CARAQUET, New Brunswick — When I think of New Brunswick in October, I see red — acres and acres of ruby and garnet stretching to the horizon, interrupted periodically by sapphire-blue ponds.
These are the peat bogs of Miscou Island, where the leaves of densely growing sphagnum plants turn from green to scarlet before dropping into the bogs and eventually becoming peat, which in its harvesting and sale is second only to fishing in importance to the local economy.
Fishing reminds me of other hues: ocean blue, of course, but also the primary colors of lobster boats lined up in Shippagan during their off-season.
In that town’s New Brunswick Aquarium and Marine Centre, a startling blue lobster, a genetic anomaly, is a curiosity, but more intriguing to me is an egg-shaped orange “life raft capsule” that has saved fishermen’s lives. In a disaster, they can close themselves inside this watertight carrier, designed by Ovatec Inc. of nearby Bas-Caraquet, and it will bounce safely on top of the waves until rescuers spot it, brighter than a life vest, and pluck it from the water.
Because I’m touring in autumn, gold is abundant in marshes and woods, the latter most picturesque when reflected on the lakelike rivers that seem to be around every bend in the road on New Brunswick’s eastern edge.
This shore also is known as the Acadian Coast, where the red, white and blue Acadian flag with a bright gold star on the blue field not only flies from flagpoles but is a favorite motif for home and shop decorations. We even see the tricolor painted boldly across the entire facade of a lighthouse-style tourist information center and a tiny home.
This is where modern-day Acadians, returned descendants of the French-speaking farmers who were deported from their Maritime homes by the English in the 18th century, strive to keep their history and culture alive in a variety of entertaining and educational ways.
Finally, colorwise, I stand amazed and charmed by a confection of interior decoration at St. Cecile Church in the tiny Lameque Island community of Petite-Riviere-de-l’lle.
A former pastor, untrained in art but weary of his church’s age-darkened Douglas fir walls, indulged his imagination by painting patches of blue, lime green, rose-orange and marigold yellow up and down the walls’ narrow wood strips, creating strings of color that our driver and guide, Percy Mallet, says represented life to him. Crosses above those ribbons of color are symbols of death but also salvation, and “balloons” that remind me of cake decorations at the ceiling’s center stand for heaven. Two-dimensional stars, candles, chalices and other designs above the altar all have religious significance.
The 365-seat church has another attraction, we are told: magnificent acoustics that bring top instrumentalists and hundreds of early-music aficionados to the Lameque International Baroque Music Festival every July. “It’s like magic. You can’t believe how beautiful the music comes out,” says harpsichordist and returned Lameque native Mathieu Duguay, the festival’s founder and former director.
This kaleidoscope of sights, mixed with the smell of fresh seafood and the sound of sea songs and fiddles, informs my memories of a brief but busy sojourn along New Brunswick’s Acadian Coastal Drive with a small group of travel writers.
The scenic roadway starts on the province’s north shore at Charlo and runs eastward from there along Chaleur Bay to Caraquet, where it drops south along the Gulf of St. Lawrence and, below that, Northumberland Strait, and ends at Aulac on the province’s southern, Bay of Fundy shore.
If we had come during the summer, we might have tried one of the beaches on the Northumberland Strait, where the surf is said to be the warmest north of Virginia because the shallow water warms quickly. We also might have timed our arrival to coincide with one or more of summer’s Acadian, seafood or music festivals.
Fall is an excellent time to enjoy nature, and we do, with strolls along several boardwalks through diverse habitats, including the peat bogs and an approximately seven-mile-long sandbar known as a “great dune” at the Irving Eco-Centre: La Dune de Bouctouche. Other fall visitors find it’s a prime time for biking, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, bird-watching and recreational fishing.
As for the Acadian parts of our trip, the emphasis is more on the years after the Acadians returned from their forced exile than on their early history or the deportations, which started in 1755.
Thanks to an earlier visit to the Maritime Provinces, I know that a handful of French explorers landed in present-day Nova Scotia in 1604, survived with help from the indigenous Micmac, brought families to the New World a few years later and turned marshes into fertile farms with an ingenious dike system to control flooding. The English, fearing treachery from the French-speaking Acadians, got rid of them after finally wresting control of the area from France.
