Back in Toronto now, I realize that it’s been easy to write about the little things we have seen, the food, the attractions, even the disappointments but, here, despite trying, I’ve not done justice to Newfoundland.
Our words and pictures can’t really record what it’s like — what you will see if you experience this place for yourself.
It’s not just about scenery. It’s about what it does to your spirit and your mind and your heart to be surrounded by wild space and the wild sea. It’s about warm people who’ll chat and make you a meal or a cup of tea as though you were their guests instead of their customers. It’s about the earth and the sea and how it has nurtured us and how we are spitting in its face. It’s about a thousand years of human determination to live on this rock and how the rest of us in Canada aren’t paying enough attention to what Newfoundland is fighting for now.
It’s easier to bullet point the notable moments and hope that, for the rest, you’ll find out for yourself.
- The fog, the fog. A part of almost every day.
- Wonderful restaurants: The Norseman near L’Anse Aux Meadows, The Lightkeepers in Rocky Harbour, The Daily Catch in St.Lunaire.
- The tidy saltbox houses in tiny little communities clinging to the edge of the rock on the Atlantic and Gulf of St. Lawrence.
- Driving in Corner Brook, where we were constantly lost, despite a map and a GPS. A town with fire hydrants marked by tall poles with flags — because there’s sometimes 15 feet of snow in the winter according to Mayor Charles Pender.*
- The whales who were almost too close, the icebergs, imposing beyond belief.
- On 430, the somewhat angst-making “moose” signs, and the attendant advice not to drive at dusk, dawn or during the night for fear of colliding with one of these huge animals – and dying. There’s “death toll” signage on the highways periodically. Three when we arrived on the island; five by the time we left. Nonetheless, we’ll remember “our” handsome, curious moose.
- The cylindrical garbage cans at the front of every home, shaped to defeat the winds.
- The roadside gardens, eking vegetables from every inch of tillable soil.
- Bird’s Nest Bed & Breakfast in Deer Lake. Gordon, the gentleman proprieter, will pick you up in the evening after you drop off your rental car at the airport, take you to your comfy, clean – if tiny - room then give you breakfast at 4:50 a.m. and drive you back to the airport the only direct flight from Deer Lake to Toronto, which leaves at 6:20. Yes, you have to be there at 5:20.
- Dark Tickle, for chats. native berry products, traditionally made, and a tea room. Try the Screech Tea.
- Glynnmill Inn in Corner Brook. Good accommodation, if a little tired, in a heritage property, beautiful surroundings and the pleasant and very credible Carriage House Restaurant. Moutain Range Cottages in Rocky Harbour, damn near perfect. Grenfell Heritage House Suites in St. Anthony, on the way to being a very good hotel.
- The Railway Exhibit in Corner Brook.
- The Marine Research Station in Norris Point.
- Thistle’s Place, Millbrook Mall, Corner Brook. You can get a real expresso, good food and fine service … among the best in Corner Brook, actually.
- Woody Point especially The Lighthouse Restaurant and the Discovery Centre where you can sit in armchairs and admire another extraordinary view.
- Fisher’s Point in St. Anthony. In fact, St. Anthony period.
- Gros Morne. Spend as much time as you can – it may be the most beautiful place on the planet. Certainly the most beautiful I’ve seen so far.
- Potatoes. You’ve got to love them because, in some of the tinier places, it’s potatoes with the spectacularly fresh and well-cooked fish and seafood or no veggies at all.
- The artisan craftsmen and women: In spite of haunting tourist information sites for two weeks — and doing a lot of advance research — we didn’t run into the Craft Council of Newfoundland Studio Guide until we were leaving the island. There were at least six or eight studios we would have visited along the way – had we known they existed. We did manage, on the last day, to visit Gillams/New York artist Robyn Love who spins and knits art installations and is travelling Canada this fall and next spring with her Knitting Sprawl project about knitting and the suburbs. More about that later at KnitNet, www.knitnet.com
* We had an email from the Mayor about this and other things. A CBC radio producer spotted our blog comments on Corner Brook and invited us to be interviewed for the morning show. We were - by the charming Dorothy King — and the Mayor was asked to comment. Here’s the podcast address of the interview. I’m hoping we don’t sound churlish. http://www.cbc.ca/podcasting/pastpodcasts.html?62#ref62
We may be suffering from yesterdays all-day rain, terrible road conditions and 3 C temperatures this morning, but, all in all, we wouldn’t recommend Corner Brook as a tourist destination.
