In September of 2004, I had the opportunity to spend a week travelling around the Canadian Province of Newfoundland. My trip began with a Delta Airlines flight to Boston, from Charleston, South Carolina, where I had spent the previous week touring around that state. In Boston I connected with another Delta flight to Halifax, Nova Scotia. I spent 3 hours in the Halifax airport awaiting the arrival of the WestJet flight from Toronto, on its way to St John’s, Newfoundland. As I waited in the airport, I had a delicious “seafood sampler” at the “Maritime Ale House”, along with a local Moosehead beer in the “Legends Bar”. The bartender was anxious to tell me all about the great things to see and do in Newfoundland. Once I was finally aboard the WestJet flight, the flight attendants were very friendly and quite funny. Service was quick and efficient, which gave me the impression this was the Canadian version of Southwest Airlines. As the plane taxied to the runway, there was an announcement – “to enhance the appearance of our flight attendants, we will dim the lights”. And just before takeoff, the flight attendants came on the PA system to sing a short song – “We love you and thanks for flying with us. WestJet is faster than the bus. Marry one of us and you’ll fly for free!” It was a short one-hour flight to St John’s. (not to be confused with St John, New Brunswick!) Upon landing, rather late at night, I took a taxi and checked into the “Harbourview Hotel” downtown – the recommendation of the taxi driver. (He was very talkative and insisted that I sit in the front seat of the taxi)
The next morning, I walked along the historic waterfront, which was busy with lots of fishing boats and a couple of large container ships at the dock. The town of St John’s was founded in 1497 by Sir John Cabot and is the main city on the island, as well as being the Provincial Capital. Newfoundland is a large island in the Canadian Maritime Provinces and the easternmost point of land in North America. The St John’s harbor is naturally protected from the open ocean by 500-foot-high hills surrounding it. The only entrance to the harbor is by way of a very narrow 600-foot-wide passage. The harbor was a very strategic location during several wars between the British and French for control of eastern Canada.
Not far from the waterfront in downtown St John’s I found the Newfoundland Railroad Museum, housed in the old railway station. Inside the old station were many historical exhibits, including a wonderful “Diorama” of the “Overland Limited” train that transported passengers and freight across the island, from St John’s to Port-au-Basques, where it connected with a ferry to Nova Scotia. The railroad operated from 1898 until 1988. It was the longest narrow-gauge railroad in North America, spanning 548 miles across the island. It also had an additional 358 miles of branch lines that touched almost every coastal community.
Operations of the railroad were taken over by Canadian National Railways in 1949, under the ”Terms of Union” between Newfoundland and Canada. Today, little remains of the old railway line, which was made obsolete by the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway in 1952. The highway, known as Hwy 1, travels from St John’s, Newfoundland all the way across Canada to Victoria, British Columbia, a total distance of 4860 miles (7821 kms).
After touring through the museum, I hiked to the top of Signal Hill, overlooking the narrow entrance to St John’s harbor. On the 500-foot-high summit is the “Cabot Tower”, built in 1897 in honor of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and the 400th anniversary of Sir John Cabot’s “Voyage of Discovery”. Since 1704, Signal Hill had been used for signaling the approach of ships, first by flags and cannon blasts, and later by radio. In December of 1901, a very historic event of world importance took place on Signal Hill – Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, received the first trans-Atlantic wireless signal! Our present-day dependence on wireless communication owes Marconi a deep debt! Also located on top of Signal Hill are old coastal defense batteries from WWI and WWII. While nothing remains of the military structures today, the heavily fortified concrete bunkers and gun emplacements are still in place, and now provide excellent views of the North Atlantic and St John’s harbor.
While I was visiting the Parks Canada Visitor Center in Cabot’s Tower, I learned that Newfoundland and Labrador remained British colonies until 1949, when they agreed to join the Canadian Confederation. At that point, the “Province of Newfoundland and Labrador” was formed and became an official part of Canada!
From Signal Hill, I drove to Cape Spear, the easternmost point of land in North America, and home to the oldest lighthouse in Newfoundland. It was built in 1836, overlooking the narrow entrance to St John’s harbor, and has been in continuous use for more than 150 years! The views of the North Atlantic and the rugged coastline from the lighthouse were impressive.
