2007-12-22

Travel in Canada s Maritimes

soliciting canadian travel information prompted this post.

DO NOT DO
First, here is what NOT to do/visit:

Drive to the end of the road on the North Shore of the Saint Lawrence to Natashquan, birth place of Gilles Vignault. The road from Havre Saint Pierre to Natashquan has only been there a couple of years. Before that, they had to take a boat.

As you read this you are thinking "I"m SO doing this, new road, frontier, Gilles Vignault".

Driving all the way to Natashquan is so stupid you won't even be able to brag about goint there. And once you are there, you have to drive all the way back! There is no Gilles Vignault museum and they aren't blarring his music at the local pub. Worst, by the time you get there the pub will be closed because you have driven into Maritime Standard time.

So stop at Havre Saint Pierre. Resist the temptation to go further east! You have been warned.

That said, there is nothing rational about leisure travel. People do crazy things like drive from Montreal to the Magdelain Islands, via New Brunswick and PEI, and not visit NB and PEI. Magdelain Islans must be freeking amazing then eh? No, Montrealers visit the islands because they are part of Quebec. Go figure.

Newfoundland is not part of the Maritimes. The vast majority of Maritimers have never set foot in Newfoundland. Think about that. Ponder that. The fact is that Moncton is about half way between Toronto and Saint John's.

Fly to Saint John's. Visit the former country of Newfoundland for what it is: a province with its own time zone.

DO DO
Here are some great Maritime trip suggestions:

For Singles and Couples:

Fly to Halifax and on tho Cape Breton.
Fly into Halifax (Do the math befor balking at the price of plane tickets). Rent a car and drive to Cap Bretton Island for the Cabot Trail (freeking amazing). Make time to linger in the Acadian village of Cheticamp (We paid $40 for a room there in July!) right at the entrance/exit of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. If you are lucky enough to be there on a warm day, the beach in Cheticamp is amazing. The local culture is quite Acadian. But my highlight was the shared island used for raising cattle. That makes you realise how unflat the region is when farmers have to share land.

Louisbourg, where actors pretend to be French who own the place.
Louisbourg is a make work project that is worth a detour. It is a recrunstructed French city that history buffs will love.

In Shediac the water is warm, in PEI golfing is on Greens (Despite the red earth).
If you have time left, gun it to Shediac, get you feet wet in the warmest waters north of Virginia, then drive accross the longest bridge in Canada to PEI (there are no $40 room in July on PEI). PEI is a golfer's paradise, but July travel might require booking a room in advance. There are also great beaches and Charelottown is a nice place to visit if you miss civilisation (it is the capital).

Halifax is an urban city.
Halifax is great place to walk around, just don't arrive there and plan to park. Halifax is by far the Maritmes' largest city and acts the part (they actually charge for parking!). Peggy's Cove is nearby in case you were wondering where all the tourist had gone. Lunenberg and Annapolis Royal are also quite nice.

House Hunting
A hugely popular activity is driving along the coastal areas of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick looking for a retirement home. If you have zero intention of retiring in the maritimes, then I'd suggest skipping the coastal drive as it is slow going with cottage/house after cottage/house for as far as the eye can see (or keep your eyes on the ocean). If you do skip the coastal drives, don't expect to see the ocean from the main road. The Maritimes are quite flat (with the obvious exception of northern Cape Bretton) and with plenty of trees. Kouchibouguac and other national and provincial parks provide great "natural" views from which to admire the ocean (and swim) as the houses/cottages have been demolished.

For People With Children:

Stop in Quebec, go to Percé, then Acadian Village
Because of the expense of flying with kids, you will probably be driving. If you have never been to old Quebec city, make a stop there on the way. Drive to Percé via the northern route. The southern route is much more industrial and much less scenic. Drive from Percé to Caraquet to visit the Village Acadien. A major tourist attraction that shows how Acadians used to live. Then go to Kouchibouguac for a swim and camping.

