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Baffling and beautiful, New Brunswick stands apart

Email|Print| Text size + By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / May 6, 2007

ST. JOHN, New Brunswick -- For many US visitors, the seaside province of New Brunswick is an overlooked pass-through on the way to somewhere else, an unpretentious place of farms, forests, and rivers wedged between the more-hyped destinations of Nova Scotia and Quebec, a perennial bridesmaid in the panoply of Canada's tourism options.

There's no walled Old World outpost like Quebec City here, no Cabot Trail that lures vacationers to Cape Breton's spectacular ocean vistas, no cafe sophistication like Montreal. Heck, there's not even an equivalent to Prince Edward Island's Anne of Green Gables.

What New Brunswick does have is an affinity for the quirky, an affection for the unusual and the offbeat. On a recent four-day trip, a sampling of those oddities proved there is reason to pause and take a closer look at this often-underappreciated Atlantic Province .

The attractions have names like Reversing Falls, Magnetic Hill, the Tidal Bore, and the flowerpot rocks of Hopewell Cape. And if that's not enough, there's the world's largest lobster sculpture.

St. Stephen, the gateway to New Brunswick, lies just across the St. Croix River from Calais, Maine, a comfortable six-hour drive (about 330 miles) from Boston. On the way, keep a lookout for American bald eagles and moose on Route 9, the wild, sparsely populated, so-called Airline Road from Bangor to the border.

Once across the river, where a billboard proudly proclaims St. Stephen as the home of Don Sweeney , a former Boston Bruin and Harvard University hockey stalwart, the ambience instantly adopts a Canadian accent. Highway signs post distances in kilometers, and French translations are the norm.

The plush Victorian resort town of St. Andrews by-the-Sea is nearby, but its landscaped lawns, waterside golf course, and quaint downtown is far from odd. On the contrary. Think of a cross between Newport, R.I., and Great Britain, where fine dining at The Fairmont Algonquin hotel mixes with bracing, crashing surf on Passamaquoddy Bay. Gracious, exhilarating, and elegant.

But St. Andrews, a sanctuary for Loyalists who fled the rebellious American colonies, is a digression from the bizarre. Continue along Provincial Highway 1 to St. John, the oldest incorporated city in Canada, where the head-scratching allure of the Reversing Falls awaits.

Located where the 420-mile-long St. John River meets the harbor, the curiosity gets its name from a natural phenomenon that is linked with the world's highest tides in the nearby Bay of Fundy. Here the falls spill into the harbor through a narrow, rock-walled gorge at low tide, but then double back on themselves as the water rises.

As the tide rises about 28 feet each cycle, the harbor eventually matches the height of the river at the top of the falls. At that time, called slack tide, the river and the harbor exert equal pressure: The falls disappear, the current appears to stop, and boat traffic can cross for about 20 minutes. But as the tide continues to rise, the falls reverse so that the rapids are flowing upstream.

Sacre bleu!

The cycle, which repeats itself every 12 1/2 hours, can be viewed from The Falls restaurant, a de facto dinner theater where patrons can enjoy a meal and watch the unfolding panorama below. "I like it when the currents are in full cycle," said Cathy Dignard, who has waitressed at The Falls for 10 years.

Busloads of tourists are deposited here every day, but each day's viewing experience is a roll of the dice in fog-plagued St. John. Another option is to travel to the falls in tour boats that leave from the historic downtown.

"You can see something different every time," said Bonnie Harvey, who manages a gift shop high above the falls.

Unlike Harvey, a native of St. John, many tourists are not sure what they're seeing. Harvey recalled one day when a tourist from Texas asked if she ever was afraid.

"Of what, sir," Harvey asked. "Of the water," the visitor replied. "It could create some pressure and push those windows in."

"I'm an excellent swimmer," Harvey replied.

About 100 miles east of St. John, outside the small city of Moncton, is Magnetic Hill, which is actually more of a knoll surrounded by a kitschy collection of large decorative magnets, tourist shops, a miniature railroad, and a driving range. The attraction itself is an incline on which a vehicle, put in neutral, appears to climb uphill by itself. The concept is preposterous, but the illusion -- if that's what it is -- appears real.

"There must be a magnetic field in the area," mused Jatin Gaur, a tourist from Montreal, who had never heard of Magnetic Hill until his vacation in New Brunswick. "Is it because of the magnets over there," he asked, gesturing to a mounted advertising symbol for the curiosity.

But Gaur was convinced his car had rolled up the small hill without power. Many observers believe the "slope" of the hill, whose road is a poorly maintained, pothole-dotted, part-gravel, part-pavement affair, presents an optical illusion. What appears to be traveling uphill is actually going down, the naysayers say. Besides, the water flowing "uphill" beside the road is strong evidence for the skeptics.

The site first attracted the attention of local farmers in the early 1800s, when horses became frightened by carts that clipped their rear legs after appearing to defy gravity. A trio of journalists, apparently on a slow news day, documented the oddity in 1933 after their 1931 Ford Roadster proceeded "up" the hill without them.

The tourists and the curious have been coming ever since, and even a good number of the Moncton locals, who are about two-thirds English speakers and one-third French.

This reporter, a trained skeptic, expected to spot the illusion right away. But my car, placed in neutral, moved at least 100 yards, appearing to roll up the slight slope in reverse at the astonishing rate of 11 miles per hour. I tried it again, and then again, and still couldn't convince my eyes that the incline was actually a decline.

Ivan McIntyre, 25, of Moncton, tested the hill, again, for what he estimated was the 10th or 12th time. "I'm still trying to determine how it goes," McIntyre said, shaking his head. "We hit 14 kilometers an hour coming up the hill." For readers without a calculator, that translates to a nifty 8.4 miles per hour.

When asked if Magnetic Hill qualifies as Moncton's top tourist draw, McIntyre nodded his head . "Pretty much," he said. "But then in Shediac, there's the world's largest lobster."

In Shediac, a coastal town 16 miles to the east, there is indeed a humongous lobster, or as the sign says: "Le plus gros homard du monde." Thirty-five feet long, and 16 feet high, the concrete-and-steel monster is a sculpture -- but the largest of a lobster. It's a towering tribute to the town's lucrative harvest from the sea.

From Shediac, follow the Petitcodiac River valley south to Hopewell Cape . The Tidal Bore of the Bay of Fundy makes part of the Petitcodiac a deep, snaking trough of rushing water, particularly around Moncton. The dramatically fluctuating tides, which can rise as much as 50 feet in the bay, are a constantly engaging display of the ocean's raw power.

At Hopewell Cape, a lushly forested provincial park gives visitors access to the famed flowerpot rocks. At low tide, tourists can walk among the towering formations, eroded over thousands of years by the powerful tides. But as the tide rushes in, visitors must retreat to metal stairs that connect with the viewing platform and wooded paths above. Kayaks can be rented to give tourists a chance to maneuver at their leisure among some of Canada's most-photographed natural objects.

Nearby, in Fundy National Park, motorists can journey from the picturesque fishing village of Alma, climb dramatically into dense wilderness, and link up again with Provincial Highway 1 on the return loop to Maine .

The pace in the province is slow, and the ocean is bone-chillingly cold. But the scallops are delicious, the people disarmingly cordial, and the bizarre mixes just fine with the beautiful.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in the May 6 Travel section about New Brunswick mistakenly abbreviated the name of the city of Saint John. The river is the St. John.)

If You Go

Where to stay and eat

The Fairmont Algonquin
184 Adolphus St. St.
Andrews by-the-Sea New Brunswick
506-529-8823
fairmont.com/algonquin
Opened in 1889, this is a jewel of maritime Canada. The Tudor-style hotel and resort offers a seaside golf course, salt water swimming, a spa, and access to whale watches and other recreation. Rates range from $135 (traditional double) to $220 (studio rooms, with two queen beds, kitchenette, dining area) to $415 (two-room executive suites, fireplace, Jacuzzi, kitchenette, two bathrooms). Five restaurants, from pub to formal dining, plus a clubhouse grill at the golf course and afternoon tea on the hotel veranda.

What to see

Reversing Falls
200 Bridge Road, Saint John Take Route 1, exit 119A or B
866-463-8639
tourismsaintjohn.com
The world's highest tides, rushing from the nearby Bay of Fundy, stop and reverse the falls at the mouth of the St. John River. Year - round, free.

Magnetic Hill
Mountain Road, Moncton Take Trans-Canada Highway (Route 2), exit 450
800-363-4558
gomoncton.com
Magnetism or an optical illusion? This kitschy attraction has been baffling visitors for generations. May 20- Oct. 8, 8 a.m.- 7 p.m. $4.50 per car.

Lobster statue
Main Street
Rotary Park, Shediac

Hopewell Rocks
131 Discovery Road
Hopewell Cape 877-734-3429
thehopewellrocks.ca
Otherwise known as the flowerpot rocks, these towering, free standing remnants of tide-carved coastline, topped by flowers and vegetation that supply their nickname, are a visual delight. May 18- Oct. 8. Adults $7.25, children $5.20, family $18.

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