A visit to Newfoundland was on our bucket list for some time and in September 2017, a family wedding in Halifax was all the incentive we needed to travel to the Maritimes and then on to Newfoundland, affectionately known as “the Rock.” We enticed another couple, Victoria friends Heather Lund and Alan Breakspear, to join us. Heather loves travel planning so she mapped our route over two weeks and pre-arranged all of our B&B accommodation. Heather’s keen planning skills provided us with unforgettable opportunities to touch almost every corner of Newfoundland and visit major points of interest.
We all met at the Deer Lake, NL airport on September 10. Calling it the Beast, we thought we had rented a Chevrolet sedan but when the agent saw our luggage, she upgraded us to a Suburban 4×4, a huge vehicle that made us feel as though we should be part of somebody’s security detail. But it turned out to be the perfect vehicle for Newfoundland; the main roads are good but once off the TCH (Newfoundland’s abbreviation for Trans-Canada Hwy.), side roads can be rough, forcing us to dodge some of the biggest and deepest potholes we had ever seen. I soon understood why the Budget Car Rental agent asked me if I wanted tire insurance (I declined)..
Leaving the TCH, we took route 460 to our first stop, St. George, to the Southwest on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. We stayed in a delightful B&B, a converted house that once belonged to the Catholic Bishop whose Church still stood right next door. The Church tower bell tolled every evening until 10:00 p.m. and we laughed about getting to sleep any earlier. While staying in St. George, we drove down to Port aux Basques and to the Rose Blanche Lighthouse at the end of the road. We passed a number of remote out-ports and small villages that rely mainly on fishing and tourism. The villages are tucked into the shore while some small houses are perched atop grass and scrub treed rocky outcroppings above the sea.
To say that the coastal villages are scenic is an understatement. They are also a testament to the sense of community, the resourcefulness and resilience of the people who live there. The houses are small and cozy (Newfoundlanders don’t seem to build more than they need), with few gardens because of harsh winters. The size of the trees matches the size of the houses. Those that grew first bear the brunt of stormy weather; they are permanently stooped against the direction of the prevailing wind, misshapen from storms that pound the coast, howling and blowing through the branches to reach open land. The locals just smile when we ask what it would be like to visit during winter months. “My dear (a common term of affection for women and men alike), you can’t get very far during Newfoundland winters. Snow blows horizontally with the wind and roads are treacherous. Winter my dear is like nothing you’ve seen before.”
As we drove, we noticed the sides of roads are used for stacks and stacks of neatly piled wood logs, some long and some cut short to fit neatly into wood stoves. We learned that roughly 50% of Newfoundland’s population heats with wood and about every five years, wood stoves are replaced because of salt air and unrelenting rust. Cast iron is not as resilient and strong as the people themselves. Most of the houses have stainless steel, black topped chimneys and quads or ski-doos parked in the yard (quads resemble four wheeled go-carts), with small trailers attached to haul the wood. Residents are provided with a licence to cut and store the wood roadside and the unwritten rule is that “my wood is my wood.” The honour system works well.
Another roadside feature are the small isolated garden plots where Newfoundlanders grow and cultivate vegetables during summer and fall. We were intrigued because there is very little evidence of farming or agriculture in Newfoundland. We learned that when the Trans Canada Hwy. and secondary roads were being built, construction overturned the soil, exposing perfect growing condition for edibles on either side of the pavement . We understand that residents who plant these roadside gardens will drive for miles just to collect their crop.
From St. George, we turned around and drove back over the same stretch of the TCH until we turned left onto route 430, headed north for St. Anthony and the famous Viking village of L’Anse aux Meadows. We stopped at stunning Gros Morne National Park and while there, took a side trip out to Trout River, again the end of the road. We finally reached our destination for the night, a wonderful B&B (we stayed only in B&Bs for the entire trip), Entente Cordiale, located in the tiny village of Portland Creek, a stone’s throw from Parson’s Pond. The B&B was just a few feet off the ocean adjacent to a beautiful bay called Portland Creek Pond. We noted that most bodies of water leading from the sea inland, regardless of size, are called “ponds” and can be either fresh or salt water.
