At first glance, the rugged coastline of Newfoundland rising from the ocean and the ancient Precambrian rock of Labrador’s Canadian Shield form an austere-looking, forbidding landscape. Locals will tell you life’s not easy here – but they live it with a fierce pride and love matched by boundless irony and humour. The sea provided a living for many, and now, with climate change, fishing quotas and more, residents are adapting, with many “working away” – meaning, elsewhere in Canada or abroad.
However, this place gets in the blood and even for Canadians who’ve never set foot on it, the province holds a very special place in our definition of what it is to be Canadian.
Why? To me, it’s because Newfoundland and Labrador symbolizes perseverance in the face of daunting odds.
The sea pounds the coastline; rocks and bogs define the landscape. Nonetheless, waves of immigrants came here from the earliest, ancient cultures of some 9,000 years ago, to the Vikings in 1000AD, Italian John Cabot in 1497, and then in the 15th and 16th centuries, fishermen from Portugal, France, England and Spain. Despite the presence of whaling stations and migratory fisher peoples, actual official settlement didn’t commence until the French founded Placentia in 1662.
And last but by no means least, Newfoundland and Labrador is Canada’s youngest province, having joined in 1949 – late when you consider Confederation of the first four provinces was in 1867.
So what’s here that’s world class? Here’s a teaser bucket list of three amazing sights.
1-L’Anse-aux-Meadows National Historic Site
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978 because it’s the first known place in the Americas to be settled by Europeans, L’Anse-aux-Meadows is also a Canadian National Historic Site operated by Parks Canada.
Five centuries predating Christopher Columbus, Leif Eriksson and his crew of seafaring Vikings arrived here in year 1000. Although they didn’t found a permanent settlement here on Newfoundland’s finger-like Northern Peninsula, they erected dwellings, a forge, and some workshops from found materials such as peat and wood.
These structures have been recreated, so visitors can get a sense of what life may have been like here in the New World. A visitors’ centre helps us understand how the Vikings lived here, plus guided tours include a visit to the forge and storytelling. In fact, Leif Eriksson’s voyage and settlement here is recounted in the Viking Sagas, collections of stories written in the 13th century.
Getting to L’Anse-aux-Meadows keeps us in the Viking theme, because Newfoundland created a touring route called the Viking Trail. It takes from two to 10 days to explore its length and naturally, the longer you take, the more you’ll appreciate.
2-Gros Morne National Park
From first European settlement to the colliding tectonic plates, here at Gros Morne, the park delivers astoundingly windswept hiking and wildlife watching amid a primeval-looking landscape where Earth’s mantle of rock is exposed. Operated by Parks Canada, Gros Morne is a gem because earth sciences are explained by on-site naturalists as well as interpretive panels at an excellent visitors’ centre.
Do the 16-kilometre circuit hike of Gros Morne Mountain to gain panoramic views of ocean coastline, rocks and skyscape. It’s breathtaking. And a word to the wise: when my husband Eric and I went it was pouring rain. Be prepared and don’t be discouraged. Of course, we all want at least some blue-sky days when exploring, but here in this primordial landscape, swirling mists spin their own magic.
After exploring 500 million years of geological history along Gros Morne’s ancient Tablelands, take a two-hour boat ride through Western Brook Pond. The fjord’s billion-year-old, sheer cliffs rise from the lake which is fed by spectacular waterfalls from the plateau above. Frankly? This is a photographer’s dream.
To get to the boat dock, first we hike along a boardwalk wending its way through a peat bog. Here watch for deer, moose, and other wildlife such as ospreys (fish hawks).
What I’ve not yet done is take a hike ascending to the rim of Western Brook Pond, where it’s also then possible to camp overnight. For more information on this activity plus the boat excursion of the landlocked fjord, visit BonTours.
3-Woody Point and Norris Point
Also in Gros Morne are the seaside towns of Woody Point and Norris Point, overlooking Bonne Bay. I’ve included them here because to me, these villages are “quintessential” Newfoundland and worth a visit.
Come in August to take in Woody Point’s famous festival, Writers at Woody Point. Shelagh Rogers hosts the festival and she’s a Canadian treasure unto her own. Rogers is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC’s) host of a popular radio program called “Between the Covers” where she interviews authors about their books and lives. During this annual writers’ festival, authors read, musicians play, and Rogers reveals the artists’ souls during her series of public interviews. It’s an especially intimate feeling you get here, because visitors mix and mingle with authors. Such personal interactions between readers and writers are rare – yet it seems ever so natural here in Atlantic Canada.
Of course, Woody Point is more than an August festival. It’s a picturesque seaside village where you can hire kayaks to get an up-close-and-personal view of the coastline. As a visual artist who appreciates folk arts such as rug hooking, I enjoyed visiting Molly Made Fibre Art Studio. I long to return to take one of the five-day workshops offered here, where the proprietors’ goal is to keep this traditional craft alive and well.
Neighbouring Norris Point is home to the Bonne Bay Marine Station, a perfect destination to learn about Atlantic Ocean life and lore. Here find live specimens of endangered species such as wolf fish, and a rare (and beautiful) blue lobster. Discover how fjords were formed – and which flora and fauna denizens call them home.
Naturally, Newfoundland is far more than just these three destinations on the western shore. There’s colourful St. John’s, The Mummer’s Festival, Fogo Island and a host of other amazing discoveries awaiting you.
Katharine Fletcher is a book author and freelance author who lives in Quebec but has a soft spot for Atlantic Canada.