If you look at a map of Canada you’ll see a very large island sitting just off the most eastern coast. That island is Newfoundland and it, along with a section of the mainland called Labrador, is one of Canada’s 10 provinces. Governments call the province ‘Newfoundland and Labrador’ but the rest of us just call it Newfoundland (even me and I was born in Labrador)..
Newfoundland is sometimes referred to as ‘The Rock’ because that’s what it looks like, a massive rock with jagged edges. It hardly has any soil. It is a “windswept land”, to quote the provincial anthem, with “blinding storm gusts” and “wild waves”. The water off its coast is known as ‘Iceberg Alley’ because every spring and summer chunks of ice from glaciers in Greenland float by, like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. It’s also one of the most spectacular whale watching places in the world. And Witless Bay Ecological Reserve has the largest puffin colony in North America.
The waters around Newfoundland once had the best fishing in the North Atlantic. The Basque whalers came here first, taking oil from the blubber of whales; the killing was done in a place appropriately called Red Bay because of all the blood that was shed. Others came to hunt the seal herds that passed by each spring.
Here is my itinerary for a road trip through the Maritimes and on through Newfoundland and Labrador
The Grand Banks off Newfoundland was the world’s largest source of fish until disaster struck and the cod disappeared. Well before then, fishermen from Ireland and England and their families had settled in fishing villages that still dot the coast. Although most men no longer eek out a living on the sea, the stories of those who did live on through sea shanties that are sung in bars and festivals throughout the island.
Newfies work hard and know how to have a good time too. Today a visitor can become an honorary Newfoundlander by being ‘screeched-in’. The ceremony doesn’t take too long. It just involves kissing a cod on the lips (that’s a type of fish), having a drink of the province’s rum (traditionally 40 proof) and reciting the Screecher’s Creed:
From the waters of the Avalon, to the shores of Labrador,
We’ve always stuck together, with a Rant and with a Roar.
To those who’ve never been, soon they’ll understand,
From coast to coast, we raise a toast,
We love thee Newfoundland!
Probably the best place to get screeched-in is in St. John’s, the capital city, where there are two blocks of nothing but bars and restaurants. (Just ask for George Street.)
I loved the road trip my (then) husband, kids and I took up the west coast. We caught the ferry at North Sydney in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia over to Channel-Port aux Basques. From there it’s 700 km up to the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula. The drive is glorious and unique to Newfoundland.
Just about everyone here owns a house and many of the homes were built with the help of family and friends. As you drive along you’ll see that most houses are built on top of the rock, the basement above ground, the front door raised. There’s often a woodpile at the end of the driveway and if it’s just past hunting season they’ll inevitably be moose meat in the freezer. Newfoundlanders are survivors and that means being prepared to last out a harsh winter.
Gros Morne National Park is a mandatory stop on the west coast and if you’re at all into tenting, this is the place to do it for aside from being up close to nature it’s a great way to meet Newfoundlanders. Just smile and say hello to one of them and before you know it they’ll probably be seated at your picnic table, keen to hear your opinion on just about anything!
The Park’s landscape is remarkable and easy to enjoy because of the kilometers of hiking trails. A mountain range runs through the park and there are unusual rock formations called Tablelands.
The freshwater fjords, carved out by glaciers, undoubtedly steal the show and a boat trip along one of them on a sunny day will certainly be a trip highlight. Just be sure to bring along warm clothes.
The road north of Gros Morne mostly hugs the coast and before you know it you’ll be at L’Anse aux Meadows where Vikings led by Leif Eriksson arrived from Greenland in around 1000 A.D. It’s a rather desolate place and sod houses typical of the time have been resurrected and are fun for kids to explore.
St. Anthony at the tip of the peninsula is where we first saw the big icebergs. Wow! I’d come here just for that. St. Anthony, with its well-sheltered harbor, was one of the earliest fishing ports. It’s also where Wilfred Grenfell, newly arrived from Britain, set up a medical missionary after witnessing the widespread poverty and lack of medical resources when he visited the region in 1892. He recruited volunteers from far and wide to work in his hospitals. The paternal grandfather of my children in fact came to Newfoundland from England as a missionary.
My road trip up the coast had to include Labrador for that is where I was born. I have photos of me as a baby travelling around on a sled that is being pulled by husky dogs. So we took the ferry from St. Barbe, Newfoundland and landed in Blanc Sablon, Quebec, just a few minutes walk from the Labrador border. As soon as we stepped on Labrador soil the blackflies attacked with such ferocity that blood was running down our necks.
The 82 km drive along the Labrador coast was eerie—just stunted trees on a lunar-like landscape with the odd patch of snow. We drove past Red Bay where the whales had been butchered, past homes that seemed from another time, each with a husky dog out front keeping guard. We found a camping site and huddled together throughout the night to keep warm.
Go see Newfoundland (and Labrador). It’s a world apart from anywhere else in Canada and it’s mighty special.
Road trip itinerary: Maritimes and Newfoundland
My favourite road trip through Canada’s Maritime Provinces
Road trip around Cape Breton Island, Canada
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013