St. Stephen, New Brunswick, is a small Canadian town with one big claim to fame. It’s Canada’s Chocolate Capital! Any town that claims a chocolate connection is well worth visiting in my estimation but, as I learned on a recent press trip, there’s more to check out in this friendly border town than just confectionery.
St. Stephen is located in southwest New Brunswick, just across the St. Croix River from Calais, Maine. If you were driving from Bangor, you’d reach St. Stephen in about 2 hours. Those flying in often pick Fredericton, New Brunswick’s capital city, as their primary destination. The airport is just over 90 minutes away.
Travelers visiting in winter should expect some services to be closed or offer reduced hours and winter tires are a must for rural driving in the province. I might be biased since my own visit took place in September, but I think early autumn is the ideal time to visit. The scenery is beautiful and there are fewer day-trippers around compared to the summer months. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two extra special reasons to visit in August: The annual chocolate festival and the international homecoming festival.
The Chocolate Museum
Located in what was once the Ganong candy factory, the Chocolate Museum is run by the Ganong team. It takes visitors through the evolution of cocoa as a valuable global commodity and into the late 1800s when Ganong was established as one of Canada’s first confectioners. In many ways, St. Stephen and Ganong have a shared history, with each influencing the growth and development of the other. St. Stephen is a true company town in the sense that you’d be hard-pressed to find a single family in the area who doesn’t have one of its members employed by Ganong. And Ganong, in turn, is a part of New Brunswick and Canadian history. Among other things, it was one of the first (maybe even the very first) to create a candy bar and it also pioneered the heart-shaped chocolate box.
Tours are available several times a day at the Chocolate Museum. Grab a bag of my personal favorites — Chicken Bones a pink cinnamon hard candy with a thin chocolate center — at the gift shop before you go. They’re deliciously addictive!
Every year at the beginning of August, all of St. Stephen and a fair bit of the rest of New Brunswick come together to celebrate the community’s Chocolate Fest. Based on past schedules of events, it may just be the most fun festival in Canada. Participants enjoy workshops to make-your-own chocolate bark, a jellybean fun run, a pancake breakfast, treasure hunts, recipe contests, movie nights, and BINGO. There’s even a pudding eating contest! This could just be the kind of competitive event I’d excel at. Activities range from being free to costing a few dollars.
International Homecoming Festival
St. Stephen and Calais, Maine, may be separated by the St. Croix River but the two towns think of themselves as one family. Indeed, families often live on both sides of the river and people frequently cross the border to shop, attend events, and visit friends. The annual International Homecoming Festival, which takes place every August, celebrates this special connection. Visitors can expect special events in both towns, including fireworks, kids’ activities, free public swims and skates, parades, scavenger hunts, and more.
Charlotte County Museum
Located just on the outskirts of St. Stephen in the community of Milltown, the Charlotte County Museum chronicles local life from the late 1800s onward and has a special emphasis on the early settlers including Loyalists, Irish, and Scots. While the museum is open seasonally. Contact in advance for tours year-round.
Methodist Burial Ground, Kirk McColl United Church
I don’t normally make a practice of skulking around church properties when I travel, but every time I passed Kirk McColl United Church, I could see that there was something behind it. Finally, on my last day in St. Stephen, I turned the car around to go investigate and I’m so glad that I did. Behind the church is a small Methodist burial ground that dates to 1786. If you’re able to visit without disrupting any activities at the church, it’s well worth pulling over just like I did to check it out. It’s one thing to describe St. Stephen as a historical town but it’s another altogether to see the proof of it in this graveyard, which I suspect must be among the oldest in the province. And the presence of small American flags is a testament to how this is truly a border community.
Ganong Nature Park
Located just a few miles out of St. Stephen, the Ganong Nature Park is a 350-acre park and forested recreation space overlooking the St. Croix River. There are 11 short trails, ranging from just a few hundred feet to less than a mile, so it’s entirely possible to walk all of them in one visit. Points of interest include a Ganong family cottage and the foundations of old farm buildings. Onsite glamping units are a nice accommodation option for those looking to spend time in nature without really roughing it too much.
Riverside Waterfront Trail
Just under 1 mile in length (one way), the Riverside Trail takes hikers and strollers along the St. Croix River. Along the way, you’ll see a cute mini lighthouse and pieces of outdoor sculpture. The parking lot at the west end of the trail is my preference on where to start, mostly because of its proximity to a café!
Something’s Brewing Café
This tiny café by the river is an absolute delight. Chocolate lovers will want to get the largest spiced hot chocolate they can, as it’s absolutely delicious. Those who like things a little less sweet should inquire if they can get a Chicken Bones latte. The spicy cinnamon flavor of this local candy goes perfectly with espresso (and all of the coffee and tea at Something’s Brewing is fairtrade, which makes your treat even nicer). If you’re planning to walk the Riverside Trail, this is a good spot to fuel up with a veggie and goat cheese breakfast sandwich, veggie hummus wrap, or an oatcake.
This cozy diner has an old-fashioned vibe. There are even baby jukeboxes at some of the booths! Carman’s menu is filled with classic diner food, from hot turkey and hot roast beef dinners to spaghetti and meatballs and Salisbury steak. Most breakfast items are under $8 and there’s a $9.50 senior’s special which includes coffee and dessert. If the chocolate pie is on the menu, go for it!
This diner specializes in submarine sandwiches, with 18 varieties all ringing in at under $11 for a mighty 12-inch sandwich. The Blondie comes loaded with roast beef, ham, salami, bacon, jack cheese, and veggies and might just require a nap when you’re done. Diner 81 is also my favorite place to grab breakfast in St. Stephen. It does a perfect over-medium fried egg, which is much rarer a find than you might expect! (Us over-medium lovers suffer in a world made for those who like over-easy or hard yolks.) Another great pie stop, both chocolate, and chocolate coconut varieties are usually on the menu.
The 5 Kings Restaurant
This upscale brewpub serves up some of the best food in town. This is where you go when you want a hearty meal like a Philly cheesesteak melt with a beer barbecue sauce or pulled pork tacos with avocado and arugula. The Five Kings is part of the Picaroon family, which is my favorite Fredericton brewery. And, appropriate for St. Stephen, a chocolate beer is sometimes on the menu. Afterglow Aphrodisiac Ale is made each February and features chocolate, ginseng, and cayenne pepper.
Pro Tip: A Word On Accommodations
St. Stephen’s accommodation options are a bit sparse. Your choices are very basic motels and possibly seasonally operated B&Bs. I secretly hope that one day the town will have a chocolate-themed inn! If you prefer a wider selection of amenities and creature comforts, the nearby community of St. Andrews by-the-Sea is a good place to start. This pretty oceanside town is 25 minutes from St. Stephen and is home to the luxurious Algonquin Resort. Other comfortable options include the homey Inn on Frederick, and the lovely Montague Rose B&B (which serves an elegant high tea!).
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