We thought a couple of days of urban Newfoundland would be interesting but it’s a terrible let-down after the glories of St. Anthony and Rocky Harbour and their surrounding delights.
It’s a sad town with very little in the way of urban attractions. Shopping malls — our attempted refuge on a rainy day – are half empty. Every high-end restaurant we attempted to visit was closed on Monday. We tried to visit the Captain Cook Memorial but all we could see was a hard-to-navigate, unmarked Captain Cook Memorial Gravel Driveway overlooking — pleasantly — the whole bowl at the mouth of the river that holds Corner Brook. Driving is not pleasant, either. Most roads seemed to lack painted lines, I couldn’t find one speed limit sign and there are lots of unmarked one-way streets in the downtown area and at least 50 per cent of intersections are missing one or both street-name signs.
Even the persons working at the information centre couldn’t tell us what we should see here. They shrugged then mentioned the memorial to Newfoundland’s railway — last passenger train in the 1960s, last freight in the late 80s, sadly missed — and the Captain Cook memorial. We had visited the train exhibit on our first afternoon here and it was splendid. We were so excited about Corner Brook until we realized we had already seen the best it has to offer.
Today, it’s freezing but sunny so we’re taking a scenic drive and visiting some craft studios … leaving Corner Brook behind before we head to Deer Lake for our last night in Newfoundland.
This is what I’m hearing: If a word starts with a vowel, add a “H” at the beginning. If a word starts with an H followed by a vowel, omit the H sound. When you talk about the letter, call it an Hay-ch. You can substitute a D for the odd TH as well.
Now you’re talking Newfoundland.
Or at least you would be if you add “girl” or “boy” to every declarative sentence, as in “Hit’s a beautiful day out d’ere, girl.”
Don’t be surprised if, when you order tea, you’re asked if you want “fresh milk, canned milk or cream” every time, because, I suspect, canned milk is a great tradition based on earlier necessity.
That said, we were surprised to find that in St. Anthony, and, indeed, at the even-further-north Norseman restaurant, we found many fresh veggies along with fresh meat as well as fish in the restaurants and grocery stores. Much further south, in Rocky Harbour, it’s a very different story. The vegetables, what few there are, are so past their prime, you can’t believe they’re for sale. All meat is frozen in big chest coolers. A lot of it looks as though it’s been there for years.
Fortunately, on something of a whim, we’d bought and froze fresh meat in St. Anthony and brought them down with us. Damn good thing since our plan has always been to eat dinner in so Phil can do his caveman-cook-meat thing and we can relax at the cottage or suite after a day of touristy things. If we had to rely on food supplies in Rocky Harbour, it would have been impossible. Even so the end of our Rocky Harbour stay, we were down to frozen peas and tinned cranberry sauce!
The reason, we reason, is that St. Anthony is a regional centre but Rocky Harbour is less than two hours from Corner Brook….place of big shopping.
Interesting that we see precious little in the way of landscaping around the salt-box houses up and down the coast. Is life really too hard to plant flowers and shrubs or is it that it’s so windy so much of the time, they wouldn’t survive? The only spot of colour is often the washing on the line.
The houses themselves are picture book perfect as are the views. Maybe when you have all that ocean and mountain to look at, you don’t have to tart it up with flowers.
Now a hub only for vacationers, its waterfront boasts restaurants and craft shops. Oddly, though the town is tucked away nearly 40 kilometers from Highway 430, on a tortuous road curvy and steep, it’s the only place where every restaurant and coffee shop had wireless internet available and where I could get a real latte made with real espresso.
In fact, in case we get “homesick” for Woody Point, we can always check it out on the live Web cam. http://www.123-cams.com/live-webcam.php?var=3649&site=http://seasidesuites.axiscam.net/view/index.shtml
Lunch at the Lighthouse Restaurant, another fabulous seafood meal in friendly, homey surroundings. Phil allows as he has finally had his fill of scallops. (It later turns out he’s wrong — he has scallops almost every day for the rest of the trip.) We are offered Partridge Berry Pudding with Rum Sauce for dessert but can’t fit it on top of the halibut, cod and scallops so we take a portion home to the cottage for dinner.
Food is often such an issue for us in Toronto, it’s been a happy discovery to find that eating here is easier, and better than the big smoke. Because every restaurant we’ve tried makes fresh homemade food from scratch, it’s no problem to say “no salt” or to find gluten-free choices for Phil.
