The decision to visit Newfoundland before properly exploring Nova Scotia and Cape Breton was purely due to timing. Knowing we would want to spend about two weeks on the Rock, we felt that we should get there earlier in August rather than later. The days would be getting shorter and the nights cooler.
Coming back over the Confederation bridge from Prince Edward Island, Miles lead us back into New Brunswick for a short time, following the shore of the Northumberland Strait past the wine region and into Nova Scotia at Tidnish. We continued east on the North Shore road past small lush farms and fishing villages…working people’s homes rather than summer resort towns. Little houses painted in bright colours were spaced along the water’s edge making it easy for the fisherman to identify them from the water. Piles of firewood and lobster traps or small herds of dairy cattle gave us some indication of where their income came from.
We passed the town of Pugwash and then Tatamagouche! Nearby was Camp Tim Horton. Tatamagouche had a local craft brewery that Jim stopped to check out. At $27 for a six-pack he decided to leave it on the shelf. At the small town of Seafoam, we stopped to see a Lavendar farm. I was amazed at all the different varieties of Lavendar, as well as all the uses for it. This farm had recently been featured on a couple of Culinary TV shows as well as the “Live with Kelly” show so they were having trouble keeping their shelves stocked with products like tea, sea salt, chocolate, oils, etc.
At New Glasgow we decided to get on the main highway since it was getting late and we had made plans to meet up with our friends, Des and Vicki, whom we hadn’t seen since Sault Ste. Marie.. .remember way back when? They were now heading west again and would be in Antigonish to visit family of our mutual friend, Jean, from Claresholm. The four of us had been offered a space for our motor homes and a home cooked BBQ dinner that evening…certainly not something we would want to deny ourselves! We ended up having to detour off the main highway and back onto the Shore road when we were just 25 km from their home! This added more than an hour to our trip, making it one of our longest driving days since leaving home in May. This route, of course, was much more scenic. The homes here were larger and so well kept with a beautiful ocean backdrop. By the time we got to the home of Jean’s family just east of Antigonish, we were glad to be out of our van!
They toured us around the area, showing us the house they and Jean had grown up in, the homes of other family members in the area, their one hole golf course and the Pipers Pub in town. Vicki and I each managed to get our hair cut as well. Then time to say farewell with the promise to stop for a visit on our way back.
When we left on Saturday morning, we had planned to take the shore road again but the wind was blowing so hard we decided the inland road would be better. Just east of Antigonish we crossed the Canso Causeway into Cape Breton, the St. George’s Bay on our left and the Chedabucto Bay on our right. Road signs became bilingual…not English and French but English and Gaelic!
We passed the very pretty summer town of Baddeck and made a mental note to stop there on our way back. From there, we drove straight through to Sydney where we were spending the night with Jim’s cousin, Glennis and her husband, Garth. The last time Jim had seen her was 1959 so there was some catching up to do! The four of us got along superbly and we look forward to a few more days with them when we return from Newfoundland.
We had the 5:30 ferry booked for Sunday from North Sydney to Argentia, NFLD. That meant we had a bit of time to see the Sydney Harbour and some of the downtown area before lining up for the ferry. Sydney used to be a steel town but that industry died out quite some time ago. Unemployment is high and the city relies much on the tourist industry now.
We boarded the ferry and set sail on time. This would be a 16 hour trip. I prepared myself for the crossing by using the “motion sickness patch”. And thank goodness! With a storm brewing out in the Atlantic and a show of lightening, the Atlantic Vision was pitching and rolling quite noticeably. After listening to the band in the lounge and having some dinner on board, we settled into some recliners with pillows, blankets and things to keep us busy. We had opted to save $200 and not take a private cabin. We soon found out that the chairs do not recline very far and a good nights sleep would not happen in them. Off we went for a walk around the ship and found we were allowed to stretch out to sleep on the benches in the lounge after the band had finished playing. So we hauled our pillows and blankets out of the recliners and into the lounge. We both ended up having pretty decent sleeps and feeling glad we had not stayed in the recliners all night!
By 10am we were docking in Argentia and it wasn’t long before we were driving on Newfoundland roads! We went about 3km to the Visitor Information Center, pulled into the parking lot, closed our curtains and slept soundly in our bed for two hours…and we weren’t the only ones to do that! Now we were ready to explore the Rock!
Most people head straight to St. John’s when they arrive. We, however, decided to head south to Cape St. Mary’s, following a rugged coastline and climbing steep mountains. We were surprised at how mountainous the province is, even along the coasts. They were covered with stunted evergreens and shrubs…gooseberry, cranberry and other hardy ground cover. Daisies and thistles lined the highways and purple rocket encircled the shrubbery. The road to the cape was horrific beneath our tires! We bumped along over deep potholes, sometimes only able to travel at 30kph. There were times I felt I should be wearing a crash helmet!
