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FUNDY'S RISING TIDE OF TOURISTS

"Keep an eye out for moose tracks!" shouts Heinz Limpert over the thup-thup of the helicopter blades.

He lowers the chopper to within 100 feet of the treetops, then tilts it passenger-side down to give me an unimpeded look. Gripping the seat beneath me, I lean over and peer into a dense stretch of wilderness.

It is a frigid morning in March, and snow still lies in patches on the ground between the towering blue spruces. We are near the edge of the Bay of Fundy, its famously fluctuating tide now at its lowest level, laying bare a mile or more of bay floor.

Behind us are Hopewell Rocks, impossibly stacked sandstone pillars created by the sluicing bay. Ahead, over a few rolls in this undulating landscape, looms Saint John, New Brunswick's oldest, largest and most industrialized city, its skyline a dissonant panorama of stately church spires and belching smokestacks.

Just now, though, I only have eyes for moose.

And Limpert knows where to look. The 59-year-old German pilot tracks the movements of moose and deer through this rugged terrain for New Brunswick's Department of Natural Resources when he is not squiring the occasional tourist around in his chopper.

Out of the corner of my eye I see him pointing, and I follow his finger. It leads to a long, crooked column of deep hoof prints in the snow. Another set of tracks crosses it; yet another crosses the second.

"Maybe we'll be able to pick one out," Limpert bellows. "The snow makes it easier to see them, but if they're lying down they may blend in with the trees."

Alas, it must be naptime for the moose population. We make several circles over the area, paying special attention to large groves of spruce seedlings planted by timber companies. ("They like to feed on the young trees because they're more tender," Limpert explains.)

But I'll see no moose today. It is just as well. I have already witnessed so many eye-popping sights on this buzz over a sliver of New Brunswick's Fundy coast, which spans 220 miles between the borders of Maine and Nova Scotia, that I'm starting to get sore sockets.

Every turn of the head brings another astonishing vista. The craggy, plunging cliffs of Black Point and Cape Enrage. The wild splash of the Big Salmon River, swollen with winter runoff. The picture-puzzle-perfect fishing village of St. Martins, with its white clapboard churches, covered bridges and little red lighthouse. And the gorgeous, sun-infused emerald of the bay itself, the banks of Nova Scotia hazy on its horizon.

Later, back on land, I'll tramp through a couple of coastal nature parks and discover that the view is just as dizzying with my feet on the ground.

New Brunswick is a place of vast, untouched beauty _ a little too untouched for many in the tourism industry here. Slightly smaller than Maine, the province has a population of about 725,000; in comparison, Pinellas County's 2000 Census total was 921,482; Hillsborough's, 998,948; and Pasco's, 344,765.

Laid-back New Brunswick isn't the first destination that springs to the minds of most travelers planning a vacation in Canada.

Neighboring Nova Scotia, with its ruggedly handsome Cape Breton Island and popular Cabot Trail, is sexier. Newfoundland, with its edge-of-North America mystique, is more extreme. And there are always the big city, big ticket destinations: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

Visitors have trickled in to New Brunswick, whether to whale-watch off the islands that guard the mouth of the bay, to moose-watch in 51,000-acre Fundy National Park or to bird- and seal-watch at Irving Nature Park in Saint John. In 1998, about 1.5-million people visited New Brunswick _ less than a third of the overnight tourists coming only to Pinellas County.

That's changing. Provincial and city governments have recently focused on tourism with a new vigor, and New Brunswick leads the Atlantic provinces in tourism growth.

The Fundy coast is getting the biggest push. The Fundy Trail Parkway, a 15-mile series of roadways and hiking and biking trails in a 7.5-mile corridor between St. Martins and the Big Salmon River, opened in May 1999 and drew 79,000 visitors in its debut season.

Saint John is becoming a popular cruise ship port; 85 ships called last summer. And two golf resorts opened last September, one in St. Andrews near the Maine border and the other in the inland city of Moncton.