Just as on the summit of Signal Hill on the northern side of the harbor entrance, there were several coastal defense batteries built to defend the harbor during WWI and WWII. After hiking to the most easterly point, I headed back to St John’s in search of a place for dinner that evening. As I walked around the old downtown, I noticed a very interesting bar named “Rumplestiltskins” in an old red brick building that could have been a warehouse in the past. As I sat down at the long bar, the bartender recommended a cold pint of “1892 Traditional Ale” from the local Quidi Vida Brewery – it was a very traditional English ale and quite tasty. (The brewery is the largest craft brewery in Newfoundland and named for the local native tribe)
Then I walked next door to the “Hungry Fisherman Restaurant” for dinner. It began with a superb appetizer of halibut and crab creamed casserole, topped with seasoned breadcrumbs. For the main dish, I chose the pan-fried cod, served in a delicate caper cream sauce – excellent! For dessert, the chef recommended his delicious, warm blueberry-partridgeberry crumble, topped with heavy cream! The only downside to dinner was the lack of any Canadian wines by the glass. So, I had a glass of Californian Mondavi chardonnay, which went perfectly with the seafood. In addition to the excellent food, the service was very efficient and friendly. As I walked back to the hotel in the light rain, I noticed the town was very quiet. Most of the bars were closed by 9pm.
I woke up early the next morning to find heavy rain and strong winds raking the harbor outside my window. I checked out of the hotel and packed my gear into the rental car, a Jeep Liberty. As I left St John’s, I picked up some coffee at the “Maritime Coffee House”, before joining the Trans-Canada Highway (Hwy 1) headed west toward Gander. Light rain and drizzle followed me most of the way to Clarenville, through heavily forested hills, rocky meadows, and marshes. I passed scores of small lakes, known locally as “ponds” and several streams, known as “brooks”. The entire landscape was raw and beautiful, very much like I remembered of the Yukon Territory, thousands of miles away in the northwestern corner of Canada. Along the highway were lots of “Moose Crossing” signs, but no sign of Moose – perhaps because it was too close to the opening of the Moose hunting season. As I approached Bonavista Bay, I saw the entrance sign for “Terra Nova National Park”, so I followed the road into the park, where I found a lovely region of rugged coastline. It was on this northeastern shore of Newfoundland that Sir John Cabot first landed in 1497. There were countless hiking trails in the park, and I chose a long 8km (5 mile) trail to Buckley Cove. And luckily, as I began my hike through the thick forest and along the rocky shoreline, the rain had ended – but everything was still very wet! The forest floor beneath the tall Spruce trees was covered with thick, deep green moss, gray lichens, red cranberries, and ripe blueberries. It wasn’t long before I found a patch of luscious blueberries, ripe for the picking! I was pretty much alone on the trail, seeing only one other person. At one point, as I rounded a bend in the trail, I was “accosted” by a lone red pine squirrel who approached me within a couple of feet and “scolded” me for being in his domain. The hike was a lovely way to explore the national park, whose French name means “New Land”.
Leaving behind the national park, I drove northwest to the small fishing villages of Eastport and Sandy Cove. Here I saw some local kids swimming in wetsuits – it was a cold, blustery day on the beach! When I finally reached the historic town of Gander, the heavy rain had returned – so, I found a small hotel, “The Albatross”, and checked in for the night. As I checked in, the elderly lady at the front desk gave me the key to room 215. But when I got to the room, the key wouldn’t work, so I went back down to the front desk. After I explained the problem, she gave me another key to the room. This time the key worked, but as soon as I opened the door, I saw a pair of feet on the end of the bed!! I quickly closed the door and went back downstairs. This time, she checked her computer, which listed the room as “vacant”. So, she called the room to verify it was indeed vacant. But when a man answered the phone, she had to apologize, blaming the computer. At that point, she searched the computer for another “vacant” room and phoned it, just to be sure. At last, I had a room for the night – all to myself! There wasn’t much to the old town, just a few shops on Main Street, and a small shopping mall. But the town is world famous for its large international airport, which used to be a very important refueling stop for all the airlines flying to and from Europe, before the age of modern jets. The airport also has a special place in my life. When my mother and I flew from England to join my father in Illinois at the