Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

New Brunswick New Deal

It turns out this province got some pretty good gifts after all

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DEER ISLAND, N.B. -- When the powers that be decided to give gifts to the Atlantic provinces, Newfoundland got oil and music, Prince Edward Island received potatoes and oysters and Nova Scotia was blessed with sea scallops and stunning views along the Cabot Trail.

New Brunswick appeared to wind up with the raw end of the deal, given a vast expanse of forests that makes it appear a lot more like the rest of Canada -- and a marketing strategy that appears to be based on the notion tourists will stop here on the way to somewhere else.

This view, of course, is horribly unfair to New Brunswick, which has the unusual distinction to being the only truly bilingual province in Canada. English and French are spoken so interchangeably in Acadian towns like Bathurst and Shediac, "franglais" may be the official provincial language.

The province is also blessed with the western half of the Bay of Fundy, an amazing body of water subject to the world's highest tides. Sixteen-metre differentials between high and low water levels allow the coastline to change dramatically over the course of six hours. At high tide, it looks like any other coastal regions. At low tide, ships lie on their sides, permanent docks tower metres into the air and in flatter estuaries, kilometres of mudflats can stretch out to the horizon.

While almost every centimetre of new Brunswick's Fundy Coast is worth exploring, many of the most scenic spots -- the Flower Pot Rocks southeast of Moncton and Fundy National Park in particular -- are packed with Canadian road-trippers heading to or from Nova Scotia and P.E.I.

Seeing the Bay of Fundy without seeing many other tourists requires a departure from Highway 1, the busy artery that runs from the Maine border through St. John and on toward Moncton. And the best way to do that is get on a ferry and make the trip to the Fundy Isles, a small archipelago tucked into the southwest corner of the bay.

Grand Manan, the largest of the isles, is a wild place famous for dulse and whale-watching. Campobello Island, which is connected to Maine via a land-bridge, has more of a preppie, yacht-club vibe.

The quietest and weirdest destination is Deer Island, a 10-kilometre-long nugget of New Brunswick that feels like a B.C. gulf island that lost its way and wound up on the East Coast, given the laid-back, almost hippie-ish vibe.

Although settled by Europeans back in the 1770s, Deer Island has fewer than 1,000 people today. The local population is a mix of fishermen who were born and raised on the Fundy Coast and artists and artisans from elsewhere in North America, all attracted here because of the solitude and stunning scenery.

If you can imagine a Maritime fishing village crossed with a West Coast surfing town, you'll have an approximation of what this place feels like.

Deer Island's main tourist attraction, in the modern sense, is Old Sow, a massive whirlpool that shows up just south of the island every time the tide runs between the inland Passamaquoddy Bay and the Bay of Fundy at large. The permanent whirlpool, one of only three of its kind on the planet, can easily swallow up small boats and should not be approached.

It may be viewed safely from a distance at Deer Island Point Park, the island's only campground. You'll have to visit Norway or Japan to see this phenomenon anywhere else on Earth.

A more subtle attraction is the island itself, which sports a handful of small communities, including the harbour community of Leonardville. Through a mutual friend, I arranged a ride on a working fishing boat that collects herring -- one of the many fish known around the world as "sardines" -- from ancient-looking wood-and-mesh weirs and transports them to a cannery on the New Brunswick mainland.

A ride on any boat in these waters is compulsory, and not just to take in the tidal scenery. Spend a couple of hours, and you'll likely spot porpoises, seals and minke whales.

The surrounding waters are also packed with lobster pounds, which are essentially underwater corrals for storing crustaceans before they're sent to holding tanks across the continent. Needless to say, the delicacy is far cheaper when you purchase it at the source.

Staying at a campsite or somewhere with a kitchen will offer you the chance to cook one up yourself, and it doesn't have to be in a pot. Grilled lobster over a wood fire is even tastier.

The abundance of seafood and mild climate on Deer Island offer up amazing culinary opportunities, assuming you're a little handy around the kitchen. Along with the wood-roasted lobster -- finished in a wok with oil, ginger and green onion -- I managed to scarf barbecued fresh herring (a gift from the boat), ceviche made from sweet corn and striped bass (bycatch in the herring boat) and local organic produce such as patty-pan squash, green tomatoes, zucchinu blossoms and micro-greens. A three-deal meal plan like this would cost a small fortune in an actual restaurant.

More formal dining and accommodations are spare on Deer Island, but that's a big part of the attraction here. If you're craving a little more excitement, Eastport, Me., a 15-minute ferry ride to the south, offers art galleries, restaurants, museums and larger groceries. The ride to Eastport will also take you past Old Sow, which will be visible when the tide is right.

But the real pleasure on Deer Island is just hanging out. There are few places left in Canada's Maritimes where you can chill out and enjoy the scenery without being part of a tourist scene -- even during the August high season.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

 

IF YOU GO: DEER ISLAND

Get there from Canada: All year long, a free provincial government ferry connects Deer Island with the New Brunswick mainland at the town of Letete. Driving west from St. John or east from St. Stephen, take Provincial Highway 1 to the town of St. George, take the exit at Highway 172 and drive south to the ferry terminal at Letete. Ferries from Letete run from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. all year , while ferries from the north end of the island to the mainland run from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The crossing takes about 30 minutes.

Get there from the U.S.: From late June to mid-September, you may also reach Deer Island from Eastport, Me., the easternmost town in the United States. During high season, ferries run from Eastport to the southern tip of Deer Island from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., passing just east of Old Sow. The fare for the seasonal ferry is $16 U.S. for a car and driver, plus $3 for each passenger aged 13 and over, up to a maximum of $23.

Stay: Accommodations in Deer Island are limited, but generally able to handle the small crowds of tourists.

The most popular place to stay on the island is Deer Island Point Park (www.deerislandpointpark.com), a campground on the southeast tip, near the ferry terminal to Eastport. Campsites run from $24 to $22 per day and offer good views of Old Sow.

The island also has two hotels: the 10-unit 45th Parallel in Fairhaven (www.45thparallel.ca) is your standard roadside motel, with basic rooms running from $58 to $40, while the five-room Deer Island Inn in Lord's Cove (www.diinn.com) offers more historic digs for $85 to $75 a night.

There is also a handful of bed-and-breakfasts on the island. For up-to-date listings, check out the island's tourism site at www.deerisland.nb.ca.

Eat: The best way to experience Bay of Fundy seafood is to cook it up yourself. For lobster sales right on the island, simply look for signs along the road. Live lobster may also be purchased at both the Canadian and U.S. approaches to the island, either at R&M Fish Shack on the approach to the Letete ferry (www.rm-lobstershack.com) or on the pier outside Eastport Chowder House, just south of the Eastport ferry terminal. If you're camping, make sure to stock up on groceries at St. George or Eastport.

For sit-down meals on the island, your choices are limited to the restaurant at the 45th Parallel motel (kids can check out Herman, a large pet lobster who isn't for sale) as well as an untested spot near the ferry terminal at the north end of the island.

On the approach to Deer Island, you should also make a pit stop on Highway 1 at the tiny town of Bethel, the home of Ossie's Lunch. This takeout spot is hard to miss, due to the bright orange sign above a placard reading "best seafood in North America." While that isn't the case, Ossie's does a brilliant job with battering and deep-frying clams, a normally despicable Maritime habit. You'll be hard-pressed to find a lighter, less greasy batter anywhere.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 15, 2009 E4

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