Joining a Destination Canada fam trip to Quebec and the maritime provinces with Elite Canada Specialists allows Madeleine Barber to get under the skin of eastern Canada’s natural features and foodie forays
We’ve hit a wall of hairdryer-hot air that takes all eight Elite Canada Specialists and I by surprise as we charge into St Andrews harbour on a RIB grinning from ear to ear.
We’re on a seven-day fam trip taking in Canada’s four easternmost provinces – New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Quebec – and we’ve just spotted a couple of minke whales on the edge of the Bay of Fundy after two hours spent searching the horizon with Fundy Tide Runners, a local whale- watching outfit.
This slice of New Brunswick is where Canada meets the US, with the Maine border easily visible from the RIB as we motor beyond the headland and past seals basking on rocky outcrops, pods of porpoises dancing under the gentle waves and lighthouses that stand out on the flat and forested land.
Out here, it’s a peaceful wilderness where visitors are sure to feel at one with nature. Even back on solid ground in St Andrews the flora and fauna flourishes, with Kingsbrae Garden’s 27 acres hosting more than 50,000 perennial plants, ponds, streams, alpacas, pygmy goats and themed plots.
Billed as one of the top attractions in this quaint, seaside town, the garden is also home to spectacular sculptures, an art studio complete with classes for visitors, and Garden Cafe, where guests can indulge in dishes made from its produce.
On the eastern side of the headland we visit Ministers Island. Access here is commanded by the daily tides (you have to cross a gravel causeway when the water levels are low enough).
The island’s 19th-century estate was once the home of Sir William Van Horne, the driving force behind the Canadian Pacific Railway, and in one of the grand house’s many bedrooms a clever quote from him catches my eye: “If we can’t export the scenery, then we’ll have to import the tourists”.
This, I think, is a phrase that rings true as we clamber down to the sea floor at Hopewell Rocks in the crook of the Bay of Fundy. Here, the highest tides in the world have eroded copper-coloured cliffs for millions of years, creating unique sea stacks and arches.
It’s not long before we’re making tracks towards our next stop, Nova Scotia, to visit Peggy’s Cove, where the most famous of the province’s 160 historic lighthouses can be found.
The surrounding fishing village presents a scene more typically found on a chocolate box – brightly coloured cabins hover on wooden stilts at the water’s edge above giant rocks worn smooth by the sea and boats that gently bob in the harbour.
Another iconic lighthouse we visit is Cape Spear in Newfoundland. It’s the province’s oldest surviving lighthouse and the marker of the most eastern point on the continent.
If we were to head east into the Atlantic Ocean, we’d next make landfall in Ireland’s County Clare, which may explain the Irish twang that can be heard in the locals’ accents when we pop into Quidi Vidi village near St John’s.
This small fishing community harvests a special brew, Iceberg Beer, which is made from the pure water found in 10,000-year-old icebergs. It proves to be the perfect tipple to top off a day exploring the city with its multi-coloured jellybean houses, and it’s just as refreshing as it sounds.
It’s not just Quidi Vidi that’s innovative with its brewing. This fact becomes clear during our stay in Saint John, New Brunswick (not to be confused with the Newfoundland city, St John’s), where we embark on a restaurant-hopping walk with Uncorked Tours.
Big Tide Brewing Company is the first stop – it’s the oldest “brewpub” in Saint John and it brews, ferments, stores and serves all its beer on site. We taste a floral golden ale, a strawberry and rhubarb farmhouse ale, and a dark beer that’s boiled with tree bark before popping around the corner to Port City Royal restaurant and bar.
Here, the bartender Eric mixes a wine punch containing everything from brandy, Chambord and chardonnay to grape juice and passion fruit liqueur. It packs a punch.
The alcohol-led adventure calls for some good, locally sourced food, which we devour gratefully at East Coast Bistro.
Quebec City is another destination that’s full of foodie surprises. A trip out with Local Quebec City Food Tours starts us off at Chic Shack – opposite our 125-year-old hotel, Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac – where I get my first taste of poutine, Quebec’s signature dish. I’m told it’s a “posh” version of the recipe, which is a combination of potatoes, brisket, vegetables and gravy; it reminds me of a tastier alternative to the very British shepherd’s pie.
At the rustic La Buche restaurant we get the chance to taste something much sweeter, maple taffy, then make a beeline for Chez Boulay, which sells the best vanilla fudge I have ever tasted.
Then, after mac ’n’ cheese with smoked bacon and black garlic at Beclub, I can’t eat another morsel but pop a croissant from cafe/ boulangerie Paillard in my bag for later – these are supposedly the best in the city.
The trip wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Montreal, Canada’s second-biggest city. And, as we discover during a city tour, bakeries are all the rage in Montreal too.
St-Viateur is a 24-hour bagel shop that produces 12,000 of the savoury rings every day – and with more than 60 years of experience, it’s no surprise that there’s a queue out the door. We buy a bagel each, top it with cream cheese and continue exploring the Mile End district, which feels like a village within the city.
Wide, tree-lined streets are decorated with multi-coloured murals – Mile End has the highest concentration of artists in Montreal – and they’re lined with thrift shops, vinyl stores, pop-up bars in disused shipping containers, vegan restaurants and churches that have been converted into art galleries. It’s Montreal’s answer to London’s Shoreditch, and I love it.
This hipster district in Montreal couldn’t be further from the wide-open spaces of the maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, but that’s just one of the reasons why eastern Canada is a jack of all trades.
Book it: Prestige Holidays offers a 19-night self-drive trip starting and ending in Halifax, taking in Peggy’s Cove, the Bay of Fundy, Saint John and St John’s, with the option to add on Montreal and Quebec City. Prices start from £3,680pp including car hire and flights with Air Canada. prestigeholidays.co.uk
Caroline Jeacock, Deva Travel: “I was amazed at how familiar Newfoundland felt and that its culture, history and heritage is so closely linked to ours – the Irish twang in the local accent was definitely a surprise! The coastline reminded me of Ireland or Scotland but on a vast and more spectacular scale, and seeing a humpback whale right o Cape Spear was a real highlight for me.”
Trina Elliott, Beaver Travel: “From idyllic beaches to magnificent natural wonders, New Brunswick has so much more to offer than I expected. My highlights included Hopewell Rocks on the Bay of Fundy, the Reversing Falls at Skywalk Saint John and whale- watching in St Andrews by the Sea. I really enjoyed the fam and have since recommended a visit to enchanting Ministers Island, the summer estate of Sir William Van Horne, who was the driving force behind the famous Canadian Pacific Railway.”
Joan Brett, Westoe Travel: “I think what surprised me most about Quebec was the amazing variety of food on offer in such a pedestrian-friendly city. I would definitely recommend at least three nights in Quebec just to sample as many of the different dishes as possible.”