On a beautiful June morning, having put on my harness and safety helmet, I climb the stairs of a tall tower by the Saint John River. My companion, Jillian, from the local tourism board, is looking very nervous and I’m not feeling particularly confident myself. Jillian has tried many times before to ride this series of ziplines but has never quite managed to pick up the courage. She looks terrified. I try to offer her words of encouragement without being overbearing. I’ve been on many ziplines but perched on this high tower I am the most scared I’ve ever been. I step up and onto my tiptoes (I’m only 5-foot-tall) so I can be hooked up to the first line. Then I’m away!
I arrived in Saint John, New Brunswick on the east coast of Canada, earlier that week as part of a campaign that saw 14 bloggers travel to different cities across the country to mark the celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday. Having flown in from Gatwick to Montréal, it was just a short internal flight to Saint John’s refreshingly small airport and I was soon checked into my room in the harbourside Hilton Saint John. As I was to find out over the next 7 days, it is in the perfect location for exploring this maritime city, being within easy walking distance of almost all the main attractions.
Saint John is Canada’s oldest incorporated city. It was photographs of the beautiful architecture that first drew me here. Never call it St John’s – that’s an entirely different city in Newfoundland. This Saint John lies at the heart of the Stonehammer Geopark and it is here, from the soon to open Skywalk, that you can see where millions of years ago America collided with Africa.
Saint John is the only city on the Bay of Fundy, making it the one place where you can combine the benefits of a cosmopolitan city with the natural wonders of the Bay right on your doorstep.
The Bay of Fundy is famed for having the highest tides in the world – the record, at 53 feet, is higher than a four-storey building. It is also a superb location for whale watching. There are a great variety of whale species seen here in the summer months, the most common being Humpback Whales, Minke Whales, and Finback Whales. Here, I’d like to tell you about the wonderful attractions to be found within the city itself.
Top 10 Things to Do in Saint John, New Brunswick
Today’s Saint John is a wonderful maritime city with a rich cultural heritage and a flourishing food and drink scene. It’s perfect for a short city break or as a stop off point on a Canadian road trip but with so much to do in and around the city, it really does deserve a longer stay.
1. Tuck into the sumptuous seafood
Being on the Bay of Fundy, it’s no surprise that the seafood in Saint John is fresh and tasty. During my visit, I tucked into local lobsters, oysters, razor clams, periwinkles and deep fried haddock as well as deep fried clams, but best of all were the bacon maple scallops at Saint John Ale House courtesy of Chef Jesse Vergen (as seen on Top Chef Canada Allstars). The menu changes every few days depending on what is fresh and abundant but you’ll find the tastiest fish and seafood here, locally and sustainably caught and cooked to perfection. I’ve not tried it, but their Giant Lobster Roll comes highly recommended.
Read more about the fabulous Saint John food and drink scene in my post ‘Where and what to eat and drink in Saint John’.
2. Enjoy a brewery crawl
With three great microbreweries within spitting distance of each other in uptown Saint John, it’s the perfect location for a brewery crawl.
Picaroons General Store at 32 Canterbury Street is an offshoot of the original brewery, Picaroons Traditional Ales in Fredericton. With an onsite brewery, tap room and store, it’s a cool Hipster hangout come internet café, where I enjoyed sipping a pint from Picaroons’ excellent range of ales on more than one occasion. The staff are very friendly and eager to tell me more about the beers on offer. While no food is served here, they are happy for you to bring some with you to enjoy with their beers.
Within stumbling distance of Picaroons, just around the corner at 47 Princess Street, Big Tide Brewing is the city’s only brew pub and restaurant. There’s a more down to earth atmosphere here, their beer is excellent and their curry, burgers, and steaks are reputedly just as good. Ask for a beer flight to sample a variety of their craft beers.
I visited both these breweries, as well as the City Market and numerous other fine establishments, on a wonderful walking tour with Uncorked Tours, that I highly recommend.
From here, roll downhill and round the bend to Loyalist City Brewing at 60 Water Street. Offering a range of traditional and modern ales, I somehow missed this brewery while I was in Saint John so I’m relying on one of you to fill me in. I am yearning to try their Dry Irish Stout which they describe as having, “Distinct coffee-like aroma mixes with undertones of dark chocolate on the nose that complement a moderate hop bitterness, medium body and clean finishing taste.” I could cry that I missed it!
