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
It is here where
I ventured recently to Cape Spear, a desolate outcropping that is
North Americas easternmost patch of rock-ribbed earth.
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
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
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):
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
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.
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.
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.
Brigus and back
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).
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.
life.Hanc primum solilluminate is the
Latin motto of St. Johns: Here the sun shines first. 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
Day 3: A
whale of a time
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.
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).
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
Lullaby of birdland
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.
information on Newfoundland, go to www.gov.nl.ca/tourism.
reporter Joe Rosen, send e-mail to [email protected].
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
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
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
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.
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.