Moving to Tropical Canada

You read it right … “Tropical Canada”.

We learned about this bizarre phenomenon in the early ‘90s while on vacation in Montreal. It happened innocently enough while my husband Ken and I were riding a public bus back to our downtown hotel after a frenzied shopping spree. During this 20-minute interlude, upon learning that we were visiting “Yanks” from West Virginia, a cordially loquacious elderly gent shared his fondness for all things Atlantic Maritime.  

His enthusiasm centered upon the mild weather and shellfish wonders of this undiscovered region to the East. During his eloquent oratory, he “imprinted” upon us the absolute necessity of visiting “the tropical part of Canada,” where amidst swaying palms the lobsters virtually jump ashore and the seafood delicacies exceed a gastronome’s wildest dreams. On and on with contagious gusto, he extolled the virtues of little-known Maritime Canada comprised of the provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, a landscape of windswept rocky strewn shores and remote Celtic villages. The encounter with him was unforgettable.

A year later when the grind of our professional lives required time off to reboot by exploring new territory, I suggested a jaunt up the Maine Coast, an area of the States I hadn’t visited, and also a visit to that “tropical part of Canada.” Now Dr. Ken, a rural sociologist who grew up in Washington State showing animals at Canadian fairs and mixing with Canadian in-laws, said emphatically, “There’s no such thing as Tropical Canada! Still, he promised to search the net to see what he could learn about the Maritimes and said he’d “report back.”

A few days later he shared his due diligence: “The only thing I can come up with is that the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick has waters as warm as Virginia Beach … so perhaps the water tempers the coastal climate…”  He also reported that this region has the highest tides in the world and the richest marine life, including lobster, mussels, scallops, oysters, all sorts of whales and sea vegetation. Moreover, he noted that New Brunswick is the sunniest Canadian province in winter and the only official dual language province. So much for facts; seeing is believing.

So mid-July came and we set off in the car waving goodbye to our five Jack Russells and their babysitter to explore this coastal territory. We were armed with a loose itinerary and warnings from owners of Maine cottages about avoiding that State’s summer gridlock along tourist trap towns. We were directed to visit New Harbor, a lovely remote destination with an authentic sea captain’s inn, rustic cottages, and popular outdoor fresh lobster and seafood restaurant perched on a picturesque pier.

Departing our home the afternoon of July 4th we were regaled with a fireworks display in Pennsylvania and the next day were captivated by Maine’s rocky seascapes and New England architecture not to mention the quaint antique shops on every gentleman’s farm.

So far … so good: our coastal expectations were meeting anticipation. However, an sudden onslaught of ragweed rhinitis attacked the second day, rendering me an oozing, sneezing zombie.  Always when the ragweed pollen hit West Virginia in late August, we left for Europe to save me from this pestilence. But here in mid-July on Maine’s breezy coast, ragweed pollen was ruining my vacation fun.

We continued to plod north to the ”tropics” with me nodding out in the passenger seat on OTC allergy meds knee-deep in wet tissues and my husband doped-up on internet info on tourist sites. We thought we’d head up to St. Andrews by-the-Sea, described as a artsy resort favorite, and then drive through the St. John Valley, along the Fundy Coast, and if time allowed, we’d venture up to Shediac for some French ambiance and lobster.

When we hit Calais, Maine, the international border town that crosses into St. Stephen New Brunswick 2-1/2 hours from Bangor, we missed the border crossing turn and ended up entering Canada further north at McAdam. Driving for miles and miles in heavy forest; it was hot and humid with the only diversion black flies pelting our windshield. I almost forgot the occasional trailer enclave replete with a rust bucket on blocks, a few clear-cut areas, and the ominous Georgia Pacific signs. This eerie almost Appalachian scene reminded us of the “West By-God-Virginia hollers” we’d left behind.

By this time we realized we were way off track and that this dumb detour had cost us valuable time, so at the first intersection we headed south on Rt. 127 toward St. Andrews. We raced the sunset south. Our frustration was palpable in the silence. (I always feel anxious when we arrive at a new destination at night without a place to stay.)  As dusk closed in we found ourselves driving along the St. Croix River where the cool evening sea breeze and ephemeral glimpses of the St. Croix River signaled a very different terrain, buoying our anticipation. In the middle of the river, we spied the tiny St. Croix Island, where 400 years ago Explorer Pierre Dugua Sieur de Mons and Cartographer Samuel Champlain arrived with a ship full of French settlers and supplies to establish the first European settlement in Canada, only to be decimated by scurvy; ironically the few survivors were saved by the very Indians they feared.