Swim, sand and golf
Drive to Shediac and Parlee beach if you enjoy swiming and people. Head to PEI for Golfing Anning (of Green Gables) and beaching (you can devid the family for these activities).

Cabe Breton Ruled
Gun it to Cape Breton Island. Go to Louisbourg. You can skip Halifax, but if you have teenagers, Halifax is a university town... Hopewell Rocks are probably worth the detour since you will be driving via Moncton anyway. I'm not a fan of Fundy Park, but if you need to camp, why not.

Saint John River, 80% of Moosehead Beer
For the trip back, you can gun it on the brand spanking new four lane highway all the way back to Quebec and Ontario. But I recommend the Saint John river scenic route. It is actually shorter and almost as fast. Plus, you get to see all the villages along the route. The southern section is the best. Fredericton is quite inviting if you approach it from the southern scenic route. Kings Landing can be an activity if you need one.

Acadians who don't Fish
If you can, stop at Grand Falls to see what is now a dam. The place is historically significant as that is where the French settled after escaping the British. They chose Grand Falls not because of the scenery or great agriculture, but simply because that is where British boats could no longer navigate, so it was safe.

Republic of Madawaska
It would be hard to discribe the paper mill town of Edmundston as a tourist attraction, but as the 20,000 inhabitants are 95% French and the Madawaska County is quite hilly, it is certainly different. There are some great views from Bellevue street in town or at the new subdivision on top of the hill off chemin Pouvoir (aka Power) road. If you want to see some Indians without making a detour, take the river (aka scenic) route from Saint Basil to Edmundston, you will be crossing the Madawaska Indian reservation. You will end up in downtown Edmundston which is a good place to stretch your legs/have coffee or lunch or supper. From downtown Edmunston it is a quick detour to Bellvue street to say goodbuy to the upper Saint John river (also provide great views of depopulated upper Maine.)

From downtown Edmundston, follow chemin Canada along the Madawaska river back to the Trans-Canada highway. You can also stay a couple km more along the river and stop at the botanical gardens in Saint Jacques. Probably not worth a detour, but since it isn't...

An interesting side trip from Edmundston is to leave the safety of the Trans Canada and heand north to see what is on the other side of the hill (more hills). There are some spectacular views from places like Saint Joseph (a small town on top of the highest hill).

If side trips aren't your thing at this point. You can stop for a friged swim in impressive Lake Temiscouata, just east of Dégelis (French name derived from unfrozen).

Alternatively to travelling out of New Brunwick via Rivière-du-Loup (the fastest way), you can crossover to Maine from Edmundston into Madawaska and then on to Fort Kent (and then back to Canada). Despite the signs, this is the French part of Maine, the majority of the locals speak it as their primary language. If you think crossing the border will be too much of a hassle, think again. The get in to the USA, the code word is "we are going for cheap gas". Some of the American border gards speak French, but don't count on it. If you are refused entry and are sent packing back into Canada (If you forgot your ID, for example), then you have waisted all of 30 seconds.

Once back into Canada, drive back to Quebec via Clair or Saint Francois and highway 289. Highway 289 ("Route des frontères") is actually shorter (but not faster) than the Trans-Canada. If needed, you can stop for a swim in Baker Lake right off highway 120 on the New Brunswick side.

If you don't want to bother with going thru customs twice but aren't ready to leave the Saint John's, then going from Edmundston to Clair and Baker Lake is an option (shorter and almost as fast as via the Trans-Canada). The detour to Saint Francois is worth it if you want to see where chickens come from or if you want to admire the ghost village of Connor just west of town. Pushing the detour to Glazier lake would take you to a remote lake from which you can swim to the USA and probably not get caught (but you would die from starvation/exposure once you got to that remote part of the USA).

Moncton.
Unless you hop on a ferry, you will travel near or via Moncton. With kids and/or teens, Magnetic Hill is a great water park. The actuall magnetic hill is a naturally occuring illusion that makes it appear you are coasting up hill. There are many here and there, but this in the only one I know next to a water park. You can enjoy the illusion fully clothed.

