“This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks…”
And so goes the epic, deeply moving poem of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, about the star-crossed romance of two Acadian lovers, Evangeline and Gabriel, lost to each other on their wedding day in the harsh deportation of the French Acadians from the Canadian Maritime provinces around 1755.
In what can only be called an early example of “ethnic cleansing,” the British forced the Acadians to watch as they burned, their homes, their lands and destroyed their families, expelling the Acadians from their communities to foreign places.
Many were sent to New England; many fled to French-speaking Louisiana, where they became known as Cajuns.
But every year in an act of cultural affirmation, the Acadian communities of New Brunswick celebrate who they are and their rich, unique traditions with a massive celebration of song and dance.
It’s a Canadian Maritime Mardi Gras (Acadian style) in mid-August, with foot stomping music, fantastic masks, poetry readings, parades, and lots of color.
The Festival Acadien is Acadian life, culture and pride on display throughout the Acadian Peninsula, the upper coastal reaches of New Brunswick.
You can feel it and see it as soon as you cross into Grande-Anse, a small community on the Chaleur Bay, a three or so hour ride from busy, cosmopolitan Moncton.
Suddenly the maple-leafed Canadian flag disappears replaced by the deep red, white and blue Acadian one with its gold star, the Stella Maris, the flag of the sea. The flag of Acadia.
It’s on telephone poles, baby carriages.
It flutters from brightly colored fishing boats bobbing in small, working harbors.
The “Hello’s” give way to musical “Bon Jours,” and although New Brunswick is the only Maritime province that’s officially bilingual (Quebec is officially French), in these towns, French is what travelers hear.
The town of Caraquet has maybe 4,500 people in it. It’s tucked into a cove, and like all the towns here, hugs the broad arc of coast that surrounds New Brunswick.
It’s the designated center for the Acadian National celebrations.
The entire town is caught up with the week-long celebration, climaxing in the Tintamarre, the Acadian tradition of marching through communities with all kinds of improvised instruments from pots and pans to trumpets, buckets, bicycle bells, tin horns and whatever makes noise and brings laughter
Mask makers sculpt huge figures like the water dragon for the parade, held on August 15, the National Acadian Holiday affirming solidarity and vitality.
One wonders how less rich the province would be without it.
But Caraquet has an identity and character that is maritime and Acadian.
The Boulangerie Grains de Folie is full of steaming bowls of cafe au lait and locals chatting over fresh breads and pastries.
Oyster harvesters Gaetan and Murielle Dugas are part of a family that has been harvesting oysters here for 240 years.
The Carquet Dugas Oyster is synonymous with the best the sea produces.
Ask them what their secret is, what makes their oysters sought after, and they’ll tell you, reasonably, “it’s a secret”.
Les Blancs d’ Arcadie is a home-spun cheese shop whose astonishing cheddars and local string cheeses are for the people of the town, not for supermarket export, so the product is rich and fresh, not like anemic supermarket cheeses.
The town’s working harbor is picturesque, but authentic.
Colored fishing boats bob in the water while hip-booted fishermen haul up their catch, winches grinding, men laughing, calculating, as they load flats of fish into waiting trucks.
Probably the Hotel Paulin in Caraquet is the perfect place to base a trip to the Acadian Peninsula, and to the sparsely populated Acadian Isles like Miscou Island, about an hour’s drive, and the furthest spit of land.
Paulin innkeepers and owners, Gerard Paulin and Karen Mersereau, shop at all the local markets to create meals that are unique to the region in their sophistication and wine selection.
There’s no menu. Whatever the day brings, Karen prepares.
Staff hunt fresh mushrooms in the forests and I watched her clearly but playfully deal with the local fishmonger when she bought the best cod and crab legs of the day and served them that night with terrific wines.
The hotel was built around 1891, and is a two-story Victorian-style building set nicely back from the road and bordered by flowers and a view of the sea.
No less a publication than France’s Le Figaro praised the chef and the hotel, with special praise for the sugar pie.
At the end of Longfellow’s poem, Evangeline finds her lover, Gabriel, moments before he dies, and she holds him in her arms.
New Brunswick’s Acadian people, and Acadians everywhere who come to the celebration, have no intention of letting their culture die.