Saint John, New Brunswick, also known as "Port City," has some of the highest tides in the world. It's situated where the mouth of the mighty St. John River meets the Bay of Fundy. The funnel-shaped dip in the Atlantic coastline creates tides of up to 55 ft/17 m twice a day. At high tide, the water in the harbor rises an average of 28 ft/9 m and forces the St. John River to flow backward.
But Saint John has much more to offer than a simple maritime vacation. Rich in historic architecture, its Trinity Royal area boasts some of the best-preserved, ornate Victorian-era architecture anywhere. Intricately carved fruits and flowers festoon grand brick buildings, and stone gargoyles stare down from the windows of the historic business district.
The rich tapestry of the past unfolds in Saint John, the oldest incorporated city in Canada. Partridge Island in Saint John Harbour is Canada's Ellis Island, the first quarantine station for immigrants making their way into the country. As many as 2,000 people died there in the latter part of the 19th century. The site, although now closed to visitors, can be seen from shore.
Saint John is also a treasure trove of eco-attractions—from Hopewell Rocks, where you can actually walk on the ocean floor, to parks and beaches inhabited by hundreds of wildlife species. Saint John also boasts the Reversing Falls, a phenomenon created by the awesome force of the changing tide twice a day. Famous for its fog days, or "nature's air-conditioning," it's the perfect place to escape from the heat of summer.
As one of the largest cities in New Brunswick, Saint John is also an international port destination with a bustling marketplace. Boutiques, family-owned businesses and local artisans thrive there. We love the internal pedway system (called the Inside Connection) that connects the waterfront to the entire uptown core.
In recent years, Saint John has experienced an ecological awakening. A clean harbor, newly planted trees and pathways through parks comprise the first phase of a vast waterfront redevelopment that promises to put the Saint John harbor firmly on the cruising map.
Saint John is located on the shore of the Bay of Fundy and at the mouth of the St. John River, which extends northward toward Quebec. The river meets the Bay of Fundy at the Reversing Falls, a phenomenon that forces the river to run backward twice a day.
Downtown Saint John can feel like a maze, with one-way, narrow streets that were laid out in the 1780s, but the indoor pedway system that allows you to walk from the waterfront to the entire uptown district is perfect for foul-weather days. The houses clinging to the hills often remind visitors of St. John's, Newfoundland.
The city is divided by a modern four-lane highway (Route 1) that connects the city to St. Stephen in the west and Moncton in the northeast. Another artery (Route 7) connects Saint John with Fredericton. The St. John River is passable at two points: one at the Reversing Falls for rail and vehicular traffic, and the other at the Harbour Bridge, which was a toll bridge until 2011. To get a good view, take the Harbour Bridge, then drive up to the Carleton Martello Tower and return downtown across the bridge that crosses over the Reversing Falls and head along Douglas Avenue to Main Street.
The other major artery is Rothesay Avenue, which will take you out past the suburbs and to the airport.
The shores of the Bay of Fundy were home to Micmac (Mi'kmaq) and Maliseet (Wolastoqiyik) natives when French explorer Samuel de Champlain arrived on the nearby island of Saint Croix in 1604. It became a busy Indian trading post that French and English settlers battled over for years until the English finally prevailed by means of the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
During the American Revolution, Saint John served as sanctuary to American settlers loyal to the British crown. After the war, Loyalists fleeing the newly independent U.S. arrived in 1783 to claim grants of land—rewards for their allegiance—from the British monarch. They were a mixed lot—farmers, doctors, clergymen, carpenters—some illiterate, some Harvard-educated.
Among them was Benedict Arnold, denounced as a traitor during the American Revolution, whose questionable business practices made him just as unpopular in Saint John as he had been in the U.S. (His effigy was burned on King Street, and he eventually fled to England.)
Saint John was created as a city by Royal Charter in 1785, making it Canada's oldest incorporated city, and it still proudly displays a crown on its official crest.
New Brunswick's supply of timber ensured Saint John's success as a shipbuilding center, helping the town to grow rapidly. The first chartered bank in Canada opened there, and the population swelled even more when hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants arrived in the 1840s.
In 1877, fire swept through the heart of the city, destroying 1,600 homes and businesses. Undaunted, the people of Saint John completely rebuilt their city within four years, competing with one another to construct the most ornate factories, churches and office buildings. Today, this city has the largest group of intact Victorian structures in Canada.
Although Saint John no longer builds ships, the port is still one of Canada's busiest—the harbor stays open year-round, even when other northeastern ports are covered with ice. Saint John is also home to Canada's largest oil refinery.
Visitors to Saint John will have no problem exploring the downtown area on foot. If the weather is questionable, duck inside for a stroll through the pedway system, where you can walk from uptown right to the waterfront. After walking through the beautiful squares, you can climb Carleton Martello Tower for a great city view. Take time to explore the other two forts—Fort Howe and Fort Sainte Marie (better known as Fort LaTour)—to learn the city's early history.
Make the trip out to Reversing Falls, but remember that you'll want to see them twice. The St. John River changes direction throughout the day, and if you visit at slack tide, you'll be able to watch the water stop completely before it begins flowing the other way.
Museumgoers can visit the New Brunswick Museum for awe-inspiring local history and geology. The massive skeletal frame of a rare North Atlantic right whale (known as Delilah) is a hit with the kids. And along the Trinity Royal Heritage preservation area and CenterBeam Place, there is a historic 19th-century building complex, home to stores, restaurants and galleries.
City Market, Canada's longest-running market, provides local color and culinary surprises, especially on weekends when the vendors top up their stalls with local produce, meats and handmade crafts.
Most Saint John nightclubs cater to a young crowd, but some are also suitable for the 30-and-older set. Popular pubs are found in the Princess Street neighborhood, and you can usually count on several to be open until dawn.
During the summer (July and August), there are regular performances on the Market Square Boardwalk. You'll find nightly entertainment featuring everything from live music to classic cars. For information and a schedule, call 506-658-3600 or visit http://www.marketsquaresj.com.
Some of the tastiest lobster in the world comes from the ice-cold waters of the Bay of Fundy. Fresh clams, scallops, haddock and salmon are also plentiful. Choose from one of many restaurants in the area and wash all that seafood down with a Moosehead beer, brewed locally. Early in the spring, also try fiddleheads (ferns picked before they've unfurled). They're usually served steamed, with melted butter and cider vinegar.
Dulse is a seaweed picked off the rocks in the Bay of Fundy at extreme low tide. Dried and eaten as a snack, it provides vitamins and minerals, although its crispy texture soon turns gelatinous—definitely an acquired taste. Give it a try, but don't overdo it—it's a natural laxative.
One of the best culinary experiences in Saint John is wandering the three food aisles of the City Market on Charlotte Street. You can choose from fish and lobster chowders, fish-and-chips, country soups, freshly baked rolls, locally cured cheese, fresh pasta and German sausages. When you've got just the right combination, retreat to the atrium to enjoy your meal. Watch out for the park pigeons—when the doors open, they sneak in and jump on the tables for their share of good eating.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than Can$15; $$ = Can$15-$25; $$$ = Can$26-$40; and $$$$ = more than Can$40.
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