Last Updated on September 21, 2023
When recently asked about Saint John, New Brunswick, I was clueless about anything in this area. I had heard, in passing, of the Bay of Fundy. I had previously been to Canada, to well-known regions like Toronto and Niagara Falls. But New Brunswick? Not really.
That, however, is what travel is all about for me — exploring places I’ve never been, seeking new encounters, learning and experiencing an area.
Follow me to Saint John as I tell you about my first-time experiences within this beautiful city.
City of Saint John
Saint John is the oldest incorporated city in Canada. Located on the Bay of Fundy, it has the highest tides in the world. While I make my home near the water in Mississippi, I have never experienced an area where the tides play such a fundamental role in everyday life. It’s more than casually checking the high/low tide schedules in the course of a day. When in Saint John, everyone must heed the timing of the tides.
Tides in this area change every 6 hours and 13 minutes – two high and two low each day. The water rises one foot every five minutes. Consider that the amount of water that comes into the Bay of Fundy during just one tidal change is enough to fill the Grand Canyon twice. If a person is 6-feet in height, standing stationary on the beach with water brushing their toes, the water will be over their head in 30 minutes.
Saint John boasts a large cruise ship port, large enough to handle three ships docked simultaneously. Some ships house as many as 4,000 passengers, but smaller ones arrive here as well. The area will host 83 tours in the upcoming season, most between mid-August through October, as Saint John’s fall foliage is a huge draw.
I was lucky enough to view a ship in port. Granted, it was on the smallish side – perhaps only around 1,500 passengers – but still fabulous to see. The ship was there for just a few hours – docking early in the morning and departing in the early afternoon. Again, the tides played an integral role in the timing as the ship had to leave at precisely 2:00 p.m.
It was my first time witnessing a cruise ship making a U-turn in a harbor. It was fascinating, and much like a perfectly choreographed dance.
History and Progress within the City
The St. John River and bay were essential in the growth of the city. It was and continues to be an industrial place. Shipbuilding was the backbone for many years in this heavily forested area which has now transitioned to pulp and paper production and sites the largest oil refinery in Canada.
Despite that heavy manufacturing, there is green space within the town. City parks that provide quiet sanctuary. As you stroll through the area, you’ll see statues and monuments built to those of a bygone era alongside lovely carved benches for sitting, and flowers everywhere— their scents enticing.
Rambling through the Old Loyalist Burial Ground, I could feel a sense of pride in the city’s history along with many places for reflection. It honestly didn’t feel as though I was actually inside a city.
Area 506 Waterfront
While Saint John reveres its history, it also fully embraces the future, reflected in its Area 506 Waterfront Container Village.
Precisely as the name suggests, this vibrant village with over 25 dining and retail establishments is housed within renovated shipping containers. Anchoring uptown Saint John, which spans approximately 10 blocks, this district along the docks provides visitors a unique way to experience another aspect of the city.
There is an open entertainment area for bands and other activities with picnic tables scattered for seating along with a patio offering a beautiful view of the harbor. You’ll even find axe throwing and an arcade. The vibe is infectious, and when a particular festival is happening, it’s completely full of energy.
St. John has embarked on a 10-year development plan to bring even more life to the waterfront next to Area 506. Residents and visitors will see a continuation of the boardwalk near the water. A new hotel, more retail and business space, along with apartments and an outdoor skating rink are planned.
While envisioning this upcoming development, I found it intriguing that it will provide the best of both worlds: a place to enjoy the progression of time with all its advantages while embracing Uptown’s fascinating history.
A geopark has an outstanding geological heritage that supports development utilizing conservation, education, community engagement and sustainable tourism. The entire city of Saint John lies within the confines of Stonehammer Geopark. There are only 177 geoparks worldwide. Stonehammer was the first in North America.
Over several days, I was fortunate to visit seven of the twelve sites Geopark accessible to visitors. While I can’t share every fantastic detail I discovered during my journey through Stonehammer, I will highlight a few favorites.
There is a lovely beach in this area, but the highlight for me was kayaking to a set of rocks including one billion-year-old Stromatolite fossils. When discovered in 1890, they were the oldest evidence of life on Earth.
Reversing Falls Rapids
This captivating tidal phenomenon happens when daily tidal changes affect the flow of the St. John River causing it to collide with the waters of the Bay of Fundy thereby creating a reverse river flow.
During low tide, the river rushes through the gorge creating whitewater rapids and whirlpools. During high tide, the bay overtakes the river, switching its flow and creating standing waves. There is only a 20-minute period known as slack tide, where the water is stalled and calm. Slack tide is the only time of day when watercraft can pass between the river and the bay – a breathtaking sight.
Beneath the surface lie waterfalls and rocks formed from events dating back to Ice Age glaciers, the Supercontinent Pangea, and fault lines running through. This is the geology that’s the source of Reversing Falls. Amazingly, this is one place to see North America, South America, and northern Africa rock formations in the same location.
Irving Nature Park
Here, visitors will find hiking trails, lookouts, beaches, a boardwalk across the salt marsh, and a children’s forest containing a maze and playground—a great place to take the family for a day of outdoor adventure. The natural landscape is magnificent and it’s among the best places to see migratory birds.
As one of the newer landscapes in the area, fossils found here are only about 200 million years old. At low tide, you can see scratches from the retreating glaciers in the surface of the rocks.
This fascinating property is one of Canada’s largest municipal parks within city limits. As you drive into the park, you are moving over the Caledonia fault line, said to be one of the most active fault lines during the time of Pangea. It separated two distinctive terrains. One side is shale from what is now Africa, and the other, limestone from what is now South America.
Another unique element of Rockwood Park is the Confederation Trail. Here, you can drive or walk ‘through Canada.’ Areas along the loop are designated for each Canadian province.
Every station has a monument significant to each of these areas along with its flag. At the end of the trail, a monument represents a stone found in each province forming a maple leaf set on a base of sandstone from Prince Edward Island. It is a great way to learn a bit about each of the provinces.
First Nation Storytellers
I spent a delightful couple of hours enthralled by the storytelling of the founder of First Nations Storytellers. His story is fascinating. Taken from his family – the Mi’kmaq people – Dave was adopted away when someone decided that he was ‘marginalized.’ Due to those circumstances, he lost his people’s language, culture, and traditions.
Amazingly, he is not bitter about this. Instead, he has been on a mission to rediscover everything about the Indigenous people of the area, their languages, and share his journey with those willing to listen and learn.
And learn I did.
About how the Wolastoq River, lifeblood to the First Nations people, became the St. John River and the thriving cultures in Saint John long before the European settlers arrived. I heard stories of Samuel de Champlain and his meeting with the leaders of the Wolastoqi and Mi’kmaq people.
I listened to the story passed down by elders and how legend describes the changes in the geological landscape and flow of the Wolastoq. I walked along the historical portage route and was shown the sites of Saint John through a brand-new lens. I was left wanting to learn more, which is the whole point.
My time in Saint John was enlightening on many levels, representing the true epitome of why many fall in love with travel. I have never enjoyed learning about science, geology, nature, history, and culture so much. I look forward to returning and delving even deeper into this beautiful area. An area that, a few months ago, was totally off my radar.
Moral of the story: Expand your thinking and knowledge of the world around you. You won’t be disappointed.historyIndigenous culturenature