Sunday 26 August 2012--St Andrews is fogbound this morning, not unusual in these parts. I stop at a Tim Horton's on the edge of town
on my way out. As I sit with my coffee and muffin, I consider my stay here. Last night, I was thinking that I'd satisfied my curiosity, and
felt no need to return. After some further consideration, I'd like another shot--I didn't really make the most of my visit. I'd like to see
Van Horne's estate on Minister's Island, and I wouldn't mind a look at Kingsbrae Garden. And I'm really curious to see what Marriott does with
the Algonquin. I might even consider springing for a couple of nights there. Well, probably not, at $200 a night. Mr Tattie Heid is a budget
traveler. But I could probably afford a pint or two in the bar.
The stretch of Route 1 I hop onto looks like it was paved yesterday. The new double-barreled section doesn't last long--there is still a good deal of two-lane road from here to Saint John. It's fast enough, if you don't get stuck behind a camper, which I do. Nevertheless, it's not much more than an hour to the city. I'm taking a mid-day ferry across the Bay of Fundy to Digby, Nova Scotia, but have arrived early enough for a look around town.
Saint John--it's always "Saint John", never "St John"--is the largest city in New Brunswick, although that's not really saying too much. The population of the city proper is about 70,000, and the metropolitan area, 130,000. There was French settlement here, supplanted by English, with subsequent Loyalist influx following the American Revolution. Shipbuilding was the foundation of the economy for generations, but that has gone by. Likewise, its importance as a port has declined since the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959, although in recent years it has become a popular port-of-call for cruise ships doing the Maritime circuit. These days the city seems to be struggling with the transition from its maritime industrial past to an uncertain future, which I guess makes it much like most North American cities.
I stop on the way into town at a viewpoint overlooking the Saint John River. A ridge of hard rock creates a narrow passage, with underwater ledges, through which the water rushes. The tides at this point on the Bay of Fundy average 28 feet, so the water rushes out through this constriction at low tide, and in at high tide--Saint John's famous Reversing Falls. The river is navigable to Fredericton, but shipping can only pass through the narrows at slack tide. I've been here many times with busloads of tourists, and the Reversing Falls rarely fail to disappoint-- you really need to see them over a period of time, at different stages of the tide. I've always wondered why there isn't a time-lapse movie showing a twelve-hour cycle in the visitors' center.
The central part of the city is on a rectangular peninsula, called Uptown by the locals. I park the car and meander from Queen Square to King's Square [sic]. There is a largely commercial area rising from the waterfront. Generally, the nicer residential areas are toward the height of the hill, with the cheaper housing down toward the industrial areas that ring the peninsula's fringe; but it's a bit of a jumble in some places, with handsome townhouses on one block, non-descript saltboxes on the next, and here and there an ugly mid-20th century block where presumably fire has cleared the older buildings. I understand there is some gentrification going on, waterfront condos and such. The whole peninsula is ripe for it, and there have been proposals to move the industrial lots to the outer harbor to make way for redevelopment. Unless there is some explosive growth, however, it will all take a good long time, if it ever does happen. It's a small town, relatively speaking...it would make a nice neighborhood in Brooklyn.
The ferry terminal is back across the river, in Saint John West. Departure is at noon, and the crossing to Digby, Nova Scotia takes three hours. The approach through Digby Gut into the Annapolis Basin is spectacular, like a miniature Golden Gate into San Francisco Bay, and there are dolphin sightings to boot. I drive into town beneath the Digby Pines Resort, another former CPR hotel that bears a strong resemblance to the Algonquin. Digby was a lunch stop on the bus tours. I always thought it was a nice town, but it seemed just a bit shabby and run-down, with the vacant storefront here and there. I'm pleasantly surprised now to find it bustling and looking prosperous. Seems to me there are more restaurants, all busy; most of the B&Bs are booked up. The scallop fishery--"World Famous Digby Scallops"--has long been the economic mainstay of the harbor, and it looks to be healthy.
I'd like to hang around town longer, but I need to be getting on. I drive down Digby Neck, a long spine extending west from the Gut, a continuation of the ridge of North Mountain to the east. Thirty miles from Digby, a ferry traverses Petit Passage, between the Neck and Long Island; ten more miles along, another ferry crosses Grand Passage to the village of Westport, on Brier Island. I've wanted to come here for years--it's one of those road-end places that seem to attract me. No one just passes through a place like this. (Do a map search of it, and you'll see what I mean.) Despite the years of thinking about it and a bit of advance research, I'm not quite sure what to expect. I know what's here, I suppose, but you never know what a place is going to feel like until you are in it. And then when you do feel it, you think, "Of course...what else could it possibly have felt like?" In this case, a remote island fishing village on the Bay of Fundy, similar in many ways to others I've seen across the water in Maine.
I find my guesthouse, explore the environs a bit, and then walk up to the Brier Island Lodge for dinner. I'm thinking this will be a fairly upscale place...I'm disappointed. It's a motel, really. The food's okay, but nothing special. Nice view over the strait, setting sun and advancing fog, but not much atmosphere in the dining room. Pedestrian beer, inexplicably and inexcusably limited wine list (it's not really even a list), and worst of all, no bar. Where am I going to hang out?
I stroll Water Street in the gathering gloom and fog, fantasizing about turning one of the waterfront boat sheds into a brewpub. The Brier Island Brewery. All it needs is a few hundred thousand dollars to get it going. It's a nice idea, but it won't be me that does it. The bottle of Pulteney awaits in my room.