If you enjoy craft beer, a visit to each of these breweries is a must (not necessarily all on the same day but let me know how you get on if you do).
3. Explore Saint John City Market
Dating back to 1876, this is the oldest market in North America. Just a year after it was built a devastating fire swept through the city but the citizens fought to save their market, the hub of the community. Saint John City Market survived while nearly every building around it was lost, some 1,600 buildings and structures, from churches to schooners.
The ‘Head of the Market’ is on Charlotte Street, from where it runs downhill to Germain Street. The market is open year-round Monday to Saturday. Step inside to discover great craft stalls, plus butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers, and bakers. The popular café Slocum & Ferris is one of the oldest businesses in Canada, dating back to 1895. It’s the perfect place for a tasty breakfast or lunch. Alternatively, grab some local cheese, freshly baked bread and fruit and have a picnic in the park across the road at the top of King’s Street in King’s Square. There’s an unusual two-storey bandstand in the centre of the park and the paths spreading out from it are laid out to form a Union Jack. The bandstand was built in 1908 and in 1912 it was dedicated to King Edward VI.
4. Queen’s Square Farmers’ Market
From King’s Square head south along Charlotte Street a few blocks and you’ll find Queen’s Square, a slightly smaller park, again laid out in the shape of a Union Jack. Historic buildings line the square with some lovely examples of Queen Anne and Italianate architecture from the late 19th century and into the early 20th century.
The first Queen’s Square Farmers’ Market here was a one-off event in 2011. It has since grown into a well-supported weekly market that has helped revitalise the area, held every Sunday throughout summer. I found it a great introduction to the Saint John community.
The majority of the stalls offer healthy food made with quality local and environmentally sustainable produce. They’re as ethnically diverse as the people of Saint John, with food from Nigeria, Cameroon, Thailand, Mexico, Haiti and Syria on offer. While I didn’t get the chance to eat anything (silly me!) the homemade lemonade from Tall Tom’s was extremely good, as was the local Coastliner Craft Cider – a bottle of which miraculously found its way back to my hotel room.
5. Visit New Brunswick Museum
While I like visiting museums, having a rather short attention span, I tend not to linger too long in them. This wasn’t the case, however, when I visited the New Brunswick Museum which was just across the road from my hotel in Market Square. Thanks to my guide, Yulin, I enjoyed exploring all 3 floors of the museum where I discovered remarkable stories of New Brunswick’s rich cultural and natural history. Saint John is the centre of the Stonehammer UNESCO Geopark, the first Global Geopark in North America in recognition of its exceptional geological heritage. A visit to the museum gives a great introduction to the area’s geological past, as well as its maritime history and the local marine life, the latter through the Hall of Great Whales. Here, amongst the fascinating exhibits, you’ll see both an actual skeleton as well as a life-sized model of a North Atlantic Right Whale hung from the ceiling. On the top floor, there is an interesting historical and contemporary art exhibition from New Brunswick, Canada and beyond.
6. Enjoy John Hooper’s Sculptures
During my visit to Saint John, I was introduced to the work of John Hooper, an English-born Canadian, known for his colourful wood carvings that are found across Canada and around the world. His work is fun and a little quirky. My favourite piece in Saint John is ‘People Waiting’ in front of Barbour’s General Store at the foot of King Street. 11 people waiting in line and if you look closely you will spot a number of animals too. As with all his sculptures, a self-portrait is included, this time as a photograph in a newspaper held by the man at the end of the queue.
See what others you can spot around town and find the self-portrait in each one or, better still go on this Public Art Walking Tour around uptown Saint John to see these as well as some wonderful work by a number of other artists.
7. Step out on the Skywalk over the Reversing Rapids
One of only three in North America, the soon to open Skywalk Saint John is the only one within a city. It reaches out over the water looking across the Reversing Rapids where the mighty Saint John River is forced to flow backward twice a day by the Fundy Bay’s colossal high tides. Nowhere on Earth does an ocean tide have a greater impact on any river. The Skywalk not only offers the best view of this phenomenon you can also see, in the cliff face opposite, where Precambrian age marble from South America which is over a billion years old collided with the Caledonia igneous rock from Africa. Two staggering geographical events for the price of one!
