- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2006

SAINT JOHN, New Brunswick — What better place to start a visit to New Brunswick than in the province’s first seaside resort, St. Andrews-by-the-Sea?

A peninsular bayside town with a National Historic District at its heart, it was settled by Loyalists still faithful to the crown after the American Revolution. Some of their homes, disassembled in Maine, transported by barge and rebuilt in St. Andrews, are still standing, as are some of the Victorian “cottages” wealthy vacationers built around the turn of the 19th century.

With a year-round population of just 1,700 (2,500 in summer) but more than 250 homes at least 100 years old, it has an inviting streetscape as well as seascape.

I am with a small group of travel writers enjoying the first half of an exploration of both sides of the Bay of Fundy at the invitation of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia tourism offices. The bay, which separates the bottom of New Brunswick from the northern shore of Nova Scotia, offers more than 1,000 miles of saltwater coast but is most famous for having the highest tides in the world — a difference of as much as 52 feet where they are most extreme.

An impromptu driving tour of St. Andrews with one of our tourism escorts, Darrell Mesheau, takes us to the intertidal “road” to Minister’s Island, which is accessible by car only after the tide rolls out. Those who want to visit the late-1900s summer estate of Canadian Pacific Railway builder Sir William Van Horne on the island and the 1786 stone home of the island’s original resident, a Loyalist Anglican priest named Samuel Andrews, drive behind an official guide at low tide and, for safety’s sake, must leave the island as soon as the two-hour tour is finished.

Several men waiting in a pickup truck, Mr. Mesheau tells us, probably are not interested in driving to the island but in taking advantage of the easy pickings for clams after the tide recedes. Birds enjoy the Fundy coastline for the same reason, which, in turn, makes bird-watchers very happy. The bay is on the Atlantic flyway for avian migration, so an incredible number and variety of birds stop to feed before continuing their long flights.

The tides here are not as dramatic as in narrower parts of the funnel-shaped bay but are noteworthy nonetheless, with swells to as much as 28 feet. When we leave Water Street’s charming galleries and shops to pick up two men from our group who have gone out with Seascape Kayak Tours, we see mud flats and tidal pools where water was lapping against Market Wharf less than two hours earlier. Afternoon kayakers will have to carry their boats out to the water.

Our afternoon catamaran whale-watching expedition with Quoddy Link Marine, so named for Passamaquoddy Bay, which comes off the Bay of Fundy and surrounds St. Andrews, provides us with close-up views of several breaching minke whales. Although we enjoy more than a dozen sightings in our almost four-hour outing, our guides tell us we probably have just seen the same three or four whales several times.

They all look the same to us, but the whales’ dorsal fins have distinguishing features that help our guides pick out animals that return to the same area summer after summer. A favorite is nicknamed Breadknife because its dorsal fin looks like a serrated knife edge. The guides have a nickname for the species as well, “stinky minke,” because the animals have chronic halitosis; the air they expel when coming to the surface with a loud gasp smells rotten. Fortunately, the wind blows it our way only once.

Danielle Dion, senior naturalist and photographer for Quoddy Link, tells us that some days, whale-watchers also spot humpbacks and finbacks. The latter, at more than 75 feet in length and 220,000 pounds, are second only to the mighty blue whale in size. The minke, by contrast, is a little guy at 25 to 30 feet and 20,000 pounds.

Quoddy Link sometimes takes longer excursions to a spot in the middle of the bay where the world’s rarest whale, the North Atlantic right whale, comes to feed, mate and raise its young. Just 300 of these endangered animals, which were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s, are known to exist.

Our second full day takes us west to the one-time shipbuilding village of St. Martins, population 400, where we get a guided bus tour of the Fundy Trail, a nearly seven-mile low-speed roadway that connects with almost 10 miles of hiking and biking trails. The road, which will cover an additional 101/2 miles and connect with Fundy National Park when it’s completed, enables visitors to enjoy tidal flats, salt marshes, sea cliffs up to 820 feet high, waterfalls, beaches and a variety of wildlife in an area that was inaccessible before. Observation lookouts, stairs to the shoreline and even a suspension bridge across the Big Salmon River encourage exploration.

At the interpretive center, we try a local delicacy called dulce, seaweed collected during low tide and dried. It’s very salty and definitely an acquired taste.

From the seclusion of the Fundy Trail, we backtrack a bit to Saint John, the province’s largest city, where the devilish reversing falls await. Actually, the falls are a unique natural phenomenon. It’s our pilot, Andre Saust, who is devilish as he points our boat toward clashing waves and constantly forming whirlpools, then turns his back on them as if not paying attention while telling a joke — sometimes about how “crazy” he is.

He’s a character actor of the first order, which Tourism Saint John has recognized by giving him its Over the Top award, based on visitors’ nominations of people in hospitality jobs whose performance is exceptional.

The falls get their name from what happens when the 450-mile St. John River, the longest in Atlantic Canada, tries to enter the Bay of Fundy at high tide. The river is powerful, but the bay is more so, and it forces the river back upon itself twice a day. That’s when the jet boats rev their engines, heading straight for the roiled area while all other boaters wait for slack tide.

We’re outfitted in bright yellow rain jackets and pants and, of course, life preservers, but when we return from our 20 minutes of having great bursts of water blast over us and slam sideways into us, we can wring out our clothes, right down to our underwear. It’s a good thing we were advised to bring a change of clothes and leave our shoes, wallets and cameras on land.