Entering St. Andrews was like entering a fairyland; a pristine 18th-century New England fishing village moored in time with sea glass colored buildings on quaint Water Street with its nautical street lights and colorful hanging baskets and window boxes. King Street’s imagination-perfect church steeples and perfectly preserved clapboard homes continued down to the bay where bright fishing boats and sloops bobbed expectantly.. After our Twilight Zone afternoon, we felt our optimism lift and even my allergy symptoms disappeared into the enchanting evening.  With our luck running we secured the last room at the renownedFairmont Algonquin Hotel, a huge castle-like Tudor resort property on a hill overlooking the town with immense Victorian gardens that in itself was worth the trip.

After checking in we were “some hungry” in the Canadian idiom. Being tried and true “Euro-philes” we searched out a small gourmet restaurant. We trotted briskly through town noting the historic architecture to the L’Europa, reputedly one of the best Continental restaurants around. It was an unusually slow night,  so in addition to superb continental cuisine (Las Moras organic Argentinian wine, silky lobster bisque, duck a’ L’orange, venison in red currant sauce, and checkered chocolate mouse cake for desert), we enjoyed the gracious hospitality of Simone and Markus Ritter, the young German proprietors. The vivaciously attractive Simone, an artist,  and the astute Chef Markus told us how much they loved living in St. Andrews and how they had been lured here by a German guide advising that the Maritimes offered the most opportunity in Canada for restaurant start-ups. After thoroughly researching the region, they told us they had decided on St. Andrews for its tourism potential and quality of life.  

Talking to them fondly reminded us of a former German partner in my marketing firm, so toward the end of our conversation and quite out of the blue, I said, “We should look at property tomorrow”. My adventuresome accomplice for 30+ years agreed spontaneously, his compliance lubricated by the good wine and conversation and knowing it wouldn’t matter what he said. I still don’t know where the idea came from … and now in retrospect I can only characterize it as “a true calling” of Biblical proportions.

Immediately Simone produced the business card of a highly recommended Realtor, an oddball Maritime character whose quirky charm defies description. And as they say, the rest is history.

The next day after seeing only three properties, one of which wasn’t even listed, we placed an offer on a stunning 2-1/2 acreparcel of land in an older subdivision just north of town, called The Glebe as it was formerly church-owned land. This verdant parcel formerly and apple orchard overlooking an azure bay was absolutely perfect with its perimeter birches, Tamarack, spruce and alders, ferns, rock outcrops and even a stream. Waterfront property with an island in view, but nothing manmade in sight. The idea of a shoreline property right on the Passamaquoddy Bay overlooking Minister’s Island — at about a quarter the price of anything we had seen in the real estate guides in Maine — thrilled us. Considering the favorable exchange rate, the property price was the equivalent of US$60,000 and the property taxes were negligible ($800/year).

Over the next few days, we explored every nook and cranny of St. Andrews, wandering through the spectacular 50-acre Kingsbrae Gardens, attending an exhibit at Sunbury Shores Arts and Nature Centre, shopping at the Thursday Farmers Market, and ogling the art galleries and clothing boutiques. We talked to helpful residents and were waited on by polite, articulate teenagers, an oxymoron we had thought.

We devoured  tourist books and local novels to understand the historical and cultural facets of this special place. We learned that during the Revolutionary War when trade between Britain and the Colonies was curtailed, St. Andrews port was littered with scores of transatlantic sailing ships making a well worn triangular circuit  that involved transporting New Brunswick hardwood to Britain, delivering tea, spices and fabrics to the Caribbean, and sailing home with a full hold full of rum. Wealthy sea captains and merchants built stately homes high on the hill above the more modest timber homes shipped intact to St. Andrews by the anti-Revolutionary Loyalists, escaping to Canada from Maine. When the War ended, St. Andrews trade with Britain had to compete once again with the American colonies, but the town retained its wealth and prominence into the 19th century as a popular seaside resort for affluent industrialists from Boston and Montreal who arrived by train.

The elite came to enjoy the cool summers and famous “lack of hay fever” along with the stylized social life centered around outdoor and indoor entertainment, including theatre performances, tea dances, art classes, casino play,  golf, tennis and boating. They came for the seafood and whale watching, the picnics overlooking the gorgeous seaside vistas, the garden tours, and I imagine a bit of social climbing centering around, where else, but the Algonquin Hotel.