I had the chance to step out over the water on the glass panels before it was opened to the public (and before all the safety rails were up).
We also had a glimpse inside the refurbished restaurant. It is fondly remembered by the locals, and will soon make a welcome return. A great deal of attention to detail is being paid here and I can’t imagine it being anything other than superb when it opens.
8. Discover Irving Nature Park
To the south-west of the city (and less than 6 miles from my hotel) between the open waters of the Bay of Fundy and a swath of tidal marsh, a volcanic rock peninsula covered in primordial forest is home to many species of migratory and marine birds, as well as small forest animals. This is the 600-acre Irving Nature Park created to protect the six fragile ecosystems found here while providing access and educational opportunities to the public.
There are eight different walking trails through the park, as well as a roadway offering access to the less mobile. An observation deck allows visitors to watch the seals basking in the sunshine and diving for fish, while a wheelchair accessible boardwalk over the salt marshes is popular with birdwatchers. An observation tower hidden in the trees offers 360° views of the surrounding land and seascapes. From May to October, the park’s naturalists offer tours around the park and in the winter, events ranging from moonlight snowshoe walks to astronomy evenings are organised. The park is a designated RASC Recognised Urban Star Park, where artificial lighting is strictly controlled as part of the International Dark Sky movement.
With picnic areas complete with barbecues and the newly opened Children’s Forest with a playground and two cedar hedge mazes, it’s a wonderful place to visit for all ages. Tomorrow (21st August 2017) the park Is hosting The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada for viewing of the partial solar eclipse.
9. Explore Rockwood Park
Even closer, less than 2 miles north-west of my hotel, lies one of Canada’s largest urban parks, Rockwood Park. Part of the Stonehammer UNESCO Geopark, a billion years of history is recorded in the rock formations found here.
Over 55 trails weave their way through this tranquil park and a series of freshwater lakes are perfect for boating, swimming, and fishing as well as ice skating in the winter. With picnic sites, a campground, a golf course, rock climbing, kayaking, gardens, stables and more, there’s plenty to do here. When I visited, a spa was preparing to open, adding yet another branch to the great range of facilities on offer. There’s also a restaurant in the Hatheway Pavilion at Lily Lake — I wish I’d grabbed a slice of their Chocolate Maple Lava Cake. The Pavilion is run by a non-profit organization that funds community programs in the park. It must be wonderful to have such a park on your doorstep.
10. Fly through the air on the Reversing Rapids Zipline
Whizzing through the air on a zipline is a real buzz! Having a fear of heights (I used to get giddy at the top of escalators) and having got stuck on my first ever zipline in Slovenia, you’d think I’d refuse to go anywhere near them. But the opposite happened. I became addicted! And I’ve looked for ziplining adventures ever since.
What I loved most about the Reversing Rapids Zipline, apart from the view, is that it is, in fact, a series of ziplines so the adventure isn’t over too quickly. Here’s just a sneak peek of the fun we had!
As I explained to Jillian on the way to the Saint John Adventure’s zipline, I still find them scary and a challenge but that is all part of the excitement. Was it this attitude that finally persuaded her to join me and take on the challenge of a series of 5 ziplines with a view of the Reversing Rapids, ending in a dual zipline across the water? I don’t know. But she did it! And I’ll never forget how proud and pleased I felt for her. Up until a couple of days ago, Jillian had been a complete stranger but she now felt like an old friend. That’s the magic of Saint John. #SaintAwesome
I’d like to thank all the wonderful people I met in Saint John, including Helen-Jean, Lisa, Jillian, Emily and too many more to mention, for making me feel so welcome. I had such a brilliant time discovering your city.
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Return flights from Gatwick to Montreal cost from £346 (October 2017) and £372 (May 2018) per person with Air Transat.
Canadian Affair offers a 12-day touring package Landscapes of the Canadian Maritimes Holiday.
Disclosure: Thank you to Air Transat, Destination Canada, New Brunswick Tourism and Discover Saint John for sponsoring this visit to Canada. As always, I retain the right to write whatever I wish and will always give you my honest opinion.