It’s not a mistake that St. Andrews-by-the-Sea is known as Canada’s first resort town, and that’s because it’s a supremely idyllic place, and regularly considered one of the most charming towns in Canada. Robin and Arlene Karpan share all we need below to make the most of our visit!
With its idyllic setting on the tip of a peninsula jutting into the Bay of Fundy, historic St. Andrews is considered Canada’s first seaside resort town.
With fewer than 2,000 residents, St. Andrews pulls more than its weight when it comes to cool things to see and do. But don’t just take our word for it. Condé Nast Traveler magazine named it among Canada’s most charming small towns, and USA Today even called it the Top Destination in Canada.
It’s a historic jewel in Southwestern New Brunswick, and if you’re looking to turn this visit into a stop on a larger itinerary, then you’ll be happy to know it’s not located all that far from Saint John (1 hour), Fredericton (1.5 hours), nor Moncton (2.5 hours)
Discovering a Rich Architectural History
As we drive into the town centre, the first thing that strikes us is the melding of seaside ambience with historic architecture, as if we’ve stepped back in time.
One of New Brunswick’s oldest settlements, St Andrews was founded in 1783 by United Empire Loyalists from nearby Maine. Many brought their houses with them by dismantling the structures, loading them on barges, then reconstructing them in St. Andrews, providing the beginnings of the town’s rich architectural heritage.
St. Andrews is designated a National Historic District, with more than 140 heritage buildings. Taking a pleasant stroll along Water Street, the town’s main drag, we stop to read the many plaques on shops outlining their early origins. Heritage walking tours are offered for a more in-depth look.
When St. Andrews became a fashionable seaside summer resort in the late 1800s, it was considered the first of its kind in Canada. The arrival of the railway allowed those who had money to spare to easily escape the summer heat and humidity in places like Montreal and Boston, and travel to St. Andrews with its moderate, healthy climate and tranquil setting.
The most famous historic building from that era is the ornate Algonquin Resort. Constructed in 1889, then refurbished in a Tudor Revival style after a fire in 1914, the Algonquin dominates St. Andrews with its size (233 rooms), reputation, and striking presence with castle-like turrets and red slate roof.
The luxurious digs and Old World charm have attracted the rich and famous plus a long list of prime ministers, presidents, and royalty.
Whale Watching in St. Andrews by-the-Sea
Since St. Andrews is a hotspot for whale watching, so we took an excursion with Island Quest Marine. The family-run local business operates a custom-built and comfortable cruise boat with inside seating to escape the weather plus open decks for unimpeded viewing and photography. Most important, marine biologists bring the guided tour to life.
We cruised past the islands separating Passamaquoddy Bay from the larger Bay of Fundy and headed towards Campobello Island. The unusual island is part of New Brunswick but the only road access is through Maine where it is connected by a bridge.
We passed beside the distinctive East Quoddy Lighthouse, which is brilliant white with a massive red cross. Dating to 1828, it was the first lighthouse in New Brunswick outside Saint John Harbour.
It wasn’t long before we started spotting Minke Whales, sleek mammals up to 10 metres long and the most plentiful species in these waters. They only surface for a short time, but our guide Nicole taught us how to watch for patterns in their behaviour to anticipate their appearance. Several harbour porpoises added to the show. Depending on the time of year, conditions, and just the luck of the draw, there could be finback or humpback whales, or even rare north Atlantic right whales.
We stopped to look at seals, seabirds, landmarks, and scenery, and Nicole spoke about the local fishing industry. Staff brought out a “touch and feel tank” where passengers could get up close and personal with small creatures found on the ocean floor.
Much more than just whales, the cruise showed us a slice of life in this special corner of the Bay of Fundy.
Visiting the Fundy Discovery Aquarium
To learn even more about Fundy’s marine life we headed to the expansive Fundy Discovery Aquarium where the emphasis is on close encounters and interactive displays.
One exhibit explained Fundy’s amazing tides, while in another area we could watch harbour seals on the water surface as well as underwater through glass. The big draw for youngsters was the large subtidal pool where they could handle and touch fascinating sea creatures.
