What to do in Newfoundland
It was also the first time I ever ate a mooseburger. But it would not be my last culinary adventure with the largest member of the deer species, as my wife, Pat, and 25-year-old son, Thomas, ordered a moose pie to take back to our cottage. “Just out of the oven,” Pam said.
Lots of firsts, like these, would mark our experience spending two summer weeks on the island of Newfoundland. Though referred to as the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, neither place was officially part of Canada until 1949, I was surprised to learn. Often called “The Rock,” Newfoundland felt more like a faraway country, a place apart, than a northern neighbor. English might be the shared language, but accents and expressions, even vocabulary, took some getting used to. The funny but lovely sounding word “tuckamore,” for example, named stunted evergreen trees on Newfoundland’s windswept shores. Time itself seemed peculiar, exactly a half-hour off from most other time zones.
From Nova Scotia, we (and our car) arrived by ferry in Channel-Port aux Basques, on Newfoundland’s southwestern tip. Traveling across the Cabot Strait, which links the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the North Atlantic, the Marine Atlantic’s MV Blue Puttees took about seven hours. The other ferry option was to a southeastern port near St. John’s, the island’s capital and largest city (population about 112,000), but that took about 16 hours — and all sleeping berths had already been booked, both coming and going.
Newfoundland’s geographic size is enormous (about 43,000 square miles) in relation to its relatively small population (around 520,000). Trying to see it all within two weeks would be impossible, so we narrowed our focus to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Gros Morne on the west coast and the Bonavista Peninsula on the east, both known for their spectacular beauty. Still, our visit would entail lots of driving, from one coast to the next, then back again to the Port aux Basques ferry.
But driving was never monotonous; we were told by just about every Newfoundlander we met to be always alert for adventure: “Watch out for potholes and moose!” It was never spoken as a dire warning; rather, it was always a lighthearted but accurate observation generously offered to a CFA like me.
CFA is short for “come from away.” A long-running, award-wining Broadway musical with that title showcases Newfoundlanders’ extraordinary hospitality when 38 commercial aircraft were diverted to Gander International Airport after the 9/11 attacks. More than 6,500 passengers from all over the world were treated not as strangers but as welcome guests, invited into Newfoundlanders’ homes, where they were not only given fresh clothes to wear and plenty to eat, but were also given the keys to residents’ cars.
I got a sense of the welcome extended to those plane passengers at one of our first overnight accommodations near Gros Morne, a bed-and-breakfast farm called Upper Humber Settlement. Lauralee, the host, displayed uncommon generosity not only with extra helpings at breakfast but also with her time. After eggs and sausage, accented with flowering chives and other organic edibles, we were given an hour-long tour of where the breakfast had originated: a camper van turned into a chicken coop, piglets happily wallowing, and rows upon rows of organic vegetables. Even while swatting away swarming no-see-ums, Lauralee never stopped smiling.
From this secluded spot, carved out of a dense evergreen forest, we traveled east on Highway 1 toward the Bonavista Peninsula. There we had booked a week’s stay in a historical hip-roof saltbox right next to an Atlantic inlet. While at the wheel driving for hours through an uncluttered, wild landscape with vast vistas, I allowed my mind to wander: Maybe the reason for Newfoundlanders’ remarkable friendliness was precisely because it was uncrowded — few interactions with fellow humans. But my mind couldn’t wander too much, for even on a major thoroughfare (the Newfoundland segment of the Trans-Canada Highway system) there was the odd pothole to be swerved around.
St. Pierre and Miquelon, the last remnant of France’s once-vast colonial empire in North America, are barely 16 miles off Newfoundland’s coastline
In Newfoundland, fishing villages are known as outports, and the outport where we were heading was Summerville, off the Indian Arm of Bonavista Bay. Built in 1847, the brightly painted house we had booked for a full week was known as Dory Buff, in honor of the traditional yellowish hue of Newfoundland fishing dories.
The thing about an extended stay in one place: You get to know it, and you can pretend you’re not a tourist. Our house was in a row of similar houses lining the half-mile waterfront, some vacant. Neighbors invited us to join their morning get-togethers for coffee and baked goods. Unincorporated, it was a true community; the unofficial mayor collected about $75 annually from each household to pay for emergency services and trash pickup. Recyclables were collected by two brothers, who grew up here and cashed in on the return deposits. On a hill overlooking the harbor was a small cemetery, with a good many of the surnames on the tombstones the same as current residents.