We had the house to ourselves for the night and for dinner, two of the local women came in to prepare a wonderful meal that ended with partridge berry tart smothered in whipped cream. Partridge berries are local and are like a small blueberry in size but bright red in colour. They are used to make a variety of delectable treats such as tarts, pies, jams and toppings. Following a hearty breakfast, we were off, headed north to St. Anthony, but we stopped for lunch at Port au Choix and the Pointe Riche Restaurant. This was another fishing village, larger than many we had seen, boasting a national historic site and lighthouse.
It seemed that the further north we drove, the stronger the Newfoundland accent, a charming holdover from Scottish and Irish descendants who settled most of Newfoundland, along with the British and French. We arrived at our destination of L’Anse aux Meadows and another delightful B&B that accommodated up to nine couples. Here we met visitors from Ontario, Manitoba, B.C. and of course, the United States. The rooms were all ground floor, with small decks, overlooking the Strait of Belle Isle and the east coast of Labrador only 30 miles to the west.
This area, now a UNESCO Historic Site, is famous for its Viking Village, discovered in 1960, after years of searching and researching by a Norwegian couple, Helge Ingstad, explorer and his archaeologist wife, Anne Stine-Ingstad. This settlement precedes Christopher Columbus by about 500 years and confirms that the Vikings were the first Europeans to set foot on the shores of this part of the world. The Village site (restored of course) provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Viking explorers who established a small settlement, believed to have been populated by about 70 people at any given time, from about 1,000 A.D. to about 1,400 A.D.
An amusing aside — while we were traveling Newfoundland, it was moose hunting season (about 100,000 moose now make Newfoundland their home). While we had hoped to see a moose along the way, we were delighted to come upon a large moose cow at L’Anse aux Meadows, quietly grazing nearby, having taken up residence inside the site, one of the few areas where there is no hunting allowed. Smart moose! Oak Bay residents will be interested to know that there are no deer in Newfoundland so I came up with a grand idea — for every moose NL sends Oak Bay, Oak Bay sends them two deer.
After a 5 km. walk through the Park, mostly on boardwalk, we headed for an afternoon in St. Anthony to visit the Grenfell Interpretation Centre. Sir Wilfred Grenfell, a British-born doctor, was the first doctor to visit Newfoundland and Labrador, providing the first and only health care to the out ports, remote fishing villages and harbours of the region. Devoted to improving peoples’ lives, Grenfell’s extraordinary work included building hospitals, establishing schools and opening orphanages, all while managing to extend his public health network by recruiting others to join him. Dr. Grenfell died in Vermont in 1940 but his ashes were returned to the Newfoundland Coast he loved. The Interpretation Centre is a great tribute to this remarkable physician.
Because the road ends at St. Anthony, we turned around and headed back down the coast to Cow Head, located in Gros Morne National Park. A port with a fish plant, Cow Head is one of a cluster of small seaside villages that provides tourists with excellent accommodation and scenic hiking, given their proximity to the Park. Cow Head has a small population of about 400 and like most of these small coastal communities, everyone is tightly knit together. We saw this firsthand as we drove into Cow Head. We noticed a traffic jam ahead, a crowd of young people and a hearse preparing to receive a coffin and leave the small church. We pulled over to the side of the road to let the cortege pass.
We learned later that a sixteen year old local boy, walking to school on the side of the road, only a few feet from where we were parked, had been struck and killed three days earlier by a resident of Parson’s Pond, a small village just up the road. Both communities were in mourning, for the victim and for the driver. Later that evening, I was reading a small local paper that led with the headline “Newfoundland Authorities Troubled by Number of Road Deaths.” The article emphasized that there had been more than the normal number of motor vehicle accidents in the past month, resulting in 16 deaths. The Cow Head student was the latest fatality.
It’s fair to say that secondary roads, while paved, are just two-lane, some with major weather damage, collapsing shoulders and the ubiquitous potholes. These hazards, combined with severe winter conditions and the potential of large wildlife running across or standing on roads (moose and caribou), especially at night, pose real danger for even the most experienced drivers. It’s easy then to assume that motor vehicle accidents, when they tragically happen, end in serious injury or death. While seat belts are mandatory in Newfoundland and Labrador, driving conditions remain challenging, even in summer months, and caution and vigilance are recommended day and night.
