In Newfoundland, a mysterious Far East -- just not as far away

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ST JOHNS, Newfoundland -- Conjure up images of the Far East and one thinks of bustling Bangkok; the islands of Malaysia; China and Japan, certainly. But another Far East, this one jutting out from the coastline of Atlantic Canada, awaits visitors to the largely unexplored (by American tourists, that is) province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

It is here where I ventured recently to Cape Spear, a desolate outcropping that is North Americas easternmost patch of rock-ribbed earth.

A Canadian National Historical Site, Cape Spear is home to the oldest existing lighthouse in Newfoundland, erected to help provide merchant vessels safe passage to St. Johns harbor, seven miles distant, as well as the site of a World War II Allied cannon emplacement, meant to do just the opposite in the event of a marauding warship flying Nazi insignia (no such incursion ever occurred, historians say).

I made as my headquarters St. Johns, the island provinces capital and a center of trade 20 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, for a four-day, quick-hit emersion into Newfoundlands Avalon Peninsula, for it is on this tenuously tethered outpost that half the provinces population resides -- most of Irish and English descent -- and where its culture, ecology, hospitality and history are centered.

What follows then is an approximation of a day-by-day visit to points of interest mapped out for me by officials of Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism (with a rental vehicle provided by Thrifty Rent a Car):

Day 1: Out and about in St. Johns

" Commissariat and Government House (www.mun.ca/govhouse). Appropriate places to start a tour inasmuch as these two structures embody the living history of the province. The Commissariat, now a tidy museum of Georgian architecture, was the supply center for the British military since 1816. (Once Great Britains oldest colony and a sovereign nation, Newfoundland became the 10th province of Canada in 1949.) The Government House, completed in 1831, is the official home of the lieutenant governor of Newfoundland and features splendid public flower gardens.

" Signal Hill (www.parkscanada.gc.ca). Signal Hill is a great vantage point from which to view St. Johns bustling harbor 600 feet below. At its summit is Cabot Tower, named to honor the 400th anniversary of John Cabots landing at St. Johns in 1497. It is also the place where Guglielmo Marconi reeled in the first transatlantic transmission in 1901.

" Johnson Geo Centre (www.geocentre.ca). Midway on the road up to Signal Hill, this unique museum, most of which is built underground, incorporates the excavated rock formations that are its foundation as unique, please-touch-me exhibits.

Some of the provinces oldest rocks, dating from almost 4.5 billion years ago, are on display. The center also offers a mordant exhibit detailing the misdeeds and missteps that led to the sinking of the Titanic, which went down 350 miles off the coast of Newfoundland.

" Quidi Vidi Village. Pronounced kiddee videe, this seaside hamlet is within a fish nets cast of the city yet retains the look of a community caught in a time warp. Narrow, twisting lanes, cottages and fishing folk complete the scene.

At the end of what passes for the road through town is the Quidi Vidi Brewing Co., where despite my every intention to buy a home-brewed beer, I couldnt get anyone on the premises to pay the slightest attention to me. No brew, no way.

Day 2: Brigus and back

" The BaccalieuTrail. This scenic route, extending through the top of the peninsula between Conception Bay and Trinity Bay, gets its name from a corruption of the Spanish word for codfish, so it is no wonder the shore-side drive takes in a string of quaint fishing villages. Just ponder some of their names: Hearts Delight, Dildo (dont ask), South Dildo, New Pelican, Old Pelican, Harbour Grace and Blow Me Down. Figure a mornings excursion taking about three hours, with stops, in particular in old-worldy Brigus to visit Hawthorne Cottage (the home of Capt. Bob Bartlett, who helped guide Admiral Perry to the North Pole), and Cupids, one of the first English settlements in North America (1610).

" The Rooms (www.therooms.ca). A compelling place to spend an afternoon, the Rooms comprises three cultural institutions, a natural history museum, provincial archives and an art gallery. Open only since June, the complex is constructed on the site of Fort Townsend, which commanded the harbor for the British until the imperial garrison withdrew in 1870. Under one roof, the Rooms offers half a million photographs, three floors of natural history specimens and artifacts and a permanent collection of more than 7,000 works of art.

" Street life.Hanc primum solilluminate is the Latin motto of St. Johns: Here the sun shines first.The harbor of St. Johns, the capital and cultural center of Newfoundland and Labrador. TW photo by Joe Rosen A truism for so eastern an outpost, but it is when the sun goes down that things really heat up on the streets of the city. Three main drags run parallel to the harbor -- Water, called the Lower Path and said to be the oldest street in North America; George; and Duckworth, the upper path -- and each is replete with nightclubs, pubs and upscale restaurants, so the revelry never seemed to end, at least not by my bedtime.