end of WWII, our plane landed in Gander to refuel before continuing to New York. I was barely more than a year old at the time, so I have no memory of the journey, just the story from my mother. As evening approached, I began looking for a place to have dinner. Gander is a very small town and I found there weren’t a lot of choices. But the hotel manager recommended “Jungle Jim’s”, about which I was more than a bit skeptical, given the name. But to my pleasant surprise, it turned out to be a great place and popular with the locals. The starter of steamed local mussels in white wine was fantastic – very succulent and flavorful! Then the waitress highly recommended the fresh North Atlantic scallops wrapped in bacon – an excellent dish! That evening I enjoyed a delicious dinner, along with a cold pint of Moosehead beer from Nova Scotia. After dinner, I checked out the bar in the old Albatross Hotel. There wasn’t much happening in the bar, except for a few people sitting in front of a long row of slot machines, silently and steadily pouring their money into the “one armed bandits”. After another Moosehead beer, I headed back to my hotel room to watch a bit of TV before bedtime. The program was on the Canadian version of the Discovery channel about how familiar, everyday things are made – “Chicken Nuggets”, egg crates, shovels and rakes. (fascinating stuff)
The next morning, I was up early and found the weather had improved considerably, with blue skies in abundance. I drove north from Gander to the picturesque old fishing village of Twillingate. The little town is also known as the “Iceberg Capital of the World”, as huge icebergs from the Greenland ice sheet break off during the springtime and drift south into the North Atlantic. Many of these monster icebergs pass within a few hundred yards off the coast of Newfoundland.
But being late summer, there were no icebergs to be seen floating by the village. I decided to stop for lunch at a local café overlooking the harbor – sea nuggets, coleslaw, and French fries which were served in the traditional Canadian way – covered with brown gravy that only makes the fries wet and soggy! After a delightful lunch by the sea, it was a long drive back to the Trans-Canada Highway to continue my journey west across Newfoundland to the town of Deer Lake. It was a hundred kms (65 miles) through thick forest and past scores of lakes, with nothing much of anything else.
While I was enjoying the wild landscape, I suddenly noticed the “low fuel” light had come on, and I was still more than 50 kms (30 miles) from Deer Lake, the next closest town. I had no idea how far I could stretch the remaining gas in the tank, but I had no choice except to keep driving west. About 35 kms (20 miles) from Deer Lake, I spotted a single gas station standing alone on the edge of the highway. But as I pulled in, I quickly realized the place had been abandoned for years – very disappointing indeed! So, it was a very long 35 kms to Deer Lake, but I managed to “nurse” the gas tank to the first service station in Deer Lake. I proceeded to put 58 liters (16 gallons) of gas into the jeep! I didn’t know the capacity of the gas tank, but I was sure it couldn’t have held much more than that!
Now, with a full tank, I drove north to the village of Norris Point on the coast of the “Northern Peninsula”. It was a beautiful drive along the rocky coast under partly cloudy skies. Just before evening fell, I spotted a sign for the “Sugar Hill Inn”, a lovely B&B in Norris point that overlooked the bay. That’s when I decided to stop and spend the night.
As I entered the parlor to check in, I noticed many of the guests, mostly elderly retirees, sitting quietly, playing cards and scrabble. That evening, we all sat down at a large table to share a delicious dinner that began with a luscious homemade tomato and leek soup. Then came a fantastic fresh Atlantic Halibut baked in a caper cream sauce and served with grilled fresh vegetables from the garden. When the dessert course arrived, we were in for an amazing treat, homemade crumble with local wild blueberries, partridgeberries (similar to cranberries), and cloudberries – all of which were picked that morning! Dinner was truly a gourmet experience, something which I had not expected to find in such a remote region. The evening concluded with more card games and scrabble in the parlor. (there was no TV reception)
The next morning, after a very quiet night, I joined the other guests for breakfast in the dining room – cheddar cheese omelet with delicious maple sugar cured bacon and freshly baked whole wheat toast with local partridgeberry jam, also known as Lingonberry. It was a perfect way to start the day of sightseeing in Gros Morne National Park, just a few kms north. After a night of heavy rain and strong winds, the day began with clearing skies, to my delight. I drove north through the old village of Rocky Harbour to visit the historic lighthouse at Lobster Head.