While in Cow Head, we attended a delightful, very funny play as part of the dinner theatre community found throughout Newfoundland. It’s undeniable that Newfoundland and the Maritimes have produced more than their fair share of fine Canadian talent (Rick Mercer, Mary Walsh, Stan Rogers, Rita McNeil and so many more). What strikes us most about Newfoundlanders is their sense of fun and humour; we found ourselves laughing a lot with them on this trip. Their music is also distinctive, a blend of Irish-style toe-tapping folk music; and everybody sings. The pubs in St. John’s are famous for their singing.
At this point, speaking of talent, the Maritimes and Newfoundland have also produced some notable visual artists. Perhaps one of the most famous 20th Century artists, and the subject of a moving exhibition at the Halifax Art Gallery, is the story and work of Nova Scotia folk artist Maude Lewis. The movie biography “Maudie” was released last year and was a hit with thousands of Canadians. Set near Digby, Nova Scotia, where Maude lived with her family as a child and young woman, the movie describes her life as one of hardship, poverty (she lived with her husband in a one room house that had no electricity or running water) and crippling pain and disfigurement from what is now thought to have been juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
But Maude had a talent for drawing and painting, a talent that went largely unrecognized outside Nova Scotia until late in her life. Her story, while sad and touching, is also a story about a woman with unflinching strength, resilience and optimism, someone who managed, against formidable odds, to find joy through her artwork. She died in Marshalltown, NS in 1970 at the age of 69. Now, as is often the case for artists who paint and die in semi-obscurity, her work, in death, is worth thousands and thousands of dollars. For most of her adult life, Maude sold her little paintings for just $5 a piece from the side of the road in front of her tiny house. A number of books have been written about her and her artistry but I learned that the best biography is titled “Maude Lewis: The Heart on the Door” by Lance Woolaver. I bought a copy of course.
Back to Newfoundland — we left the Gros Morne area and traveled east to Twillingate, a picturesque community on the open Atlantic, located near Fogo Island, famous for a resort that costs a mere $1,500 per night for accommodation! Twillingate is one of the larger fishing harbours, with a population of about 2,200. It’s a charming place known for its “salt box” houses, a particular style of house that draws its origins from the Irish croft house. Twillingate has a museum and a new maritime museum just opened in July. There, we could watch a boat-builder building a small boat out of birch, just as his father had done. Wooden boat building is fading in Newfoundland so the Twillingate Maritime Museum is attempting to restore interest and enthusiasm for the craft.
The last leg of our journey took us to the historic village of Trinity, near Bonavista. Trinity is a testament to heritage conservation. The town’s Mayor is not only a politician but also an archivist and Trinity reflects his background and determination to protect many of Trinity’s oldest buildings, some dating back to the 18th century. The town centre is a scene out of a Maude Lewis painting, with many of the wooden houses boasting colours of the rainbow in reds, blues, bright yellows, oranges and greens.
Trinity is also close to Random Passage, another end of the road community and the scenic site of movie making. Trinity locals told us that last summer, they welcomed over 70,000 visitors, a tourism record, and this summer, the number exceeded 100,000. Not bad for a town that has a full time resident population in winter of only 45.
It was here in Trinity, at the B&B, that I made a new Facebook friend, Alma Bellows. Alma lives in Dunfield, a tiny community not 10 minutes away from Trinity, on the road to Random Passage. Alma is one of nine children, is married with grown children of her own and is a warm woman of boundless energy. She manages two large B&Bs, a VRBO and cleans the town’s Royal Bank building at night. She is up early every morning to prepare a hot breakfast for her two B&B houses full of hungry guests, then madly cleans and attends to daily laundry, making up and dismantling bedrooms as guests come and go. Alma was a font of knowledge, knew everybody in Trinity and had helpful advice for visitors not familiar with the area.
As we left Trinity on the way to St. John’s, we realized that we were also leaving the rural peace and quiet of small villages and out ports, the stunning and harsh beauty of the Newfoundland coast and the lonely roads with very little traffic. We passed through Gander and stopped for coffee, a place made famous during the 9/11 New York disaster and now the subject of an award-winning Broadway play, “Come From Away.” As we drove, we chuckled about so many of Newfoundland’s quaint place names, such as Dildo, Placentia, Come By Chance, Daniel’s Harbour, Sally’s Cove, Blow Me Down Provincial Park, Badger Bay, Codroy, Peter’s Snout and Witless Bay.