Commercial fishing vessels sat idle, obeying official regulations to restore depleted fisheries. But early on specified mornings, motorized dories and skiffs headed out to sea, fishing for the local quota of cod allowed for personal consumption. Coiled near the wharf was the biggest rope I had ever seen, as thick as my thigh, used to lasso chunks of icebergs for a brewery in St. John’s. The melted water from icebergs, formed tens of thousands of years ago from compacted snow, gave the golden beer a special, very light taste.
For Newfoundlanders, icebergs in the spring and early summer were a familiar sight. The iceberg that sank the Titanic in April 1912 probably first floated on the Labrador Current along these shores, known as “Iceberg Alley.” We hoped to catch a glimpse of at least one iceberg but worried we had arrived too late in the season.
But whales, those we did see! From the nearby historical and picturesque outport of Trinity, we joined about six others embarking on a Zodiac inflatable boat piloted by a professional whale watcher. But first we had to don bright-orange survival suits, so big and bulky we felt like astronauts waddling to a waiting rocket launch. Once on the water, an enveloping fog was replaced by a cold drizzle, ocean swells splashed us with chilly seas, and the suits no longer felt funny.
Then, suddenly, just a few yards off starboard: “Thar she blows!” Next, as if aware of an audience, the humpback rolled on its side and flapped a pectoral fin to splash the water. Minutes later, the whale’s whole body sprung upward into the air, breaching the rolling water. Meanwhile, on the Zodiac’s port side, a fin whale appeared; soon after that, a school of dolphins began to play around the boat. Shrieks of delight rose from the Zodiac. Even as dusk closed in, shivering from the cold was easy to ignore.
Staying on solid land with our car the following days, we made ever farther forays to sample the Bonavista Peninsula: its rocky coastline carved into arches, caves and sea stacks; hundreds of puffins, those cutest of birds, at the Cape Bonavista Lighthouse; captivating art galleries and charming eateries in the town of Bonavista itself, thought to be explorer John Cabot’s first North American landing site in 1497.
There was so much more to experience, but our week in this part of Newfoundland was up, and it was time to drive back across the island toward the ferry that would take us home. Back again in Gros Morne National Park, we booked a cottage for a few days on Norris Point. Daylight hours were spent hiking the park’s numerous trails through boreal forests and exploring the park’s geological wonders.
Over the distinctive red landscape of the Tablelands, we walked on Earth’s exposed mantle, thrust up by the collision of tectonic plates millions of years ago. At the sedimentary cliffs of Green Point, we saw fossils from the ancient Iapetus Ocean.
But it was the last night that turned out to be especially, emotionally memorable. It was then, at a packed pub in Rocky Harbour, that Thomas and I, along with four other CFAs, undertook the ritualized ceremony to become honorary Newfoundlanders. We kissed a cod, danced a jig and tossed back a shot of high-proof, awful-tasting rum called screech. (The alcohol in screech bypasses the digestive system and travels instantaneously to the bloodstream, I was warned.) As we were anointed into the Royal Order of Screechers, the crowd loudly cheered and pounded the floor with what looked like large, elaborately decorated canes but were called Ugly Sticks.
The next day, walking the shoreline at Port aux Basques, Pat and I spotted a fuzzy white shape slowly drifting along the distant horizon. An iceberg? Finally! As it moved into focus, however, the vague outline of a ship became clear. Closer still, it was the ferry — our ferry home. But what if we wanted to stay?
Nicklin is a writer based in Maine and Virginia. Find him on Twitter: @RoadTripRedux.
57 High St., Trinity, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador
A pioneer in the concept of the “diffused hotel,” the Artisan Inn is not confined to a single designated building, but instead occupies a collection of restored buildings woven into the fabric of the town of Trinity on the Bonavista Peninsula. Open May to October. Rooms from about $125 per night.
186 Veterans Dr., Deer Lake
A modern chalet set on a working six-acre farmstead surrounded by forest. Four bedrooms. Includes breakfast from farm-grown ingredients. In the community of Cormack, near Gros Morne National Park. Full-course farm-to-table dinners are sometimes available. Rooms from about $109 per night.
115-129 Main St., Norris Point
In the heart of Gros Morne National Park, this restaurant in the Sugar Hill Inn offers fine dining with a Mediterranean flair that features fresh local ingredients. It specializes in seafood, including halibut, cod and salmon. Extensive wine selection. Open daily, 5 to 8:30 p.m., mid-May to early October, depending on staffing; call to confirm. Reservations strongly recommended. Entrees from about $25.
An eatery known for traditional Newfoundland dishes, Mifflin’s Tea Room serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Its specialties include regional staples such as the Fisherman’s Brewis, which includes cooked hard bread and codfish mixed with fried onions and pork scrunchions. Open daily, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., June through September; dinner served 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Dinner entrees from about $16.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.