From the old lighthouse, I had a beautiful view of the quaint fishing village below and the “Tablelands” shining in the brilliant sunshine across “Bonne Bay”. I took several photos of the old lighthouse and rocky coastline, as the thundering surf pounded the rocky cliffs. Further north, I stopped at “Broom Point” to view the rusted remains of the “SS Elfie”, a coastal steamer that ran aground in December of 1919 during the “storm of the century”. With the massive waves and the ferocious winds battering the shore today, it was easy to imagine how the ship could have floundered in the storm. Not far away, at Green Point, I hiked part of the “old Mail Road” – it used to be the only route up the west coast of the island during the winter. The mail was hauled by dogsled from 1892 up until 1954! Back on the highway, I continued north to “Shallow Cove”.
There I discovered an old cemetery on the leeward side of the sand dunes. It was surrounded by a freshly painted white picket fence, and every grave was well tended and decorated with fresh flowers. Later, as I continued north along the rocky coast, I came to “The Arches Provincial Park”, a unique natural rock formation from tens of thousands of years ago.
And in the distance, the heavy clouds began to lift from the top of the “Long Range Mountains”. Finally, I could see the enormous, deeply cut U-shaped fjords, rising straight up for 2,000 feet above the water! They had become “landlocked” millions of years ago as the land had slowly risen – they were nothing less than a spectacular sight!
Meanwhile, the wind continued to be a gale from the northwest, but at least the skies were clearing, revealing a beautiful, stark sub-arctic landscape. The colors of the land were typical of fall on the tundra, and spectacular under the bright sunshine! As I took several photos of the Arches, the heavy surf continued to pound the rocky coast. Further north, I came to the entrance to Gros Morne National Park, one of the most beautiful areas in all of Atlantic Canada.
Once inside the national park, I headed for the trailhead leading to “Western Brook Pond” where there were incredible views of the deepest fjord in Newfoundland. The trail was in great condition, with boardwalks in several places that crossed lots of bogs and marshes (areas of soft shale), as well as low ridges of Balsam Fir and White Spruce (areas of hard limestone). It was a lovely hike to the Visitor Center, located on the shore of Western Brook Pond, but I missed the boat tour by 20 minutes. Of course, since I had no idea of the boat’s schedule, I’m not sure if I could say “I missed it”. From the Visitor Center, where there was a 3-D model of the park, I hiked along the trail to Stag Brook.
The trail started out muddy, but it got better as it began to follow the shore of the huge lake (pond). I noticed a lot of fresh Moose tracks in the soft sand, and then “muddy” Moose tracks later on the boardwalk. By this time, I was wondering if I would suddenly encounter a Moose around the next bend. And if so, which of us would yield the right-of-way on the narrow boardwalk first?
When I finally arrived at the end of the trail, I gazed upon the sheer 2,000-foot-high rock walls rising straight up from the lake – the view of the deep fjord was spectacular!
The view was the epitome of my vision of Gros Morne from the guidebook. At that moment, I only wished I had the time to climb to the top – next time! On the way back to the Visitor Center, I followed the Moose tracks along the narrow sandy beach until they suddenly disappeared into the lake. And all the while, I kept looking back to marvel at the majestic fjord, part of the “Long Range Mountains”. Gros Morne National Park is like no other I’ve ever visited, and it deserves another visit for sure!
On the northern tip of the Gros Morne Peninsula is the “L’Anse-aux-Meadows National Historic Site”, where Vikings landed in AD 1000, becoming the first Europeans to discover North America – almost 500 years before Columbus!
Once I had returned to my Jeep, I drove back south, beyond Rocky Harbour, over a steep pass on the southern slope of the “Long Range Mountains” to the junction with the road to Trout River on Bonne Bay. Then it was into the southern portion of the national park, a very unique geological feature called “The Tablelands”, an ancient area where some of the world’s oldest rocks were exposed 400 million years ago when the African Plate plunged under the North American Plate! Exploring the area was a geologist’s dream. The region looked like a gigantic flat-topped mountain (table) covered in huge boulders and very little vegetation. Several large streams and waterfalls tumbled down from the steep 2,000-foot slopes of the mountain.
