Underrated Saint John, New Brunswick
Ask anyone who lived in Saint John, New Brunswick five years ago what they thought of the city and they’d say, “It needed work.” But as millennials return home after travelling and learning about finance and business, the uptown area of Saint John is having a renaissance.
The new generation has a vision of protecting their heritage while making the old new again. Some historic buildings that were once used for fishing have been converted into boutique hostels and microbrew pubs, while others have been restored to accommodate gourmet coffee shops and elegant bistros. Local artists are making fine art accessible to the local community and theatre companies are staging shows at the historic Imperial Theatre.
When road tripping to Canada’s East Coast, many people use Saint John as a quick stop after exploring the Hopewell Rocks on the Bay of Fundy, but if this new generation of entrepreneurs have something to say about it, people will soon start making Saint John their home base when exploring the province of New Brunswick. During our road trip we decide to do just that. Choosing to rent a car from Enterprise at the Saint John airport lets us enjoy the freedom of road tripping without having to endure the long 14-hour drive form Toronto. We hop on a short two-hour flight and feel refreshed and ready to explore the province when we arrive.
It was a chance encounter that initially brought my husband Dave and I to Saint John. Business owner and young hotelier Ingrid Woodhouse sent us an email. She found our website online and saw that we travel to the east coast a lot. She had just opened a new luxury hostel The Bunkhaus and thought we may be able to help spread the word. It’s the first and only luxury hostel in Saint John and we were intrigued.
It just so happened we were in the midst of planning another road trip out east, and with this new idea fresh in our mind, we planned our visit around our stay at her hostel.
What we experienced next surprised us. As Canadians, it is embarrassing to admit we knew little of the area before arriving in our rental car but soon discovered the coastal drive from the United States Border to the Hopewell Rocks is one of Canada’s greatest road tripping destinations. Saint John is in the middle of a route filled with undeveloped wilderness, remarkable coastal views, a national park and scenic villages.
The city itself has enough to keep visitors busy for a few days. It is one of Canada’s oldest cities, dating back to 1604 when Samuel de Champlain landed in the harbour proclaiming the river be named Saint John.
Idyllically located on a harbour, cruise ships and ocean freighters set up anchor at the Port of Saint John. 19th-century brick buildings line the waterfront greeting tourists walking along cobblestone streets. Many warehouses have been converted to pubs and restaurants mixing that old-time feel with a hip urban vibe. Highrises are few and far between making Canada’s third largest port city feel like a small town.
For a century different French forts were built in the area until the English took it over in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Over the years more forts were built and Fort Howe, a fort constructed to defend during the American Revolution in 1733, still stands today. A walk up the hill during sunset offers beautiful panoramic views of Saint John and the harbour.
A stream of headlights crosses the bridge leading our eyes to the Trinity Church steeple jutting above the industrial city. The bay is calm and the night is quiet as I watch fishing boats come in from the cold. As the only city located on the Bay of Fundy, Saint John offers a unique view of the world’s highest tides. The famous Reversing Falls Rapids are a phenomenon and a spectacle to behold; 100 billion tons of water collide with the Saint John River at high tide, causing it to flow backward twice daily. This is Saint John’s most famous attraction, but it is hardly the only thing to see or do.
We made our base in the city for a couple of days and talked to the locals about what makes Saint John so special. The consensus from everyone was that it’s the people that make it special. And from our first impressions, we agree! When visiting the cultural heart of the city, people make you feel like family. It’s not uncommon for people to say good morning as you walk out for your morning coffee or invite you to an open mic night at the local pub. They are happy to talk to you about their city and the history they have worked to preserve.
It was when popping into the Imperial Theatre that we experienced Saint John hospitality at its finest. We approached the box office and asked if they would mind if we took a photograph of the theatre. They not only allowed us in for a peek while they tuned the piano, but they also gave us a tour and told us all about its colourful past. It turns out Louis B. Mayer, founder of MGM Studios, grew up in Saint John and mentored the founder of Saint John’s Imperial Theatre, Walter Golding. It attracted big acts like Ethel Barrymore and Harry Houdini. Sadly in the 1950s, the doors closed and the grand theatre was turned into a church.
The people of Saint John never forgot the beauty of the theatre and eventually bought it back and restored it to its original grandeur. It is now considered the most beautifully restored theatre in Canada, hosting special events, big-name acts and touring companies.
The dramatic arts aren’t the only creative pursuit to flourish in Saint John. Saint John also attracts artists from all over North America due to its nurturing community. If you duck into a building you may find a community of painters, photographers, and designers clustered behind the doors.
It is here, in Uptown Saint John that you truly experience the lively energy of Canada’s East Coast. It is a small area, probably only a total of 10 square city blocks, but it packs a huge punch. The hot corner of Grannan and Germain is where you’ll find quirky shops, art galleries and stylish restaurants. Take a walk through the city market to purchase fresh cheese and bread for an afternoon picnic in the gardens of King’s Square after you’ve browsed the galleries featuring local artists. Or you can walk in the footsteps of early settlers on the Loyalist Walk featuring buildings showcasing the history of the Americans who settled the area after the American Revolution.
We recommend having an authentic Italian dinner at Italian by Night and then grabbing a seat on the large leather sofa of Port City Royal for an after-dinner cocktail. The wooden floors and exposed brick create a cozy and welcoming atmosphere that encourages mingling with your neighbours. The nightlife kicks off at Market Square on the waterfront, where outdoor entertainment and patios fill up with patrons bar-hopping and enjoying live music. The city is alive with energy day and night, and well worth a visit for any Canadian road tripping to the coast.
It’s not only the heart of Saint John that drew us to the city, but also the fact that it makes for an excellent base to explore the Bay of Fundy.
Located just two hours from the Hopewell Rocks, we spent a few days driving up and down the awe-inspiring coast of New Brunswick. The Fundy Trail Parkway is located just outside Saint John in the town of Saint Martins. The scenic drive in our rental car took us along massive sea cliffs, pristine forest and secluded beaches, making for views of some of Canada’s most dramatic scenery. The parkway is expected to connect directly to Alma by 2021, giving visitors the chance to drive the coast the entire way to Hopewell Rocks.
There’s plenty to see close to the city, with long sandy beaches that you can walk along in complete solitude and hiking trails to lookouts that showcase impressive views. Saint John is blessed with a treeline coast of rolling hills and high sea cliffs overlooking the Bay of Fundy.
The East Coast is known for its lighthouses, and just a short drive from the city is Cape Spencer Lighthouse perched on a hill sitting 60 metres (200 feet) above the bay. We watch the morning fog dance over the Bay of Fundy from a towering cliff. Trails lead out towards the rocky edge and we carefully make our way through the scattered pine trees to take in the dramatic scene below.
We end our day at the nearby town of Saint Martins, just a short drive from Saint John. It is famous for its sea caves that are exposed at low tide, but locals will tell you that Split Rock at Duck Pond is more impressive and free of crowds. A deserted beach leads to a sea cliff split in two by years of erosion. At low tide, you can hike all the way out to its tip and walk through the divide. It is just my husband Dave and I alone at sunset enjoying the view in solitude.
Saint John is poised to become a major draw for tourists visiting Canada’s East Coast. As roads become even more connected and more visitors become aware of its charm, the young entrepreneurs of this lovely city are welcoming the influx of Canadian road trippers and globetrotters alike in search of off-beaten-path destinations. Hop in the car and experience the magic for yourself.
Canada is a playground for explorers and adventurers. From the mountains to the coastline, you can find it all here in your own backyard – and there’s no better way to experience it than on a road trip. Enterprise is here to help you discover hidden gems all across Canada. Get moving on the road to adventure.