"In the past, we didn't have much to offer," concedes Mitchell Franklin, the Fundy Trail's most fervent and enduring champion. The 87-year-old hotel and newspaper magnate, who lives on an 8,000-acre estate west of St. Martins, has been trying for decades to get the trail established.

"I've been a failure for 50 years!" he jokes. "I knew the beauty of the coastline and knew it had tremendous tourism potential. But nobody would listen."

For decades, Franklin says, the provincial government focused on industry, granting rights to large swaths of crown land to the locally based Irving conglomerate. (Those are Irving pulp mills and oil refineries smoking up the sky over Saint John.)

The focus shifted somewhat in the late 1990s with the increasing popularity of outdoor adventuring. The dream is to expand the Fundy Trail along the entire coast within a decade. Plans already exist to connect it to Fundy National Park, 25 miles east.

Standing on the Fundy Trail's Fox Rock Lookout, gazing across a bay inlet to the lighthouse on Quaco Head, it's easy to understand a passion for this land.

On the suspension footbridge that spans the Big Salmon River, I contemplate the rush of water as it courses past remnants of logging wharfs from the early 1900s.

Elsewhere, heavy cascades at Fuller Falls catch the late-morning light as they gush through copses of birch, maple and spruce. Below the falls, the lonesome, rocky expanse of Pangburn Beach waits to be covered by the bay, which rises as much as 48 feet between low and high tides, the largest tidal shift in the world.

In the summer, the beaches and bay lookouts here teem with eco-minded visitors hoping to catch sight of the right, humpback, minke and finback whales that come to feed on krill, a tiny, shrimplike crustacean.

Irving Nature Park shows us what can happen when big business grows a conscience.

Irving is the same company that runs the paper mills, shipyards and refineries in the area. In fact, the Irving Paper and Tissue plant is just down the road, the sign out front stating: "Committed to a clean environment."

The park sits on a peninsula of volcanic rock that juts into the Bay of Fundy west of downtown Saint John. Opened in 1992, Irving Nature Park was a gift from James Irving, who runs the industries with his brothers, John and Arthur. (The siblings' combined wealth is estimated to be more than $6.5-billion.)

The motivation behind such largesse is open to interpretation. "This is the Irvings' way of giving back to the community," says the park's naturalist, Kelly Honeyman. Others consider it reparation to the environment.

Regardless, the results are lovely. The 600-acre park encompasses several diverse artificial and natural ecosystems. The salt marsh on the west side draws more than 250 species of birds, including great blue herons, migrating from as far away as South America.

Porcupines, foxes and white-tailed deer forage among the spruce, fir and birch of the Acadian Forest. The mud flats lure sandpipers and the occasional moose. And the eastern shore is the place to see Seal Rock, where harbor seals jockey for position at low tide.

"There's a hierarchy for who gets the best place on the rock," Honeyman says. "You'll see a lot of the big guys jostling the little guys." At high tide the rock is underwater, but if you're lucky you can still see a seal or two splashing in the bay.

Honeyman, who gives tours of the park to school, civic and seniors groups, proudly shows off a new section called the Children's Forest. Created on land that was once a gravel pit, the forest gives youngsters the opportunity to plant a tree and monitor its growth. "We have a grid, and we record who planted what and where," Honeyman says. "In 50 years, you'll be able to come back and find your tree."

It is windy on the morning of our visit. We stand looking out over clusters of birch, maple, ash and spruce saplings. They look so vulnerable, huddled together against the elements. Their survival truly would be a gift.

During the summer, the temperature can climb into the 90s and the migratory animals return to feed and frolic.

The humpbacks start showing up around mid June, and the dawdling right whales, with their big, gnarly skin calluses, make it in by mid July. Die-hard bird-watchers may have to make two trips: Atlantic puffins, Arctic terns and pied-billed grebes are in by early June and out by the end of July, and August brings great flocks of semipalmated sandpipers.

