Three tour buses pulled up to Fredericton's Lord Beaverbrook Hotel recently and disgorged a group of senior citizens from Wisconsin just in time for dinner.
At 7:30 o'clock the next morning, with name tags pinned to pastel sweaters, the group dutifully marched through the hotel lobby, boarded its buses, and was soon speeding across New Brunswick toward Prince Edward Island.
For many travelers to this part of Canada - other than the few who for years have come for salmon fishing in the Miramichi River or swimming in Gulf Stream waters off the Acadian coast - such a brief stay in New Brunswick has not been uncommon. More often than not, the rolling hills and noble rivers of Canada's ''Picture Province'' have been framed through tinted tour-bus and automobile windows or glimpsed at twilight from campsites and motels.
But this year, as New Brunswick celebrates its bicentennial, it seems the province is beginning to wake up, take stock of its history and unspoiled resources, and, by offering several interesting detours, put an end to its reputation as just a way station between Maine and the Maritimes. Curiously, the history of New Brunswick's settlement is directly linked to this proximity to Maine's northern border. While there were scattered French (Acadian) and British populations in the province during the early 18th century, the first major influx of settlers arrived at the close of the American Revolution. Some 12,000 Loyalist supporters of King George III poured into the region fleeing the tar and feathers of American patriots in New England. They settled along the banks of the St. John River - dubbed the ''Rhine of North America.''
In the same spirit as a Williamsburg or Plimoth Plantation, the Canadian government in 1969 chose a site in the St. John River Valley for an open-air museum to re-create the life and traditions of the early Loyalist settlers during the late 18th century and early 19th century.
New Brunswickers are quite proud of this 300-acre settlement known as Kings Landing, some 35 kilometers (21 miles) west of the provincial capital of Fredericton - and well worth the detour for children and history buffs.
Beginning in early June, some 100 men and women in period dress go about their daily chores. These range from making cranberry jelly to sawing huge logs into planks for house repairs.
Besides visits to various houses, working farm buildings, and the sawmill - which can easily take a full day - there is a variety of activities for visitors throughout the season, including wool shearing, spinning, and dyeing; feast and theater nights; a turkey shoot using replicas of Brown Bess flintlock muskets (the closest shot on paper turkey targets wins a frozen turkey), and a ''visiting cousins'' program in July and August.
The ''cousins'' program is a five-day life-in-the-18th-century program offered to children from across North America between nine and 14 years old. The cousins dress in period costumes and learn to milk cows, make butter and cheese, or go to school in a tiny one-room schoolhouse of the 1840s.
The settlement closes in mid-October, but the small fireplaces in each wood-paneled dining room of the Kings Head Inn burn merrily into December for Christmas candlelight dinners of roast goose, roast turkey, plum pudding, mince pie, and English toffee.
Besides the hearty fare of the Kings Head Inn, Fredericton boasts the Eighty Eight Ferry - a marvelous restaurant in a beautifully restored Victorian house serving flower-garnished soups, entrees, and desserts (all the flowers are edible) worth four stars and a detour itself. Elderberry pie made with berries from the owners' patch was the special dessert one night recently. St. John, the original landing site of the some 4,000 Loyalists from Boston and New York in 1783, is now the province's largest city and Canada's third-largest port by volume.
In the past year, the city's downtown area has undergone major renovation, so much so that a visitor returning to the city center this fall remarked, ''You should have seen this a year ago. The difference is amazing.''
The sidewalks and parking areas along King Street, the main shopping street, have been widened and redesigned as a mini-mall. Spruced-up storefronts and signs advertising coming shops reflect the city's new look and vitality. But St. John's real showpiece - and New Brunswick's as well - is the $100 million shopping and convention center known as Market Square. The project was nine years in the planning stages, and one year in construction.
The complex has been designed along the lines of Boston's Faneuil Hall or Baltimore's renovated waterfront, with a good deal of exposed brick. It is a lively hodgepodge of colored tiles and neon signs advertising pizza, potato stuffings, and jellybeans. Wonderful multicolored kitelike contraptions hang in the central atrium, which cuts through the three levels of boutiques and eating establishments (known here as ''Licensed Dining Rooms'').
St. John has taken a lesson from other Canadian cities with cold, gray February days by connecting Market Square to City Hall, Brunswick Square (another shopping mall), and the produce stalls of the 100-year-old City Market by a series of enclosed walkways and tunnels.
In addition to the city's physical face lift, the project has produced some 900 sorely needed new jobs in St. John and an accompanying enthusiasm that may be well worth absorbing before continuing on (as in the past) to New Brunswick's neighboring provinces.