It was time to pack our bags and head to the Bonavista peninsula for three nights in a most beautiful place. The rain rained and the wind blew but also the sun shone and we had a great time. The Eriksen guest house in Trinity was to be our base. It had one special feature that we came to love, the large communal sitting-room. This was shared by the occupants of the six bedrooms on the upper floor. We got to know some super fellow guests, all Canadian or, in one case, long term immigrants from the UK.
The guest house did evening meals and we dined there on our first night but for the other two nights we went to the Dock Marina Restaurant on the waterfront with some of our fellow travellers. The Dock Marina was more café style than restaurant with its gingham tablecloths and rambling menu. Whether you had one course or umpteen course or even just a drink, was up to you.. On both nights we ate the national dish of cod. It was prepared in many different styles to suit every palate. Our favourites were the traditional deep fried cod fillets (1,2,3 to suit) and cod au gratin, baked in a white sauce and topped with melted cheese.
On the first visit there were six of us and a good time was had by all but on the second night there was just ourselves and our new found (in Newfoundland!!) friends Peter and Eirian from Calgary in Alberta. Our waitress turned out to have been hired to run the business side of affairs and the accounts but also liked to work at the sharp end. Weren’t we lucky. We were the last guests of the evening and we heard people who were already eating mildly complaining that some dishes were not available. When two of our party asked for cod au gratin, one of the dishes off the menu, the waitress said “don’t worry I’ll get the chef to make some fresh”. And so she did. Whether it was because we had travelled so far or because she took a liking to us is anyone’s guess.
Each time she came to our table she told us, unprompted, another bit about her background and life in Trinity. It was all fascinating. She had had a child at 17, the relationship with the father deepened and they married. That first baby, a daughter, had her own first child at 17 a few years ago. So we were listening to a grandmother, under forty, whose compelling storytelling was riveting. Along the way she and her husband had acquired qualifications, a good home and a close relationship with their children and grandchild – essentially they were all young together. We all agreed that we had never encountered such glowing contentment.
The Skerwink Trail is a relatively short trail but is one of the most dramatic I’ve been on, if you discount the Cuillin Ridge on Skye which is way beyond my capabilities nowadays. It’s a relatively short walk and starts tamely across level terrain and into woodland. Underfoot, the path is very well maintained and way-marking is clear. After a short distance the path forks. To the right it indicates an inland variation whilst to the left it says “caution” and hints at high cliffs. We took the latter. And within less than a minute, suddenly, there’s a small break in the trees and we’re standing right on top of a sheer 100 metre cliff looking down on a number of sea stacks. Amazing.
The rock of Newfoundland is largely sedimentary sandstone giving a general flatness to the whole island. However, at Skerwink Head, the rock has been shifted through 90⁰ and the result is massive slabs of rock pointing skywards. The Atlantic gales have then done their work eroding the rock and leaving numerous sea stacks and the cliffs. Most of the headland is covered in conifers and general scrub. The trees are mature but the constant high winds keep their heights low, typically under 5 metres.
The path skimmed the cliff edge with regular breaks in the trees to get close to the drops. Some of the gaps had bench seats so you could sit and marvel at the rock formations. Where the path climbed or descended over bluffs wooden steps had been laid. And each tread had wire mesh to improve grip in the near constant damp conditions. This may sound too severely regimented but it was really justified. Without the clear path the surface would become dangerously eroded, especially so close to the big drops.
After about 4km the trail then descended steeply with steps to a pebble beach. By now there was a steady drizzle and it was quite cold, definitely only in single figures centigrade. After a short walk through more open terrain, we were glad to get back to the car and some shelter. What a magnificent walk, only about 5km but with regular stops to enjoy and marvel at the scenery, it took a bit over 2 hours.
Our next stop was to see another lighthouse, Fort Point. The lighthouse was very visible from Trinity village and we had seen it in the distance from the second half of the Skerwink Trail. Trinity has a number of sheltered bays all guarded by a long spit of land and together they form one of largest natural harbours in Newfoundland. Itinerant British cod fishing fleets started to operate from the bays in the 16th century. On Trinity Sunday 1615 the First Court of Admiralty was formally established and the name of Trinity was adopted. In the middle of the 18th century, a fort was built to protect the British interests and later on, in the middle of the 19th century, the lighthouse was built on the same site.
The next day our travels took us northwards up the Bonavista peninsula for about 50km to the most northerly point at Cape Bonavista just beyond the town of Bonavista. It was a lovely day though the breeze was quite chilly. You are constantly reminded that the next landmass to the north is Greenland and the Arctic. In a couple of months’ time the ocean will start to freeze over.
The Cape Lighthouse was open for visitors. There is a small museum which covered the early history including a fascinating Scottish connection. The original lanterns and reflectors had come from the Bell Rock Lighthouse which guards the entrance to the Firth of Tay and that was designed by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson. A few years later these were augmented by the lanterns and reflectors of another famous Scottish lighthouse, the Isle of May, which guards the approaches to the Firth of Forth. To keep the Scottish connection going, we were shown around the lighthouse by a lady who hailed from Paisley in Scotland. The accommodation for the keepers was built as a series of rooms on two storeys round the cylindrical structure of the column supporting the lanterns and reflectors. Everything had been lovingly restored to as near the original as possible.