We observed through leisurely walks and museum visits that whether through great city planning or a magical time warp,  this lovely village of 1,700 had maintained its historical aura and had thwarted overtures from corporate chain stores and high-rise condo developers. In a clamshell, St. Andrews still possessed the quaintness, charm and cultural leanings that had made it so popular with the upper crust in the past and now with tourists in the present. And yes, we discovered in those days of old,  they used lobsters in the fields as fertilizer, so our Montreal friend wasn’t fabricating a lot 

We spent our evenings at a dinner theatre performance (a hilarious modern take on a Shakespearian comedy written and performed by locals), took in a maritime musical group fiddling the night away at a downtown pub – and a free Town Square concert by the popular band “Hot Toddy.”  We ate at the now famous Rossmount Inn where Chris Aerni, a Swiss Chef, has won accolades for his inventive gourmet cuisine using local produce and ingredients like Dulse (seaweed), fiddle heads, oysters, balletto mushrooms and maple syrup. We ate crepes in town, bought prints and books by local artists and authors, and stuffed our suitcase with sea glass jewelry and metallic fish. We checked out the Sir James Dunn Academy, a high school with top honors in the Province, and the community college whose hospitality program draws students from Mexico, China and South America. While drinking lattes and eating scones al fresco at the Sweet Harvest natural foods bakery and restaurant on Water Street, we wrote colorful picture post cards featuring humpback whales, round-eyed puffins, meandering moose and  languishing lighthouses to friends and family. We exalted the town and eluded to our new property, which we really hadn’t a clue yet how we would use.

We explored the old fashioned grocery and hardware stores for lifestyle clues and met all sorts of well-traveled people from Switzerland, Australia, Toronto, Europe, Montreal and the States, some who return every summer and others who had moved here year-round. At the internet café by the Laundromat, Ken discovered that St. Andrews’s latitude is the same as Portland, Oregon … not quite tropical.

Residents regaled us with tales of the vibrant winter social scene and cold weather fun when the tourists evaporated and the town was reclaimed by the locals. Activities from curling teams and ice skating to community theatre and dine-arounds. They mentioned the 3 weeks holiday activities involving the entire town leading up to Christmas and Boxing Day. We were graciously invited to a new million dollar villa built by a Toronto business couple to see their builder’s craftsmanship and get advice on the building process over a nice bottle of Cab.

At our neighbor’s home we sampled their home made wine and beer on their massive deck, basking in the perfect summer sun – the light reminding us of Provence –and witnessed an incredible spectacle: an osprey and eagle overhead maneuvering like fighter jets over the Osprey’s freshly caught salmon still dripping from the sea. OMG!  We toured our new neighbors’ incredible organic vegetable garden popping vine-ripe hardy kiwi in our mouths like grapes (not quite tropical, but getting closer). It turned out that our well-read neighbors, a French NBer and Anglo-Ontario blended couple, were world-renowned lobster and haddock scientists with well spoken teens. And like us they loved to cook and party. On their kitchen counter we noticed the papaya and baguette – the latter a trapping of their exchange student from Montreal – and left with a generous portion of delectable homemade gravelox, made from locally farmed salmon. We also sampled a tin of the famous New Brunswick brand sardines from nearby St. George a delicacy that in former days was exported to France for a King’s ransom. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to join them on a fishing trip on their 40-ft boat. We discussed the DaVinci Code  that we all had recently read and talked of our children’s career aspirations. But where was the TV?  

In our short but revealing visit to St. Andrews, it was impossible to ignore the many lifestyle clues that that this place was pretty sophisticated under its casual trappings of Birkenstocks, toques, and fleece. We smugly concluded after extending our St. Andrews time to almost a week (so we could go whale watching on a catamaran  try kayaking, and try fly fishing on the Chamcook Lake)  that this must be the most charming and unspoiled coastal community in North America …a safe haven full of interesting, international people with a vibrant arts and culture bent, where people were eco-activists and education and families were top priorities.  A place where even the teenagers were polite!

Returning home via the Quoddy Loop Route  we took the Deer Island Ferry and then landing later in Campobello Island where Roosevelt had his picturesque summer home – truly a page out of a L.L. Bean catalog—and now an international park.

