New Brunswick: Colorful guide creates fun day at Bay of Fundy

Fishing boat grounded at its mooring during low tide in the Bay of Fundy, St. Martins. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)
Fishing boat grounded at its mooring during low tide in the Bay of Fundy, St. Martins. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)

By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com

When it comes to guided tours, our experience has been that the smaller the group the better.

But the most important factor for a memorable experience is the guide.

That was reinforced on an outing at Saint John, New Brunswick. Tour guide Steve Stein turned a six-hour jaunt around the Bay of Fundy into a fun day full of surprises.

First impression was this guy is a real character. Turned out Stein is not only a colorful personality, playing distinctive characters is his specialty.

Stein, who could be cast for a ZZ Top tribute band, is known for playing various characters at events around Saint John including a pirate captain, Old Man Winter and may gigs as Santa Claus.

He was dressed in a historical costume when he caught the attention of the then Prince of Wales — now King Charles III — at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in Saint John in 2012.

Low tides, high humor by the Bay of Fundy

We didn’t know what to expect when we met up with our Fun Day Tours group outside the cruise ship terminal in Saint John for the New Brunswick Shore Excursion Bay of Fundy and More Highlights Tour (booked through Tripadvisor). It was pure luck that we ended up with the most entertaining tour guide we’ve ever encountered.

Commercial fishing in the Bay of Fundy includes lobster, snow crab and herring. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)
Commercial fishing in the Bay of Fundy includes lobster, snow crab and herring. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)

Before our cruise ship docked at Canada’s oldest incorporated city, all we knew about Saint John was that it was on the Bay of Fundy, known for the world’s highest tides.

The tidal difference there ranges from 11 to 53 feet in various parts of the bay. Consider that the average tidal range world wide is only three feet.

I’d seen photos of fishing boats aground at their moorings during low tide which occurs twice every 24 hours.

In the course of the tour we would have the chance to photograph the phenomenon in the small fishing village of St. Martins and witness the water rushing in both directions at the famous Reversing Falls in Saint John.

But when I think back on that day, what stands out is Stein’s gravely smoker’s chuckle, the twinkle in his eye and all the surprises he sprang on us along the way.

Aside from the Reversing Falls — which looked like a brisk rapids — and witnessing the huge bay void of water at low tide, the tour would have just been a pleasantly scenic coastal drive without the guide’s colorful narration and creative scheme to make it memorable.

Bay of Fundy tour a day full of surprises

Highlights included ghost stories during a stop at a so-called haunted house, a photo opp with a rather stiff moose — Stein stopped at the Moosehead Brewery so we could take selfies with their mascot in the lobby — an encounter with a notorious bear and a brush with a cantankerous tourist-hating fishing captain. All designed to enliven a long day.

Stein commanded his squat 16-passenger van like a rodeo rider, pedal to the metal at all times. Hey, if you want a sedate tour with pat commentary, take one of the big-bus tours offered by the cruise lines. You want an adventure, Stein is your platoon leader and it’s best to keep a firm grip on any handhold at all times.

He pushed that baby down potholed side roads and you never knew when he might slam on the brakes, open the doors and send us off on foot down some dirt path to view another natural wonder on some rocky beach over yonder.

And you’d better be prepared for some Stein-concocted caper lurking in the underbrush to scare the bejesus out of us on the way back. All punctuated with his hearty laugh.

The Bay of Fundy features the most extreme tides in the world, ranging from 11 to 53 feet in various parts of the bay. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)
The Bay of Fundy features the most extreme tides in the world, ranging from 11 to 53 feet in various parts of the bay. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)

Saint John has long history as center of immigration

It was quickly apparent this was going to be a unique experience when Stein began the morning by taking us up a steep incline that the full-size buses could never access and pulled up at rustic Fort Howe, built at the highest point of Saint John by the British to defend the city during the American Revolution.

He gathered us around an old cannon aimed at the mouth of the harbor and gave a monologue on the progression of Saint John history from the French to the British to the Loyalists and finally to “my relatives the Irish.”

