When Oliver was 16 months old we took him to Thailand where we rode an elephant, traveled in the back of open pickup-truck taxis, navigated the streets of Bangkok by tuk-tuk and jumped into still-moving klong boats with Oliver in a backpack. In the 6 years since we’ve taken him to Spain, France, Denmark, and twice to Portugal where we’ve engaged in all manner of daring pursuits.
And yet the trip that has attracted the most gasps of amazement from our friends was the trip Oliver and I took last weekend to Bathurst, New Brunswick. Go figure.
For those of you not from around here, it’s important to understand that most Prince Edward Islanders view our neighbouring province of New Brunswick as an unfortunate obstacle to be traversed on the way to more worthy destinations (Montreal, Boston, even Bangor). Or perhaps as a destination for back-to-school shopping. But certainly not as a vacation destination. It is my impression that those on the other side of New Brunswick feel similarly.
New Brunswick itself seems to tacitly acknowledge this fact by focusing its marketing efforts on trying to get passers-through to stop for a few extra hours of sea kayaking, whale watching or tide gasping.
I don’t believe it’s ever been suggested to me, either officially or not, that anyone would ever actually voluntarily spend time in New Brunswick. And for the reactions we’ve received since we returned we might as well have revealed that we’d spent the weekend in prison.
But here’s the thing: we had a really good time.
Well, first, I’ve come to realize that one of the reasons that we parents feel so positively about taking road trips with our children is that road trips offer all the appearances of spending time with our children with none of the actual effort. With the kids roped into their car seats in the back, the radio on in the front, and the understandable stresses of the road to explain away any reclusive irritability, it may be co-location, but it’s not quality time.
I’m as much a practitioner of this as the next guy, and I decided that if my goal was to actually spend time with my son, strapping him into a moving straight jacket while I listened to The Current up front wasn’t going to do it. In for a penny, in for a pound, say I.
Second, having committed several years worth of crimes-against-humanity by jetting off overseas at the drop of a pin, my accumulated carbon-guilt wouldn’t allow, say, an impromptu weekend in Paris, New York or Milan. I have a lot of making up to do, so I decided that we had limit our travels to the relatively carbon-friendler bus and train.
With the anemic bus and train network we suffer from in Atlantic Canada, this necessarily limited our options.
We could have bused to Summerside, but, well, that would have left us in Summerside for the weekend, and while carbon-friendliest that would have completely lacked any sense of the exotic.
Moncton might have worked, but we’d been there three weeks before and while Moncton isn’t really as dreadful as everyone says it is, maintaining a friendly disposition toward it requires short infrequent doses.
The train from Moncton goes in two directions: go east and your options are Spring Hill, Truro and Halifax, go west and it’s Rogersville, Mirimachi, Bathurst and the Gaspé. Our natural inclination would be to go to Halifax, but it was a busy weekend over there, and the last-minute nature of our trip and the necessity of a walking-distance-from-train hotel left us unable to find anything for less than $200/night.
So I looked east.
The Gaspé looked most attractive, if only because it’s Quebec. But by the time the train arrived there it would have been midnight, and on the way back we would have had to catch the return train at 3:00 a.m.
Bathurst, as it turns out, is located in a railway sweet spot: the 5:00 p.m. train from Moncton arrives there at 8:00 p.m. and the return trains leaves just before 9:00 a.m. Perfect.
Which explains our transportation rationale.
But of course the shocked looks on the faces of our friends when told of our destination had nothing to do with that: they were simply wondering, beyond the simple New Brunswickness of our destination, what the hell there is to do in Bathurst.
As it turns out, not very much. But, as it turned out, that didn’t really matter.
We happily occupied ourselves at the fantastic accessible playground in Coronation Park. And having a cup of tea at the Coffee Stain (with its fantastic, enthusiastic owners). And eating excellent Greek food at the Resto Grec.
Our hotel was 2km from downtown, so we spent a lot of our time walking to and from; as such we had a long of time to ponder great questions like “if breakfast and lunch are brunch, what are lunch and dinner?” Oliver got to learn about reading maps as we discovered tricky shortcuts back to the hotel. And we both got to experience the upsides and downsides of navigating a car-addicted North American city on foot.
We bought a blank workbook and the Superstore and turned it into a trip diary. We bought a new pair of sunglasses. We spent a few hours wandering the aisles of Wal-Mart (where, on a Sunday morning, everyone in Bathurst seems to be too).
We saw The Nanny Diaries at the Apollo Cinemas (and were perplexed by their ban on backpacks) and watched Flushed Away, The Ant Bully and A Night at the Museum on our in-room DVD player, courtesy of the free DVD machine at the hotel.
We walked the Trans-Canada Trail (less “back to nature” than “littered with construction debris” but an experience nonetheless), had fresh blueberry cake and a piano serenade at Papa Joe & Evy’s and enjoyed cat (shaped) pizza at Pizza Delight.
