Off the beaten path in Newfoundland
Story by Shannon Leahy
NEW BONAVENTURE, NEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADOR — Sure, you know about Newfoundland’s Cape Spear, Signal Hill, Gander, Gros Morne and L’Anse aux Meadows.
(If you don’t know these iconic Newfoundland sites, here’s a cheat sheet: Cape Spear is the easternmost point in Canada; Signal Hill was the reception point of the first trans-Atlantic wireless signal in 1901; Gander is a tiny town that welcomed thousands of stranded airline passengers during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when many planes in eastern North America were ordered to immediately land; Gros Morne National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; and L’Anse aux Meadows is the archaelogical landmark where remnants were unearthed of Vikings’ explorations from centuries ago.)
Canada’s youngest province offers more than “townie” St. John’s, the mountainous wilderness in the west and cold mysterious Labrador. Newfoundland is the 16th largest island in the world, bigger than Ireland and Iceland, so there’s plenty to see, drink and do here.
Here’s a Top 4 list of “baymen” places, people and things chosen from more than 29,000 kilometres of Newfoundland coastline. These must-see spots are off the beaten path, tourist-free and refreshingly unknown.
1. The Burin Peninsula
The boot-shaped Burin Peninsula on the southwestern coast is a barren and beautiful place. Some of the ocean’s most spectacular waves crash against this shore. Willow ptarmigan and rock ptarmigan, the island’s official game bird, fly up and greet you as you hike through bog and over dense carpets of heath moss, wild orchids, erratics (boulders moved by glaciers) and low-growing shrubs.
Park your car beside the ocean, cross the road and join the locals as they pick blueberries, cranberries, marsh berries, bakeapples and bilberries. Keep your eyes open for herds of migrating woodland caribou.
“Walk on water” in Burin, a tiny pretty town featuring a floating boardwalk and rock-and-giant-wood-furniture garden called Poor Poet’s Poetry Hill.
Do the entire 463-kilometre (288 miles) loop and stop in at some of the most affordable museums you’ll ever visit ($2.50 to $5 per person). There’s the Burin Tidal Wave Museum documenting the tsunami that devastated the region in 1929. The St. Lawrence Miner’s Museum is curated by women who will give you a private tour of the area’s history as well as the story of their lives, which includes the grim death of their fathers who died of black lung disease after years working in the mines. The miners’ faces peer out from the museum’s floor-to-ceiling mural.
Visit Provincial Seamen’s Museum in Grand Bank, where you will enter the world of schooners, dories and jigging for cod. The museum is just steps from the cobblestone shores of the Grand Banks, one of the world’s largest and richest resource areas of fish and oil.
Celebrate your barren adventures at the Admiral’s Galley and Keg, called “the keg” by locals, in Marystown, the peninsula’s largest community (population: 5,500), with a double shot of Screech (rum) mixed with pineapple pop.
Sleep off the booze and deep-fried cod at nearby Spanish Room Manor. If you’re lucky, your hosts will invite you into their music room and sing you a folksong accompanied by the twang of a six-string banjo.
2. New Bonaventure, Bonavista Peninsula
Although most Canadians think Newfoundland’s earth-shattering woes began with the Northern Cod Moratorium in 1992, an apocalyptic death blow delivered 24 hours after Canada Day, Newfoundlanders have suffered, and overcome, much worse. If you’ve ever been haunted after reading The Shipping News, giggled about Gordon Pinsent’s barroom antics in the movie The Grand Seduction or cried watching the mini-series Random Passage, you want to visit the rugged northeastern coastline around the tiny outport of New Bonaventure (population: 30). Just remember to pack food, drink and pre-book your cottage home. Coffee shops, grocery stores and B&Bs don’t exist here.
The community has lovingly preserved both “Joe’s Place Bar” from The Grand Seduction and the set from Random Passage, which is only accessible after you’ve admired the white wooden church on the hill, purchased your admission ticket from the tearoom ladies and trekked 500 metres (1,640 feet) along a rugged and wild coastline.
This area was once home to dozens of thriving fishing outports and tight-knit families. Ask where all the people have gone and locals will tell you how between 1954 and 1975 a government-initiated program resettled more than 28,000 Newfoundlanders — thousands of them from the Bonavista Peninsula — and forced the abandonment of 307 communities. Families often floated and towed their houses across frozen bays or open water (just like in The Shipping News, the novel by Annie Proulx that became a feature film) to new lives regimented by the proximity of the Trans-Canada Highway rather than the sweet spoils of the sea.
