Lighthouses, Lobsters & Lore

Home of lobsters, lighthouses and tales of a proud people, New Brunswick’s Acadian Peninsula offers the best of Canadian history and cultureLighthouses, Lobsters & LoreThe Unexpected Pleasures of New Brunswick’s Acadian Peninsula

By Rosanne Dunkelberger

Truth to tell, I hadn’t heard much about New Brunswick, Canada, and wasn’t sure what to expect on my first visit there. But the itinerary was pitched as a learning experience, so I figured I’d just forgo my usual pre-trip research and enjoy being educated. I assumed there would be great seafood, scenery and history – and there was – but the takeaway from my three-day meander along the Acadian coast went far beyond its lovely inn rooms and sublime chowder.

The region’s effect on me was at the same time subtle and profound: I sensed this was a place where we, as Americans, might learn a thing or two about the redemptive qualities of pride, inclusion and industriousness.

New Brunswick is Canada’s only officially bilingual province. (Quebec’s official language is French; in the other provinces, it’s English.) It’s not by accident, it’s not just a designation and it does make a difference. Much of our trip was through the small towns of the province’s northeast – the “French” part of New Brunswick – but every person I spoke to was conversant in both languages and cheerfully willing to slip back and forth between them, depending on the desire of who they were speaking to.

You can’t walk 10 feet in New Brunswick without hearing about what is variously referred to as “The Deportation,” “The Expulsion,” “The Great Upheaval” or “Le Grand Dérangement.” Acadians, it seems, have long memories, for this particular part of local history dates back to the 18th century.

The first French settlers came to the Maritime region in 1604, fishing, farming and generally peacefully coexisting with the native peoples, the Micmac. When the French and English settled their differences with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the land was ceded to the English who, over the next several decades, would ask the French-speaking Acadians to swear an oath of loyalty to England. Many refused, but the situation wouldn’t come to a head until 1755, when the English started forcibly relocating the Acadians, breaking up families and burning their farms. Some would be sent back to France, some escaped and were taught to live off the land by the Micmac, many were taken to the colonies (what are now the eastern coastal areas of the United States) and a large contingent ended up in Louisiana, to become what we know today as Cajuns.

The area ultimately would attract immigrants from England, Ireland and Scotland, as well as British loyalists who fled the colonies after the American Revolution.

Much of Acadian lore centers around The Deportation and the efforts in the ensuing years of the displaced people to return to their Canadian homeland. Many did come back, but with the English ascendant, the Acadians settled into a second-class citizenship, isolated by their inability to speak English and rural location, neglected by the government and limited by educational opportunities.

Great changes didn’t occur until relatively recently, with the election of Premier (similar to a state governor) Louis Robichaud in 1960. An Acadian, he presided over an ambitious plan to spread governmental services throughout the province. In 1969, New Brunswick officially became bilingual. During this same time, the influence of the Catholic Church began to wane and the Acadians found economic power by forming cooperatives for activities such as fishing.

Given the opportunity to succeed, the Acadians have done so with great gusto. You can see the pride in every house that lines the rural roadways. Most have freshly mown grass, brightly painted trim, an abundance of lawn ornaments and an Acadian flag flying in the front yard. (One enterprising young man gets paid $25 to paint the telephone poles in front of peoples’ homes with the red, blue and white stripes and yellow star of the Acadian flag.)

My Acadian adventure actually began one province over in Montreal, where we boarded VIA Rail Canada’s Ocean line for a 6:30 p.m. departure and an overnight train ride. The first-class service was just that, including a sleeper car and gourmet meals for the duration of the trip. But a particular treat in the deluxe “Easterly Class” was the services of a “learning coordinator” whose purpose on the ride is to give guests a thorough schooling on the life and lore of the Maritime provinces they would be traveling through.

After dinner – the first of many featuring the local fish and other fruits de mer I would be enjoying on this trip – our group adjourned to the glass-domed viewing car. As the sun set, our learning coordinator, François, started off with a tasting of Nova Scotia wines as well as a treat – Canadian ice wine. Even if you’re not particularly fond of its sweet, almost syrupy taste, you will appreciate it after François’ description of how its grapes must freeze on the vine three times, and then be harvested in the dead of night and immediately processed.

