Avalon Peninsula steals your heart
Story by Michelle Hopkins
AVALON PENINSULA, NEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADOR — We wake up to the sounds of waves pounding on the shores. It’s a cold July morning — a welcomed relief from the oppressive heat in my hometown of Vancouver. A salty mist hits my face as I walk onto the deck of our charming country-style cabin at Ocean Delight Cottages. I breathe in the sights and sounds of Whiteway. Soon, Brent, my partner, joins me. We are lulled by the sounds of the ocean and the fishing boats slowly passing by. It’s as if time stands still here in this quiet seaside bay.
We are midway through a week-long trip along Newfoundland‘s Avalon Peninsula, following the Baccalieu Trail.
West of St. John’s, the Avalon Peninsula winds through a vast, largely unpopulated, undeveloped rugged coastline peppered with picturesque fishing villages and coves that look out on the Atlantic Ocean and its Grand Banks.
What attracted Brent and me to this eastern province was its rocky coastline. The province is home to some of the oldest rocks in the world, and these ancient gems offer an incredible opportunity to hike along rocks that date billions of years.
Our favourite hike was at the Rock Walls of Grates Cove. Overlooking the town and ocean, Grates Cove draws you into its setting. We spent an afternoon hiking and photographing the extensive network of walls created by locals in the late 1700s to early 1900s. Residents used the rocks to define their domains. The rocks were stacked to define each resident’s perimeters for fields, gardens, to store vegetables and protect livestock. It was even done to create cemeteries.
Brent was also intrigued by Newfoundlanders’ iconic affinity for the sea. Notably, the cod fishing and boat building, which played significant roles in the history of the province. Sadly, overfishing in the 1980s decimated the cod population and it has yet to recuperate. Today, the only sign of that abundant era are the stages that dot the harbour and coves landscape. Every fisherman had a stage, a small shack on stills where the fish was quickly cleaned (gutted, headed, split and then usually washed) and then salted for a number of days or weeks depending on the product being made.
Brent, an avid boater, attended a workshop at the Winterton Boat Museum. Jerome Canning has been building boats all over the world replicating historical construction techniques of rodneys, punts and dorys. While discussing the boat-building history with Canning, Brent built frames for the rodney.
We spent the first few days in the lively capital of St. John’s, North America’s oldest city. We arrived at 11 pm, but were not quite ready to pack it in. After dropping our suitcases off at the Leaside Manor B&B, we headed into St. John’s famed George Street. We asked an off-duty police officer where to experience some time-honoured Newfie music. He suggested the Shamrock City Pub on the other popular downtown thoroughfare — Water Street. The pub was packed, raucous and lively.
Things You Must See in Newfoundland
Quidi Vidi: A St. John’s neighbourhood which is a scene out of a painting with its colourful homes and boat stages on stilts. It is home to Quidi Vidi Brewing Company and its internationally renowned Iceberg beer, contained in a long-neck blue bottle that has become a collectible item. On our brewery visit, we stumbled across a true kitchen party where everyone is invited to join in on the fun and sing along with the band, Kitchen Craft.
Iceberg sightings: I’m in awe of the fact these mammoth ice formations travel two to three years on an 2,895-kilometre (1,800-mile) trek from Greenland. We were told that we could catch sight of these magnificent feats of nature in Western Bay. We walked along the four-kilometre Western Bay Point boardwalk to be rewarded by close-up views of the icebergs. They are huge, spectacular to behold and are rare or nonexistent in all populated places in the world except Newfoundland & Labrador.
Brigus: Reminiscent of the quaintness often found in European villages, the town is showcased by stone-lined brooks that meander through the town, trees that overhang country lanes, and the Irish-Newfoundland architecture homes that line the streets. I had to ask Brent to stop the car multiple times to take pictures of these gorgeous homes owned by people from across North America drawn to this picturesque coastal town.
Dildo: I was told many tourists head to Dildo because they have a need to be photographed in front of the town sign. Once there, most tourists realize that this quiet seaside community is special for more than its humorous name. A few years ago, singer John Mellencamp and former girlfriend and actress Meg Ryan were said to enjoy their stay in Dildo. However, getting back to the roots of the moniker, the best answer I received was this: The name “dildo” is apparently derived from a phallic wooden pin on a row boat.
Dildo is not to be missed for a number of reasons. First off, the owners of the Inn by the Bay — Colleen and Karen. The two are incredibly accommodating and, if you are fortunate enough to enjoy a glass of wine with them, very funny and engaging. This beautifully restored 1880 manor overlooks Trinity Bay and features seven elegantly decorated guest rooms you’d expect in the best appointed B&Bs. The bed offered us one of the best sleeps of our trip. Not only that, dinner and breakfast were both fabulous.
