Newfoundland is a very large island, about half the size of the whole of Britain or one and a half times the size of Ireland. It lies in the Gulf of St Lawrence off the east coast of Canada. The population is about half a million of which about two fifths live in or around the capital St John’s at the Atlantic end of the island. For administrative purposes, Newfoundland is joined with Labrador which is the vast sub-Arctic and Arctic landmass that lies on the Canadian mainland to the north. Only about 5% of the total population of the Province live in Labrador. Newfoundland is pronounced by the locals as New Fund Land, three separate words.
These locals are officially called Newfoundlanders which is affectionately, but also sometimes insultingly, shortened to Newfies. There is a small aboriginal population (First Nations, Metis, Inuit) but the vast majority either originate from other parts of North America or from the British Isles (England, Ireland and Scotland) split roughly 50/50. English is the dominant language but their dialect could be described as a cross between Canadian English and Irish English and they speak at a rapid pace making understanding for non-natives sometimes very difficult.
“Welcome to The Rock”, said the lady at the Avis car rental desk in St John’s Airport. She explained that that is what the locals call their homeland. What she didn’t explain was how to get out of the airport complex. It is currently undergoing major refurbishment including the replacement and realignment of the road system. Along with a number of other rental customers we spent what seemed like ages going around and around trying to find the exit onto the main road system.
Our guest house had provided a comprehensive set of driving instructions to get us to our bed for the night, except that they had one small but crucial error mentioning going through three sets of lights on one stretch when it should have said one. So, it was time to resort to satnav which got us there very quickly. Earl, the proprietor, had emailed the code for the front door, so although it was after midnight, we were able to get inside. In the vestibule there were large notices requiring us to remove our shoes before entering the hallway. So our shoes joined the dozen or so other pairs lined up by the door.
Another notice informed us that our room, “Petty Harbour”, was on the third floor, right at the top of the building. There was no lift, so getting our luggage upstairs was a bit of a trial. The door to our room was open but there was no sign of the number for the keypad that locked the door. This would have to fixed in the morning. In the mean time we were seriously in need of some rest.
We had only planned the first two nights on the assumption that we could set off and explore Newfoundland, picking up B&B’s as we went along. There was a notice in the room saying that Earl was happy to provide travel advice. We decided to take advantage of the offer.
Newfoundland & Labrador has been doing some serious advertising in Canada on the delights of visiting the province. It has worked. People were flocking to “The Rock”. We met people from Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. What this meant was that when we tried to book accommodation for our first night on the road, a Saturday, there was nothing available.
We called Earl and he came round from his other guest house just a few houses away. He suggested that the destination we had chosen was much further away than we needed to go to get great sea scenery and walks. Instead of Twillingate, some 450km distance and about 6 hours driving, we should try Trinity on the Bonavista Peninsula, some 200km distance and not much more than 2 ½ hours driving. Getting an hotel for the Saturday night proved impossible in Trinity as well, still, there was a nice place that could take us from the Sunday night for three nights. We booked it straightaway. Earl said he could put us up for the Saturday night so that was fine. The extra day in St John’s could be used for some out of town touring.
Within minutes of the hotel are two major historical buildings. The first is Government House, built in the early 1800’s and first occupied in 1831, the home of the Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland & Labrador. It’s a rather grand house with extensive grounds and is used nowadays largely for ceremonial functions. Normally, the public can see round, but it was closed so we had to be content with a walk round the outside.
The next building along the street is the Colonial Building, which was built to house the government of the colony from the mid 1800’s till 1948 when Newfoundland & Labrador became a province of Canada. The government is now housed in a modern building, the Confederation Building, that we could see on the hillside a little further out from the city centre. The Colonial Building has an impressive colonnaded front and a flight of steps extending across the whole front of the building all made of white limestone imported from Cork in Ireland. The rest of the building was obscured by scaffolding for renovations.
Further along is the National Museum and Art Gallery of the province called The Rooms. We started walking in the general direction but were working from a rather crude freebie map and couldn’t work out exactly where to go. We were standing consulting the map when a car going in the opposite direction stopped in the middle of the busy city road and the driver asked if he could help. Traffic started to build up behind him but no one was upset. I said we were looking for “The Rooms”, as the building is called. “Just keep walking, it’s on the right”. We shouted our thank yous and, with a cheery wave, he moved on. This episode really epitomised Newfoundlander friendliness and helpfulness.
The Rooms is a fine building opened in 2005 and made of granite, wood, aluminium and lots of glass. It is the centre for cultural heritage in the province and houses a museum, art gallery, the National Archive and rooms for project work. We focused our visit on the history of the island and its peoples. Everything was so well presented and the detail so absorbing that we spent much longer there than planned. There is also an excellent and popular restaurant on the top floor with superb views over St John’s Harbour and The Narrows, the short, natural channel that links the harbour to the Atlantic. All the tables beside the picture windows were fully booked and you could see why. We were happy for any table and ordered two big bowls of the chowder for which they are rightly famous. For me, this was washed down with a bottle of local Iceberg beer. Not any old beer, but a brew that uses melt water from passing icebergs. It’s officially classed as a lager but to my mind it has many characteristics of a light pale ale. Whatever, it became my drink of choice throughout our stay.