As I returned to Woody Point, there were beautiful views of Bonne Bay, with sheer cliffs plunging into the deep, clear water of the ancient fjord. The view of Woody Point, a quaint fishing village of bright white-washed houses perched on the only large flat piece of land on the bay, was lovely in the late afternoon sunshine. From Woody Point, I drove back to Norris Point, which I could see on the far shore of the bay. Although it was just a few miles across the bay, as the crow flies, it was over 50 miles by road! (it reminded me of the same phenomenon of the Turnagain Arm in southcentral Alaska) Back at the Sugar Hill Inn, I showered, before joining everyone for another fabulous dinner. As we sat round the table, we were served a fantastic bowl of rich seafood chowder and homemade biscuits, followed by fresh, local Atlantic Cod, steamed with olives, tomatoes, and topped with fresh chives from the garden. It was a dish that could have been served in any 5-star restaurant in New York or Boston! Then, a large dish of vanilla ice cream topped with wild cloudberry sauce was served for dessert, which finished our incredible dining experience for a memorable evening! After dinner, everyone gathered again in the parlor to play cards or a game of scrabble – definitely a quiet and relaxed evening. As I made my way to my room, the wind began to howl like a “banshee” outside my window, a clear sign of changing weather.
The next morning, I arose early and again joined everyone for another delicious breakfast. After which, I drove down the hill to the tiny village of Norris Point to take several photos of the charming old white-washed houses that lined the rocky shore of Bonne Bay.
The morning sunshine across the bay, brilliantly illuminated the barren flat top of “The Tablelands” far to the south. I could have easily stayed longer, but it was time to begin my return to St John’s for the flight back home. So, I gassed up the Jeep at the local Esso service station and headed east to the junction with the Trans-Canada Highway at Deer Lake, that would take me over 680 kms (420 miles) to St John’s. Along the way, I encountered a few lingering showers before stopping in Grand Falls. (I never found the “falls” though) Further east, I decided to visit Terra Nova National Park again, where I was able to take some beautiful photos under partly sunny skies. But as I was leaving the national park, rain showers caught up with me, or did I catch up with them? Several miles east of the park, I spotted a sign for “Joey’s Lookout”, where I had a gorgeous view of the old lumber town of Gambo on the shore of Gambo Brook. Up until the 1950’s, logs were floated down Gambo Brook to several sawmills in the town. Later, from the Blue Hill Lookout, there was an incredible view of the entire northeastern coast of Newfoundland, dissected by many fjords. Dozens of small islands shimmered in the sea like a long, chaotic string of diamonds!
As I got closer to St John’s, there was a long line of traffic heading west from St John’s for the long Labour Day weekend. Luckily, I was headed in the opposite direction. I began encountering strong winds as the storm system made its way east over the ocean. But at least the skies were clearing. Being that I had an early morning flight to Halifax, I decided to check into the Airport Plaza Hotel, just 5 minutes from the airport. From the outside it looked like an ordinary Motel 6, but inside the lobby, it was decorated with lovely Italian marble, old suits of armor, and antiques one would expect to find in an old European hotel. The restaurant and bar were very quaint and cozy – a very pleasant surprise. My room was clean and comfortable, but by no means “luxurious”. The balcony overlooked the airport and a large parking lot of buses for the DRL Coach Lines. With still a couple of hours of daylight left, I drove up to Signal Hill again and got some beautiful photos of Cabot’s Tower, St John’s Harbour, and Cape Spear in the distance, all in the golden light of early evening. (but the wind was fierce!)
When I returned to the hotel for dinner in “P.J. Billington’s”, the “Fisherman’s Seafood Platter” was both huge and delicious – fresh grilled Atlantic Salmon, baked Cod, shrimp, and scallops! In the booth behind me was a local family, and their conversation was typical of a strong Scottish brogue, which might well be the origin of the easily recognizable “Newfie” accent! After dinner, I retired to my room to watch a Canadian TV program called “Look-a-Like”. The object of the show was to transform a young man to look like the famous actor, Colin Ferrell. When they finished with him, he was virtually “identical” to Colin Ferrell! And more importantly, he acted just like Colin Ferrell – amazing!
