May 23, 2019: Spontaneous Hop Across the Border
After 3 days on the road in Maine, I was searching for cheap lodging after my Katahdin camping plans fell through, but soon discovered that Canada offered the cheapest options. For about $65, I found a room in a 130-year old farmhouse that includes a free homemade breakfast.
I crossed over the border into Canada from Houlton, Maine at the end of Interstate 95.
There was no border wait. After a few quick and easy questions from the border guard, I was let into Canada.
Suddenly the highway changed. The medians and shoulders were much wider. While Northern Maine felt wild, the road here felt much more traveled and the land felt much more populated. The signs all had kilometers and they were in a different color. The signs were also in both French and English – New Brunswick is the only bilingual province of Canada and by law everything published or printed by the government must be in both languages. Even the stop signs!
30 minutes of beautiful driving later, I reached my destination (thank you offline Google Maps). I knocked on the door and my hosts David, Lorelei, and five dogs answered.
Lorelei is native to New Brunswick and is a schoolteacher on hiatus. David is from Ontario and works for the government of New Brunswick in the agriculture ministry. We ended up chatting for about two hours about the agricultural status of New Brunswick. It turns out that New Brunswick is one of the most rural provinces of Canada – only half the population lives in cities.
As a result, agriculture is one of the largest industries in New Brunswick. Half the agriculture sector is taken up by the potato industry. McCain Foods, the world’s largest frozen potato producer (and largest food company in Canada), is headquartered in a small town just 5 minutes from my AirBNB. The other major crops in New Brunswick are blueberries, maple syrup, apples and cranberries. But potatoes are king.
We also chatted about bilingualism in the province. Two thirds of the people speak English and one third speak French. The French-speaking people here are not Quebecois- instead they are a different group of French called Acadians. By law, people have the right to send their children to a school with their preferred language. Apparently this is very expensive for the province when you have French people living in a heavily English-speaking area. Unlike in Quebec, the French-speaking people in New Brunswick generally know English. Contrarily, most English speaking people also know French.
David spoke briefly about US-Canadian relations. He felt very strongly that Canada has a better political system and demeanor than the US, but says that recently the nasty rhetoric in US politics have been creeping into Canada. He attributes this to the relative size of the countries: Canada has about an equal population to the state of California.
After two hours of chatting, I was exhausted and fell asleep.
May 24, 2019: Fredericton to St. Andrews
I woke up well-rested and was made breakfast by David and Lorelei. They made me farm-fresh eggs, toast with homemade jams, dark maritime tea, and local New Brunswick potatoes. It was delicious.
Then I headed out on my journey across the province.
My first stop was the McCain Foods headquarters in Florenceville. They have a potato museum across the street, but it was closed for the winter.
15 minutes down the St. John River, I reached the town of Hartland which has the world’s longest covered bridge. At 1,282 feet, it was freakishly long and still open to vehicular and pedestrian traffic. The bridge is essentially 7 smaller covered bridges stitched together. It opened in 1901.
An hour later, I reached Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick. The town has about 60,000 residents but felt a bit bigger than that. The downtown was compact and full of life. After parking and receiving a tourist map from City Hall, I found my way into the New Brunswick Legislative Building – the Canadian equivalent to a US state capitol. Access to the building is only available by guided tour, so I got my free guided tour.
New Brunswick (and all of Canada) operates on the Parliamentary system. Citizens vote for members of the Legislative Assembly. The party with the most seats can attempt to form a government. If that party can find enough allies to create a majority, then they can appoint members to become leaders of the government. That includes the Premier (Canadian version of a US governor). Canadian provinces used to have an upper house that had veto power over laws passed (similar to a House of Lords), but those were all abolished by the 1960’s. Today, all of Canada’s provinces are unicameral although the National Parliament has an upper house.
Fredericton’s downtown also has two other notable tourist sights. The Anglican church is stunning although the dark interior does not lend well to photography. Additionally, I really enjoyed the Beaverbrook Art Museum which has a sizeable Canadian art collection.