The dominant feature of St John’s is the harbour. This is a perfect, natural place of shelter from the ravages of the Atlantic. Until the 1990’s this would have been a scene of hundreds of fishing boats. But no more. Cod fishing had always been a major part of the economy but after the second world war the introduction of ever larger super-trawlers resulted in a massive increase in the number of fish landed. The outcome of this greed and lack of government intervention was inevitable. Suddenly, around 1990, the stocks rapidly decreased. A ten-year moratorium was agreed in 1992 and cod fishing stopped. It actually took till 2011 before cod stocks started to recover properly and now fishing is strictly controlled using small trawlers.
The fishing trawlers, now much reduced in size, can use other, smaller harbours. St John’s Harbour today seems to be more a base for oil industry supply ships and cable laying ships. It’s interesting in these days of satellite communications that the laying and maintaining of undersea cables is still a big industry. In fact, satellites carry a very small percentage of the world’s communications traffic. Undersea cable is far more reliable and can carry much more data at faster speeds. Newfoundland is a terminating point for cables that form a worldwide network. Although we didn’t see any during our visit, the harbour is now used regularly by cruise ships.
Venturing out of the city, we spent a day driving slowly down the coast from St John’s. St John’s is in the region of Newfoundland known as Avalon. The road that circuits the southern shores of Avalon is the Irish Loop or Route 10, named in honour of the thousands of Irish who emigrated to the province. The road heads over forested moor land sprinkled with small lakes. As we began to learn, this is very typical Newfoundland scenery. After about twenty minutes we could see the sea appearing to our left and the road descended to the first community of Bay Bulls. In the summer, especially during the whale season, Bay Bulls and the next bay, Witless Bay, are busy places for tourist boats going out to watch whales and sea birds. That season was mostly over for this year.
We moved on with the road climbing out of each bay into the forest before descending to the next. Our goal was La Manche Provincial Park. The park stretches from a long, narrow channel cum harbour way inland. On the banks of this channel a small fishing community was established around 1840. Here are a few words about the demise and final tragedy, courtesy of the Provincial Park website.
“In the mid-1960’s the community was under pressure to resettle into larger, nearby towns. The road leading to La Manche was difficult and expensive to maintain, particularly in the winter. On January 25, 1966 a severe winter storm hit the east coast of the Avalon Peninsula. An enormous tide washed away all the flakes (waterfront platforms for drying cod), boats, anchors and stores of La Manche as well as the suspension bridge which connected both sides of the harbour. Most of the houses were demolished, miraculously there were no deaths attributed to the storm. The entire economy of the village was destroyed so the residents of La Manche agreed to be resettled by the provincial government.”
The ruins of the community have been maintained and the suspension bridge rebuilt as a memorial to the hard lives that people led as recently as fifty years ago. A signpost indicates the point to leave the main highway and a dirt road leads to a car park. From here a good trail leads down through woods for less than 2km to the ruins of the village where it joins the East Coast Trail that hugs the Avalon coastline. All that is left of the village are the stone bases of the houses and the few timbers that weren’t wash away in 1966. All very poignant.
We walked onto the suspension bridge and had the wonderful sight of two seals sunbathing on the rocks far below. Following the East Coast Trail which travels northwards across the bridge, we reached the mouth of the La Manche inlet and had a great view along the coast and out into the Atlantic. It was a lovely, warm, sunny day which made it hard to imagine the storm that destroyed these hardy people’s livelihoods.
Back in the car, our journey took us southwards to the township of Ferryland, an Anglicisation of the original French name of Forillon. Ferryland was established in the 1600’s as a base for fishing fleets. One visitor in those days was none other than Sir Walter Raleigh. Nowadays this is a small community which has become an archaeological site, unearthing the history of the early occupations. The Colony of Avalon at Ferryland is recognized as the best preserved early English colonial site in North America. The museum and associated works were closed.
[as we discovered throughout the province, the majority of public sites close on Labour Day (early September) for the winter]
However, we could see a striking lighthouse on a spit of land that stretched out into the ocean. We parked the car and set out on the 1km rough road to reach it. The lighthouse is of typical Canadian Maritime style, a red painted stack with a white lantern on top and a red roof on top of that. The lantern has been automated for some years but the lighthouse keeper’s accommodation has been put to a novel use to raise money for on-going maintenance. It is now a kitchen specialising in picnics. And these picnics are so popular that they have to booked in advance. Today’s picnic had just finished, the guests were making their ways back to their cars. It was nice to have the place to ourselves.
The headland around the lighthouse is great place for whale and bird watching in the spring and summer but now, apart from the odd seagull, the wildlife has started to migrate as winter approaches. We were disappointed at the lack of whales but we still could enjoy the wonderful scenery and the walking.
Ferryland was as far south as we went. Heading back to St John’s the first place we passed was Cape Broyle, a small township where every business seemed to owned by the Daltons. Earlier we had stopped at Dalton’s Supermarket and bought coffee, buns, granola bars and fruit. And also, we couldn’t resist buying some famous Scottish “Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers”. How they came to be on sale in this remote part of the world is anyone’s guess.
Tomorrow we would start to explore further afield.