But the drive was so worth it! When we got to the cape, we hiked a couple of kilometres out to the Ecological Reserve where thousands of seabirds nest on the cliffs. The walk took us through fields of daisies, asters, wild iris, thistles and clover.
The steep cliffs as they met the blue ocean were magnificent with the waves crashing against them. In the distance we were fortunate to see three whales playing in the water. What a great first impression of Newfoundland!
By evening, we were checked into a campground, our van facing a meadow backed by forest. Now all we needed was a moose but it was not to happen. But we did experience the friendliness of the locals…Kevin and Bernice from the other side of the province introduced themselves and offered some advise on places to see. We also met a woman from Ontario who, when she found out we were from Alberta, told us her sister lives in Granum! What a small world!
The next day, we followed the “Irish Loop” around the Avalon Peninsula. In contrast to the sandy beaches of PEI, the beaches here are rocky. At the south end of the peninsula is St. Vincent’s. In the spring, the humpback whales make their way past here all the way from the Carribean. We didn’t see any but it must be quite a sight when they are migrating north.
All along the peninsula, the little villages look similar…small houses built into the mountainsides facing the water, a church somewhere amongst them and all types of fishing paraphernalia nearby. The houses all seem to be staggered so nobody blocks another persons view. Each village has a little harbour with fishing boats moored there. We didn’t see many people. With the lobster and crab season over, many of them are likely off to Alberta to work in the oilfields. Nearly everyone we meet seems to know someone working in Alberta or used to live there for a few years!
Our first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean, as opposed to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, was at Cappahaden as we rounded the south end of the peninsula. Wow! It felt so strange to know we had actually arrived on the east coast of our country.
After speaking to a local at a pub in Fermeuse (and not understanding a word he was saying!) we headed for Ferryland where an archeological dig is in progress. The Colony of Avalon is currently being pieced together with evidence of inhabitants dating back to the 1500’s and proof of actual settlement dating back to 1621. We were able to see the dig site and a 17th century kitchen has been recreated complete with a fair maiden that bakes yummy cookies in a cast iron oven over a fire!
Our campground that night overlooked a marshy lake with a beautiful sunset and sunrise. The provincial campgrounds here are so cheap…$11 for unserviced, $18 if we had services. It’s hard to get serviced spots unless you book ahead but we don’t need them. The only drawback is that the water needs to be boiled before using it.
We were up early and on the road north towards St. John’s. We stopped to have breakfast at a little place overlooking Witless Bay. From here we could have taken whale watching and puffin colony tours on zodiacs but given my experience deep sea fishing, we didn’t even entertain the option!
Travelling north, we noticed that the roads were in much better condition and homes started looking much more modern, were larger in size, and lacked the obvious connection to the fishing industry. We drove through the city to Cape Spear, the most easterly point in North America. Canada begins or ends here, depending which way you are traveling.
We toured the original lighthouse, the first of many to be built around the shores of the Colony, built there in 1836. It was a low, two story house for the lighthouse keeper and his family of twelve children built around a stone tower….very interesting. It was operated continuously by one family until a new lighthouse was built in 1957.
Before leaving we were lucky again to see a whale. It was fairly close to shore and we usually heard him before we saw him…the hiss of his spray alerted us to his position in the ocean. I was unable to get a photo but he was fascinating to watch.
From that point, our journey would be generally a westward one. As evening approached, we headed into one of the oldest cities in Canada. St. John’s is a true harbour city, with massive freighters in the harbour either loading or unloading supplies for offshore drilling rigs.
The city has had a couple of fires over the years that have had a devastating effect on the buildings but each time they have rebuilt. Apparently, any new construction in the downtown area now has to conform to the existing architecture. We saw a condo being renovated and the new floors being added were being built to match the existing building.
We wandered along Water Street and then onto George Street. George Street is where it all happens…traffic is not allowed on the street after 6pm and the street is lined with restaurants and pubs, each one offering live music and great food. The menu looked foreign to us with things like Jig’s Dinner, scruntions, toutons, seal fin pie, cod tongue and blueberry spotted dick!
Jim’s cousin’s son, Tim, met us for a drink. He, his wife and daughter are the token McDavid family in Newfoundland, having moved here from New Brunswick when he was 19. It was fun to meet and get to know him.
