New Brunswick has a problem. Its licence plate slogan is too abstract, too forgettable. “Be... in this place.” Is this the place that produces one third of every French fry in the world? The place where just about everyone is bilingual? Even New Brunswickers are not sure what this place is, as they try to snag tourists passing through on their way to Prince Edward Island (licence plate slogan: “Canada’s green province”) and Nova Scotia (“Canada’s ocean playground”). On a road trip adventure with my Dad to actually be… in this place, we came across a few surprises.
For starters, live lobster is for sale at Moncton Airport for $7.99 a pound. I’ve been on chicken buses, but never lobster planes. We rent a sporty car and drive to Moncton, finding Main Street abuzz on Friday night. Young women in weather-defying mini-skirts are hunting in packs, while a rock fiddle band jigs away at a pub and people step dance in unison. I’m surprised to find just how much fun this all is, because you don’t see this kind of thing on the West Coast.
There’s enough time in the morning to visit Magnetic Hill and let our car roll uphill in neutral, before zooming off to the province’s busiest tourist attraction – the Hopewell Rocks. Here, 100 million tons of water rush into the Bay of Fundy every day, creating the world’s largest tides, and some truly weird rock formations. Walking on the ocean floor during low tide among these natural wonders is surprisingly spectacular. The Hopewell Rocks are a worthy entrant in the New Seven Wonders of Nature competition.
Nearby is the wonderfully named Cape Enrage. Not angry. Not annoyed. Enraged! On a clear day, Cape Enrage offers furious views over the bay. Today, the fog creates a moody atmosphere, daring us to jump off the 42-metre cliffs to the rocky beach below. Fortunately, that’s exactly what we can do, courtesy the Cape Enrage rappelling operation. We strap up, lock in and descend down the sheer rock face. Cape Exhilaration might be more accurate.
Crossing Fundy National Park on Route 114, we continue the scenic drive along the Saint John River, passing potato fields and too-quaint, too-charming wooden barns and houses. Mowed lawns are so massive you could relocate Wimbledon to a backyard.
We eventually arrive in Fredericton, home to the University of New Brunswick, and the provincial legislature. Naturally, we gravitate toward The Lunar Rogue Pub and its menu of 282 types of whiskies. Fortunately, liquid courage is not required to kayak the mighty Saint John River. We swing by the Aquatic Centre, get dropped off a couple miles upriver, and let the current carry us home. Or at least as far as the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, where any visitor would feel the shock and awe of Salvador Dali’s magnificent (and very, very large) Santiago El Grande.
It takes two hours to drive from Fredericton to Grand Falls, or 70 minutes if you’re running late for a wild adventure and can talk your way out of a speeding ticket. We arrive in Grand Falls to find, well, some pretty grand falls with up to 90 per cent of the volume of Niagara Falls. There’s no Maid of the Mist here, but there is an amazing zip line. Zip Zag’s Christine and Eric Ouellette have created the best view of the falls yet. We hook into the first and fastest of Zip Zag’s lines and fly 150 metres across the canyon suspended 40 metres above it. I’ve now zip lined a dozen times on three continents, and once you get over the “I’m flying” factor, it’s all about the surroundings. It doesn’t come more dramatic than Grand Falls. A sheet of fine mist, courtesy of the raging water below, refreshes in middle of the ride. Zip Zag even has a nighttime zip by spotlight.
Our next pleasant surprise is Hartland, where we drive through the world’s longest covered bridge, and – since every road trip needs a quirky roadside attraction – we stop at Florenceville’s Potato World museum. Here we learn about New Brunswick’s contribution to the French fry (it’s the world’s largest producer of French fries), try a surprisingly delicious potato smoothie and pair our hand-cut potato chips with chocolate sauce and brown sugar. It doesn’t taste bad, just mismatched, like chili sauce on ice cream.
By the time we reach the seaside village of St. Andrews, we’re loaded up on lobster roll and eager to find whales with Fundy Tide Runner, a whale-watching operator on the wharf that has the fastest boat in town. The whales were having none of it, but there were two beautiful Finnish doctors sitting up front, loving the speed and rugged coastline along with the rest of us.
Men in kilts greet us back at the wharf. Off-Kilter Adventure’s Kurt and Jeff lead mountain-bike tours around St. Andrews. Jeff happens to be a master mural painter responsible for a good deal of the town’s visual character. Kurt – a phys ed teacher/personal trainer/George Clooney look-alike – has loaded up his good stories and regales us throughout our ride. We’re laughing almost as much as we’re pedalling. We bike through tall flowers and into forest, along abandoned train tracks and across pebble beaches, learning about St. Andrews and its people, from guides who live and love this town.
We have just enough time to explore Saint John, New Brunswick’s biggest city. We learn about the city’s long history in the excellent New Brunswick Museum, stroll around uptown and head over to the river for one last adventure. I’ve always been fond of jet boats – their speed, agility and how they can spin on a penny. To really see what they’re capable of, we pop into Reversing Falls Jet Boat Rides, the daredevils at this tour company use the Fundy tides crashing into the Saint John River as if it were a class 5 rapid playground.
The pilot, Harry Cox, has been kayaking these extraordinary rapids for more than 20 years, and knows exactly where to spin his boat in a powerful whirlpool, or drench his passengers in enormous swells. He pulls a tight, white-knuckle spin just inches from a huge rock, sending screams from his passengers, aged 10 to 65. Quite frankly, after all the jet boating mayhem I’ve experienced in places like New Zealand, I just didn’t think Canada had it in her, much less New Brunswick.
At the airport, I read an item in a local newspaper about New Brunswick abandoning the “Be… in this place” slogan on its provincial licence plates. The provincial government is considering setting up a public forum to take suggestions for a new slogan. “Canada’s tidal province?” “A province of character?” My bet: “New Brunswick: full of surprises.”
Watch a clip of Robin exploring New Brunswick here.
Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels. His website is moderngonzo.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail