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By the bay

Entrance to the Maritimes remains a unique retreat

By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / May 8, 2011

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ST. ANDREWS, New Brunswick — All it takes is one whale watching cruise in Passamaquoddy Bay, an inlet of the Bay of Fundy, to understand the strong tides in this part of the world. We spent the afternoon flowing out with the water, led initially by a pod of diving porpoises. We glided past herring catches and salmon farms, uninhabited islands with granite shores dotted with sunbathing seals. We saw bald eagles nested on a rocky perch before we reached the East Quoddy Lighthouse on the northern tip of Campobello Island, where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s summer house still stands.

Out in the deep sea, we spotted the curved back and fin of a minke whale that soon was joined by three or four others. Not surprisingly, the herring-rich Bay of Fundy is home to 12 species of whales in summer, including more than half the population of the rare right whale. We spent 20 minutes following the minkes as they headed toward Grand Manan Island in the distance, and then we retreated to our starting point at St. Andrews Harbor. Three hours before, we had left from the top dock. Upon our return, we slipped into a berth on a dock a good 25 feet lower. That’s a whole lot of water surging into the mouth of the Bay of Fundy.

Spotting whales, porpoises, and bald eagles is certainly a good enough reason to visit southern New Brunswick, yet it was the salt-filled air, a supposed remedy for hay fever, that first attracted folks to St. Andrews in the latter half of the 19th century. They could get saltwater baths in the attic of the Algonquin, a large rambling resort built in 1889 and soon purchased by the Canadian Pacific Railroad. With its red-gabled roof, it resembles the grand dames being built at the time such as the Mount Washington Resort in the White Mountains.

William Van Horne, the railway magnate responsible for connecting Canada’s east and west coasts, would visit the newly opened hotel and soon build his own summer cottage, a 50-room estate on neighboring Ministers Island. Although most of the furnishings were auctioned off, Van Horne’s residence and 500-acre island are open to the public at low tide, when you can drive across the ocean floor. Take a guided tour of the house, where you learn the tycoon had a sensitive side, painting landscapes, and then tour the large barn that still houses chickens, pigs, horses, cows, goats, and alpacas.

Once Van Horne built his estate, other members of Canadian society quickly followed his lead, especially affluent families from the Maritimes. A short stroll down Prince of Wales Street from the Algonquin brings you to Kingsbrae Arms, a country manor built in 1897 by successful jade merchants and now a 10-room Relais & Châteaux property. Outside the gray cedar shingled home are manicured grounds with tall weeping willow trees, flowering red shrubs, and roses that smell so sweet it almost immobilizes you.

This will only whet your appetite for the adjacent city-owned Kingsbrae Garden, one of the genuine delights of visiting St. Andrews. The garden is a joyous mix of beauty and whimsy, geared to all ages, green thumbs or not. Step inside the tall hedges that form the perimeter of the perennial garden and you find wave after wave of lavender, yellow, and pink.

“They’re planted like an artist’s palette, with each week of the season bursting forth with another color,’’ says Maureen McIlwain, spokeswoman for the garden.

More than a quarter of the property is virgin Acadian forest. Under the shade of a horse chestnut tree, hummingbirds are busy floating in and out of the red monarda flowers. In the Scents & Sensitivity Garden, you can smell the lemon-scented geranium and pineapple sage and touch the soft leaves of the lamb’s ears. At the Edible Garden, we sampled the red currents and gooseberries. Goats, peacocks, and alpacas roamed the fields of the Children’s Fantasy Garden, near playhouses with roof gardens and the Mad Hatter Teapot Tree. More flights of the imagination, like big Canada geese propelled by the wind and a big Claes Oldenburg-like garden trowel, can be found in the Sculpture Garden.

Another walk downhill on King Street will bring you to Water Street. Two- and three-story clapboard homes, many dating from the mid-to-late 1800s, now house art galleries, souvenir shops, and restaurants. For lunch, grab one of the outdoor tables at the Niger Reef Tea House and dine on lobster rolls, a smoked salmon plate, or their signature potato tart. The small restaurant sits next to the West Point Blockhouse, originally built during the War of 1812, overlooking the lawn that slopes down to the bay.

Closer to the center of town, Serendipin’ Art features seascapes on silk scarves, wooden carvings of puffins and loons, sea glass jewelry, and ceramic bowls, all made by New Brunswick artists. At the Bertha Day Gallery, the skilled artisan creates images of barns, the shoreline, and fields of lupines on cotton wall hangings. Garden by the Sea has a selection of over 130 teas, vases, and locally made soaps and gooseberry jam. After returning from our whale watching, we warmed up on the wharf with a bowl of seafood chowder and a salad of fresh greens at Elaine’s Chowder House Restaurant.

First-time visitors who make the seven-hour drive from Boston might mistake this sleepy seaside village of 1,800 people for one of the down-on-their-heels Down East towns across Passamaquoddy Bay. Then you spot the grand Algonquin resort and walk into the shops and restaurants in the historic houses on Water Street, and you soon realize that St. Andrews has far more in common with Bar Harbor. One visit will inevitably lead to more.

Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels.com.

If You Go

Where to stay
Fairmont Algonquin
184 Adolphus St.
800-441-1414
www.fairmont.com/algonquin
The Algonquin’s 18-hole bayside golf course was constructed in 1894 and completely redesigned in 1998. Rooms from $157.
Kingsbrae Arms
Where to eat
The Rossmount Inn
4599 Route 127
877-529-3351
One of the best dinners in town. The chef specializes in local seafood and produce. Entrees $20-$28.
Niger Reef Tea House
1 Joes Point Road
1-506-529-8005
www.nigerreefteahouse.com
Lunch at this quaint cabin near the sea starts at $5.
What to do
Quoddy Link Marine
6 King St.
877-688-2600
www.quoddylinkmarine.com
The three-hour naturalist-led whale watching cruise costs $57 per adult.