He pointed out Partridge island — Canada’s version of New York ’s Ellis Island — where thousands of immigrants from Europe were processed during the early and mid 1800s, including many of Stein’s Irish ancestors. Many of them died of infectious diseases and are buried on the island, which is now off-limits to the public.

“Ever hear the term the ‘Fighting Irish?’ It comes from that island,” Stein said. “Even if he’s dead he’ll still crawl through the ground. And that’s exactly what happened over there. The Irishmen started coming through the ground, the skeletons, because the wind and rain eroded the soil. So they had to build up a lot of soil and rebury them.”

Reversing Falls is Saint John’s prime attraction

On that note we were off to the day’s first of two stops at the Reversing Falls, where the high tide was just beginning its outward flow.

Viewing options include the Skywalk Saint John observation platform at the Reversing Falls Bridge for a birds-eye view of the phenomenon — the tidal difference is 28 feet in that area.

Most tour buses stop along the riverside in Fallsview Park. Again, our small bus proved to be an advantage as Stein was able to fit it into a choice spot in the prime viewing area.

“There’s huge fish in this river — Atlantic salmon, sturgeon, striped bass. A buddy of mine caught a striped bass [weighing] 69 ½ pounds,” Stein says. “You may see some seals. Sharks come in here too. Makes sense, the sharks follow the seals.

“In 1976, a fisherman caught a 17-foot great white shark in the 200-foot level.”

Stein had a knack for leaving one with a momentous thought to ponder at each stop.

We would return to Fallsview Park at the end of the day and see the water rushing out of the bay as it has twice a day for eons.

The most distinctive feature at St. Martins, N.B., is the sea caves — giant caverns carved through the sandstone by the relentless ebb and flow of the Fundy tides. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)
The most distinctive feature at St. Martins, N.B., is the sea caves — giant caverns carved through the sandstone by the relentless ebb and flow of the Fundy tides. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)

Sea Caves, extreme tides distinguish St. Martins

The extreme tidal change in the Bay of Fundy is attributed to its vast funnel-shaped expanse — the bay stretches 170 miles — and varying depths up to 660 feet that cause the water to literally pile up as it sloshes in and out as if in a giant bathtub.

The turnaround point of the tour was St. Martins, the quaint village midway up the Bay of Fundy — about a 40-minute drive direct from Saint John — where the classic photos of fishing boats aground at low tide are typically taken. The tidal swing there is 40 feet, so the fishing boats spend as much time stuck on the muddy bottom as they do afloat.

But the most distinctive feature at St. Martins is the sea caves — giant caverns carved through the sandstone by the relentless ebb and flow of the Fundy tides.

The caves can be explored at low tide, but they were roped off the day we visited. There is also a sea caves kayak tour that is a popular attraction.

Quite a few of the large tour buses were lined up when we arrived at lunch time. Stein exerted some influence and quickly secured a couple of tables at The Caves seafood restaurant for our group.

Thanks to Stein, we got an entertaining introduction to an area with more to offer than we realized. St. Martins is the jumping-off point for the Fundy Trail Parkway, a spectacular 19-mile drive along the Bay of Fundy coast.

Fundy Trail Parkway, one of the last remaining coastal wilderness areas between Florida and Labrador, is part of the UNESCO Fundy Biosphere Reserve, Stonehammer Geopark and the Trans Canada Trail. Open from mid-May until mid-October, Fundy Trail Parkway is known for its numerous clifftop overlooks of the bay, more than 37 miles of hiking trails, the distinctive Big Salmon River Suspension Footbridge, pristine beaches and of course those famous Fundy tides.

It’s an area that begs for further exploring. Wonder if it would have the same appeal without Stein leading the way.

Note: A number of tour companies run the same basic Bay of Fundy tours offered through Tripadvisor. We’ve had plenty of outstanding guides on our travels. Steve Stein stood apart from the typical tour guide and made our experience particularly memorable.

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About craigslegz 108 Articles
Travel is about discovery, and I learn most about a place when I explore it on foot. Craigslegz Travels is about favorite places and people, and advice to aid fellow travelers. My emphasis is on venturing off well-worn paths. - Craig Davis

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