New Brunswick has a unique and rugged atmosphere begging to be explored
Like all countries Canada has its glittering attractions: Vancouver and the Rockies, Toronto and Niagara Falls – the magnets that draw thousands of tourists to its shores every year.
But, if you want to explore something a little off the beaten track, a place full of surprises where time seems to slow down and everyday stresses evaporate, then turn to New Brunswick.
I confess that my knowledge of this part of the world was practically zero.
I knew it was one of the Maritime States, I knew that it was the only Canadian state to have both French and English of equal status and that, in common with its sister state Nova Scotia to the east, lobsters were big business.
Which, for an employee of the Daily Express, is truly disgraceful. For, as I soon discovered, Lord Beaverbrook – the renowned and somewhat controversial press baron who made the Express the world’s bestselling newspaper – is seen as something close to God in New Brunswick.
Sir Max Aitken (a.k.a. Lord Beaverbrook) made the Daily Express what it is today
A place full of surprises where time seems to slow down and everyday stresses evaporate
This began to truly dawn on me after my first night in the capital, Fredericton. I had stayed in the city’s best hotel – the Crowne Plaza Lord Beaverbrook – had just walked past a statue to the man himself and was on my way to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.
Now, Fredericton on a Monday morning was, to put it kindly, relaxed. If three cars could be spotted at once it was a surprise.
So it was astonishing to walk into the gallery to be confronted by one of the finest collections outside a major city I have ever seen… all thanks to Sir Max Aitken, aka Lord Beaverbrook.
He may have been something of a trial to British politicians – and his own staff – but he truly loved the town where he grew up and claimed that this gallery would “prove more lasting than the strident achievements of youth or the aggressive toil of middle life”.
So after a relaxed walk around the works of, among others, Joshua Reynolds, Turner, Lowry, Salvador Dali and Lucian Freud – all gifts of Beaverbrook – we drove through elegant streets lined with wooden Cape Cod-style houses, stately university buildings (often paid for by Lord, or Lady, Beaverbrook) and took a relaxed drive along the coast to the province’s oldest seaside resort, St Andrews by the Sea.
So picture perfect it looks like a film set, this has won numerous awards in recent years.
The coast of Maine is just a hop and a skip away but many Americans decide to drive over the border to experience the authentic small town feel which their commercial seaside communities have lost.
But that isn’t to say that luxury is lacking. After checking into the lavish 19th century Algonquin Resort, we headed out to what is judged to be the best restaurant in the province – the Rossmount Inn.
Chef and owner Chris Aerni took time out of his busy kitchen to take us on a foraging trip for herbs and mushrooms.
Here he recounted his long journey from Switzerland to this picturesque old inn which he and his wife bought in a leap of faith in the depths of winter.
St Andrews by the Sea looks like a movie set – it is the famous filming location for ‘The Shining’
It was only when the snow cleared that he realised he had also bought his own mountain, Chamcook, and a brisk walk to the top – all right, it’s more like a hill – revealed extensive views of the Fundy Islands and the US coastline.
Of course, this is lobster country and the menus reflect that.
Most locals were brought up on them and they were considered far from luxurious – so much so that at school they would barter a lobster sandwich for the novelty of a cheese one.
But after a starter of lobster cocktail and a main course of butter poached lobster at the Rossmount, it was hard to understand what they were complaining about.
Americans have been enjoying the peace and tranquillity of this region for centuries and none more so than the Roosevelt family.
Locals were brought up on lobster, and is seen as a commodity
They loved it so much they built a virtual compound on Campobello Island, now an international park maintained jointly by Canada and the US.
A 30-minute water taxi journey over a sparkly sea peppered with little islands, takes us to this picturesque place where, even if you are not interested in the Roosevelt clan, you can enjoy long walks on the shore and forests, white wooden lighthouses and bird life – including bald eagles – everywhere.
Although the natural beauty and isolation certainly explains why the Roosevelts loved the place, it is fascinating to visit their little “cottage” of a mere 34 rooms where they spent the summer months.
Of course, Franklin D Roosevelt’s legacy and his subsequent battle with polio are well known but the island’s curators give equal status to his extraordinary wife, Eleanor.
Here you can have Tea with Eleanor – for free – and drink tea and eat cake while you learn about the life and works of this exceptional woman.
Franklin D Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor are celebrated equally on Campobello island
After a thought-proving fascinating trip, we sailed back to St Andrews and it was time to get on the road and head along the Fundy Coastal Drive for the city of Saint John.
Lighthouses and foghorns are everywhere along this rugged coastline. And as we checked into the Hilton in Saint John’s harbour, we could hear the mournful blasts through the heavy mists.
Now on the itinerary for many cruise ships, this city is more gritty and industrial than genteel Fredericton but is full of interesting antique and art galleries and independent restaurants.
The Bay of Fundy – as you will hear many times – has the highest tides in the world and is a Unesco Global Geopark Site because of this.
However, you can only really grasp the reality when you see the speed and velocity of the tides at work – whether on the shoreline itself or in the city’s New Brunswick Museum, where a Heath Robinson-type contraption of pipes and tubes reveals the strength of the waters around the bay.
Measure the powerful Fundy tides at the New Brunswick Museum
Having grasped the natural and social history of the area, it was time to relax at the oldest indoor market in North America and enjoy a visit to Slocum and Ferris, which has been serving good food and strong coffee to the locals since 1895.
Here you can also buy dulse, a dried seaweed with a dark briny pungent taste harvested in nearby Grand Manan Island, and much used in cooking by the locals.
The next day, it was time to leave the city and get back on the trail for the Fundy National Park.
Driving along quiet, winding roads, on the lookout for the moose promised by ubiquitous road signs, we skirted the coast, passed through scenic villages and rumbled through covered wooden bridges until we arrived at the perfect place for lunch: St Martins.
It’s hard to believe this small sleepy area was once the hub for a wooden shipbuilding industry.
Slocum and Ferris has been a staple cafe for locals since 1895
Now nothing much remains, save a few historical buildings and the memories of its oldest inhabitants.
After a lunch of clam chowder on the beach, we drove into the Fundy National Park and set off on just one of its many picturesque walks.
Part of the Trans Canada Trail, this park has walks as long or as short as you want.
There is the whole 41km Fundy footpath to explore, but we found ourselves at the 60-metre suspension bridge in an empty valley full of nothing but roaring water, green trees and pure oxygen.
Fundy National Park will provide you with whatever walk is best for you
Best of all, there was not another person to be seen – if you want to get away from it all, this is the place.
The next day it was back along the coast for what I was told was the pride and joy of the Fundy area – the Hopewell Rocks, where you will be walking on the ocean floor.
Well, that sounds dramatic – but doesn’t that just mean the tide’s out?
Well, yes, but this is no ordinary tide. And it is here that I truly grasped what these Fundy tides can do.
If the tide is low on Hopewell rocks you may explore on foot, but a high tide means kayaking
The Hopewell Rocks are some unique formations carved by erosion into flowerpot-type shapes. If the tide is low you can go out and walk among them, if the tide is high you can kayak around them.
So we walked along the “ocean floor” admiring these lovely rocks – and then turned around to find our way was blocked by the rising tides.
After five minutes the change was dramatic and frightening – luckily the coast is patrolled by park staff to ensure no tragedies happen, but all the warning signs of which I had been a bit dismissive suddenly made a lot of sense.
The Hopewell Rocks are just one of the attractions along this wild and beautiful coastline but it was time to say goodbye, head north and get ready to enjoy some French joie de vivre on the province’s Acadian Coastal Drive…