All told I think we walked about 15km over the weekend, and saw almost every inch of central Bathurst.
And while there were no medieval olive groves, great cathedrals, children’s museums, or roller coasters (nor, indeed, much tourism infrastructure at all), we probably had as good a time, at least as regards father and son spending a lot of time together undistracted by the everyday concerns of the world, as we would have had most anywhere else.
So that’s how a weekend in remotest Bathurst can actually be a not-too-crazy endeavour. You should try it, really.
And if you do, here are some practical pointers:
- Tragically, there’s no city bus from downtown Charlottetown that syncs up with the daily 2:00 p.m. bus from the Mount Edward Road inter-city bus terminal, so the best you can do is take the 1:03 bus from the Confederation Centre to the Atlantic Superstore and walk the long block over to the terminal (leave about 15 minutes).
- The daily 2:00 p.m. Acadian Lines bus from Charlottetown to Moncton meets up with the 5:00 p.m. VIA Rail westbound train, but Acadian Lines doesn’t guarantee that the bus will get there in time, so you need to be prepared with a backup plan (we did make it on time, with about 3 minutes to spare). Conveniently, however, the bus does stop right at the door of the train station on its way into Moncton.
- Although the bus appears to be a “milk run” — it stops in Hunter River, Summerside and Borden on the way to Moncton — it actually only takes about an hour longer than if you drive yourself directly by car. The bus is comfortable, and every seat has its own electrical outlet, so you can bring your laptop, toaster oven, etc.
- It helps to have your VIA Rail tickets in hand when you arrive in Moncton: if you buy them online you need to redeem your online receipt for tickets at the station; this can take a few minutes, minutes you may need if the bus is late. So consider buying your train tickets at a travel agent before you leave.
- The train is about 300% more interesting than car or plane for kids: the snack car has great snacks (and runs movies on plasma screens continuously), there’s the built-in adventure of walking up and down the aisles, and on the new trains there are several clumps of seats with a table between sets of one or two facing seats: great for colouring, etc. (VIA sets aside the for-four seating areas for groups or families of three or four; nice).
- The train station in Bathurst is on the edge of downtown, not the centre of the city, so it will be a hike to your hotel no matter where you stay, but no more than 30 minutes. Backpacks are better than suitcases as a result (unless you take a taxi, of which there are plenty).
- We stayed at the Lakeview Inn & Suites, a very family-friendly hotel: nice breakfast included, play area for kids, free DVD rentals, free Internet terminal, 24h cookies and hot chocolate available. There’s a Comfort Inn too, but it’s further out of town. And there’s also the Chateau Bathurst, closest to the train and to downtown, but the workers there are on strike so it’s best avoided.
- There’s no public transit in Bathurst at all, so your options are getting around are foot, taxi or, if you simply must, car rental (Budget, Enterprise and Discount all have outlets in the city; beware that they all close from Saturday noon until Monday morning). It would have been nice to have a car to get to the city beach, or to explore the coastline to the north or the pioneer village in Caraquet, but we made out okay on foot.
- If you are going to make it around only on foot know that the locals will be of no help at all in estimating times and distances, as nobody actually seems to walk anywhere in Bathurst. We were told it would take “forever” to get to our hotel from the train; it took 30 minutes.
- Seemingly the only place to get an espresso in town is Au Cafe Gourmet on King Street; they were, alas, on vacation the weekend we were there. There’s an interesting-looking Thai Place out near the Lakeview Inn, but it too was closed for the weekend.
- The City Farmer’s Market, held Saturday mornings right downtown on Main Street, pales in comparison to the market you are used to in Charlottetown, and you won’t suffer at all if you bypass it entirely. It’s more “garage sale” than “exotic world of culinary delights.”
- If you stop at the Tourist Office — it’s in the faux ye olde collection of buildings at the main intersection into town — you can get 2-for-1 passes to Apollo Cinemas and the public pool in Coronation Park (which, as suggested above, also has a really great playground).
- If you do decide to walk out to the movies (everyone will tell you that you need to take a taxi, but it’s really only a 20 minute walk), beware that your eating options will be limited to McDonald’s at Wal-Mart at a Keystone Kelly beside the cinema. And don’t forget the cinema’s proscription on backpacks (you can leave yours in the manager’s office if need be).
- Quality-time with kids aside, you probably don’t want to spend more than three nights in Bathurst: by day number four the novelty of asceticism will have turned into cabin fever. Two nights would suffice; three nights is just about right if you’re prepared to be resourceful.
- On the way back you’ll have a two-hour layover in Moncton; conveniently enough, however, you’ll be right downtown and it will lunch time. If you don’t have a lot of luggage, walk downtown, eat lunch, and then catch the bus back at 2:00 p.m. at the main bus terminal on Main Street rather than at the VIA station. There’s are two decent Thai places downtown, and rumours of a new Mongolian grill just off Main Street too.