificent temples of worship, stifling independent thought or political expression that would threaten the powerful position of the local parish priest in governing everyday life.
If you indulge in only one historic element in this trip, make it the Acadian Historical Village, west of Caraquet along this Acadian Coast.
The village tells the story of the Acadians, hardy souls who migrated from France to eastern Canada starting early in the 17th century. Most of the Acadians came from the western provinces of France. They were Catholics who learned to farm in the fertile Canadian environment.
As Britain and France wrestled for political control of Eastern Canada, the peace-loving Acadians were caught in the middle. In 1755 the British were in control and decided to eradicate these 15,000 people, partly to occupy their farmlands. The British deported the Acadians to various places, including their U.S. colonies. The British also took the extreme measure of breaking up individual families so as to destroy the culture.
Despite their many hardships, the Acadians survived and many gradually trickled back to New Brunswick, living on marginal lands and making a living by fishing and lumbering. Somehow, despite their hardship and poverty, they maintained their traditions, Catholic religion, and French language.
Today the Acadian Historical Village portrays, with sophisticated authenticity, the lives of Acadians from 1770 to 1940. The village is staffed by dedicated re-enactors in period costumes, who re-create the skills of the day, from wool weaving to preserving cod by salting and drying. Trades such as shingle-making and blacksmithing have been revived.
Some 23 historic buildings were brought to the site from around New Brunswick to tell the story. The Martin House (1770) is the oldest structure, a dirt-floor dwelling. The Robichaud Farm (1835) shows the entire process of wool production, from the raising of sheep to the dyeing and weaving of wool. The Robin Shed (1855) shows how codfish were salted and dried for export.
On the site is a remarkable hotel, the Chateau Albert, where a visitor can lodge. To preserve the early 20th century feel of the hotel, you are driven in from an outlying parking lot in a 1923 Model A Ford. No modern cars are allowed at the hotel. Your room has no modern intrusions, no phone or TV. Your dinner at the Chateau might be a potato-and-trout stew, as was popular at the time. The Chateau Albert is a notable hotel re-creation of an earlier era.
Amenities of New Brunswick: Lobster, Snow Crab, and Historic Lodgings
Though New Brunswick is a remote area, it is by no means a hardship travel destination. If a secular traveler enjoys dining on lobster and snow crab, New Brunswick is as close to an earthly paradise as a lapsed Acadian Catholic could imagine. The remoteness of the area has also encouraged some cozy, historic lodgings.
Fine dining here focuses on the food rather than the pretentiousness of the chef. Many down-home restaurants await a visitor. Collectively, the chefs may not be your celebrity types, but they’ve had time to learn how to cook the terrific Canadian seafood bounty, which may mean au naturel rather than with a fancy sauce.
The Paturel’s Shore House restaurant in Shediac is an example of a seafood dining location to celebrate, especially since it is located at a pleasant seaside setting. Shediac proudly calls itself “the lobster capital of the world.” No objections to the claim were raised during my visit. Steamed clams as an appetizer and a whole lobster as an entree, perhaps accompanied by a dry French white wine, could create a memorable evening, enhanced by the sun setting over the adjacent Bay of Northumberland.
Next door to the Shippagan Aquarium and Marine Center is the restaurant Pavillon Aquatique, a fitting place for a seafood feast. You look out over the sportfishing fleet and beyond to the sophisticated and large snow crab fishing boats. This snow crab fleet is so modern that each boat is equipped with a state-of-the-art enclosed capsule for the fishermen to survive in case of disaster. The technology was perfected here in Shippagan. However, there are no disasters on the menu at the Pavillion Aquatique. If it is possible that you are lobstered-out, consider the snow crab or mussels.
Travelers are always looking for the special lodging of a region, the hostelry that can be found nowhere else. I enjoyed three such places in New Brunswick. Moreover, one was in the south, one was in the middle, and one was at the north end of the province.
In the south, consider staying at the Fairmont Algonquin, already discussed. In the north, a good option is the Chateau Albert, described as part of the Acadian Historic Village. In the middle, experience the Auberge Le Vieux Presbytere de Bouctouche, a lodging in an actual converted priest house from the 1880s. You can still see the chapel in this former magnificent abode of the priests. The Presbytere is near the Pays de la Sagouine village and will cause you to ponder the complex role of the Church in Acadian history.
New Brunswick offers a visitor some things found nowhere else. For a nature lover, the highest tides in the world, in the Bay of Fundy at the Hopewell Rocks, are a phenomenon to contemplate. For a cultural enthusiast, the tragic but resilient story of the Acadians is an inspiration in terms of the human will to persevere. And for those who appreciate the edible lobster, it is encouraging to know that this crustacean has been recommended for a higher role than simply being spread on the fields as a fertilizer.
Canada’s Atlantic Province of New Brunswick: If You Go
The tourism contact is Tourism New Brunswick, www.tourismnewbrunswick.ca.
Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) flies travelers to New Brunswick. Most flights connect through Montreal and Toronto.