Sometimes on vacation you “discover” a place that’s actually been popular for ages – yet somehow you never got the memo, or read those brochures. It can be a little embarrassing when you start raving about a place to your neighbours, only to hear they discovered it, too, years ago. That happened to me recently after landing in St. Andrews by-the-Sea in New Brunswick – a summer retreat for Upper Canada’s and New England’s well-to-do since the late 19th century. And before that, it was founded as a seaside escape for United Empire Loyalists in 1783, who floated their homes across the bay from Maine. But destinations, including timeless seaside towns, evolve. St. Andrews has a year-round population of 1,800 (it bumps to 2,500 in the summer) and that means the locals like to change it up. So even if you’ve already been there, it doesn’t mean you’ll have the same experience twice.
One of the best reasons to revisit: the restored and renovated Algonquin Resort hotel (algonquinresort.com). The historic Canadian icon reopened last year to much fanfare after a top-to-bottom restoration/renewal that’s brought new life to St. Andrews (and certainly a lot more jobs). And how many Canadian seaside resort towns have two luxury hotels to choose from? Built in 1897, the Kingsbrae Arms is a 10-room Relais & Châteaux inn that’s next door to the impressive 11-hectare Kingsbrae Gardens. (This botanical wonder, with many paths, sculptures and a small zoo, is a lovely way to while away an afternoon.) kingsbrae.com
Golf: Eighteen oceanfront holes offer grand views of Passamaquoddy Bay at the Algonquin Golf Course, owned by the Algonquin Resort. The par 72 course is worth a visit even if you don’t play: Stop and admire the oldest clubhouse in Canada out on the 17th tee (or take Joe’s Point Road if you’re not playing). It’s a small wooden building from 1894 that’s got character and not a bad ocean view. If you’re in the main clubhouse, renovated as part of the hotel’s reopening last summer, take a drink in the bar and check out the carpet; apparently designers copied the pattern of the carpet used in The Shining as a nod to the rumours that Stephen King used the Algonquin Resort as a muse to his novel. 465 Brandy Cove Rd., algonquinresort.com/golf
Bike: If your hotel doesn’t lend bicycles, book a tour with Off Kilter Bike Tours and you’ll be kitted out with sturdy mountain bikes. Run by local Kurt Gumushel, he’s got all the gossip and history you need to know about town. Glide along the newly paved bike trail before going off road to look for fossils around Katy’s Cove. Kurt, who’s also an elementary phys-ed teacher, will be great with your kids, too. Oh, and he’ll offer you a kilt to slip on – no pressure. Sure, it’s a little gimicky, but if it’s been raining, swallow your pride and save your backside from getting covered in mud. offkilterbike.com
Whale watch: Often a crap shoot, it might be worth shelling out the big bucks to try again in St. Andrews. The Bay of Fundy’s huge tides (up to about 16 metres) mean lots of little fish and krill are stirred up twice a day, and that draws a variety of finback, minke and humpback whales, not to mention porpoises, dolphins and seals. Heading out on a zodiac boat – faster and closer to the water than larger vessels – means that when they do turn up, you’re in for a breathless show, even if it’s a shark drawn to your boat instead of whales. Fundy Tide Runners, Market Wharf fundytiderunners.com
Play: One of the most delightful finds in this seaside town was the blow-your-kid’s-mind playground on Frederick Street outside Vincent Massey Elementary School. It’s enormous, with ropes, slides, ladders, swinging things and more ways to burn off energy than you thought possible. Don’t miss this if you’ve got children – even my tween fell for it. 166 Frederick St.
Ministers Island: Come and see what’s been done to Sir William Van Horne’s 50-room “cottage” lately. The summer home, bath house and exquisitely designed barn (seriously) are undergoing a slow restoration process paid for by private donations. It’s an incredible window onto old money – and a sad story of its decline, to boot. This place is a must-see.
The coolest part of the visit, however, remains the same – driving over the ocean floor at low tide to reach the 500-acre island. That never loses its thrill, especially if you push the deadline to drive back as we did – and watch the increasingly wet sandbar shrink before your eyes. ministersisland.net
Sunbury Shores Arts and Nature Centre: If you’re summering in town, see what classes the centre is offering (for both adults and children) in pottery, painting, stained-glass work and so on. Visitors can always just stop by and see what’s on display, as the gallery has showings all summer long from Eastern Canadian artists. Make sure you take a few minutes out back to enjoy the bay view from their patio. 139 Water St., sunburyshores.org
St. Andrews Blockhouse: This tiny Parks Canada historical site off Joe’s Point Road won’t take long to explore, but linger upstairs as you peer through the gun ports and you’ll appreciate its significance in the War of 1812. The grounds are a good place for a picnic, and the kids can crawl over the three cannons. Better yet, during the area’s fantastically low tides, you can stroll hundreds of metres out on to the sea floor of Passamaquoddy Bay. It’s also a great place to watch the sunset. pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/nb/standrews/index.aspx
Some activities were paid for by Tourism New Brunswick, which did not review or approve the article.