"Experiential travel—you can find it everywhere," says Gillian Marx, media relations for Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism in the Canadian Maritimes. "Here, it's 'exotic' in the truest sense of the word. Within three hours of Newark, NJ, you're in a completely different environment."
Exotic experiences in the Maritimes can even extend to safaris, a concept not often associated with the U.S.'s neighbor to the north. Coastal Safari's seven-day program through the wilds of New-foundland begins in St. John's, the oldest city in North America. Travelers trek out to watch for whales and icebergs off the old WWII gun emplacements at Cape Spear. Crossing by boat through Witless Bay Seabird Sanctuary, visitors can watch for fulmars and puffins before landing at Harbour Mille. On the way to base camp across Fortune Bay, they can see caribou munching kelp or cormorants diving off Shag Rock.
The camp sits on a raised marine terrace in 12x14-foot tents with wooden floors, carpets, beds with box springs and mattresses, sleeping bags, linens and towels for the gas-heated shower. Dinner consists of freshly prepared paella, sashimi, fresh vegetables and wine. Guests wake up in soft beds to loon cries and the smell of flapjacks.
"[Visitors] will find real cultural experiences," says Diane Rioux, project executive of media relations at the New Brunswick Department of Tourism and Parks. The Maritime folks (especially the "Newfies") are very willing to share that cultural experience with strangers.
Fairmont Hotels & Resorts global account manager, travel industry sales, Leslie Dodson talks about a time she visited St. John's with her mother. Their flight got in at 12:30 a.m., and they walked down George Street. They ran into a man who—sober, mind you—gave them each a warm hug, saying "Welcome to St. John's, I'm glad you could make it."
Don't be surprised, either, if you find yourself in the kitchen at the back of your small inn or B&B, singing songs and swapping tales. The kitchen party is a local tradition, but draws in visitors too. Even the kitchens of the high-end hotels are open. At the Kingsbrae Arms hotel (St. Andrews, NB) French-Canadian chef Randy Akey holds culinary classes, customized to guests' tastes. Akey will take you to the local market and the sturgeon farm to pick up the ingredients for the evening and provide hands-on instruction.
Hospitality isn't just a business in the Maritimes, it's as natural as shaking hands. The closest road to Grey River Lodge in Shoal Harbour, NL, is 25 minutes away via chopper flying at 120 mph. The lodge is accessed by boat and helicopter only. "No queues, no noise, no scowls," says Marx. "You're left with yourself out here." Yet she knew of a couple at Grey River who ended up getting invited to a local wedding.
Horizon & Co.'s "Earth to Human" seven-night bus tour stops at such sites as L'Anse Aux Meadows (the site of an 11th century Viking settlement), Gros Morne National Park and the Tableland Mountains, where the earth's mantle has broken through to the surface. This educational tour includes lectures, as well as musical and theatrical outdoor performances under the stars.
Another "Big-Land" experience can be had at the Bay of Fundy, which divides New Brunswick from Nova Scotia. Twice a day visitors witness four-story tidal shifts—reportedly the highest tides in the world. Hopewell Rocks in New Brunswick is the best place to see this natural wonder, with guided park tours of the exposed sea floor to examine the "flowerpot rocks" and looming sandstone cliffs that will be under water again in a few hours. Camping along the Fundy Trail Footpath, 24 miles of unmolested wilderness, is for real outdoor types. Caving along the water in St. Martin, NB, is another popular activity.
Close to Nature
Many attractions display the locals' pride in their pristine environment. At the Fluvarium in St. John's, 10,000 local schoolchildren reap the rewards annually; this unique facility—which is a diverted section of a brook that flows past nine underwater-viewing windows—allows visitors a look at the world below the waters' surface. Try to be there for the "Duck Race & Festival" in August, when $10 can buy you a speedy rubber duck to support the museum's children's programming. Staff members drop all the ducks into Rennie's River from a bridge; the first 10 to cross the finish line win a prize.
For those who'd rather get wet themselves, 15 minutes from Moncton, NB, are "the warmest waters north of Virginia," says Rioux. If you prefer chlorinated summer fun, Moncton's Magic Mountain waterpark has a wave pool and a 400-foot tube slide.
Back above the water, Freewheelin' Adventures provides biking treks around the provinces. For families, the four-night bike tour of Prince Edward Island goes from Charlottetown to East Point Lighthouse along Confederation Trail, stopping in Cavendish, Stanhope and the white sands of Basin Head. Bikers taking the relatively flat ride can see the "Anne of Green Gables" musical at the Charlottetown Festival, visit fishing museums, play golf, go sea-kayaking or simply jump into the sea.
Speaking of the sea, the Maritimes even give you the chance to surf. The Rossignol Surf Shop offers clinics and camps at White Point Beach Resort in Port Joli, NS, from May until October.