The closer we got to St. John’s, the heavier the traffic and our predictable reaction of culture shock. Stop lights, noise and the crush of people and traffic took some adjustment as I maneuvered the Beast through city traffic. Parking was another story, given the Suburban’s size. Oh, how we longed to be back on the quiet coastal roads! Don’t misunderstand, St. John’s is a wonderfully vibrant city and harbour, highlighted by heritage homes and charming, colourful attached housing, some of which dates back to the late 19th century. Our St. John’s B&B, for example, was built in 1892 and is mostly original, apart from more modern updates to accommodate 21st century conveniences.
But we all agreed that Newfoundland’s rural landscapes are breathtaking and village life is much less stressed, at least outwardly. No one rushes, everyone waves and smiles and strangers are made to feel more than welcome, regardless of who they are. If you asked us what we most remember about Newfoundland, it would be the people, their refreshing honesty and their way of life, especially in rural Newfoundland and in small fishing villages. Yes, all forms of fishing are still a primary industry, despite the collapse of the cod fishery decades ago and now its gradual recovery.
St. John’s is a city of about 130,000 people, with the centerpiece it’s busy harbour and Water Street bustling with people and activity. Museums, parks and points of interest reflect a colourful and long history. The highest point and most compelling landmark is Signal Hill, overlooking the harbour and the city below. The views from the Hill are panoramic so don’t forget to take a camera or a smart phone to capture the sights.
During our visit to St. John’s, where our trip ended, we were also “Screeched,” a short ceremony when we kissed the cod, a one-eyed frozen fish that I joked resembled an old boyfriend or two. If I had kissed them in my youth, surely I could kiss this cod now, I thought! Screech, a dark Jamaican rum that burns all the way down (so that’s how 40+ proof feels), follows the cod-kissing. We now have two official-looking certificates attesting to our new “Honourary Newfoundlander” status.
We also visited The Rooms, one of St. John’s newest museum attractions. The building is an architectural monument to imagination and beauty. Built of glass and concrete, it sits above the city centre overlooking the harbour. The numerous artifacts and exhibits are beautifully curated but the most emotional and powerful exhibit is located on the second floor. The entire area is dedicated to the First World War and Newfoundland’s sacrifice during the Beaumont-Hamel battle, which claimed over 700 Newfoundland troops. A whole generation of young men were lost and in one section of the exhibit, there is a re-created exchange between a mother and her daughter. The daughter asks why she is not married and the mother replies, “Because there are no young men; they did not return from war.” While we spent about two hours inside the exhibit, we agreed that we could have spent many more hours quietly walking through this significant but tragic episode in Newfoundland history.
On our last evening in St. John’s, we made reservations at Mallard Cottage in Quidi Vidi (pronounced “kiddy viddy” by Newfoundlanders). Quidi Vidi is a small seaside community about 15 minutes outside the city by taxi and is the home of the famous brewery by the same name. Quidi Vidi beer makes a variety of brews, none of which you can buy outside Newfoundland; our favourite was 1892. We first visited the brewery and then had dinner at Mallard Cottage restaurant nearby. It was a seafood lover’s dream, a bit of everything from scallops and fresh cod to tuna belly and mussels, a memorable occasion and a perfect ending to an unforgettable holiday.
We celebrated the conclusion of our trip and our good friends who were willing to share our Newfoundland adventure. In almost 3,500 kms. of driving, with only 2 days of rain out of 14 and an average daytime temperature of 19C, we could not have asked for better weather or driving conditions. But we noticed on this last evening a slight hint of fall in the air as we leapt from our taxi and crossed Queen Rd. to Cantwell House, our B&B. As we settled down for the night, dreading a 2:45 a.m. wake-up call to make a 5:20 a.m. flight from St. Jean’s to Montreal and then home, we wondered what a winter holiday in Newfoundland must be like. We could only guess.
As a 2017 tourist guidebook advises visitors: “And while visiting us, use all your senses. See the amazing surroundings, taste our traditional food, listen to and take in our dialect — hopefully, you can understand us — take a deep breath to smell the salt water air and enjoy the hospitality Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are known for.”