The Ocean follows the St. Lawrence River and crosses into New Brunswick in the wee hours. After breakfast, François was back in the domed car, giving a primer on the art of lobster catching. The freewheeling commentary would continue throughout the day, with discussions until the end of the line in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

We departed the train before that, in the bayside town of Bathurst, and took a short, scenic ride to the Acadian Isles – the very eastern tip of New Brunswick. About driving: We had driver/guides for the trip but, with a travel map and vacation guide provided by Tourism New Brunswick, it should be quite easy for even novice travelers to find their way around the province. The roads are well maintained, well marked and uncrowded, none of the cities and towns are intimidatingly large, and there are many little pleasures to find wherever you might be.

Our first stop would be the Aquarium and Marine Centre in the town of Shippagan. No dolphins or tropical fish here; this is an introduction to the marine species that can be found in the abundance of bays and rivers that are a huge part of life in New Brunswick. Fourth-generation fisherman Gilburt Beaudin presented a short talk on the business of lobster and snow crab fishing, and then we were off to the tanks filled with cod, haddock, flounder, crabs, seals and, of course, lobster. Whenever local fishermen catch a lobster with different coloration, they bring it to the aquarium, so we were treated to the crustaceans that were white, orange, yellow and an amazing bright blue.

We lunched next door (seafood cakes!) at the Pavillon Aquatique Restaurant, enjoying the view of Chaleur Bay. While we ate, our hosts discussed the region’s fishing industry, which is seasonal and highly regulated, and their wintertime hijinks, when the body of water completely freezes over. There were tales of “sailing” across the ice and of one fellow who crashed a group of ice-fishing women when he donned a wet suit and surfaced through their hole in the ice.

We drove across a series of bridges to the islands of Lamèque and Miscou, with pleasant stops along the way. The first was the Ecological Park of the Acadian Peninsula, a perfect counterpoint to the aquarium since it gives an overview of the flora and fauna that can be found in the region above the waterline. One enjoyable aspect was the center’s “osprey cam,” which allowed visitors an up-close-and-personal look at an osprey mother as she tended to the three chicks in her nest.

In Lamèque you also will find another hidden treasure, this one the Church of St. Cecelia. It looks rather plain on the outside, but inside … it’s amazing. In the 1970s, the cure (parish priest) one Gerard D’Astous, had an inspiration to paint the church’s dark brown wooden interior. Not just paint it, but spray paint it in myriad sherbet shades that look like a mash-up of graffiti, Peter Max and a little girl’s bedroom. The church also boasts superior acoustics, so it’s the site of an annual Baroque music festival.

The windswept isle of Miscou is home to an unspoiled peat bog. An elevated boardwalk takes you above the short green shrubs that can be seen for miles. Travel there around October and you’ll see that the plants’ leaves have turned a brilliant crimson. At the tip of the island is an 1856-vintage octagonal wooden lighthouse on a rocky beach with stones perfect for skipping and a commanding view of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

A short drive later we were in the town of Caroquet, which bills itself as “The Place Where the Acadian Heart Beats Strongest,” and settled in to enjoy the hospitality of the Hotel Paulin. Innkeeper Gerard Paulin is the fourth generation of his family to operate the inn along with his wife, Karen Mersereau, who also serves as chef for the boutique hotel’s small restaurant.
Mersereau has a delightful personality surpassed only by her formidable culinary skills. Her foods were gourmet, but featured simple pleasures. In the main course seafood pasta bowl, she shared with us the last of the season’s “fiddleheads,” tightly spiraled plants that grow wild in the region and are a special summertime treat. Our multi-course late evening meal was interrupted when we adjourned to the hotel’s backyard to view a spectacular sunset.

At the table that evening was Jacques Lanteigne, who shared stories of a Caroquet tradition known as Tintamarre. Each Aug. 15 (the Acadian national holiday) at 5:55 p.m., Acadians (and those who wish they were) are invited to take to the streets and make some noise. It’s a joyful parade that attracts about 30,000 people to a town that usually is home to 4,500. Pots bang and there is lots of hooting and hollering – just to remind the world that Acadians are still here. Lanteigne is in the midst of planning the World Acadian Congress, a once-every-five-years event that will be hosted by the region Aug. 7-23, 2009, and will include cultural exhibits, public events, family reunions and other activities.