ALTERNATIVES
Trans-New Brunswick
Alternatives to the coastal and Sain-John river routes is to trans-New Brunswick it. Yes, go where moose and river fish outnumber people. And trees, plenty of trees. If you love forests, go via trans-New Brunswick. Saint Quentin has possibly the cheapest hotel rooms in North American outside Mexico. You can also camp at the Mount Carleton park. That mountain is the highest in the Maritimes. Climbing it will bring you to its peek of 850 meters. The scenery is breathtaking because every other peek is lower (and it is unobstructed forest as far as the eye can see). It is an easy climb, but obviously bring plenty of bug repellent if in June, July or August. The last section of the climb up can be a walk via forest or a climbing on exposed rocks, your choice.

You are pretty much guaranteed to see wild life by going trans-New Brunswick, especially on the upgraded lumber roads that link Grand Fall to Miramichi and Saint Qentin to Bathurst. Just be sure the wildlife is in the forest, not on your windshield. The police don't enforce the speed limit in these parts, but the mooses, dear, bears, ditches and trees do! Ambulance service is free in New Brunswick, but if you are injured, accept the first offer of a ride, as the wait for official help could kill you (bring bug repellent!).

Maine
I like Maine. The main problem with Maine is the speed limit. That and the fact that all the roads lead to Boston. The shortest route from southern New Brunswick to Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto is via Maine. The fastest, not so much. Southern Maine is a hugely popular tourist destination. So the chances of being stuck behind an RV and unable to pass are 100%. In Northern Maine, the roads are empty but the strictly enforced speed limits will get you. But if you aren't in a hurry and want to save gas money, go via Maine.

You definitely need a map, but look for highways 27, 16 and 2. You will be traveling via Bangor which has an interesting downtown. Bangor does have a sprawl problem, so a lot of the city is blah. Maine, like New Brunswick, is at its best in small towns. The southern Maine towns are downright attractive. Northern towns are less attractive, and more rustic, but they have a genuine feel to them. Lodging is quite inexpensive in most of the Maine you will be crossing. But bring a map. You will feel like the only person in the state who has ever attempted to cross it without going south. I-95 has a 65mph in its northern section, but it is a detour when traveling east-west.

If you are an Ontarian trying to avoid Quebec and Montreal, you can cross at Cornwall and travel via New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. It is one of the shortest routes and New Hamshire has no sales tax on goods! Just watch out for state troopers and inadvertently ending up in Boston or New York.

You can avoid Moncton by crossing to Nova Scotia from Saint-John, NB, or Bar Harbour, Maine. Those options only make sense if you don't end up waiting for the ferry and the millage costs of your vehicle are at the upper end. If you are travelling via Portland, which has a great urban core, you can take a ferry to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

Saguenay
There are 250,000 people who live in the remote region of Saguenay-Lac Saint Jean. They are there for the agriculture and the Aluminum plants. The Saguenay river is quite impressive thanks to the clifts on either side. It certainly is a detour, but if you go straight up from Quebec you can visit the Saguenay region and then cross the Saint Lawrence at Baie Commeau to Matane.

Conclusion
If you want to relax, come to the Maritimes. If you like beaches and warm water, come to New Brunswick in July. If you love to drive and/or hike, the Cabot Trail is a must. Halifax has great history and atmosphere. Fredericton is quaint and pretty when viewed from across the river. Ditto for the rest of the Saint John river valley. History buffs and children will like the Acadian Village and Kings Landing and absolutely love Louisbourg. Magnetic Hill in Moncton is a serious water park. Moncton also has plenty of shopping, a museum, and plenty of bars, clubs a theatre, cinemas and restaurants for rainy days when camping or beach life is getting to you (20 minutes from camping and the ocean beach at Shediac). If you are flying from Toronto, it is sometimes cheaper to fly into Moncton than into Halifax. Oh, PEI is a golfer's paradise and is 90 minutes from Moncton.

Most importantly, even in season, you only need to worry about booking ahead in PEI.

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