It’s also a remarkably accessible place — every facility, every restaurant, every shop has a ramp for access and bathrooms on the main floor.
In spite of the challenges of driving these grades and curves, it’s easier to get around here than it is Toronto and it’s easier to get served food you can eat. In Toronto, if you ask for no salt, you simply get “sorry it’s already prepared”, code for “it arrived on the truck from Sysco already cooked and frozen — we just thaw.”
At the Woody Point Discovery Centre, we watch a film about Gros Morne and look at displays that explain the geology, flora and fauna.
We drive home to the cottage in another downpour. It rains harder here than anywhere we’ve experienced before. The rain falls so violently that it feels like it’s denting the car. I don’t mind the 40 K off 430 into Woody Point. It’s very steep, very curvy and like the rest of the roads we’ve seen, almost totally without guard rails but it’s also nearly empty of traffic. Once we hit 430, there’s always the spectre of the big big trucks barrelling up the highway. They spray so much water, we’re completely blinded. Hope we don’t meet an unexpected curve or a moose! The moose thing, of course, isn’t funny. Two persons have died in separate collisions with a moose during the few days we’ve been here.
We take a walk through town before lunch to work up an appetite. We stop at the Post Office to mail post cards and then check out the local community museum and gift shop. Like another museum we saw yesterday, it basically an old house with bits and pieces of this and that — flatirons and old Twinings tins, ladies hats and rocking chairs made from barrels — you get the idea – with bored young interpreters who don’t know much about what’s there. Nice people though and you get the sense these communities are very proud of their museums.
At St. Mary’s Anglican Church there are big bowls of homemade salads set in ice in a rowboat in the middle of the hall with communal tables all around, nicely decorated with Canadian and Newfoundland flags. Instructed to fill a plate with salads , you then chose your seat at the tables laden with homemade white bread, butter, raisin scones, molasses buns and homemade Newfoundland berry jams. After you’re seated, one of the members of the ladies auxiliary brings you a big oval platter with your very own lobster… cracked and ready to pick and eat. Everyone is friendly and it’s nice to be part of a community in that way. And Phil enjoyed killing the lobster.
After lunch, we toured the modest botanical gardens adjoining the church and then went over to the library to use the free wireless internet. Librarian Nora Shears is pleasant and helpful despite the fact that half the community of Cow Head drops by during the hour we’re there, some to use one of the six computers, others to hook up with their own laptops.. In the age of the internet, the library is an important hub.
Finally, back over to the museum for an outdoor afternoon concert by the traditional Newfoundland music group Neddy Norris. Highlight of the show were the anti-Confederation songs, one dating back to 1869 and the other to 1948, the Log Driver’s Waltz — you’ll know it from the NFB animation — and Hunting the Duck, a rendition of the anti-hunting tune by Buddy Wassisname and The Other Fellers. My favourite — How Good is Me Life by Jim Payne.
With the help of advice from the Gros Morne Visitior’s Centre and its knowledgeable staff, a walking stick and Phil’s patience, we were able to hike the Coastal Trail. It’s an easy hike, as Gros Morne goes, and it’s not very long but it felt like an achievement, given my knee. The up close and personal contact with the ocean was the reward.
We have lunch in Norris Point at Pitmans, what seems to be a large, typical restaurant. Ladies in the back cooking fresh fish and seafood to order, making killer french fries, friendly, motherly types out front, making sure you’re happy and well-fed.
Norris Point must be one of the prettiest towns on the Western coast — at least we think that until we get to Woody Point, across Bonne Bay. Before the road was put in, to get from Port Aux Basques — where the ferry from the mainland docks at the south end of the island — to Rocky Harbour or up the northern pennisula, you had to take the car ferry from Woody Point to Norris Point. The ferry still runs three times a day but only for foot traffic, tourists from one visiting the other.
In Norris Point, the must-see Bonne Bay Marine Research Station. Here is where I begin to understand Newfoundland — how it was created, its land and sea form, close up (hands on!) introduction to the marine species, the history and state of the fishing industry, the reason Norris Point is such a research hot spot. Best fact learned: it’s plankton, not trees, that provide 80 per cent of the world’s oxygen.
We have coffee later in the nearby harbour bistro and stare, like idiots, at the panorama. How can we go home to boring old Toronto and look out windows at views that stop dead in 30 yards in buildings and cars? I know that mountains make some folks claustrophobic but the combination of mountains with their endless vistas and the equally endless sea are freedom to me.