Those who want a calmer experience can ride alongside the falls in a tour boat; the very adventurous can get inside a 10-foot “bubble” that a company ad says lets them “bounce through the rapids, spin in whirlpools and flip through the white caps.” Not for me — but I wouldn’t mind watching someone else do it.

Saint John, which started as a fur-trading post in 1632, is Canada’s oldest city, having been granted a royal charter in 1785 after Loyalists fleeing the new nation to the south following the American Revolution swelled the population. A memorial in a waterside park tells of the landings:

“On 19 May 1783, the Spring Fleet, carrying over 2,000 Loyalists, arrived at the Saint John River mouth. … A second fleet in June, a third in September carrying troops of the Loyalist corps … swelled the number … . Preparation for the arrivals was inadequate and many wintered in tents and huts under severe conditions. For some, three years or more elapsed before suitable land could be secured and the clearing of farms begun.”

Another account is on a series of six paintings coupled with text blocks covering major developments in the history of the city, mounted on a brick wall in a raised, covered “pedway” that connects center-city buildings for many blocks.

Indigenous people left “flints, stone tools and bone dust” in a Green Mound at the head of the harbor, where “four cultures lie layered one on top [of] the other,” it says. Samuel de Champlain arrived on St. John the Baptist Day, June 24, 1604, and named the area Saint John; a French trading post and fort subsequently were established on the Green Mound in 1631, only to be captured by a rival in 1645.

Of the Loyalists, the brief accounting says, “The [6,000] Loyalists built a city overnight. Within ten weeks of their landing, five hundred framed houses had displaced the rocks and scrub of a desolate hill.”

Of the Irish, “the largest ethnic group in the city,” the text says 35,000 were “disgorged” from “ship after ship” in five years during the potato famine of the 1840s. “They built factories and ships, were merchants and manufacturers.”

We have just the late afternoon and evening to explore the city, but with a population of fewer than 70,000, it’s not large and is easy to discover on foot. The indoor pedway connects the restaurants, shops and harbor-side Hilton hotel in Market Square with the New Brunswick Museum, the convention center, City Hall, an aquatics center, a shopping area called Brunswick Square and, finally, the 1876 City Market, Canada’s oldest continuous farmers market.

Another leg of the pedway leads to the YMCA/YWCA and Harbour Station, where sporting events and big concerts, including, this coming September, the Canadian Country Music Awards, are held.

The market is a colorful collection of stalls selling produce, meat, fresh seafood, handmade crafts and souvenirs under a roof made to look like the inverted hull of a ship. One of the counter workers at Lord’s Lobster-Fish Market holds up a squid for me to photograph, and it hangs at least four inches below his elbow. It’s the first I’ve ever seen.

Outside, a 1.4-mile waterfront trail network connects parks and heritage sites along the inner harbor. In the uptown area, we stroll to King’s Square, laid out in 1786 with paths forming a Union Jack. A charming two-story bandstand erected about 1911 as a memorial to King Edward VII, Queen Victoria’s son, is a focal point, but of equal interest across from the square is the restored Imperial Theatre, where live performances are held. An area I wish we had more time to explore is the 20-block Trinity Royal Preservation Area with its Victorian buildings.

We’re back on the water the next day, sailing from Saint John to Digby, Nova Scotia, aboard the Princess of Acadia, where we’re invited to join Capt. Kenneth Smith on the bridge. It’s a privileged position but not one reserved for visiting journalists. Jackie Handspiker, who works in the gift shop and seems to be an all-around greeter, says she takes passengers to the bridge about once a week, “especially families with children.”

The ferry, one of several operated by Bay Ferries in Maine and the three Maritime provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island), carries up to 150 cars and takes three hours to make the 45-mile one-way trip, which the company says saves drivers seven hours and 362 miles. Slot machines, movies on a large-screen TV and card and board games available from the purser keep passengers entertained.

Air Canada and United Airlines offer nonstop flights to Nova Scotia’s Halifax International Airport from Washington Dulles International; only connecting flights are available from the other Washington-area airports. All flights from the Washington area to the small Saint John Airport require a stop in Montreal or Toronto.

The Tudor-style Fairmont Algonquin, built in 1889, is a 234-room, 18-suite resort hotel in St. Andrews-by-the-Sea with a golf course by internationally renowned course designer Thomas McBroom, a golf academy, spa, private saltwater beach and a Maritimes-born chef, Ryan Dunne, whose tasting menu for visiting journalists was scrumptious. www.fairmont.com/algonquin; Fairmont reservations 800/257-7544.

For a different style close to St. Andrews, Rossmount Inn offers 18 antiques-furnished rooms in a three-story manor house on an 87-acre estate. Chef and co-owner Chris Aerni also wowed journalist guests with a delicious tasting menu. www.rossmountinn.com; telephone 506/529-3351.

Other accommodation options include more resorts and small inns, cottages and motels.

The Hilton Saint John is that city’s only waterfront hotel, within blocks of the Old City Market and other sites. www.hiltonsaintjohn.com; reservations 800/HILTONS.

Quoddy Link Marine whale-watching in St. Andrews-by-the-Sea: www.quoddylink marine.com; toll-free telephone 877/688-2600.

Seascape Kayak Tours in St. Andrews: www.seascapekayaktours.com; 866/747-1884

The Fundy Trail: www.fundytrailparkway.com, 866/386-3987.

Reversing Falls Jet Boat Rides: www.jetboatrides.com; 888/634-8987.

Bay Ferries: www.bayferries. com; 888/0249-7245.

City tourism sites: www.townofstandrews.ca; www.tourismsaintjohn.com.

New Brunswick tourism: www.tourismnewbrunswick.ca; 800/561-0123.

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