I had barely 24 hours in Fredericton and a list of must-see places: the Lord Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the downtown, the farmer’s market, a free concert in the park. And of course the Blue Door restaurant, which has been topping restaurant charts in Canada. Call me lazy, but the shorter the stay, the less inclined I am to venture far or learn a city’s public transportation system.
Luckily, Fredericton is made for such a challenge. I checked into the Crowne Plaza Lord Beaverbrook. Its sweeping staircase and lobby chandelier reflects the status of this city, New Brunswick’s capital since 1785. The back of the hotel faces the water, and serves as the terrace of the dining room, so you can start the day by having breakfast facing the wide, blue St. John River. Yet the room prices (around $160 when I was there in high season, but this varies) and the casual ambiance – people wearing shorts in the grand lobby – is Maritime casual.
This city of about 54,000 people has four universities (two online) and the New Brunswick College of Art and Design, as well as edVentures, summer crafts classes ranging from pottery to jewelry making.
The city is a hub of both nature and culture: no wonder Moneysense Magazine has included it in the top ten places to live in Canada for the last six years.. It has l85 kilometres of connecting trails for walking, hiking, cycling and cross country skiing. Add to that a thriving arts and crafts community, theatre and a variety of restaurants.
Bisecting the city is St. John River, called the Rhine of North America for the picturesque farms and villages that grew up around it. The West side, where I stayed, is where art galleries, shops and historical sites are only a walk away from each other.
My first stop was the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, New Brunswick’s provincial art gallery. Over 50 years ago, Lord Beaverbrook, the Anglo-Canadian press baron, built the gallery and stocked it with works from his permanent collection: Turner, Gainsborough, Reynolds, even some water colours by Beaverbrook’s pal, Winston Churchill. There are some important paintings by Salvador Dali, and a large collection of works by Cornelius Kreighoff, best known for his scenes of wintry sleigh rides.
Even in high season, you won’t find crowds here, so it’s a great place to view art peacefully. The current emphasis is on Canadian artists, especially Maritimers. I saw an exhibit called “Where Go the Boats”, which showed paintings of boats ranging from dream scenes (the boat as the vehicle of transition from one stage of life to another) to the cool realism of Christopher Pratt’s Big Cigarette, a static boat in storage. The paintings by artists including Jack Humphrey, Alex Colville, Stephen May and Joe Norris, are all part of the 5,000 piece permanent collection.
Next, a concert at the Garrison District Officer's Square, a large area with a stage, a grassy square.. Throughout the summer the Next2Now music series is free. Flanking the square, in what was the barracks of British forces, is Fredericton’s historical museum. There you can learn about the peoples who lived in the area: the native people, the Acadians, the New England Planters (New Englanders who were invited to come to New Brunswick after to the Acadians were expelled) and the British.
Officers square, which looks out on the St. John River, is on Queen Street, which is one of the most interesting and walkable streets in Fredericton. It has cafés, art galleries and crafts boutiques, some in storefronts below Victorian brick buildings. In 2012 Queen Street won the award for Canada’s Great Streets by the Canadian Institute of Planners.
That evening, I went to another award winning place – The Bue Door, Chatelaine’s August 2013 Best Restaurant in Fredericton, and winner of the 2013Wine Spectator Award. .It was only a few blocks from my hotel, so even high heels were not out of the question. Chef Shane Bauer, who arrived in August, was returning to Fredericton after living and working in Montreal and Vancouver. He brings to the restaurant, which used to serve big plates of pasta, skill and openness – “thanks to the internet, I know what chefs are doing in Toronto”, he told me. But this is tempered by a keen sense of place. As he put it, “Fredericton is a conservative town – you have to gain people’s trust”. Judging from the restaurant’s success, he has done just that. Chef Bauer has enthusiastically connected with local suppliers – from cheese makers to kale growers, to duck raisers. The outstanding meal I had included local Beausoleil oysters ($10), pan-seared halibut served with carrot potato rosti and parsnip puree ($23).
Just up the street is the Boyce Farmers' Market open on Saturdays from 6am to 1pm. Again, only a few blocks from my hotel, this place has been attracting the locals since 1951. Half inside, half outside, its booths offer everything from sea food to samosas. Special events like pumpkin carving and a Christmas market, are held throughout the year.. I bought some Gavaroche, local goat cheese coated with ash, and pure, fresh blueberry juice. It was bit too early in the day for the lobster rolls.
I was imagining my last stop, kayaking on the St. John River, as the pinnacle of my visit.
Everywhere I walked, the river was visible, and numerous paths snake along the waterfront. Less than a half hour from my hotel, I arrived at the Small Craft Aquatic Centre ($12 per hour for a single, $16 for a double and for a canoe.). But the weather was not. Too windy for sailing, I was told at the office, and it didn’t look like it would change.. So I settled for sitting on the long dock and walking back to my hotel. Not in a rush, I had time to gaze up at the lighthouse, to stop at the Legistlative Assembly Building. And to gaze at the St. John River that I would return to this city, under-discovered despite its many awards.