Driving the Irish Loop in Newfoundland
Story by Debra Smith
ST. JOHN’S, NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR — The Irish Loop draws a lazy circle around the Avalon Peninsula of southeastern Newfoundland. The narrow highway of the Irish Loop, which ranks No. 6 on the 2016 Vacay.ca Best Places to Visit in Canada Guide, skirts the shore of the cold Atlantic on its way south; then pulls back into the safety of pines, black spruce, balsam fir and birch as it rounds Trepassey Bay and heads north. The drive can hold some challenges — fog, potholes and the more than occasional moose — but the rugged beauty of the land lures you on to memorable vistas, cozy coves and tiny enchantments. It’s a round trip of about 300 kilometres (185 miles) from the provincial capital of St. John’s. We set out to drive it in one day.
We started off early from St. John’s under a slate-coloured sky and immediately went off course, as all good explorers should, heading for the Cape Spear Lighthouse. The spit of land it sits on has no less than three hiking trails including a portion of the East Coast Trail. The Most Easterly Point Trail takes you to, of course, the most easterly point of land in continental North America (Greenland is farther east), a splendid photo-op if ever there was one. You can tour the historic lighthouse that holds artifacts dating to 1836 when the Cantwell family became the lighthouse keepers. For more than 100 years, they tended a light that burned whale oil, then kerosene and finally electricity, before it was replaced by the automated Coast Guard lighthouse in 1955. The island also holds the remains of fortifications built during World War II to protect St. John’s Harbour. Don’t miss the lighthouse-inspired art gallery and the pair of perfectly placed red Muskoka chairs, thoughtfully provided by Parks Canada, where you can gaze out towards Ireland over the steel blue sea.
Back on the road, the rusty squawks of seagulls filled the air as we passed Witless Bay. Tour boats head out from here to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve where clouds of petrels, murres, great black-backed gulls and other seabirds nest among the four protected islands that make up the reserve. More than half a million Atlantic puffins, Newfoundland’s provincial bird, roost here. The bay is also a gathering place for humpback whales who compete with the birds for tiny, oily fish called capelin. When the capelin are rolling, great silvery masses wash up with the tide and alerts are posted to local websites such as the one that provides a capelin calendar so residents and visitors can show up with buckets and shovels or with their cameras to catch the miniature migration in action.
On the Road In and Around St. John’s
On the road between Witless Bay and Mobile, as if by magic, tiny sails appeared on a pond to our right. We slammed on the brakes and did a quick reverse. We had accidentally stumbled upon Maxwell Morgan’s River of Boats, a project that the owner has been working on for almost 40 years.
Each intricately carved and colourfully hand-painted boat is modelled from photographs “just enough to resemble the original.” A tall ship, a Viking boat, a paddlewheel steamer and a bright red Chinese junk are just a few of the charming boats in his harbour.
Across the street are a series of dioramas depicting the early days of the fishing industry. They are the product of close observation, not experience. Morgan says he gets seasick if he steps foot on a real boat.
Our next stop was Ferryland, the home of the original Colony of Avalon. An archaeological dig to reveal the stone buildings of the settlement is underway. Greater than one million objects have been found to date and many of them are on display in the interpretive centre. The first settlers to the Colony of Avalon began to arrive in 1620 to this “land of fishes” from England and Ireland. The Irish Loop honours their heritage.
In the Arthurian legends, Avalon was a mystical British isle, the place where Excalibur was forged, ruled over by nine sisters including the enchantress Morgan le Fay. That would be considered a small family by some Newfoundland standards. And that might be why most visitors are treated like long lost relatives by everyone they meet on the Avalon.
After a tour of the dig, we stopped into the Tetley Tea Room by the Sea. It serves a lovely “cuppa” and traditional bread pudding or scones with clotted cream. The windows of the cozy room offered a panoramic view of the ocean while we sipped our tea.
Rounding the south end of the peninsula, we stopped at the Edge of Avalon Interpretation Centre in Portugal Cove. Guided tours leave from here to the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve. From late May to early October, you can head out on a free six-kilometre (3.7 miles) guided walking tour to see the oldest fossils found anywhere on earth. These soft-bodied complex life forms (some up to a metre long) were buried by lava ash around 560 million years ago, which preserved their forms in exquisite detail. The interpretive centre has an excellent video, a cast of part of the fossil beds and the friendliest staff you can imagine.
Trepassey is the midpoint of the Irish Loop. We stopped in at the Trepassey Motel and Restaurant for a quick lunch. The menu is loaded with Newfoundland specialities like toutons (a kind of beignet), cod tongues, and pea soup. The inspiration comes from chef to the stars, Norman Sooley, who has worked with Neil Young, Alice Cooper, Alan Jackson, Willie Nelson, Randy Travis, KISS and Snoop Dogg. And once again, we were enchanted by the friendly and helpful service.
With luck, if you spend the night, you might be able to catch part of the annual caribou migration that passes close by the motel.
At Trepassey we heard that whales had been spotted near St. Vincent’s beach, so we hurried on to English Cape. A great expanse of black beach stretched along the cove for several miles in both directions. The air was filled with the constant roar of the ocean as it washed palm-sized pebbles back and forth on the shore. The drop off must have been sharp as we spotted two large whales who were feeding only metres away. A perky sea lion dodged around in the shallows to the amusement of a small crowd who had brought their lawn chairs and settled in to see the show.
It was hard to leave, but the sun was low in the sky so we pushed on. Moose are most likely to make an appearance on the highway at twilight.
Just on the edge of the community of St. Mary’s we spotted an amazing collection of tiny houses alongside a stream, barely visible on the left side of the highway. As we found out later, this miniature town is a recreation of Oderin, the childhood home of Frank Mullett. During the Newfoundland Resettlement Program in the 1960s his family was forced to leave his beloved home so he recreated it here; the church, the school, the docks, right down to the puffins in the harbour and wash hanging on the line. It’s a loving testament to times gone by that touches your heart while it makes you smile.
The same could be said for the places you’ll see and the people you’ll meet along Newfoundland’s Irish Loop.