Wonder Travel 5 Day Maritimes Tour across Eastern Canada
So in general I rarely do organized tours, but I had a choice to make between staying in Montreal for ten days or spending half of that on a tour of the Maritimes. And although I might have had more fun staying in Montreal and following the party (and the poutine), I had never been to the east coast of Canada before, so decided to take the Wonder Travel 5 Day Maritimes Tour to get an introduction into three of our eastern provinces.
Disclaimer: this is my experience and personal opinion on the tour. Hotels / restaurants / locations of interest etc etc subject to change at the tour operators discretion.
Overall impression: The tour does exactly as it's titled and gives you a whirlwind tour of the Maritimes. It was fun and I met a bunch of very lovely people from around the world. It's a little on the ambitious side: there are a few things I would have liked to see that weren't included and some places that we didn't get enough time to enjoy.
I recommend it if you can handle sitting on the bus for extended periods of time, because you do get to see a LOT of the Maritimes in a short number of days. And it definitely gave me some great ideas for places that I would like to come back and check out more of some day.
Day 1: This was a VERY long day, partly because we had to be up extremely early and partly because we had to make it from Montreal to Saint John on this first day, which is over 900 kms (appx 560 miles).
I forced myself to get up at 4:30, because I had to be at the pickup location downtown Montreal by 5:45 & I wasn't sure how easy it would be to get there that early in the morning. (FYI there are buses that run that early, but the metro doesn't operate until 5:30 - not a chance I would have made it on time going that route, and instead of trying to figure out the bus at 5 am I booked an uber (even though Google maps is very helpful with the buses and metro, and on a side note I was very impressed that my internet/cellular worked on the Montreal metro everywhere I went).
When I arrived at the given address, I tried to enter the building - turns out it is not actually a bus stop or building or anything, it's literally just where the bus picks you up on the side of the street. It was a little disorganized - there were a few tour guides holding signs with bus numbers (sometimes they'd actually hold the sign in the air so you could see it, but really it was easiest just to ask the first one you saw which spot your bus would be leaving from - the tour guides had on orange Wonder Tour jackets). Then you check in with your tour guide and he assigns you a seat number on the bus (these are, according to the website, assigned from front to back in order of when you booked - although it appears that you can pay an extra fee if you'd like to be seated in the first three rows). Our bus had not arrived yet (I was a few minutes early) so we stood on the street for about 10-15 minutes until it pulled up, loaded our bags under the bus and hopped on. Turns out one family had tried to take the metro and were running late, we waited for them for a bit but they had been told what time the bus was leaving so we had to take off without them.
The bus stopped twice (every two hours) at rest stops for bathroom breaks and a quick stretch before we arrived in Edmundston for lunch. The options were to pay $20 all in (tax tip drinks etc) & have lunch with the group at Maple Leaf Queen's Buffet, or look for something on your own. I chose the latter option, opting for a fast food Thai restaurant on the other side of the mall. There were other options including a Subway and McDonald's nearby as well. We had an hour for lunch before we had to be back on the bus, so when I finished eating I wandered over to the gas station next to the mall and grabbed a flat of water and a couple snacks for the road. Then we all piled back onto the bus.
Next stop (appx 1.5 hrs driving time): The Covered Bridge Chip Factory. Maybe more interesting in the fall during the potatoe harvest when they're busy, but it was mildly interesting and we did get to sample some of their potato chips and popcorn, along with the plentitude of seasonings they had for toppers as well. I grabbed a bag of their lobster flavored chips, they were good but tasted more salty than lobster-y.
After that it's only a 10-15 minute drive to the namesake of the factory, the covered bridge itself. This was very neat, and one of the favored stops along the trip. The bridge spans the entirety of the Saint John River. It has a wooden cover and is single lane traffic (so one side has to wait for the other side to come through before they can). A few of us chose to walk across the pedestrian part of the bridge. At 1282 feet it is the longest covered bridge in the world. We almost witnessed an accident: one car decided to start going through as another one was crossing (the one inside had not turned his headlights on so the second vehicle did not see him until he had started going through), and had to do a "walk of shame" (or reverse of shame? Lol) to back out and allow the first vehicle to pass through.