Close to the lighthouse is a memorial to John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) who landed there in 1497 and reportedly gave the area the name Bona Vista – Beautiful View. The memorial takes the form of a large statue of the man himself looking out over the, to him, new found land. This led us back to the town where a life-size replica of his boat, The Matthew, is housed in a purpose built museum. The replica was built in Bristol, England, just like the original, and sailed the Atlantic to Bonavista to repeat Cabot’s original voyage. The boat arrived on the 24th June 1997, the 500th anniversary of the first landing. The event was considered so significant that none other than Queen Elizabeth II was there to lead the celebrations. Standing on the deck of the boat it is incredible to imagine sailing the wild Atlantic in such a small vessel.
For lunch we dined at Neil’s Yard, not to be confused with or maybe indeed to be confused with, Neal’s Yard the natural food shop in Covent Garden, London. The owner of Neil’s Yard originated from London and acknowledged a bit of plagiarism. Whatever, the food was simple but excellent and very reasonably priced.
The last visit of the day was to a very different museum in the nearby town of Ellison. The town is scattered over low-lying land along the shoreline. We were drawn towards a statue cum monument near the beach. The poignant statue depicts two figures, a father and teenage son, Rueben and Albert John Crewe, embracing each other as they were found frozen together on the sea ice after an ill-fated sealing expedition. The monument is a memorial to the scores of seamen who lost their lives in two separate disasters during one 1914 storm.
The nearby museum explains the whole disaster. Essentially, sealers were taken out to the ice-flows and left to make their kills. Sometime later the boats would return to pick them up. That worked as well as it could in reasonable weather. The story of the March 1914 storm is complex but the essential facts are that many sealers were abandoned to an icy grave due in part to the storm but also to the actions of the masters of the two main ships. Most could have been rescued had it not been for bad decisions made those who could have helped. In total, 251 sealers died. Life was very harsh in Newfoundland in those days only 100 years ago.
The next day we said goodbye to Trinity and headed back to St John’s on the Trans-Canada Highway for about half the journey. Then we turned off to visit a small seaside community with an unforgettable name. Dildo was given its name by the great naval explorer Capt. Cook who thought that the rounded promontory that reached out into the bay resembled the aforementioned.
This wasn’t the only odd name we came across. Newfoundland seems to revel in them. Some examples we saw included Chance, Hearts Delight, Cupids, Pretty Street, Tickle Harbour, Country Road and Placentia. Presumably most of these names were given in the 17th and 18th centuries as Newfoundland became populated. However, one was definitely of modern invention. “No Charge for the View B&B” was on Trinity Bay and had a most spectacular sea view. A very clever name.
From Dildo we drove across a peninsula to Conception Bay and the small town of Brigus. The reason for visiting here was that it was the birthplace of Capt. Bob Bartlett, sailor and Arctic explorer. Bartlett had many claims to fame in his day. These included the furthest North sailing, above 88⁰ N, and breaking the route through the ice to get the American Robert Peary to a point 150 miles from the North Pole. Due to rivalries between the two men Bartlett was barred from travelling to the pole with Peary. With over forty polar expeditions to his name, Bartlett was a real pioneer. He led a number of journeys to rescue other expeditions that had become stranded in very inaccessible places including the members of the ill-fated Crocker Land Expedition, who had been stuck on the ice for four years. He is largely an unsung hero outside of his native Newfoundland.
Back in St John’s we checked into the Rendell Shea Manor, the sister guest house of the Elizabeth Manor where we had stayed before. The Rendell Shea was even more sumptuous. We were taken to the Cape Spear Room on the top floor. It was very large with the well-appointed en suite bathroom off a small private hallway.
For dinner we decided to walk down Cochrane Street from the guest house and then turn into the main street parallel to the harbour, Duckworth Street. The first place to catch our eye was The Bagel Café. Not an obvious choice for an evening meal but with a look at the menu and the busy crowd inside, we took a chance. And it was a success. Very friendly staff, a good choice of dishes, speedy service and an affordable bill. What more could you ask for.
After the meal our next port of call had to be a bar for a nightcap or two. As we were passing the lobby of a large bank, out came our friends from Trinity, Peter and Eirian. What a coincidence. They had the same idea as ourselves and were heading for an Irish pub, The Ship Pub, where they had read there would be live music. Ideal. We joined forces and headed back to Duckworth Street. Seats were at a bit of a premium but we got a row of four near the back with a good view of the stage. The music was good, mostly one singer who sang a mixture of folk, blues and rock. A fine end to a busy day.
Tomorrow was to be our last day in Newfoundland. We would have to make the most of it as we didn’t know how long it would be before we returned.