Back in West Virginia, when we told our friends of our property purchase (and impending move to Canada), they were shocked. Our friends and family knew that we were thinking of relocating abroad when we retired in a decade probably to Provence or Tuscany since we returned there every year on vacation. But moving north, becoming “expats” in Canada — especially in “tropical” Maritime Canada — was off all of our radar screens until the infamous exploratory trip north.  And like us most of our friends had no clue where this tropical area in Canada was located. So we started carrying a map of the Northeast to point out that St. Andrews was just 20 minutes from Calais, Maine.

In the next year, the fates moved rapidly in our favor — our house and 20 acres in the WV hollar sold in record time and within the next year we found plans and started building a lovely one-storey home on our New Brunswick property. After living in a cramped townhouse with the five Jack Russells for a year in WV, we purchased a 5th wheel so we could be present on our property during the last month of the construction. In spite of references, contracts and trips up to review programs, plans went awry with the builder declaring bankruptcy and for the next six months we finished the house ourselves. This stressful period tested our marriage and our commitment to St. Andrews, but both survived and flourished as a result.

With the help of the NB Provincial Nominee Program, we were granted “landed immigrant” status (in record time—less than six months), affording us most of the rights and privileges of Canadian Citizenship.  I started a Canadian marketing company; working from home, similar to my U.S. firm and within a year had developed challenging New Brunswick and Maine clientele. Because of our financial hit on the house, Ken went back to work and continues to enjoy his position as  Dean of Academics for a newly established graduate school of business, based in nearby Fredericton, the provincial capitol, commuting only one day a week.

Fast-forward 5 years later and we are dual citizens developing an eco-friendly 25-acre  subdivision called Estate St. Croix ( in St. Andrews, and loving every minute of our life in Tropical Canada. We both still work, but also find time to golf, kayak and tend an acre garden full of perennials, roses and organic produce and socialize regularly with six terrific couples. We organize a Chamcook community picnic in the summer.

Active in the community, we enjoy many cultural offerings like the tango lessons  offered by the St. Andrews Arts Council (one of 25 summer courses from opera singing to fiddle playing) and attending painting classes and learning stone masonry at Sunbury Shores. We frequent community theatre, chorale performances, art films and Maritime music, often with the scores and plays penned by local people. The town is truly a magnet for artistic expats. The business community embraced me and I’ve enjoyed serving on the boards of the Rotary, the Chamber, and a youth organization. I also participate in a 35-member Garden Club whose July Gardens by the Sea Tour featured my from-scratch garden last year.

Now totally absorbed in our new life, with more close friends, civic involvements, and business opportunities than we ever could have imagined, we are seasoned (not seasonal) residents of Tropical Canada and true-North residents. Indeed, we have a month more of winter than we did in the mid-Atlantic (garden zone 5 as opposed to 6), but we’re so busy with our enriched lifestyle that we hardly notice.

Ken has learned to carve birds and make fabulous Chianti and Sauvignon Blanc, which our many visitors find quite palatable. Most of our retired friends (and those who work with a laptop) up here take a breather from the winter cold to somewhere balmy (like Florida, South Carolina, Cuba, the Dominican or Argentina)  for anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. The weather at our coastal home on the water is tempered by the bay so it isn’t as bad as inland parts of NB, and in the summer our temperatures rarely rise above 80 degrees with a lovely breeze every afternoon – a pleasant alternative to the heat and humidity of the D.C. region.

Like Garrison Keller says, “Here all the men are rich; the women are good looking, and the children above average.”  Every year we feel more at home and frankly in love with our Tropical home. We’d swear that the weather is getting warmer although we had a record level of snow last winter like the rest of North America. However, with global warming gathering steam, we may well have moved to Tropical Canada!

What we reply to the locals who ask us why we moved here is “Yes, Charlotte, there is a Tropical Canada, a warm, inviting place visitors feel compelled to come to and once here never want to leave. It’s called St. Andrews by-the-Sea (and by coincidence our County is called Charlotte).

Since we arrived, we’ve seen an increasing number of “expats” move to St. Andrews each year from the lower 48, including a Harvard professor, a best selling author, a horticultural educator, a former World Bank executive, and a distinguished international leader on African development from D.C. Of the 100,000 people from the U.S. who move to Canada annually, we are getting our share. In fact, for the first time in two decades, New Brunswick is experiencing a population increase from the influx of immigrants from many points on the international compass like the U.S., China and Britain, and India.

Frankly, we’re getting a little worried that our friend in Montreal has been spending too much time on the bus chatting to gullible strangers about Tropical Canada.

By Mary Colburn-Green. Expat  (Mary Colburn-Green is President of Marketing Solutions/ATLANTICA, Inc.)