Then it took us just over two hours to get to Saint John, where we visited the Reversing Falls. We had about twenty minutes here. These falls are located as such that in high tide they flow in in one direction but in low tide they flow out the opposite direction. It is picturesque (if you can ignore the factory on the other side of the river lol), with the birds flying around & the sea lions coming into the bay (occasionally). I got into a debate with one lady over whether or not they were beavers (lol, she had never seen a beaver or a sea lion before but couldn't comprehend that there would be a sea lion in a river).
Note: no bathrooms here. There is a bathroom on the bus (but it's really for emergencies only as using it causes the bus to smell).
From there it is only about a 10 minute drive to our hotel, Canada's Best Value Inn. Which was good because I don't think I could have spent another second on that bus at that point. Our tour guide handed out our room keys and then we were on our own for the remainder of the evening. There were quite a few restaurants within a 10-15 minute walk, but after the long day most of us chose to just grab a quick bite (& I had a much needed glass of wine) in the hotel restaurant, Vegas Bar & Grill. The hotel was okay, the rooms had unique antique furniture and the beds were comfortable, but could have been a little cleaner (we also stayed here on the 4th night and my room was much cleaner the second night - maybe the maid had had an off day the first night). The hotel amenities, on the other hand, were really great, and included an ice cream bar, pool tables, slot machines, a swimming pool, bowling, laser tag, mini golf, bumper cars, and an arcade (some at a small extra cost).
All in all we were traveling over 13 hours on the first day (probably about 10 hours of actual driving time), but it was necessary in order to get us to the Maritimes.
Day 2: we got a wakeup call at 6 am and had to be on the bus by 7:20. Breakfast was included in the hotel; it was basic: sausage, scrambled eggs, hash browns, cereal, coffee, tea, orange juice. If there had been some fruit it would have been better.
After about two hours on the road we arrived at Hopewell Rocks. Very interesting place, it's the home of the highest tide in the world, and the rock formations from the rushing water are very cool to see. They even have one called ET rock :). There are (at least) a couple of places to get down to the ocean floor from here, first we took the stairs down and looked at some of the unique rock formations. The tide was high an hour before our arrival so the water was still relatively high and we weren't able to walk out very far. The water has an interesting rust color to it - there are a couple guides on site there and they explained that the color is due to a mineral in the ground that oxidizes and is constantly churned up in the rushing tides.
Then we headed into Moncton for lunch, the optional lunch was at a second Maple Leaf Queens Buffet (I did hear from the people who tried both that this location had better food/selection and was cleaner than the first one). I saw a fish and chips place on the way to the restaurant so a few of us wandered back in that direction (turned out to be a fast food seafood place called Deluxe French Fries, but they had a lobster roll on the menu that I thought was delicious for fast food). Other options in the area included KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, McDonald's, and Sun Sun Takeout & Restaurant.
Next we crossed over Confederation Bridge into PEI; it's one of the longest bridges in the world and the longest bridge in Canada - it takes nearly ten minutes to cross! We stopped for about 20 minutes on the other side near a light house for photo ops and a bathroom break.
Our next stop was a bit random, we headed to the very cute Charlottetown - which in itself would have been great if we'd been given more than 20 minutes to explore - but the stop itself was at the Province House (aka the Confederation Building), which is closed for construction and the building is covered so you can't even get pictures of the exterior let alone get inside. A group of us wandered down one of the side streets and found some little shops to check out as well as some people wandering around dressed in traditional fashion from the late 1800's. I didn't get a chance to ask them if that was their job, if they were volunteers, or if it was cosplay, but they happily posed for us in front of the gorgeous Gothic style St. Dunstan's Cathedral. I would have loved more time to explore this beautiful city but it seemed quite out of the way for such a short stop.
