Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 22, 2017

The island of Grand Manan was settled by Loyalists in the 18th century.

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Down by the bay

New Brunswick’s Fundy Coast was Canada’s first seaside resort—and it still draws crowds

Once the weather heats up, few things sound more refreshing than a vacation down by the bay: the Bay of Fundy to be exact. Considering this fabled body of water stretches 270 kilometres and laps at two provinces, narrowing down your destination may seem daunting.

But if it’s serious R&R you’re after, the solution is simple. Focus on the Bay’s lower reaches by following the Fundy Coastal Drive west from Saint John, New Brunswick, leaving yourself ample time to linger in both Grand Manan, a fog-draped island 35 kilometres offshore, and the pastoral town of St. Andrews by-the-Sea, a designated National Historic Site that lies 30 minutes from the Maine border.

Between a rock and a haute place

Perhaps the best thing about pairing these locales is that it lets you experience the Maritimes’ scenic extremes in a single trip. After all, St. Andrews by-the-Sea (tel: 506-529-5120; www.standrewsbythesea.ca) corners the market on quaint, and few spots can compete with Grand Manan (tel: 888-525-1655; www.grandmanannb.com) in the “ruggedly beautiful” category.

Although fishermen had circled the latter for centuries, it wasn’t until hardy Loyalists arrived that anyone risked settling. Approaching the island today, you’ll understand the deterrents: aside from being blasted by Fundy’s phenomenal tides, Grand Manan is rimmed by cliffs rising as high as 120 metres. The land itself, however, is well worth the effort. Get introduced to it by driving all 33 kilometres of Route 776, then detouring around Whistle Road to see towering lighthouses, salt-bleached fishing hamlets, and photogenic rock formations like Hole-in-the-Wall.

Despite its proximity and shared Loyalist heritage, St. Andrews has a very different aesthetic. Poised on a gently-sloping peninsula, the town was founded in the 1780s by prosperous folks who shipped their belongings (and sometimes entire houses) across the St. Croix River to recreate life on British-ruled soil.

A wave of breeze-seeking millionaires, drawn by its genteel New England look, moved in 100 years later turning this into Canada’s first seaside resort. Sir James Dunn, Hiram Walker and Sir William Cornelius Van Horne all summered here. Touring Covenhoven (tel: 506-529-5081; www.ministersisland.ca; $12), Van Horne’s estate, offers a glimpse into the Gilded Age. Yet it is equally satisfying to soak up the ambience by ogling the postcard-prefect homes (many of them now inns, boutiques and eateries) that line St. Andrews’ neat streets.

This bud’s for you

There is lots of flora to fawn over in St. Andrews because many of those gracious homes have glorious gardens. If an amenable owner invites you in for a look, you’re in luck. If not, you can still get your flower fix at Kingsbrae Garden (tel: 866-566-8687; www.kingsbraegarden.com; $9.75).

Created from several old estates, this award-winning 11-hectare property has 28 themed areas. Some are old-school (the White Garden, for instance, was inspired by one at Sissinghurst Castle); others (such as one devoted to ornamental grasses) reflect more contemporary tastes. There is everything from a Children’s Garden complete with a vintage Victorian playhouse to a wheelchair-accessible Therapy Garden for seniors.

There’s even a Scents & Sensitivity Garden, developed in conjunction with the Canadian National Institution for the Blind, with Braille signage and fragrant, please-touch-me plants. Kingsbrae also has several natural settings, including a stand of old-growth forest and a lily pond lovely enough to inspire Monet wannabes to reach for their paintbrush.

When you really want to trade mild for wild, though, make tracks for Grand Manan. More than 300 species of native flora thrive there. So, depending on your ETA, you might spy roadsides lined with spike-like lupins and tangled masses of wild rose, meadows ablaze with buttercups, or bogs dotted with orchids and insect-eating pitcher plants. Of course, this being an island, you’ll also encounter aquatic plants: most notably dulse. The reddish iodine-rich seaweed — handpicked at low tide, then sun-dried on beaches — is a popular snack.

Fundy as a whole is famous for its whales and this area, being particularly rich in dietary mainstays (plankton, tiny crustaceans and herring), is rife with them. From rare right whales to finbacks and minkes, 15 different types swim through each summer, and there are almost as many different ways to watch them.