Day 3: A whale of a time

" OBriens Whale and Bird Tours (www.obriensboattours.com). Several firms offer boat tours of the coastal ecology from the village of Bay Bulls, a waterfront community whose Irish past is ever present in the Celtic family names adorning most of its commercial enterprises. The most notable of tour operators is OBriens, which offers cruises to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve aboard 46-passenger vessels, marine safari tours and sea kayaking.

What can you expect to see? Depending on the season, whales and lots of them, from 30-ton humpbacks and minkes to sperms, potheads and orcas as well as an astonishing variety of seabirds.

Passengers might also spot icebergs, floating mounds of 10,000-year-old glacial ice that can weigh up to 1 million tons.

" Lighthouse Picnics (www.lighthousepicnics.ca). This experience is not to be missed. While it involves a 30-minute hike on an unpaved, uneven road through rugged -- and picturesque -- terrain to the Ferryland Lighthouse, a 135-year-old beacon atop a steep cliff, the reward at the end of the trek is a gourmet lunch served in a picnic basket as you spread out on a lined blanket on the grassy highlands overlooking the North Atlantic. The menu includes exceptional sandwiches, pastries and home-brewed lemonade (See story, "Putting together Lighthouse Picnics," bottom of this page).

" Colony of Avalon (www.heritage.nf.ca/avalon). In Ferryland itself, archaelogists are conducting a dig where Sir George Calvert, later to become Lord Baltimore after he headed south, established a colony of English settlers in 1621. Seven sites have been excavated here, and among the artifacts unearthed are remnants of early fishing stations, encampments of the aboriginal Beothuk people, a stone harbor constructed by the settlers as well as original homes and workplaces. In addition to the dig, which is open to the public, the Colony of Avalon features an interpretation center, a reproduction of a 17th century kitchen and three gardens: a kitchen garden, an herb garden and a so-called gentlemens garden of geometrically arranged planting beds intersected by cobblestone walks.

Day 4: Lullaby of birdland

" Cape St. Marys Ecological Reserve (www.gov.nl.ca/parks&reserves). Its been described as the most accessible seabird colony in North America, but I think only to those who have wings. The drive to this wonder of nature, located at the tip of the Avalon Peninsula and surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic, is tedious, and doing it in rain and fog, as I did, didnt help. All told, it took me two-and-a-half hours behind the wheel to reach St. Marys.

But what you find when you finally arrive is the unique opportunity to see up close a world of seabirds: razorbills, black-legged kittiwakes, common murres (uncommon, I would guess, elsewhere), northern gannets and black guillemots, to name a few.

My visit started at the lighthouse interpretive center, where after a briefing by a resident naturalist, I set off to follow a muddy and rock-strewn trail along the cliffs edge to a vantage point 100 feet from Bird Rock, a 200-foot-high sea stack whose ledges, overhangs and plateaus support the species nesting sites.

This reserve is designed to protect the wildlife and the tundra-like habitat; the comfort of visitors, once they are on the trail to Bird Rock, is hardly a consideration. This is not a walk in the park.

For more information on Newfoundland, go to www.gov.nl.ca/tourism.

To contact reporter Joe Rosen, send e-mail to [email protected].

Putting together Lighthouse Picnics

Jill Curran, 32, shines some light on how she and her partner, Sonia OKeefe, 31, came to found and operate Lighthouse Picnics:

Sonia and I started our business in 2003. Before that we had lived outside the province of Newfoundland for awhile and were totally ready to move home. Sonia and her husband were living in Iowa for several years while he was attending university there, and she also lived in Ireland, where she studied at Ballymaloe Cooking School in Shanagarry, Cork.

I, too, was living away for awhile. As my grandmother would say, I must have had itchy feet, because I lived in New Zealand, and previous to that I lived in Scotland and Ireland for a little while and several places in Canada, including Calgary, Moncton and Halifax, Nova Scotia. I have a history degree from Memorial University (concentrating on Newfoundland and Irish history), and I also have a public relations degree from Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax.

Once I graduated with my [public relations] degree, I largely worked in technical writing for different engineering/oil-related companies. Totally different than my life here on Ferryland Head.

The whole idea for our lighthouse picnics came quite by chance. Four of us, including Sonia, spent Christmas in Scotland while I was working there, and a combination of our being homesick, eating lots of Sonias good food and talking about our dreams led us to the idea.

My grandmother was born at the Ferryland lighthouse, and I have always thought it was just a magical place. I didnt know what it would be, but I always wanted to do something at the lighthouse. It had been empty for 21 years, and I thought that was a complete shame.

With Sonias expertise, the operation had to be food-related, and I was passionate about the history of the area, so the two ideas came together quite by chance.

As you may have gathered, I could talk forever about the lighthouse.

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