For lunch I grabbed a maple curry pasta and local cider in a pub. I was struck by the large number of local beers considering there are only 60,000 people in Fredericton. I was also impressed how the staff effortlessly transitioned between English and French depending on the patron.
I then drove 90 minutes to the town of St. Andrews, where the St. Croix River meets the Bay of Fundy. St. Andrews is well-known among Maritimers (people from the eastern provinces) as a vacation spot. As one of the southernmost points in New Brunswick that doesn’t require a ferry crossing, I would guess that lots of people come here for the relatively warm weather.
The town has a very unusual history. first thing I noticed is that all the signs are in English instead of both English and French. This is because the town was founded in 1782 by British Loyalists from Staten Island fleeing the US after the Revolutionary War. Originally they set up shop a bit further south on the north bank of the Kennebeck River in Maine thinking that was the northern boundary of the US. After a year, they learned that they picked the wrong river. So, they packed up the town on barges and sailed until they reached the correct boundary: the St. Croix River.
Since then, the townsfolk were adamantly pro-England and all things English. Unlike the rest of New Brunswick, the street signs here are only in English. There are many Victorian style homes.
I checked into my AirBNB, which was run by a creating character from New Mexico. He wanted a change of pace and now runs a boarding house. For most of the year, it is student housing for a local trade school, but during the summer he rents out the rooms on AirBNB. He made me a delicious ham soup and we chatted for about an hour about literature and the vibe of this unusual town.
After a lovely stroll through town, I got a fried seafood dinner at a seafood shack. Strangely the prices were way cheaper than Maine. A lobster roll here was only $15 CAD ($12 USD). Not sure if this has anything to do with fishing quotas or that New Brunswick lobster has less cache than Maine lobster.
Since New Brunswick is an hour ahead of Maine, the sun didn’t set until 9:15pm. I watched the sunset on the coastline and marveled at the unbelievable tides of the Bay of Fundy. I also met a group of guys from northeast New Brunswick. They were in town because one of their friends graduated from an electricians school in St. Andrews. Their accents were thick!
Not only had these guys never left Canada, they had also never left Maritime Canada – mostly because domestic flights in Canada are ridiculously expensive. I learned all about the good New Brunswick foods: garlic fingers (like pizza but with garlic butter), Donair sauce (a garlicy Mediterranean sauce now put on everything), and Alpine Lager. After the sun set, they invited me to go drinking with them.
Late May is still the off-season so only one pub was open: the Red Herring. It was empty except for us. As I sipped my Alpine, a extremely drunk woman walked wearing all blaze orange came in and sat next to me. She was trying to hit on me, but it was hard to understand her due to a combination of her accent and her drunkenness. She reeked of alcohol and cigarettes. She pulled out her phone and showed me a boat full of fish. She said that this was her entire monthly fishing quota and she caught it in just two days. I guess this is a Maritime Canadian pickup line.
She decided to take her three children on a vacation to St. Andrews since she couldn’t work for 25 more days. She rented a suite at the ritzy Algonquin hotel (fishing pays!) and decided to take a night off from parenting to get completely sloshed. After politely turning down her request to go back to her hotel room, I suggested she take the guy next to me. He obliged and they started to walk out. “Sorry loser” she told me as she left with the “lucky” guy. My new friends laughed but also profusely apologized for her un-Canadian brashness.
I then headed home myself.
The next morning, I drove back across the border to Maine.
New Brunswick is completely off any tourist radar, so I had no expectations. I left loving Maritime Canada and wanting to return. The highlight was definitely the hospitality of the people. I have never met nicer people.
I also enjoyed the landscapes- both natural and manmade. The nature was a lot like Maine, but for some reason I felt that the way Canada designed its cities, roads and parks accentuated the beauty. The cities weren’t anything special but were pleasant. Everyone I met recommended I go to Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton (Nova Scotia) next time.