Some amazing street art I captured on the way out of town:
After Charlottetown we were off to a blast from my past, the Anne of Green Gables Museum. We had an hour to explore here. It brought back so many memories of my childhood, and was my mother's favorite book as a girl as well. We were brought back in time as we explored the farm buildings and the house where Montgomery's character Anne had "lived". It's furnished in gorgeous 19th century decor. Even the walls of each room are done in a different style. Behind the main house are some of the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen. Wandering through the "Haunted Woods" is a short but enjoyable hike (at a brisk pace it took less than 15 minutes - but I did not head up to the site of L. M. Montgomery 's home (which is on an off-shoot from the main hike loop) because I wasn't sure how far off the track it was and we had to catch the bus).
Then we were off to Cavendish Beach, famous for it's red sand and red rock striations. It is about a 20 minute drive from the Anne of Green Gables Museum. We had 40 minutes to explore here; I would have loved at least another 20 here in order to have been able to go in the ocean. I did take my shoes and socks off and wander around in the shallow areas - if you do the same, be careful! The rocks are slippery. It's a beautifully serene setting and the red rock formations are quite interesting (as are the man made ones). And it felt amazing to dip our feet in the water after a couple of long days.
Note: no bathrooms here.
Last stop of the day was our hotel in Summerside, the Causeway Bay Hotel. This hotel was quite a bit nicer than the previous night. There was no (evening) restaurant in this hotel, but there are a few places within walking distance. We wandered down to a place called Uncle Mike's (of note, they have two locations, one smaller location down on the water and one larger one on Water Street. I mention this only because we went to the smaller location first which was delicious, had great cocktails and other drinks, plus indoor and outdoor seating, but closed early (ish, 9 on a Saturday) and didn't take credit card. So after dinner we wandered over to the other location for dessert (deep fried Mars bars) and another drink, and discovered they have a bigger menu as well as accepting credit. After that we wandered back to the hotel as we had another early morning.
Uncle Mike's Seafood Salad
(I think that maybe a better order for the second day would have been to make our first stop at the Anne of Green Gables Museum, then Cavendish Beach, and then they could put us up in a hotel in Charlottetown (instead of Summerside) for the evening so we could have had some time to explore).
Day 3: This was my favorite day of the tour - we had the most number of activities and the least amount of time on the bus. We did have another 6 am wakeup call though. Breakfast at the hotel was included, consisting of a pre-made plate with two pieces of bread, an orange, a hard boiled egg, and a muffin. Also coffee/tea. At least there was a piece of fruit lol. And the rooms were nicer.
We had a 30 minute stop at a gas station/Tim Hortons after a little over two hours. We had time for a quick bite and a coffee, which if you didn't bring snacks to tide you over on the bus I do recommend grabbing a bite to eat here as lunch on day 3 is quite a bit later in the afternoon (or grab lunch at Peggy's Cove). There is also a market across the street that a few people wandered over to to pick up some fruit etc.
On the way out of the station keep an eye out for the Lockness Monster poking it's head out of the water on the right side of the highway! From there we had about another two hour drive to our next destination, Peggys Cove.
Peggys Cove is a quaint little fishing village, and it does have its charm, but I personally found it too touristy. Maybe because we arrived at ten to noon on a Sunday and it was extremely busy; it might have been better on a weekday. The traffic getting up to the parking lot was crazy, and there were people everywhere. However, the scenery is gorgeous and there's plenty of adorable shops and restaurants (including a lobster roll food truck, an ice cream shop, and a smoked maple salmon food cart - which I regret not finding out about until after we were back on the bus lol). We had an hour to explore before we headed off to Halifax for lunch. (I'd recommend having lunch while you're in Peggy's Cove, as we were there from 12-1 and it is over an hours drive from there to the restaurant. Or I'd recommend that the tour operator find a closer restaurant).
