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Remotely beautiful, with Acadian accents

At the end of a road through peat bogs, the circa 1856 Miscou Island Lighthouse looks over the Bay of Chaleur and beyond to Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula.

Tourism New Brunswick, Canada, photo

At the end of a road through peat bogs, the circa 1856 Miscou Island Lighthouse looks over the Bay of Chaleur and beyond to Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula.

MISCOU ISLAND — The winter ice off the very northeastern tip of New Brunswick is about to melt, the seasonal starting bell for summer residents, mostly Quebecers and some from the United States, who in warm weather double this island’s year-round population of about 700. Even then, day trippers to these 150 square miles of bogs, ponds, and beaches will remain relatively sparse, especially compared with the crowds drawn to the Bay of Fundy on the province’s southeastern coast. The island is more than 200 miles from Fundy’s Hopewell Rocks, but the long drive ends with great rewards.

The approach to Miscou is incongruously modern. In 1996, an arched bridge replaced the small ferry that had been the main link between this part of New Brunswick and the rest of Canada. The bridge has encouraged greater promotion of the island’s attractions, including its beaches, walkways, and the renovated Miscou Island Lighthouse, built around 1856 and open for tours in summer. On a clear day, the climb 80 feet up the lighthouse’s spiral steps and through a small hatchway to the roof rewards with wide views of the Bay of Chaleur and Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula on the horizon.

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Some locals feared the bridge would attract too much traffic to their environmentally sensitive community. Steve Bezeau, a lobster distributor and owner of La Terrasse à Steve, an open-air eatery at the foot of the bridge that serves the local crustacean 14 ways at picnic tables overlooking the harbor, said, “It’s true that the bridge has changed things completely,” but he wasn’t especially worried.

Both residents and the government recognize that too much growth would negate the area’s special appeal. “Miscou is a place where you feel you are discovering a whole island by yourself,” said Serge Collin, who lives on neighboring Lamèque Island and works for New Brunswick’s tourism agency. “It gives you a sense of what the Acadians found when they were mapping out this area centuries ago.”

Laws now protect that look and legacy. The island’s expansive peat fields, which form a scarlet blanket in the fall, can no longer be harvested; the stretches of sand dunes cannot be trampled. But something more powerful than regulation will prevent too much growth. “Winter will take care of that,” said Bezeau, whose restaurant wall features photos of him kayaking amid ice floes.

Because of its proximity to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick is sometimes dismissed as the “go-through” province. But when we drove here in late summer we wanted to visit some of its lesser-known attractions, especially the Acadian Isles and coast. We took the coastal drive north and east, passing through Miramichi before stopping in Bouctouche, where the Irving Eco-Center’s long boardwalk offers an environmentally friendly pathway to explore one of the few remaining great sand dunes on the northeastern coastline of North America. A bit farther north, Kouchibouguac National Park offers an extensive network of boardwalks, hiking trails, and much-praised bike paths that cross its 91 square miles of beaches, bogs, and forests.

Off Black Rock Beach, a park west of Caraquet, cormorants flock to a huge rock.

Tourism of New Brunswick, Canada

Off Black Rock Beach, a park west of Caraquet, cormorants flock to a huge rock.

After spending some time on the park’s Kellys Beach, where the ocean was calm and warm enough for swimming, we drove to Caraquet, a good base from which to explore this part of New Brunswick. Caraquet bills itself as the capital of Acadia, with roots reaching to Acadian families who settled here after their forced deportation by the British from the Maritime Provinces in 1755. Caraquet stretches along a long and busy street, but it has a small town look and feel. It has good beaches and an attractive harbor where working fishing boats abut restaurants and shops, and long walkways extend to the jetties. Just outside of town is the Village Historique Acadien, where more than 40 historical buildings bring alive the region’s history and culture (the Acadian flag is more common than that of Canada in the front yards here).

West of Caraquet we stumbled upon tiny Black Rock Beach, where cormorants covered a giant, monolithic rock just off the sandy shore.

Inside the plain white Sainte-Cècile Church in Petite-Rivière-de-l’Île is a glorious display of colors.

Inside the plain white Sainte-Cècile Church in Petite-Rivière-de-l’Île is a glorious display of colors.

In the morning, we headed for Miscou Island (from the Mi’kmaq “M’susqu,” meaning low or marshy lands). Exiting the main highway, we drove through Shippagan, a bustling small town and home of the New Brunswick Aquarium and Marine Center. As we crossed onto Lamèque Island, 30 tall windmills filled the western skyline, but the island retains the character and scale of a small island fishing community. With a computerized nature interpretation center, an observation tower, and a boardwalk that crosses an estuary into a nearby forest, Lamèque Island’s Ecological Park of the Acadian Peninsula is a great educational and recreational stop, especially for families.

A less obvious attraction was just minutes away in the village of Petite-Rivière-de-l’Île. From the outside, Sainte-Cécile Church looks like just another of the well-kept, white wooden churches that dot the province. The parking lot was empty, but we’d been told that the door is always unlocked. It was, and we entered to a canvas of color and bold designs that cover the church’s walls and ceiling. This unexpectedly bright art dates to the 1970s, as does the Lamèque International Baroque Music Festival, which every summer draws thousands of music lovers to the church and its exceptional acoustics. (Because of financial problems, the 2013 festival is in jeopardy.)

From Lamèque, we crossed the bridge onto Miscou for lunch at Steve’s, just in time for the owner to feed Fred the heron his meal of fish heads. (Fred has become a regular since Bezeau nursed it back to health from a wing injury a few years ago.) We then headed to the lighthouse, stopping at each level to look at the photos and other exhibits before reaching the top, where we scouted terrain for our main mission: combing the beach.

Miscou has two “official” beach areas. Adrien Gionet Beach on Chaleur Bay has bathrooms and a place to change. Wilson Point Beach is also swimmable, with abundant sand dunes that make it a good place for bird-watching. But Miscou is essentially an unending expanse of undeveloped beach. From the lighthouse, we just meandered along the island’s northeastern coast. Though the day was warm and sunny, our only companions were a few offshore seals. We found all kinds of interesting rocks and driftwood of many shapes and sizes. We kept strolling until a path reached one of Miscou’s many clear ponds.

In 2010 the Society of American Travel Writers gave its Phoenix Award to Miscou Island, calling it “one of the single most beautiful spots in the world.” We left wondering if it would stay that way for long.

Not to worry, said Bezeau. “We islanders want to keep our island the way it is. Come back in 20 years and my place will be exactly the same.”

Phil Primack can be reached at pnprimack@yahoo.com.

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