Driving New Brunswick – a road trip through Atlantic Canada, part I

By | Category: Travel destinations
spring in New Brunswick's Chaleur Bay

Chaleur Bay in the spring

Taking a road trip across one of Canada’s smallest provinces arguably doesn’t qualify as an epic journey, but luckily there’s no need to cover huge distances to get closer to nature and enjoy the scenery here. New Brunswick, one of Canada’s three Maritime Provinces, tucked away in-between Nova Scotia, Québec and Maine, in the U.S., was to prove a positive revelation in terms of options for scenic drives, with plenty of out of the ordinary sights.

Clambering off the night train from neighbouring Québec, in the small town of Campbellton, my driver and I went in search of our hire car and got ready to set off. Campbellton is in the far north of the province, right on Chaleur Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of St Lawrence and the early morning had provided some splendid waterfront views from the train. Finding our car, we realised much to our surprise, that it had Québecois number plates. This turned out to be very useful indeed, as we could pretty much drive in any way we liked and everyone just assumed it to be normal Québec-style driving.

Apart from aiming to check out as much of New Brunswick as possible during our 4-day journey, I was on a separate mission to research Atlantic Canadian handicrafts, focusing on woodcraft – a mission that was to take us on some interesting, if scenic, detours and backroads. But before the backroads it was time to hit the highway and soon we were cruising at a leisurely speed heading south. The landscape alternated between picturesque fields and quiet countryside, followed by vast, hilly forested areas. Communities were few and far between, but suddenly I did a double-take – the house we just drove past was no. 29809! Admittedly this was a very long highway, but clearly there were more houses here than met the eye.

The vistas offered plenty of pretty distractions, but more surprisingly, throughout New Brunswick there was excellent entertainment to be found in the simple signs along the roads. How about the supermarket sign advertising “24 hours – bananas only”? Poor you, if you came to buy milk. The place names as well, had me chuckling and making up stories as we drove – went right past Glenlivet without a sniff of a whisky and didn’t even dare imagine how one place got the name Adams Gulch.

New Brunswick is the only province in Canada to be constitutionally bilingual, English and French (the remaining provinces have one or the other as main language) and in the northwest French rules the day, but everyone is happy to switch between the two languages. After a good few hours we came out of the forests and found the next sizeable place after Campbellton, the town of Edmundston, in Madawaska County.  French-speaking Edmundston is waving distance from Québec and Maine, situated on the Saint John River and the Trans-Canada Highway – both of which we would be following the next day.

Grand Falls

Grand Falls in New Brunswick

After a hearty breakfast we set off, again in lovely sunshine, towards the first stop of the day, the not particularly modestly, but entirely accurately, named Grand Falls on the Saint John River. It was springtime and the very best time to see masses of water drop down falls, whether steep or gentle, and we had a good amble round to look (and listen) to them. Then of course we had to find a loo. I call it the waterfall effect!

Suitably relieved we continued south, all the while following the border with Maine, marked by Saint John River (it took me awhile to finally grasp what all those signs to “ME” were referring to), through “potato country”. Nearby Florenceville – Bristol, known as French Fry Capital of the World, is the headquarters of McCain’s potato chips and other potato products – they even have a Potato World Museum, for those interested in finding out more about spuds. The more I saw of New Brunswick, the higher up on the quirkiness scale it went.

The province has a number of unusual sights, not just of the potato kind – it’s also well-known for having the world’s longest covered bridge and an abundance of covered bridges in general. There are a number of “exotic explanations” for why exactly these were covered –one of my favourites being that it gave people some privacy to smooch.

Hartland covered bridge

Hartland covered bridge

Our next stop was Hartland, home to said long bridge and apparently suffering from something of a loitering problem – there was a nice-looking picnic area overlooking the bridge, bizarrely with a large sign proclaiming “No loitering” (best to sit down to that picnic straight away, or you will be in trouble), and the same sign could be found outside the public library. We did our utmost not to loiter while checking out the 1,282 foot bridge, dating back to 1901 and covered since 1922, before hopping in the car and driving across it. There was only one lane and no traffic lights, but luckily drivers here are infinitely more polite (and rather fewer and further between) than in London.

Next up on the agenda was some handicraft sight-seeing in the villages of Jacksonville and Grafton. Signposting often leaves something to be desired, but the locals are very helpful. The elderly gentleman we approached told us that “Jacksonville was 8 clicks away and then turn left”. Hmmm… We must eventually have gone “8 clicks”, since we found Jacksonville and father and son enterprise Hayward Creations, selling fabulous wooden furniture, sadly much too large to take home, but I did get a look at what purports to be the largest wooden burl in New Brunswick. Pleased to say the local maple syrup was much easier to pack .

burl at Hayward Creations

at Hayward Creations – the biggest burl in New Brunswick

Sight-seeing and woodcraft investigating can be thirsty work, but luckily one place combines arts and craft with refreshments. O’Toole Gallery and Celtic Fox café, in Grafton, run and built by Mr O’Toole himself, is a lovely place to stop for a coffee or lunch and check out the varied items on display in the café, on the lawn and of course in the gallery. Kerry O’Toole creates beautiful furniture, sculptures and carvings in his studio on the premises and he also works with a variety of other artisans whose creations are for sale in the gallery. Winding down at the end of the day, I concluded that this road trip was unlike any other – wild scenery, grand waterfalls, even a place paying homage to the humble potato. Surely this was an epic journey after all?

To be continued in part II…

Getting there:

There are direct flights from the UK to nearby provinces Nova Scotia and Québec with connecting flights to one of New Brunswick’s four regional airports. It’s also possible to arrive by coach or rail from either neighbouring province.


Where to stay:

O'Toole Gallery

the O’Toole Gallery

Covered Bridge Bed and Breakfast, 2651 Route 103, Somerville nr Hartland, T: 506-324-0939, 100-year old home overlooking the world’s longest covered bridge and the Saint John River.

Coté’s Bed and Breakfast/Inn, 575 Broadway Blvd., West Grand Falls, T: 506-473-415,  Comfy inn near the Grand Falls waterfalls. Activity breaks and packages available.

Auberge Les Jardins Inn, 60 Principale Street, Edmundston, T : 506-739-5514,  4,5-star country inn with gourmet French cuisine.

For more information about New Brunswick, click here.

For more information about Canada, click here.

Images © Anna Maria Espsäter

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