The sites we visit tell the rest of the story, and much of it is sad.
Some of the Acadians escaped deportation, and others stole back, but they lived in fear and hiding. Even those who returned after the English allowed it in 1763 (with the demand of a pledge of allegiance to the crown) were afraid to call attention to themselves through their culture, language or practice of Catholicism. Most were desperately poor.
Diane Leger, our guide at the “Acadian Odyssey” exhibit at the former St. Joseph College in the village of Memramcook, tells of people who “hid in the woods for years,” helped once again by the indigenous Micmac. “We lived with them” she says.
The 1847 publication of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” brought attention to the Acadians’ history, and a sort of “Acadian Renaissance” began in the 1860s, according to material at the University of Moncton’s Acadian Museum, a repository of about 35,000 artifacts, photographs and primary-source documents.
The Acadians began “to assert their rights and strengthen their institutional networks” through the establishment of colleges, convents, newspapers and associations.
At the first National Acadian Convention in 1881, they chose Aug. 15, the Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary into heaven, as National Acadian Day. Three years later, they adopted the Acadian flag, designed by a Catholic priest, using the French flag as its base but adding the yellow-gold star to symbolize the Virgin Mary, “Star of the Sea.”
The Catholic Church was the predominant institution in Acadian society, the Moncton museum notes, and priests were among the strongest advocates for a “distinct Acadian identity” and the use of French.
One such was the Rev. Camille Lefebvre, who in 1864 founded St. Joseph College, the first French-language degree-granting college in Atlantic Canada and the site of the landmark 1881 convention.
“Finally we had an Acadian elite that could speak for our people,”says Ms. Leger, our guide at the Memramcook exhibit.” After we came back [to the Maritime Provinces], many of us were illiterate because after deportation we were very quiet,” afraid of attracting attention.
The permanent “Acadian Odyssey” exhibit is housed in a building constructed as a tribute to Lefebvre after his death in 1895. It housed the college’s science labs and theater and now, as the Monument Lefebvre National Historic Site, is developing into a cultural center, with the 400-seat theater at its heart.
“We love this little theater,” Ms. Leger says.
“Acadia no longer exists,” she says at another point. “It’s a country without borders. We carry it with us wherever we go.”
The problem facing today’s bilingual Acadians is not mistreatment but a loss of cultural identity.
International congresses held every five years, beginning in 1994 in New Brunswick, attempt to counteract that. So does Le Pays de la Sagouine (Land of the Scrubwoman), a make-believe village on a tiny island near the town of Bouctouche where Acadian characters go about their daily lives, working, gossiping and having fun. Theater and music are part of the mix.
“We’re not a historical site, we’re a cultural site. We have to have fun,” says actress Irene Maillet-Belley, who joins us, in costume, for a lunch of traditional Acadian food — mostly potato-based with the exception of a delicious clam pie — at La Sagouine restaurant in Bouctouche.
The characters all come from novelist and playwright Antonine Maillet’s 1971 book “La Sagouine” (“The Scrubwoman”). In 1979, Miss Maillet, who was born in Bouctouche in 1929, was awarded France’s highest literary award, the Prix Goncourt, for another book, “Pelagie-la-Charette,” about a deported Acadian widow who leads other exiles back to Canada from Georgia. The first non-European to be so honored, she is largely credited with inspiring a resurgence of cultural pride and preservation among her people. She also writes the humorous sketches, new every year, for Le Pays de la Sagouine.
Miss Maillet “more or less got her inspiration from the poor people right here on the Bouctouche River,” Miss Maillet-Belley says. Her floor-scrubbing heroine lived on the river, and “in winter, the ice would come into the cabin.”
“I think she wanted to say to these people that although they were poor, they were important,” the actress says. “We owe a lot to Madame Maillet. … We’re proud to be Acadians. That is very recent.”
Unfortunately, we have arrived too late to join the fun in this land of the scrubwoman, which is active from mid-June through early September, but we stroll among its locked buildings to get a sense of it.
The Village Historique Acadien near Caraquet takes a different approach, striving for authenticity in every detail of its living-history presentations in reconstructed buildings transported from their original locations. It too is closed, as the season runs from early June through mid-September, but we are fortunate that costumed interpreter Marguerite Hache has agreed to show us around and talk about the practicalities of daily life as she cooks in the fireplace of one home, teases wool to separate fibers and remove debris in another, and then spins prepared wool.