Sailboats begin to dot the bay in May, growing to a grand flotilla by high summer. And the whale watch tours off Deer Island, Campobello Island and Grand Manan gear up at the first sign of a whale tail.

Let the crowds have their regular tourist haunts. Myself, I'll be coming back to this pretty province for one more hike down the Fundy Trail to catch one more soul-nourishing sunset from Sheldon's Point in Irving Nature Park and maybe for one more spin over the coast in Limpert's helicopter.

And to Fundy National Park's coy moose populace, I'll just say this: You can't hide forever.

If you go

(All prices listed have been converted to American dollars.)

GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights from the Tampa Bay area to Saint John, but you can connect via Toronto, on Air Canada.

GETTING AROUND: You will need to rent a car if you plan to explore much of the Fundy coast. The Saint John airport has kiosks for Hertz (toll-free at 1-800-654-3001), Avis (1-800-331-1212) and National (1-800-227-3876).

OUTDOOR ADVENTURES: Canadian Helicopters Limited, Heinz Limpert, base manager. Tours are about $475 an hour, limit four people per flight. (506) 446-6920.

Fundy National Park. Open daily year-round. Visitors center hours during peak season, May to October, are 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. $2.40 park entrance fee; campground rates start at about $7. Contact the park at (506) 887-6000; the Web site is www.parcscanada.gc.ca/fundy/.

Fundy Trail Parkway. Open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily May to October. Historic walks through Fownes burial grounds. $3.40 entrance fee. Call (506) 833-2019; www.fundytrailparkway.com.

Irving Nature Park. Open daily year-round; naturalists lead seasonal tours from May to November. Guided outings to see stars or to snowshoe by moonlight may be arranged throughout the year. Free admission. To book a tour, call (506) 632-7777. General information, (506) 653-7367; www.ifdn.com.

BAY OF FUNDY ADVENTURES: Island Coast Boat Tours Inc. Two narrated whale watching tours, daily, July 1 to Sept. 15. $30 adults, $28 for those 65 and older, $16 children 12 and younger. North Head Fishermen's Pier, Grand Manan. Contact the company at 199 Cedar St., Grand Manan, New Brunswick, Canada E5G 2C5T. Call (506) 662-8181, www.angelfire.com/biz/icbt; e-mail to icbtnbnet.nb.ca

Fundy Tide Runners Whale Watching and Nature Tours. View whales, seals, porpoises and eagles on two-hour tour aboard 24-foot Zodiac Hurricane raft. Four two-hour trips daily, May to October. $30 adults, $18.50 children ages 5 to 13. Contact the company at 16 King St., St. Andrews by-the-Sea, New Brunswick, Canada E5B 1Y2; fax and phone: (506) 529-4481; the Web site is www.townsearch.com/ftr.htm.

Baymount Outdoor Adventures Inc. Two-hour guided kayak tours of Hopewell Rocks. Includes kayak equipment and basic instruction. June to August. $18 adults, $16 children 18 and younger, $82 per family. (506) 734-2660.

STAYING THERE: Delta Brunswick Hotel. Large, reasonably priced hotel in downtown Saint John. Connected to shops, restaurants and sports facilities through elevated, indoor walkway. 255 rooms. $65 to $115. Toll-free at 1-800-268-1133; www.deltahotels.com.

The Quaco Inn. Restored inn on the Bay of Fundy, in historic fishing village of St. Martins. Near beaches, lighthouse, trails and covered bridges. Six rooms. $65 to $100. Toll-free at 1-888-833-4772, www.intellis.net/quacoinn.

The Algonquin. Upscale resort overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay in St. Andrews, near Maine border. Golf course, tennis courts, spa. 250 rooms, including 13 suites. $58 to $170. Toll-free 1-800-441-1414, www.cphotels.com.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the New Brunswick Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Culture; call toll-free 1-800-561-0123; www.tourismnbcanada.com.

Saint John Visitor & Convention Bureau, toll-free 1-888-364-4444.

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