Another reason is the Red Squid Pub, where we enjoyed the province’s renowned hospitality and listened to great local music. Dildo is also a wonderful place to meander along the waterfront, watch whales go by, hike or just plain relax.
Activities for Outdoor Enthusiasts in Newfoundland
The East Coast Trail hike from Fort Amherst: This hiker’s haven offers 260 kilometres (162 miles) of ocean-side trails, rugged coastlines, lighthouses, whales, icebergs (in season) connecting more than 30 communities. Brent says there’s no reason to head to Europe’s El Camino; this Canadian version of the El Camino will do. We happened to begin our hike on a rainy morning, foghorns blaring and the view of Signal Hill shrouded in foggy mist made for some stunning photos.
Cape Spear Lighthouse: The province’s oldest surviving lighthouse (1836) is at the most Easterly point in North America. Here you can witness pounding waves while walking alongside the shoreline on a beautiful wooden boardwalk that snakes along the perimeter.
Stan Cook Sea Kayak Adventures in Witless Bay: We had picture-perfect paddling conditions for our trip. We enjoyed paddling along while seeing bald eagles, waterfalls and various sea creatures, and learning about the history of this area through Gallows Cove, Cliffs of Insanity and Admirals Cove. Our guide gently scooped sea urchins off the sea floor and offered us a taste. Some in our group thought it had the flavour of cucumber while others were reminded of mushy saltwater.
And just when we started thinking that we would have a very long paddle back, a speedboat came along, whisked us aboard, and towed our kayaks back.
After our two-and-a-half-hour kayak trip, we headed to Brigus south/Turtle Island for a picnic. Our vantage point provided postcard-worthy photos of the ocean as well as sightings of minke and humpback whales.
MORE ABOUT VISITING AVALON PENINSULA AND ST. JOHN’S IN NEWFOUNDLAND
Where to Stay
Leaside Manor in St. John’s (Leaside Suites & Executive Apartments)
Address: 39 Topsail Road, St. John’s
Phone: 1-709-722-0387 or 1-877-807-7245 (toll free)
Note: There is a great story about this lovely inn. The staff is really friendly and accommodating and the breakfasts are delicious.
Ocean Delight Cottages, Whiteway along the Baccalieu Trail, Avalon
Note: We stayed in the Blueberry — a fully-equipped two-bedroom cottage right at the ocean’s edge. It features vintage linens and furnishings and windows to spectacular ocean views and sunsets.
Elaine’s B&B By the Sea, Witless Bay
Note: Among the reasons you shouldn’t miss staying here: the coastal views from the front deck, comfortable bed, the 10-minute boat ride to the largest Atlantic puffin colony in North America, a great breakfast and the nicest hostess. We met returning guests from Toronto and England.
Where to Eat
Fuelled by renewed local pride, Newfoundland’s executive chefs are getting their inspiration from their grandmothers’ kitchens. These restaurants are recreating — and sometimes reinventing — local ingredients and traditional meals. They’re also doing it really well. Raymonds has been named the No. 1 restaurant in Canada by the Vacay.ca-produced TopRestaurantsInCanada.com and Quidi Vidi’s Mallard Cottage has also ranked in the top 10 for two consecutive years. Here are some other restaurants of note:
Aqua Kitchen & Bar: Raised in Quidi Vidi Village, proprietor/executive chef Mark McCrowe offers traditional homespun comfort dishes, such as the fried cod tongue and Jiggs dinner with a twist — yummy fried croquettes filled with beef and whatever vegetables are available.
Address: 310 Water Street, St. John’s
Chafe’s Landing: For the best fish and chips (and fish tacos) bar none, head to this hot spot in Petty Harbour-Maddox Cove on the eastern shore. Housed in the oldest house in Petty Harbour, Chafe’s Landing was constructed in 1878. The fish comes right from its own fleet of fishing boats. Expect line-ups at all hours of the day.
Address: 11 Main Road, Petty Harbour
Grates Cove Studios: Owned and operated by a young, sweet couple, artist Terrence Howell and chef Courtney Howell, the cafe offers one of the most unique menus in the province, specializing in Newfoundland-Cajun hybrid cuisine, sushi, Korean BBQ, or a unique twist on any one of them. Fabulous cuisine. I highly recommend the chicken and sausage jambalaya and the Wine Island scallops. You can’t miss this spot. Just drive into Grates Cove and on the main road, you’ll see it on your left.
There are too many great eateries to name here but head to Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism’s website for other recommendations.