Caroquet’s largest attraction is the Acadian Historical Village, which features 34 buildings – from the dirt-floored farm home of a widower in the 1770s to a 1930s-era service station.

There are costumed, bilingual interpreters at each stop to share history, customs and trades of the Acadian people. We visited on a Friday, so each of the “housewives” was making a fish-based meal (a no-meat day for these Catholics) on woodstoves, which would be served at lunchtime to the men working throughout the village. It was Friday the 13th, so our guide, “Madame Theriault,” warned us not to exit through the same door we entered – it was bad luck.

There are programs for children – and adults, too – to play dress-up and immerse themselves in the regional history. On site is the Hotel Chateau Albert, a reproduction of a turn-of-the-century hotel open for visitors – but with amenities of the times. In other words, no televisions, no air conditioning, and electric sockets that are well hidden.

After our time travels, we headed south for the Kouchibouguac National Park, noted for its chain of barrier islands that are home to one of North America’s largest tern colonies and home to colonies of seals. Opt for a three-hour canoe adventure if you want to get up close.

Just down the road is the town of Bouctouche (pronounced buck-toosh), home of Le Pays de la Sagouine, a most interesting and hard-to-describe venue. It’s sort of as if “Huckleberry Finn” were turned into a tourist attraction. A local native, Antoinine Maillet, wrote a series of novels about the trials, tribulations and humorous observations of a washerwoman – “La Sagouine.” The attraction recreates settings from the novel – also a popular television show – and features live music and skits. It’s mostly in French, but there is a special area where Anglophones were invited into the “home” of “Dorine,” who taught us the fine art of spoon playing and shared molasses cookies. She explained that much of the Acadian heritage she shared with us was preserved in “kitchen parties,” full of song and storytelling.

In the evenings, large pageants are performed in an outdoor amphitheater. The stories are in French, but our hosts assured us that – much like opera – between the acting and the printed program, English speakers would be able to understand the plot.

Bouctouche also is home to a beautiful dune nature preserve with a boardwalk that stretches for more than a mile and a tower that gives you a clear view of the huge windmills on the shores of Prince Edward Island.

Just a titch further down the road in Sainte-Anne de Kent is the Olivier Soapery, where delightfully cheerful staff members give a demonstration on how soap is made. (It takes almost a month to be ready.) Then the fun really begins when you take a test wash with your favorite samples. There are plenty of sinks, but if you’re really bold, you can use them in the showers outside.

We traveled a few more miles down the coastal road and spent the night at the beautifully refurbished country inn, Maison Tate. Its interior is a lovely juxtaposition of the antique and modern, and it too boasts a dining room featuring freshly prepared gourmet food.

Shediac is all about the lobsters, and a visit would not be complete without a two-hour Lobster Tales Cruise with Captain Eric Leblanc and first mate Alain aboard the Ambassador. Alain gives a lively narrative as he hauls traps out of Shediac Bay. He’s at his best when demonstrating how to eat a whole lobster – a skill we all get to try out when lunch is served. (Let’s just say Alain makes it look easier than it is.)

Nearby is Parlee Beach, one of New Brunswick’s most popular beaches, with surprisingly warm water, plentiful sandbars and huge dunes reminiscent of Florida, except that the fine-grained sand is a dark beige color.

Our day, and our Acadian adventure, ended in the city of Moncton. It’s an old seaport and railroad town that is a perfect blend of the English and French cultures. For a small town, it has a lively nightlife, and from the back balcony of our hotel, the Chateau Moncton, we spent our last evening in Canada watching the tidal bore come up the Petitcodiac River. It’s sort of a mini-Bay of Fundy experience: The tide comes up the river in a visible wave.

While mindful of the bad times, the Acadian people don’t seem to harbor a grudge about past mistreatment. They seem to have reached rapprochement: proudly maintaining their identity, but happy to coexist with their Anglophone neighbors.

During rioting in Los Angeles, reluctant icon Rodney King posed the question: “Can we all get along?” The answer here seems to be a hopeful “oui.”

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