After Peggy's Cove we headed off for lunch in Dartmouth (next to Halifax) at the Panda Buffet. Other options nearby included a pizza/donair shop, a Swiss Chalet, Harvey's, Subway, Tim Hortons, Mary Brown's Chicken, and also the restaurant we settled on: Sam's Seafood and Grill. The fish and chips there were delicious, and the portions were huge!
Next stop was the Citadel (which wasn't far from the lunch stop). I contemplated skipping this and heading to the Alexander Keith's brewery instead, but decided to stay with the tour (as we had already paid and it is a big piece of Canadian history). I did not regret that decision.
We had an hour here. They split is up into 2 groups: French and English. Our English guide was hilarious, dressed in late 1800's off duty soldiers garb, he took us through what a day in the life of a soldier would have been like. Spoiler alert: most soldiers deaths around that time did not occur from fighting, but from overheating in their uniforms! Yikes! The recruiting officers would target late teenage boys with promises of games, libraries, beer, parties, and much more. Which weren't lies, per se, however they only had one or two hours of free time each day.
Our guide told us all about the Halifax explosion, a horrific accident that occurred on a chilly morning of December in 1917: two ships were headed towards each other in the channel, each refusing to get out of the others way until at the last second one finally gave in and turned, but it was much too late. The two ships collided and caught fire. Many people were watching the ships burn from their windows, but one of the ships had been carrying war munitions, including thousands of pounds of gunpowder, and suddenly the ship exploded, injuring and killing thousands of people. Many people lost their eyesight as their windows imploded while they watched, and the mass vision loss was in part responsible for the creation of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
Image courtesy of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic:
Probably the best story he told us was about a young soldier who had been tasked with two jobs: get rid of all the old gunpowder in the armory, and dismantle the building itself in preparation to build a larger one. Well this young lad had a brilliant idea, he could kill two birds with one stone: by just lighting up the gunpowder in the existing armory. Luckily for him no one was injured or killed in the ensuing explosion! Our guide also gave us the recipe for gunpowder, but I won't be sharing that here ;-)
Following the Citadel we were off to the Halifax harbor for the Harbor Hopper Tour, an amphibious vehicle that can go both on land and water. They were original purchased by the US military for the Vietnam War, and were purchased for a fraction of the cost and repainted/repurposed to allow tourists to enjoy a fun and entertaining cruise around the city and then through the water. The biggest hit (especially among the kids on board) was the splash we made as we crashed into the water!
Next up was the group lobster dinner, at an extra cost of $46 per person. I regret not participating in the dinner because everyone who went said it was delicious, but we had to decide on the first day (so they could make the reservations) and I wasn't sure at that point if I was maybe meeting family that night for dinner so I declined. Which meant that we had two hours of free time to wander around the harbor. Had it not been a Sunday I could have headed to the Alexander Keith's brewery for their tour (as it's pretty much across the street from where we got dropped off), but being Sunday it was only open until 6. So instead we walked around until we stumbled upon the Garrison Brewing Company and decided to pop in for a drink, or 5 ;-)
I thought my favorite would be the Razz Berry on the far right, but it actually wound up being Pucker Up (the one on the far left). I also tried Honk (an orange weizen), the Irish Red, and the Seaport Blonde.
Lambie had too much to drink:
After drinks we decided to pass on dinner and skip straight to dessert for a very famous east coast treat: Beaver Tails. I'm very glad we don't have these where I live, they're dangerously delicious!
I picked the "Avalanche" flavour, a cream cheese and crumbled Skor concoction:
The bus picked us up at 8 pm at the same location we had been dropped off for the Harbor Hopper, and took us across the bay to the Coastal Inn Dartmouth. After the group settled in to the hotel, a few of us wandered down the street about five minutes to Hugo's bar (at the recommendation of the very helpful front desk lady). There were a few pool tables and some slot machines, and we sat down to have a drink before wandering back up to the hotel for the night.
Day 4: We got to sleep in a tiny bit on this day lol. Wakeup call was at 7 instead of 6. Breakfast at the hotel consisted of bread / English muffins / cereal and other dry goods, orange juice and coffee/tea.