From St. Andrews, for example, you can take an adrenaline-fuelled trip on a 12-person Zodiac Hurricane operated by Fundy Tide Runners (tel: 506-529-4481; www.fundytiderunners.com); sign up for a family-friendly catamaran tour with Quoddy Link Marine (tel: 877-688-2600; www.quoddylinkmarine.com) that features a biologist guide and on-board touch tank. Or sail off, tall ship-style, aboard the Jolly Breeze (tel: 866-529-8116; www.jollybreeze.com), a 22-metre gaff-rigged cutter. All cost about $50 per person and last two to four hours.

Grand Manan offers similar services; but since it boasts more whales than anywhere else in New Brunswick, you don’t necessarily need to book a special excursion to spot one. I have watched a humpback perform from the deck of the ferry that carried me from the mainland, and on-shore sightings are regularly reported from both the Swallowtail and Long Eddy Point lighthouses.

Hole-in-the-Wall Campground (tel: 866-662-4489; www.grandmanancamping.com), positioned between the two lighthouses, even advises campers in cliff-edge sites that they may be woken at night by whales breeching and blowing in the water below. Needless to say, the bay isn’t SeaWorld where Shamu appears on cue. But that’s okay: in the absence of whales, there will usually be enough dolphins, seals and playful harbour porpoises to keep you entertained.

For the birds

Strategically located on the Atlantic flyway, Grand Manan is also a magnet for birds. Two hundred and fifty-odd species — cormorants, eagles, ospreys, egrets, and those ubiquitous gulls — put in an annual appearance. Beginning birders should check out the island museum before grabbing their binoculars, as its collection of stuffed specimens will help you identify what you find.

Everyone else can head directly for the shore. Thanks to marked trails (many cut by early settlers to facilitate shipwreck rescues) even Grand Manan’s rugged west coast is accessible on foot. Bird-watching by kayak is a tempting alternative. But due to fast-rolling fog and soaring tides it should only be undertaken with a qualified outfitter like Adventure High (tel: 800-732-5492; www.adventurehigh.com), whose half-day tours run for $55.

Prefer a bird-watching boat trip that doesn’t require paddling? Late June through mid-August, thousands of puffins make Machias Seal Island a must for avid ornithologists. This rocky outcropping, 19 kilometres offshore, is the birds’ southernmost breeding site; and Grand Manan-based Sea Watch Tours (tel: 877-662-8552; www.seawatchtours.com; $85) can get you there. Colourful, comical-looking puffins, together with razorbill auks and Arctic terns, create an unforgettable avian spectacle.

The downside is that the Canadian Wildlife Service strictly limits the number of daily visitors and spaces must be reserved well in advance. Procrastinators can console themselves by taking a free 20-minute ferry ride from Ingalls Head (on Grand Manan’s south side) to White Head Island and retracing the route of James John Audubon, who dropped by for a painting pit stop in 1833.

A fine kettle of fish

When you’re hungry, it’s reassuring to know all those camera-ready lobster boats, scallop trawlers and herring weirs you’ve been seeing aren’t simply set dressing: the commercial fishery is a major industry in this part of New Brunswick and fresh-caught seafood tops most menus. For years, gourmet pickings were, admittedly, pretty slim. But that is changing.

Witness the rising popularity of locally-smoked salmon and even locally-farmed caviar that’s being compared quality-wise to wild Iranian Osetra. Such delicacies are, moreover, being served up in innovative ways. Much of the credit for that goes to Swiss-born Chris and Graziella Aerni, who bought St. Andrews’ venerable Rossmount Inn (tel: 506-529-3351; www.rossmountinn.com) in 2001 and quietly launched a culinary revolution from its kitchen.

Recognized as the province’s hottest reservation, it is the kind of place where you can start with oyster shooters or kelp-wrapped salmon tartare before moving on to “naked” lobster with nasturtium perogies. Better still, you don’t have to break the bank to pay for it: most appetizers on the daily-changing menu are in the $6 to $9 range, while entrées typically cost $17 to $28.

On Grand Manan, Chef Laura Buckley is getting in on the gourmet act too, whipping up her own fabulous — and affordable — seasonal dishes at the Inn at Whale Cove (tel: 506-662-3181; www.holidayjunction.com/whalecove). A three-course feast including curried mussel soup, scallop ravioli and strawberry-sabayon trifle costs under $40.

Travellers eager to see more of the Fundy Isles can also catch a free 20-minute ferry from L’Etete, about 15 kilometres south of St. George, and head to Deer Island (www.deerisland.nb.ca), where tiny fishing villages and the world’s largest lobster pound await. From there, a toll-ferry will carry you onward to Campobello (www.campobello.com), President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “beloved island” and the site of his restored summer estate.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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