For an even better view, we go to the lookout at the strange little Janniex Museum, what must be one of the 100 greatest views in the world.
Every community we see on the way south is having a Canada Day Parade – kids, strollers, families, decorated children’s wagons and cars, red and white balloons, happy faces.
We decide to have a look at The Arches provincial park to see for ourselves the iconic Newfoundland view of the limestone plate worn away by tides. We miss the ill marked entrance and can’t find a place to turn around for nearly 15 K. Never mind, we’ll catch it on the flip side.
We don’t miss Payne’s bakery, home of date squares and Phil’s favourite marshmallow squares. We discovered it on the way to St. Anthony’s and watched carefully for it on the way south. The owner makes us a cup of tea and we enjoy the home baking and half an hour out of the car.
We get to Rocky Harbour having enjoyed one magnificent panorama after another during the 369 K drive.
Back at Mountain Range cottages, we settle in for a quick salmon dinner and early sleep after watching the community fire works display over the harbour. A fantastic Canada Day, keenly grateful to live in a country of such incredible beauty.
Our last full day in St. Anthony, we drive up to L’Anse Aux Meadows again.
We want to see Norstead and try the widely-admired Norseman restaurant as well as stop back at Dark Tickle, the economuseum where the native berries of Newfoundland are made into a variety of products using traditional methods. We watch the berry jam making and sample teas and treats.
Norstead is a kind of Viking theme park, virtually empty before the full-on summer onslaught. We meet Hrefna — her Viking name — who shows me nailbinding, a kind of protypical knitting, and reads the ruins for Phil and I.
We amaze her — and ourselves — because in our independent readings, two of the three ruins we blindly select are the same out of 26. No idea what the odds against that are… something mathematically impressive, probably. We both have good, positive readings. The ruins we have in common are Journey and Harvest, plus I choose Gift.
We enjoy time — me more than Phil, likely — spent in the women’s workroom where we have the chance to spend some time with the interpreters who talk about their work there.
The Norseman lives up to its reputation and more, a meal equal to any fine restaurant anywhere.
We get back to St. Anthony in time to experience The Great Viking Feast at Leifsburdir….more about that tomorrow.
This is a land of mystery and surprise!
The days are so much longer than we expected — there’s still light in the sky at 10:30 p.m. local time and there are birds singing like mad things and plenty of light at 4:20 a.m.
As Phil says, when it’s light that early, you’re always sleeping in even if we get up at 6!
Last night we had my euchre dinner at Lightkeeper’s Cafe. We play cards every day at the studio and I won the last tournament. Good thing, since I don’t think I’ve won a game since! Anyway, loser treats the winner to a special meal and I chose Lightkeeper’s. We’d been in several times since we arrived last Friday but last evening was the first time there was a clear sky and no fog… and now we know why the Atlantic off this jut of land is called Iceberg Alley. We could see four or five as we dined, all but two moving across our view as we ate. Two are stuck! One – the largest with about 100 feet out of the water and about 200 feet long — we met personally yesterday.
And that was one surprise. Seasickness. After a lifetime of nodding familiarity with boats of all sizes, suddenly, within five minutes of leaving the shore on the tour boat Gaffer III, I was nauseous. Now, I thought seasickness meant you were queasy or vomited. Oh no. I had chills in spite of the fact it was a warm, clear day and I was sweating like a stevedore. And the other stuff, too – and too dizzy to walk. The worst of it didn’t hit for about half an hour so I did get a good look at the whales.
And what whales they were! Giant humpbacks, incredibly majestic and awfully playful. They were within yards of the boat, surfacing, blowing and diving beneath the boat and surfacing on the other side, then round again. I can’t believe we were that close to these wonderful creatures. Best, you could see them when they were beneath the water, particularly the shimmery white of their fins.
We had seen whales off the shore but, of course, at a distance.
From the boat, it was as though they had come to play.
Some wag ran around shouting “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”, the famous line from Jaws. It was pretty daunting if you weren’t keeping your eye on the captain. Since he was unconcerned — and delighted at finding this little group of co-operative whales — so was I. At least about the proximity.
That said, I kept my eyes shut some part of the time because it relieved the seasickness. After about half an hour with the whales, we steamed off to see the icebergs up close.
