Eastern Canada's longest river, the 418-mile St. John, runs down the western edge of New Brunswick along the border with Quebec to the Bay of Fundy. Parallel its path through the St. John River Valley by following the clearly marked (look for the green and white signs) Fiddlehead Scenic Drive, named for the ubiquitous ferns growing along the streams and rivers here in spring. Stop in Grand Falls, where the river plunges 75 feet into the gorge. Visit Tobique First Nation reserve to purchase traditional ash wood baskets woven by local artisans. Take a turn at wool-spinning or rug braiding at Kings Landing Historical Settlement.
Whatever you do, take it slow. Each bend in the river reveals a chapter of New Brunswick's cross-cultural history—Maliseet, French, Acadian, English, Scottish, Irish—and they're all worth reading. That's what the locals do: Says Jacques Desjardins, owner of L'Auberge Au Bois Dormant Inn, "It was a very nice place 20 years ago and it still is." Or as Paul Twyford in his Celtic Fox Coffee House outside of Woodstock puts it: "It's like we're back in the 1950s, where people took the time to get to know each other."
When to Go: Villages are most festive from June to September. Spring and fall benefit from overflowing farmers markets, fruit orchards, and brilliant fall foliage. Festival highlights include Fredericton's Harvest Jazz and Blues Fest and Edmundston's La Foire Brayonne, a five-day francophone music and cultural celebration honoring the legendary "Republic of Madawaska," a border state established in 1827 but never recognized.
How to Get Around: Fly into Fredericton, rent a car, and drive north on Highway 2. Kayak rentals are available at several towns along the way. (Due to dams you can't paddle the length of St John.) Outside the town of Grand Falls at the narrowest part of the river, you can take a leisurely pontoon boat ride down the gorge or, for contrast, the exhilarating zip line over 75-foot-high Grand Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in the country.
Where to Stay: The Very Best bed and breakfast in Fredericton's downtown Heritage Preservation Area is a rambling Victorian with four guest rooms, a heated outdoor pool, and four-course breakfasts (fresh fruit, oatmeal, egg and cheese croissant, and baked gingerbread cookies). Walk or use guest bikes to access nearby restaurants, pubs, and trails. Le Jardins Inn in Edmundston has 17 luxury rooms—each with a distinct Canadian flora theme—plus seven self-catering cottages and a motel.
What to Eat or Drink: Florenceville-Bristol is the sizzling epicenter of French fry country: Its McCain factories produce a third of all the world's fries. The not-kitschy Potato World museum pays tribute to the mighty tuber and has a café, serving items such as chocolate fudge potato cake and iced caramel fries. From June to September, farm markets like those in Woodstock (closed Sundays) and Perth Andover (open Saturdays only) are a great place to find jams, butters, condiments, and maple treats.
What to Buy: Pick and buy in-season apples, raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries at farms along the highway (look for signs). Fiddleheads are a popular motif for local artists, who carve them into wood and metal keepsakes.
What to Read Before You Go: Nights Below Station Street, by David Adams Richards (Emblem Editions, 2009). A compelling, award-winning novel about a family's struggles in a small northern New Brunswick mill town.
Helpful Links: New Brunswick Tourism, Heritage and Culture
Fun Fact: Twice a day, the St. John River is forced to flow backward by the world's highest tides, as much as 48 feet above low tide, advancing from the Bay of Fundy.
Vancouver-based Robin Esrock is author of The Great Canadian Bucket List and was the host of the Nat Geo Adventure TV series Word Travels.