A Riot of Colour at Kingsbrae Gardens
More than simply a garden, Kingsbrae (kingsbraegarden.com) is a 27-acre horticultural masterpiece that has won just about every gardening award imaginable, including being named among the Top 5 North American Gardens by the Garden Tourism Conference.
The grounds are divided into several different themes such as a rose garden, a knot garden where plants with contrasting colours are arranged in patterns, and the scents and sensitivity garden where we’re encouraged to touch the plants.
Innovative concepts abound – incorporating gardens into typical New Brunswick Acadian Forest, ponds aerated by a working windmill, and imaginative sculptures such as a huge apple core carving in the apple orchard. It’s a place that appeals to more than just flower aficionados.
Driving Across the Ocean Floor to Ministers Island
Our drive to nearby Ministers Island was in a class by itself, where just getting there was half the fun. The island lies a kilometre offshore, with no bridge, causeway, ferry or anything else to connect it to the mainland. Instead, we just wait for the Bay of Fundy’s famous tides (the highest in the world) to do their magic.
Watching the tide recede so fast was like witnessing the parting of the Red Sea. In a matter of minutes, the expanse of water became dotted with patches of land, and before long the exposed seafloor stretched all the way to the island. We followed the line of cars waiting to cross. It was disconcerting at first driving onto the ocean floor but it had the consistency of packed gravel, though we had to zigzag around potholes in low spots.
While the island was named for a minister who built a house here in 1790, it is best known for its association with Sir William Van Horne, president and builder of the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway). After acquiring most of the land in 1891, he built a grandiose summer home for the family, the 50 rooms including 17 bedrooms, 11 fireplaces, and 11 bathrooms.
The house and equally impressive massive barn are now part of an historic site. Most intriguing are displays looking at the personal side of this larger-than-life-historic figure. In addition to building railways, Van Horne collected model sailing ships, was an accomplished painter, and a compulsive workaholic who called sleep a bad habit.
What Else Should You Consider Doing in St. Andrews by-the-Sea, NB?
If you’re visiting on an extended stay, here are a few more things to do in St. Andrews by-the-Sea, New Brunswick that you may want to consider adding to your itinerary. Do note that some of the sites are closed in the winter months.
- St. Andrews Blockhouse: Also a National Historic Site, the St. Andrews Blockhouse was built by townspeople who were worried about the potential advance of American privateers or the military.
- The Oppenheimer-Prager Museum at Dayspring: This is the largest home in the town, and as quaint as they come. Tours may not be available on your visit, but you can find their contact information on their site if you’re keen to visit while you’re there.
- Charlotte County Archives: If you’re a historian, then you’ll want to head to this historic jail, which is now the home of thousands of original documents which shed light on this Canadian town and the region-at-large.
- Sheriff Andrews House: Built in 1820, this former home of one of the first High Sheriffs of Charlotte County (Elisha Andrews) is now dedicated to showcasing his life.
- Ross Memorial Museum: A 19th century summer home that’s now filled with antique paintings, furniture and decorative objects.
Canada’s First Resort Town Awaits
Official attractions aside, part of St. Andrews’ appeal is its simple pleasures.
Enjoy pure salty air while strolling along the shore, watch the changing tides or sunset from a waterfront patio, or soak up the historic atmosphere over a drink or fresh-from-the-boat seafood at a sidewalk restaurant.
A 1902 brochure promoted St Andrews as “…an incomparable resting place and retreat from the cares of business and heat and dust of the city”. It’s nice to see that some things don’t change.
Robin and Arlene Karpan are award-winning writers, photographers, bloggers, and authors of several travel books, including Canadian Bestsellers. Their work has appeared in over 100 publications around the world. While their travels have taken them to all seven continents, they find that some of the most compelling destinations are close to home in Canada. They have a special interest in the natural world and outdoor photography. Robin and Arlene publish the travel blog Photo Journeys which looks at travel through a photographer’s lens, and is rated by Feedspot as among the Top 100 Travel Photography Sites.