Directly across the river from Calais, Maine, St. Stephen is the gateway to Canada for many travelers arriving from the United States. The two towns have a symbiotic relationship—it’s a local call across the international border from one town to the other, fire engines from one country will respond to fires in the other, and during an annual summer parade, bands and floats have sometimes marched right through Customs. Though downtown St. Stephen is hardly a destination itself, it is a handy pit stop—and the smell of chocolate does sneakily attempt to entice you into a longer stay. The Provincial Visitor Information Centre (tel. 506/466-7390), located at Milltown Boulevard and King Street, is open daily from 9am to 8pm June through early October.
St. Stephen is a town in transition. The lumber industry and wood trade that were responsible for those handsome brick-and-stone buildings that line the main street have mostly dried up. The town now depends largely on the pulp industry, the large Ganong chocolate factory, and pass-through tourists like yourself for its economic mainstays. (For the cocoa bean–obsessed, there’s also a small Chocolate Festival in summer.) As a regional commercial center, it has a gritty feel to it, though not much in the way of stylish shopping or restaurants.
You can learn about the region’s history with a brief stop at the Charlotte County Museum, 443 Milltown Blvd. (tel. 506/466-3295), open June through August (and by appointment only in September); it’s quite close to the tourist office described above. There’s no charge for admission.
And yes, if you're here, do get some of the sweet brown stuff. St. Stephen’s claim to fame is that it’s purported to be the home of the chocolate bar—the first place where somebody thought to wrap chocolate pieces in foil and sell them individually. In 1910, they say. At least that’s according to local lore. Chocolate is big around here—not as big as in Hershey, Pennsylvania, but still a big part of the local psyche and economy. The Ganong brothers began selling chocolate from their general store here in 1873, and from that an empire was built, employing some 700 people by the 1930s. Ganong was also the first place to package chocolates in heart-shaped boxes for Valentine’s Day, and still holds 30% of the Canadian market for heart-box chocolates. The modern new plant on the outskirts of town isn’t open to the public, but there’s a museum in one of the company’s early factories, a large brick structure on the main street.
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