Puckering up for Valentines

When did February 14th become synonymous with that chubby Cupid character with the bow and arrow? And was there really a Saint Valentine?

One legend says Valentine was a priest in the 3rd Century who defied the Emperor’s decree outlawing young men to marry. The Emperor believed that young men got weak-kneed after marriage, which ruined them for fighting. So Valentine performed secret marriages for young lovers until he was discovered. Another legend says that Valentine fell in love with the jailor’s daughter and before his death the suitor sent her a letter signed “From your Valentine.”

There are many other tales, but the notion of celebrating Valentine’s Day became popular around the 18th century when friends and lovers started to exchange hand-written notes and tokens of affection. In some Latin American countries, on the Day of Love and Friendship (February 14), friends and family do kind things and show their appreciation for each other. In parts of Korea and Japan, women give chocolate to the men on Valentine’s Day; a month later (March 14 or “White Day”) the men give gifts—anything but dark chocolate—to women.

Closer to home, I decided awhile ago to go on a scouting mission to suss out the perfect place for a Valentine get-away. Lucky for me, at the time, I happened to be giving a workshop on travel writing in Saint John, New Brunswick. I didn’t have to look any further!

For starters, I couldn’t get enough of Saint John City Market (the oldest continuing farmer’s market in Canada). You’ll want to visit Slocum & Ferris, famous for local products such as lobster antipasto, dulse, pickled fiddle heads, maple syrup and “chicken bones” from Ganong’s.

Vendor David Forestell is always around and loves to talk about the market in general and the company’s history in particular.

As I gawk at the goods, David says, “Would you like to see an old ledger from 1912?”

“Sure,” says I.

He scampers up on old set of stairs to fetch the ledger. Returning lickety-split, he gives me a glimpse of the stock and costs way-back-when. Then he flips to the back pages and points to signatures of modern-day guests: Jean Charest, Bernard Lord, Preston Manning, Adrienne Clarkson, David Suzuki, and Stephen Harper—to name just a few. I grin, picturing the Prime Minister eating dulse.

I love this market. Its roof resembles the inverted keel of a ship and is actually made of hand-hewn timbers and dove-tailed joints well over 100 years old. On my way out, I meet Abraham Kim, maker of chocolates and Korean Hodo cookies. The size of golf balls, Hodos are made from walnut-scented dough stuffed with a sweet red bean paste then baked in a special machine. Abraham makes them on site; it’s a treat just watching the process.

And so it is here in Saint John; a blend of old and new reflected in different cultures, businesses—even in architecture. Throughout the city, old stone edifices stand shoulder to shoulder with glass structures, pedways and modern boutiques. Walking around the city, you’ll notice John Hooper’s bigger-than-life wooden sculptures. They are just wonderful, and always elicit a “feel-good” response.

If you enjoy browsing in second-hand shops as much as I do, you’ll love Back Street Records on Germain St. It’s small, but has some impressive old vinyl recordings. Owner Gordie Tufts specializes in “the rare and wonderful” and some of the jackets are signed by the musicians. I’m told that this is Stuart McLean’s favourite place in Canada to buy LPs.

Around the corner on Princess St., I discovered Hayward and Warwick, a sprawling old store loaded with china, glass, giftware and souvenirs. A family business for five generations, it’s been around since 1855. Along with a whopping load of inventory, it also has a wee china museum with mini exhibits and curios, and there’s always a sale table smack in the centre of the room.

Food-wise, Saint John has a plethora of great restaurants and several will be offering Valentine specials—too many to list here, but check out the visitor’s guide, city paper, or ask a local!

After dinner, consider topping the night of with your Valentine by going to Happinez wine bar. It has a unique seating arrangement called the “come a little bit closer bench” and is guaranteed to make you smile. Along with an impressive wine cellar, there are intimate nooks and crannies to sneak in a smooch or two.

Time to pucker up and plan a Valentine’s get-away to Saint John. Cupid would approve.

Where to stay

Delta Brunswick Hotel, ideal location; smack in uptown Saint John; connected to the Brunswick Square shopping complex and pedway to Market Square. Indoor pool, health club and Wi-Fi free. Special weekend rates now $129. (506-648-1981 www.deltahotels.com)

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(c) Sandra Phinney, all rights reserved

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