The bus departed at 8:30, stopped for a bathroom break after 2 hours, then another hour before we reached Magnetic Hill. It's an optical illusion where you get "pulled" up the hill. After our bus was “pulled", we stopped in the adjacent area for an hour to wander around a bit, stretch our legs, and window shop. There's a small café there as well as an ice cream place. I think if I'd been seated in the front seat of the bus or if we'd been in a car it would have been much more interesting, but it's kind of hard to tell what's happening from the middle / back of the bus...
We were off to Moncton for lunch, again at the Maple Leaf Queen's Buffet. While I'd heard that the food here was great, I can get this type of food at home so I opted to find another restaurant nearby. A couple from our tour found a Korean and pasta restaurant nearby that they said was delicious.
After lunch we headed off to Shediac to see the world's largest lobster statue. My only complaint is that we had to backtrack a bit to get to Shediac. We had about 50 minutes to wander around there, and we took a quick group photo right when we stopped in front of the giant lobster. I did some window shopping here as well and picked up a little souvenir for my cabin. It's a beautiful location on the water.
Next stop Saint John, and we were back to the same hotel from the first night: Canada's Best Value Inn. We arrived at about 5 pm and had the remainder of the afternoon and evening to ourselves to wander around Saint John or enjoy the hotel amenities, which included a restaurant/bar, an ice cream bar, pool tables, slot machines, swimming pool, bowling, bumper cars, laser tag, mini golf, and an arcade. I will retract my earlier complaint about the hotel cleanliness as my second room here was much better. And also the amenities at this place are pretty amazing, and would especially be great for kids (but the adults were having fun as well 😉).
Some interesting street art in Saint John:
A group of us chose to wander down to the main strip on the water (about a 15 minute walk, or a 3 minute cab ride) & decided on a Thai Indian fusion restaurant called Lemongrass. It was delicious, everything from the Thai Hummus to the Masala, the chicken satay, and a pound of mussels, it was all amazing and highly recommended. There's also a stage set up across the way with music every evening from about 8-10 (different flavors of music each day of the week), so we had a lady with a beautiful voice serenading us for the evening.
Day 5: I skipped out on the last day and stayed in Saint John; however, to give you an idea of the day, it is basically a reversal of day 1. They had another 6 am wakeup call and a 7:20 departure.
They stopped in Edmundston at... Drumroll please... You guessed it: the Maple Leaf Queen's Buffet.
Next they made their way to Quebec City, where they would have had some time to wander around for a bit and then went up the Capital Observatory/Observatoire de la Capital, an observation tower near downtown, with panoramic views of the city. I'm guessing they had about an hour or two there and then back to Montreal where it all began, with an estimated 9 pm arrival (from the website).
I chose to pass on Quebec City and fly out of New Brunswick later instead for two reasons, first being I had prearranged plans to meet up with a friend in New Brunswick and fly back to Edmonton with her later, and secondly I don't think I could have sat on that bus for another 12-14 hour day.
One of my complaints about the tour:
There are a bunch of non optional things that you are required to give the tour guide cash for, and I feel like since they are not optional they should be included in the cost of the tour. Breakdown as follows:
$60 for the various entrances / toll roads / etc
$35 service fee for the driver
$43 for the harbor hopper tour in Halifax
$14 for the Quebec City Observation Tower
Optional: $20/day for lunch (each day is optional, can do none or up to all five)
Optional: $46 for the group lobster dinner on day 3
I was able to get out of the last charge because I was leaving the tour a day early and wouldn't be joining them in Quebec City. In total I paid $138 extra on top of the tour price which I think is a bit ridiculous. With the lunches, the lobster, and the Observation Tower that would have jumped to $298. I feel that the tour price is a bit shady in this regard, and really should include any non-optional items (and on top of that the tour guide couldn't take credit cards which meant I had to make an extra stop at a bank the night before it started because I don't carry cash).