The earliest building is a house from the late 1770s, the most recent a barrel-making shop from 1937. Brief notes about the farms, the craft operations such as shingle-making or blacksmithing and the real people who lived and worked in the buildings are provided with the visitors map.
We may have missed the crowds at the historic village, but three musicians who regularly play there treat us to a pre-dinner concert at the boutique Hotel Paulin in Caraquet, where we are staying. The musicians do more than tap their toes; they stomp and literally dance in their seats, thus adding percussion as they play piano, fiddle, spoons and a traditional mouth instrument called a jaw harp.
The evening ends with an elegant wine-pairing dinner prepared by chef and co-innkeeper Karen Mersereau that concludes with her creamy version of Acadian sugar pie (with Grand Marnier-simmered oranges) — delicious and not overly sweet. The hotel has been owned and operated by the family of her partner, Gerard Paulin, since 1905.
We enjoy more Acadian music, plus songs of the sea, at Salt Water Sounds music store in Miramichi, where co-owners Paul McGraw and Connie Doucet have created the Miramichi Kitchen Party. They have furnished the back of the store like an old-time kitchen with tables for a maximum of 50 guests to enjoy live music.
“Gathering in the kitchen, playing music and telling stories was just what our family did when I was a boy,” Mr. McGraw says. “The kitchen has always been the gathering place in Maritime homes.”
The econo-museum stops on our trip take us first to Caraquet’s tiny Oyster Museum, basically the back room of a general store started by the owner’s grandfather, but don’t be deceived. The Dugas family, which runs it, knows oysters, having harvested them “from 200 years ago,” as Murielle Dugas expresses it.
“We know the oysters, we catch the oysters, we love the oysters,” she says. “My husband says the oysters speak to him.”
Her husband, Gaetan, who can trace his ancestry to a Frenchman who arrived in the Maritimes in 1616, acquired his first private oyster bed in 1976 and today “manages the largest oyster-growing area in New Brunswick,” Mr. Dugas says. In 1989, the National Research Council Canada and the federal Fisheries and Oceans Canada saluted the “innovative efforts” of the family-run Ferme Ostreicole Gaetan Dugas for six pieces of equipment it uses regularly, she says proudly.
The exhibitions are informative, but the real learning experience is talking with Mrs. Dugas or her husband if he chances in from work. The couples’ three grown sons work with him.
Our second econo-museum stop, at the Olivier Savonnerie (soapery) in Sainte-Anne-de-Kent is a fragrant one. We get a brief, good-humored introduction to the benefits of its olive-oil-based handcrafted soap and then watch a small batch of it being made. The free demonstration, given five times a day, is interesting, and the soaps and lotions I buy in the gift shop are sensual reminders of a most pleasant trip.
The next Acadian International Congress (Congres Mondial Acadien) will be held Aug. 7 through 23 on the Acadian Peninsula in the Shippagan area: www.cma2009.ca or 866/370-2009.
The University of Moncton has a Center for Acadian Studies with resources for those who want to trace their Acadian ancestry: www.acadie1755.ca; Center for Acadian Studies, University of Moncton, Moncton, NB.
The province’s largest Acadian festival is in Caraquet, Aug. 1 through 15. At its conclusion, more than 20,000 people join a Tintamarre, a “great noise” -making parade.
Skits at Le Pay de la Sagouine are in Chiac, an Acadian French dialect, but English performances are presented twice a day.
Information on the province can be found at www.tourism newbrunswick.ca, 800-561-0123 or the Parks Canada site, www.pc.gc.ca, for both parks and National Historic Sites. Check season dates for anything of special interest.
Maison Tait: a beautifully restored historic mansion in Shediac; Canada Select rating 41/2 stars; www.maisontaithouse.com , 888-5324667.
Hotel Paulin: four-star guest rooms and five-star suites on Chaleur Bay in Caraquet; www.hotelpaulin.com, 866/727-9981.
The Wild Rose Inn, 41/2 stars in the Moncton area, www.wild roseinn.com, 888/389-7673.