"Heat" and "Northern New Brunswick" don't easily fall off the tongue together. But for a few months each summer, the Baie des Chaleurs - literally, the Bay of Heats - gets warm enough to turn this quiet corner of Acadia into a natural resort. For the tourist, New Brunswick's north shore and Acadian peninsula offer pleasures for the body and soul, with few of the crowds and at a small fraction of the price of other beachside destinations. It also serves up a couple of special treats that get locals to agree "dere's no shore like da' nort' shore."
The hub, and the best base from which to start your trip, is my hometown of Bathurst, a half-English, half-French city of 12,000 at the foot of the bay. Whether or not Bathurst's Youghall Beach is the "warmest saltwater beach north of Virginia," as some have claimed, it rewards in full. The beach is wide and sandy at low tide and can be walked and swum in for miles. The bay is shallow and relatively isolated from the rest of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, keeping its water warm. The Youghall area is also home to the Gowan Brae Golf and Country Club, lush and pristine and among the best-kept in the Maritimes, with holes 13 through 17 running along the water.
The seafood, as should be expected, is fresh and cooked with care. My aunt and I sampled the fare at La Fine Grobe sur Mer, just 15 minutes north of Bathurst. Chef Georges Frachon, a French immigrant, does most of the cooking himself, so be prepared to make an evening of it in his house by the beach. The scallops, salmon and trout were expertly prepared, but since Georges is always experimenting, ask what's not on the menu.
Seafood in Bathurst, however, doesn't require fine dining. A lobster or clam roll from the Pabineau Seafood Market (on the Pabineau First Nation) is flaky and tasty and costs just $6, and the bun comes lightly toasted with just the right amount of mayonnaise.
And don't stop at seafood. Northeastern New Brunswick offers three particularly sweet opportunities, starting with the region's superior maple syrup. George Riordon of Pokeshaw, 30 minutes east of Bathurst, sells his at the Bathurst Farmers' Market. Although maple syrup may be maple syrup (there's no real recipe, says George's wife, Jeanne-Mance - it's all about temperature control), one technology may give smaller producers like the Riordons an edge: Wood-fired stoves heat the sap more slowly than the gas-fired ones used in larger operations, and that keeps more flavour in.
To really experience the flavour of the Maritimes, you have to try a donair and, particular to Bathurst, a Dannyburger. Some confuse donairs for a local take on the gyro. But the rich and sweet donair sauce, made mostly from sugar, milk and vinegar, makes the conventional pita/meat sandwich a Maritime specialty. Two chain outlets, Greco and Pizza Delight, are the best sources and well represented throughout the region; an undersampled delight is the donair pizza, with donair sauce acting as the base the way a conventional tomato-based sauce would.
The Dannyburger tops the sweetness sweepstakes. It consists of a cut-up cheeseburger, served on its side, waffle fries and coleslaw, but only becomes a Dannyburger when topped with a tangy sauce, a three-generation-long secret of Bathurst's DeGrace family. It's the kind of meal that makes locals yearn for home. The Big D Drive-in on St. Peter Avenue is devoted to the Dannyburger - servers don't rollerblade up to your vehicle any more, but they do offer the choice of takeout (drive away with your meal) or eat-in (in your car, that is).
A drive up the Acadian peninsula, east of Bathurst, along highways 134 and 11, offers great sightseeing, especially at sunset. One beach, 30 minutes east along the highway, is at the foot of Pokeshaw Rock, better known locally as "Birdshit Island." This one is but a quick stop, though; if the guano doesn't drive you away, the chirping of the nesting cormorants will. After this earthly encounter, the next site east along Highway 11 is more heavenly - the Musée des Papes, or Popes' Museum, the only one of its kind in North America. It's part hall of fame (every pope, including those from the rival papal seat at Avignon during the medieval schism, gets a plaque) and part curio gallery (featuring such items as a life-sized Pope John Paul II puppet with his Swiss Guards and a Bible written in reverse) - displayed without a hint of irony.