That’s when I really became ill and went into the cabin where the captain sat. It’s meant for passengers in bad weather, so there was lots of room to find the corner of a bench and close my eyes. Another hour and a half of trip seemed like a nightmare at that point and while Phil did what he could, I kept encouraging him to get out and see the sights. He did but he kept coming back to check on me so I felt awfully guilty about spoiling the tour. He was, as always, gracious and sweet.
We arrived at the huge iceberg and it was splendid…. crisply white with blue furrows where water had melted and re-frozen. I looked as much as I could manage because, after all, this was what we’d come for! And Phil took some great pictures.
The interpreter — a very entertaining and knowledgeable guide, the captain’s son with a degree in biology — told us this giant was aground in 360 feet of water. He said it would melt in a couple of months. Indeed, I didn’t see it, but while we were there, a huge shelf split off into the sea to the oohs and ahs of the passengers. Apparently 1,000 icebergs per season parade by St. Anthony! At this late date, from the shore we could see, at various times, four or five, spaced about a mile apart.
Phil and I had already seen whales in St. Andrew’s and while we travelled from Vancouver to Victoria on the ferry but this was a whole other experience — and not because of the seasickness! First of all, you could hear the exhaling whoosh of the spouts of water when the whales “blew” which was amazing. But more, I heard them making other noises. It sounded just like the chatter I’ve heard on television programs about dolphins. Was it them? I think so but research will tell. Dolphins are, after all, just small whales. Or whales are just big dolphins!
At Lightkeeper’s, Phil had his first experience with crab legs and it was fun to eat these fresh steamed “sea spiders” as he called them. He also order an appetizer of Baccalao, or salt cod and potato cakes. I had a bite and was instantly taken back to childhood — my grandmother made a version of these. I don’t know how it was spelled but it was pronouced back-a-LAH. Close!
As always in these small tourist destinations, you see the same people through the week… people we saw at L’Anse Aux Meadows were on the boat the next day and at the same restaurant — one of two in town!- last night.
I love St. Anthony and hope we enjoy Rocky Harbour as much.
Meanwhile, tomorrow it’s back up to the northern tip to check out more of the local colour. Only 10,000 people in this northern penninsula of Nfld but enough scenery for 10 million.
As is always the case when I’m on the east side of the country, I’m checking out real estate prices and trying to convince Phil to pack in Ontario so we can move out here and start a miniature golf course.
Today, wearing many layers — it’s still 5 C though less windy — we took a leisurely drive to L’Anse Aux Meadows.
It’s a UNESCO site and national treasure, the first confirmed landing place of the Vikings in North America, about 1,000 years ago.
On the way, we stopped at Dark Tickle — a tickle is a narrow body of water! — which is a purveyor of the wonderful berries of Nfld in many forms. We had Screech Tea and things with partridge berries as well as shopped for souvenirs.
Later in the day — much later – we had lunch at Catch of the Day where Phil tried Brewis — salt cod and hard tack! It was, he says, substantial. I had fresh halibut lightly grilled… brilliant. Food in Newfoundland is, so far, wonderful. Real cooking — rather than thawing Sisco frozen stuff sold to restaurants by the carload — real fresh ingredients and caring cooks and servers.
L’Anse Aux Meadows is very interesting, not only because of its story but because the historical interpreters are knowledgeable and friendly. I saw many tools and products relating to weaving, knitting (nailbinding, actually) and tablet weaving as well as spinning. I was very excited to find the examples of tablet weaving as well as loom weaving.
If you don’t know, it was an important waystation for Leif Ericson and a settlement of hundreds of men, women and children for several years. An old aboriginal tale says they slaughtered the foreigners but no one knows for sure.
One issue — the introduction to the site is a very good NFB film made in 1984. Much knowledge has probably been gained then and it would be useful to add an update … after 25 years, some of the mysteries discussed in the film have surely been solved!
Speaking of mysteries, we have so many questions about Newfoundland that we haven’t had a chance to have answered.
Why are garbage bins round or hexangonal shaped and made of wooden slats?
Why is the water brownish?
What is a bight. There’s St. Anthony and St. Anthony’s Bight.
What was the life expectancy of Vikings?
Who sells those helmets with the horns?
Does the fog come and go several times a day every day?
We made the list on napkin as we stopped for hot tea at Fishing Point and listened to the fog horn warn ships. We thought of the fisherman and woman we met today at Catch of the Day. They go out for three or four days at a time on their boat, catching crab. They had turkey for lunch.