The next day, we explored the Baccalieu Trail, stopping first at Dildo….really, where do these names come from? We toured the museum there and discovered that the name may have French or Spanish origin but nobody really knows for sure! Anyway, it was the location of the first cod hatcheries in the 1800’s, it was a busy whaling centre until whaling was ordered to be stopped in 1972, it was the location of a crash landing in the bay by the largest plane ever before the Spruce Goose, and the spot that a giant squid, measuring approximately 23 feet, was washed up on shore in the mid 1900’s. Who needs a name like that to give a town a place on a map?
Our journey north along the shores of Trinity Bay took us through towns named Heart’s Delight, Heart’s Desire, and Heart’s Content. Heart’s Content is where, in 1866, the first transatlantic telegraph cable arrived on the Eastern Star. It had made a formidable journey, being dragged along the uneven ocean floor until it was pulled ashore and hooked in to the cable house, connecting North America with Europe. This allowed instant communication with Europe, making the world a smaller place overnight. The cable company was a huge employer in the area, bringing many of its staff from England and thereby creating a wealthy lifestyle previously unknown to the shores of Newfoundland.
Continuing to Old Perlican at the north end of the peninsula, we were in the heart of the fishing industry. Quinlan and Quin Sea fisheries are major employers. As we walked along the windy shoreline, flags flapping, gulls soaring, we spotted discarded hair nets, empty water bottles and pop cans along with broken shells brought to shore with the tide. Men on forklifts were busy loading fish from boats to trucks and the salty smell of fish and sea was in the air.
We returned south via the easterly road of the peninsula, eventually coming to Carbonear where we pulled into Walmart for the night. Lo and behold, right next to us was Kevin and Bernice, the nice couple we had met on our first night! We visited in their motor home till 11pm then crawled into bed just as thunder and lightening rolled in and dumped rain on us.
Carbonear is the hub of the area. The railroad station, no longer used, serves as a museum explaining the importance of the fishing industry to the area. John Roarke, who was one of the original wealthy merchants from England, had a huge influence on the success of the industry in the area. It was a true balancing act. Without him, the fishermen would have had no market for the barrels and barrels of salt cod they pulled in every year, and without them, Roarke would not have had the control of the efficient fish industry with England. His original warehouse still stands and his stone residence has since been converted to a restaurant. It originally served as a store on the main level, his family living quarters on the second floor and the maids quarters on the upper floor.
Continuing south, we stopped at Harbour Grace, known for its aviation involvement. Many people have registered their flights from the airport here, most notably Amelia Earhart when she embarked on her solo flight across the Atlantic. The SS Kyle, which used to serve as a ferry from Newfoundland to Labrador, is anchored in the harbour there.
In Brigus, we had hoped to take part in their annual Blueberry Festival but unfortunately nothing would be taking place till the next day. Campgrounds and hotels were all fully booked for the event. We did stop to tour the Hawthorne Cottage, however. This is the residence of captain Robert Bartlett who was the famous skipper for Peary’s expedition to the North Pole in 1908. In all, he made 23 voyages to the North Pole in his career. Built in 1830, it was lived in continuously by his family until the 1960’s when it was donated long with much of the contents to Parks Canada as a national historic site.
Our last day in St. John’s was packed. We started out with a visit to Quidi Vidi village, the iconic fishing village in the city. There, we could see fishermen cleaning their catch of the day, as well as visit the local brewery that makes Iceberg beer. Apparently, there is a company that goes out in the ocean to gather “Bergie bits” which are then melted down right on the boat, tested for purity…no more than 8 parts per ml impurities (drinking water is 50-60) and then delivered to this and only one other brewery. It produces a crisp, clear beer and is served in most of the pubs around here.
Then off to Signal Hill. There is so much significance to this area. First of all, it served as a guard against attack from any ship approaching the St. John’s harbour with a canon aimed ready for firing and a fortress on the rock. Ships had to come in through the narrows to get into the harbour so the harbour was well protected.
Also at Signal hill stands the Cabot Tower, built in 1897 to mark the 400th anniversary of John Cabots Landing in Newfoundland in 1497. At one time, two other buildings occupied the site as barracks which were later used as a prison and then a quarantine hospital until it was destroyed by fire in 1920.
The view of the city from the hill is magnificent. St. John’s has literally burned down twice over its many years. Today it is a colourful array of houses built on the side of the mountains with a safe, busy harbour. I couldn’t get enough of the unique houses!
Having seen the spot that Terry Fox ended his Marathon of Hope near Thunder Bay, Ontario, it was good to see where he dipped his artificial leg in the Atlantic and started his journey on April 12, 1980. He has been inspiring so many for years now.