Early the next morning, as I looked out the window, I saw one of the most amazing sunrises I had ever seen. The brilliant deep yellow, orange, and red colors of the clouds were incredible! Though it didn’t last for very long, it was a fitting sight for my departure from St John’s. After checking in for my flight to Halifax and on to Boston, I went to the local coffee stand. The lady running the small shop proceeded to tell me about a young girl who had left her purse on the city bus just after she had withdrawn several hundred dollars to buy new clothes. Luckily, the bus driver was able to find her at the airport before she boarded her flight. Then, she went on to tell me how she had found a bank bag in her mailbox at the Post Office recently, and when she opened it, she found $11,000 in cash! But when she returned the bag to the bank, all they gave her as a reward was a small basket of old fruit. She said, “that will never happen again!” Finally, I had finished my cup of coffee and boarded the plane. As we flew west over the island headed for an intermediate stop at Deer Lake, there were nice views of the north coast – hundreds of miles of rocky coastline, thousands of small islands and bays, and countless number of lakes and streams. Quite a few people boarded the flight at Deer Lake for the next leg to Halifax. As the plane headed south, the skies became overcast and dark. The CanJet flight was very efficient and friendly, but definitely a “low cost” airline, where nothing was served complimentary, not even coffee or tea.
After arriving in Halifax under very heavy clouds, I had time to get breakfast at the Maritime Ale House, as I waited to check in for the flight to Boston. I also had time to shop in the National Geographic store in the terminal with my remaining Canadian money before checking in at the Delta Airlines counter. After passing through security, where every one of my electrical devices was pulled from my bag, inspected, and “dusted” for any sign of explosives, I paid a visit to the “Legends Lounge” for a cold glass of Molson Canadian beer, as I watched the two TV’s in the bar. One was tuned to the Weather channel and the other to CTV, the Canadian version of CNN. The CTV channel kept losing the sound and picture for a few seconds every couple of minutes, while the Weather channel remained perfectly fine. It was very distracting, and when I asked the bartender what the problem was, she said, “it must be the stormy weather affecting the satellite” – really? So, when I commented on the fact that only one of the TVs was being affected, she said, “there must be two satellites” – right! (she was very pleasant, but not well informed technically)
On the way to the gate, I discovered the Air Canada “Maple Leaf Lounge” and decided to see if Priority Pass card allowed me to enter the lounge, which it did. So, I spent a very comfortable half hour before boarding of the Boston flight was announced. Just before boarding the plane, I bought a small bottle of Maple wine from Nova Scotia. It was a nice flight to Boston, although our flight attendant Chuck, apologized for the lack of beer on board. So, I opted for a glass of cranapple juice to go with my bag of pretzels. An hour later, we landed in Boston under partly cloudy skies, with temperatures in the mid-80’s – quite in contrast to the rain and 50’s in the Maritimes! I decided to make it easy and stay overnight at the Logan Airport Hilton Hotel, literally in the “middle” of the airport. Early that evening, I went down to “Connally’s Pub” for a cold pint of local “Harpoon IPA”. As I was sitting at the bar, writing in my journal, I was suddenly surrounded by people arriving for a big wedding reception to be held in the ballroom upstairs. Their conversations were very strong “Bostonian” accents, and they were obviously having a lot of fun getting “prepared” for the reception. (I think they were also wondering what I was writing about) By now it was time for dinner, so I headed next door to “Berkshire’s Restaurant” for a fantastic plate of crab stuffed fresh Maine lobster – succulent and delicious, it was “to die for”! A glass of Kendall Jackson chardonnay was the perfect accompaniment to dinner. It was then I realized that more than 9 out of 10 meals I had eaten on this trip were seafood of some kind, all of which were great! The realization felt a bit strange, having grown up on a mid-western farm hundreds of miles from the sea!
The next morning, I checked out of the hotel and boarded the hotel shuttle bus to the Delta Airlines terminal. The bus driver was a typical Bostonian, and very talkative. He asked everyone which airline they were taking, and made a point to assure one man that he would most definitely stop at the American Airlines terminal – then he “cruised” right by it, only to be “harangued” by another man from the back of the bus! Eventually I got to the Delta terminal and checked in for the flight to Atlanta and on to Ontario. As I sat in the Delta Airlines Crown Room, I reflected upon the amazing journey I had made to Newfoundland, and how my image of the map of Canada would be changed forever. Travelling to Newfoundland enabled me to see a part of the country I never really knew. Even reading about it before the trip didn’t prepare me for the raw beauty of the island, its fascinating history, wonderful people and unique culture.