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Houseboating Down a Lazy River

June 29, 1986|MARCIA DOUGLAS | Douglas is a Toronto, Canada, free-lance writer.

SUSSEX, Canada — Too often bypassed by travelers en route to other Eastern maritime destinations, the province of New Brunswick beckons, especially if you want to go houseboating.

The lower Saint John River Valley is one of the most beautiful rivers in North America, and best of all for the traveler, it is greatly under-used. You can have the river and the entire system of tributaries and lakes almost to yourselves, where it is virtually impossible to get lost.

This is the homey kind of area where women alone on the river will feel perfectly safe, even though lacking in expertise. You can cruise along at the blissful rate of about five m.p.h. past rolling farmlands and hills. Fish, swim, skin dive wherever your fancy takes you.

Free to Explore

The houseboats are built on pontoons so that it is easy to pull up at an island in the middle of the lake to picnic, or to tie up for a visit at any of the little communities along the way.

The American dollar has rarely enjoyed a greater exchange rate in Canada; you gain about 35% for your money when you cross the border.

You'll set a rendezvous time to pick up your houseboat at Codys, about an hour's drive from Saint John, Fredericton or Moncton. These major New Brunswick cities are served by Air Canada and Canadian Pacific Airlines.

The first night you may be like most other first-time houseboaters and not want to journey too far, although the navigational charts are easy to follow. Almost everyone wants to dock that evening at an enchanting cove only about 1 1/2 hours from takeoff, where the covered bridge enhances the romance of the waters.

The place has no name, but is clearly charted and impossible to miss. Then, in the morning, you can begin to exercise options, heading toward Fredericton (about two lazy days away), Gagetown, Belleisle Bay and more.

Lake a Favorite

Washademoak Lake is a favorite with New Brunswickers. You can stop to browse through the little general stores in the villages along the long, lovely route. The farming community of Cambridge Narrows beckons with its wee craft shop and variety store.

Gagetown is a delightful surprise. A tiny village, it is nevertheless one of the most populated areas between Saint John and Fredericton. You'll see lots of sailors and much activity in the enterprising town.

Tom Colpitts' General Store should not be missed. Neither should Loaves and Calico, the delightful tearoom offering soups, sandwiches and sweetmeats. It is also a bakery, so you can lay in some galley staples.

But Gagetown is more than that, sharing only its name with the nearby military base. The main street is almost deserted except for the general store, but see the 200-year-old blockhouse, several homes built in the 1700s, the potter's shop, the ceramist's studio and Loomcrofters (noted designers and weavers of tartans).

On the main street is Steamers Stop Inn, where you should tie up for a memorable meal at the old homestead. Rooms at the inn are loved for their charm, decorated in early New Brunswick pine furniture and white Priscilla-style curtains; the food is hearty, so arrive hungry.

Perfect at Sunset

It's a perfect place to enjoy watching the sun set and the moon rise while sipping cocktails on the porch. Dinner for two with drinks costs about $35 (Canadian) and rooms for two cost $32 (Canadian) a night (with shared bathroom). Bikes in Gagetown rent for about $8 (Canadian) a day.

While traveling, you will encounter ferries moving prettily on the waterways; they operate almost like barges, on cables that pose no threat to the shallow-riding houseboats. But sailors should be careful.

Mount Creek is worth a visit, especially if you have children on board. It's so narrow that the branches of trees from both shores form a canopy for your entrance to this secure and tranquil haven. Children can play for hours on lovely beaches on Grimross Island.

From the Gagetown area you can enter the Saint John River for a short distance to reach the Jemseg, a favorite cruising place although only three miles long. It's abundant with wildfowl. It's twisty, verdant, picturesquely narrow--and the perfect place to stop at farms to pick your own fresh strawberries during late June and early July.

Meander up to Oromocto to visit Base Gagetown, military site of the Canadian Forces and the rebuilt blockhouse of Ft. Hughes. Summer students provide guide services, there's a good military museum, and you can sit lazing on the banks eating a hamburger while watching boats round the pastoral junctions on the waterways.

Regiment's Home

This is where the famed Black Watch Regiment made its home.

You'll probably head upriver as far as Fredericton, seat of the provincial government with about 50,000 population and all the charm of a first-class university town. Here's where to get your cultural fix. There's a gem of an art gallery, the Beaverbrook, plus festivals and theater and a famed Saturday morning farmers' market.

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