Chat up and charm an older-timer and they’ll remember the glow of the fires lit by the “government men” who’d return to these abandoned communities and burned the buildings so young people could not return and old people could not be buried by their fishing grounds. A magical, powerful place.
Book a boat tour so you can get out on the water and, depending on the season, jig some cod from these cold, deep Trinity Bay waters.
3. Twillingate, New World Island Area
Sure, nearby Fogo Island is in the news with its super-posh inn and fancy-pants menu. But if you want to chase icebergs, get close-and-personal with whales and “carry on” (have fun) with friendly fishermen, then hunker down in Twillingate. It is accessible by travelling over short causeways along Newfoundland’s northeast coast. Every summer starting in May and ending by October, icebergs dot the seascape not just in Twillingate but all around Newfoundland’s North Atlantic coast.
Of the approximately 10,000 icebergs calved every year from Greenland’s western glaciers, only 2,000 or so make it as far as Newfoundland after travelling for up to two years. If icebergs had ancestors the Twillingate icebergs are the descendants of the icy assassins that sank the Titanic off this coast in 1912.
Take a two-hour boat tour with Skipper Jim Gillard, a cod fisherman, former Navy man and amateur astronomer who is so passionate about the stars he’s built an observatory in his home (tours available) and named his boat the “Galactic Mariner.” Spending time with Gillard out past the tickle is life-changing. (In Newfoundland English, a “tickle” is a waterway between two islands that’s so narrow the waters and rocks “tickle” the sides of your boat.)
Most of these 15,000-year-old ‘bergs are longer than a football field and taller than an eight-storey building. Migrating humpbacks and killer whales are famous for photo-bombing iceberg shots.
Thirsty? You can order a Newfoundland-made Iceberg beer, or vodka that includes water from these giant slabs of ice. If you’re a foodie, stay at the Anchor Inn and eat, drink and be merry at Georgie’s. On your way out of town, head to Super Lobster Pool restaurant (cash only) in nearby Hillgrade. Net your own lobster and sit outside on the wharf. While you eat, watch the gannets torpedo dive for herring.
4. Ferryland and the Irish Loop
Located just 30 minutes south of the capital of St. John’s, the 312-kilometre (194 mile) southern shore Irish Loop, an area once home to more Irish than any comparable place in Canada, is, admittedly, an extremely popular daytrip with tourists. The Irish Loop ranked sixth on the 2016 Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Travel in Canada.
Here’s the good news.
Lighthouse Picnics in Ferryland is still a well-kept secret. The majority of visitors to the 1870 lighthouse are Newfoundlanders. (Don’t call them Newfies; that’s rude!) Reservations are an absolute must since the designer picnics — molasses oatmeal bread, orzo and fresh mint salad, locally sourced berry jams, freshly squeezed lemonade — are all made on the premises.
Hike the two-kilometre (1.3 miles) Lighthouse Road gravel path that takes you from sea level to sky, and know lunch is at the top of the mountain! (Your car is not going up there; it’s forbidden.) As you hike, check out the marooned bleating sheep across the water. Farmers bring them by boat in the spring and let them graze on their private island all summer. Wander the cliffs while waiting for your picnic basket and blanket. Look for icebergs, birds and whales.
Whales love Newfoundland, especially around the Irish Loop. Between May and September the world’s largest population of humpbacks feed on capelin, krill (tiny shrimp) and squid. The pods of humpbacks are joined by 21 other species of whale such as minke, sperm, pothead, blue and orca.
Go on a bird bender in Bay Bulls, a bleakly pretty town, just north of Witless Bay. O’Brien’s Bird and Whale Boat Tours are ridiculously fun. En route to see North America’s largest puffin colony (more than 500,000 of them) at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, you can get “screeched in” and become an honorary Newfoundlander by kissing the cod and pounding back a shot of liquid-fire Newfoundland rum.
Call it a night at Elaine’s B&B by the Sea in Witless Bay. She’ll take you in as if you’re one of her lost flock.
Beautiful, joyful people on a beautiful, rock-solid island.