Along the road, clapboard and shingled barns and houses that have weathered many winter storms give way to brighter bungalows, many decorated in the Acadian colours (the French red, white and blue flag with a gold star in the corner), in the town of Caraquet (population 4,000), the home of the August Acadian Days festival. Drive farther along Route 113 to the fishing towns of Shippagan and Lamèque, all the way to the northeastern-most point of the province, Miscou Island (two hours from Bathurst). Miscou, population 650, was connected by bridge only in 1996, and its beach and lighthouse are grand and unspoiled. It's also the best spot in the region to see the endangered piping plover.
Back at Bathurst Marina on Youghall Beach, my aunt and I decide to go for a sail in Charles Richard's Cozy Cockpit sailboat. Growing up, I had been told that people from the north shore should take pride in their hospitality (and I hoped I had offered it myself) but, I wondered, would I receive it as a tourist? Charles and his son, Pierre, take us out along the beach and out to the bay for a pleasant excursion, the breeze warm against our cheeks. I lamented that a planned fishing trip to the Miramichi River wasn't going to work out (the weather was too hot even for the salmon). Suddenly out come the fishing rods. We pull up beside a couple of other pleasure boaters, and a couple bobbing in a fishing vessel. Don't worry, it's legal, Charles reassures us.
We stay on the water an extra hour, and my aunt, a novice fisher, has caught three mackerel. Charles and Pierre cut off their heads, feeding them to a yellow-headed gannet and some competing seagulls, and we take the rest home for supper. A great day, and a great meal that was not, at first, on the menu.
PACK YOUR BAGS
By train Via Rail runs an overnight train from Montreal that stops in Bathurst before 9 a.m. six days a week. Trains from Halifax stop in Bathurst six days a week.
Bathurst is less than two hours from Montreal, with Air Canada servicing the Bathurst Regional Airport (ZBF) twice daily. Greater Moncton International Airport (YQM), served by most major airlines, is a two-hour drive to Bathurst; Porter Airlines flies to Moncton from the Toronto Islands airport.
Where to stay
Private summer cottage rentals are hard to come by, but can be secured if booked far enough in advance. Bathurst's Visitor Information Centre (506-548-0418) keeps a list.
Carey's Beach Chalets : 26 Janeville Beach Rd., Janeville; 506-546-1611. Artist Tomi Carey runs this compound of six beachside cottages (with full kitchens and bathrooms), offering beautiful sunset views, a 15-minute drive east of Bathurst.
L'Étoile du Havre : 405 Youghall Dr., Bathurst; 506-545-6238; www.etoileduhavre.com. Modern stylings and plenty of lush allegorical paintings by co-owner Denis Landry are prominent in this new six-room bed and breakfast, directly across from the Gowan Brae Golf and Country Club.
Danny's Inn : 1223 rue Principale, Beresford; 506-546-6621; www.dannysinn.com. This is the closest hotel to Youghall Beach and features a basketball and tennis court. Danny's is run and owned by members of the DeGrace family, and consequently, serves Dannyburgers.
Where to go
Bathurst Farmers' Market , 150 Main St.; Saturdays to 1 p.m. Local crafts, produce and all forms of maple products (syrup, candy and butter) are on sale here. Immigrants sell at the market as well; Nairobi-born Ngala Odiyo sells camel-bone jewellery and slippers made from the tread of tires sourced from Kenya.
Village Historique Acadien. Highway 11, between Grande-Anse and Caraquet, 40 minutes east of Bathurst; 506-726-2600. This re-creation of life in an Acadian village, animated by locals in period costume, was an object of dread for visiting schoolchildren, but has been spruced up in recent years; it now includes such 20th-century additions as a vintage Irving Oil gas station, in addition to the blacksmith workshops and printing presses of yore.
Mother Earth's Journey. Pabineau First Nation, 15 minutes south of Bathurst; 506-548-9211. This guided walk includes a visit to the Pabineau waterfalls, and introduction to the medicinal herbs of the area, and a sweetgrass ceremony.
Within a 90-minute-to-two-hour drive of Bathurst are, to the west, Mount Carleton, New Brunswick's tallest, and a good day-long hike; and, to the south, fly-fishing for salmon on the Miramichi River or a visit to Kouchibouguac National Park.