Update 2020 | As Canada’s Atlantic provinces are opening their borders to each other (a “travel bubble”) plans for a Canada-wide expansion are also underway. We’ve updated our Newfoundland and Labrador Adventure Report and highly recommend the most-eastern region as a travel destination.
By Simon Vaughan, Sergio David Spadavecchia, and Team Outpost | Outpost Expeditions
Team Outpost hit the road to discover all the adventure Newfoundland and Labrador has to offer for the non-faint-of-heart traveller. And it’s a lot!
Whether kayaking with whales or climbing icebergs, looking for polar bears or fly-fishing for salmon, cruising bays by Zodiac or ziplining above gorges, trekking grassy plains or ATVing rugged routes, diving for shipwrecks, or just hanging in lighthouses—not to mention sharing a pint with some Vikings—it could be argued Newfoundland and Labrador is an explorer’s paradise, an adventurer’s playground.
Our bucket list was meticulously planned to show us as much of the province as possible—from its sub-Arctic northern reaches to its rather balmy southern tip—while ensuring we survived to tell the tale…but only just. So, with paddles and pixels packed, we headed to Terra Nova on Canada’s eastern rocky shore in search of adventure overload!
Road Tripping, Ferry Riding, and St. John’s Delight
There are numerous ways to get to Newfoundland. It is believed that the island’s Indigenous inhabitants crossed the Strait of Belle Isle by canoe or small boat many thousands of years ago. The Vikings and other European settlers also came by boat across the Atlantic Ocean. So, while we could have hopped a plane and dined on twizzlers 20,000 feet above the Gulf of St. Lawrence, we instead chose to follow the path of our forebears and travel by water: the 14-hour Marine Atlantic ferry from Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Argentia at the southern tip of The Rock. There was a shorter option—a six-hour voyage to Port aux Basques—but we wanted to cover the province from top to bottom, literally. And besides, this was about adventure and 14 hours beats six any time in that category!
The colourful iconic architecture of Newfoundland and Labrador.We hit The Rock at 10 a.m. and drove east to the capital city of St. John’s. Dumping our gear at the Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland, we were immediately struck by the superb view of historic St. John’s Harbour.
As our epic jaunt was to be an intoxicating concoction of one part history and culture with two-parts adventure, we figured we should start on a full stomach and headed into town for a traditional Newfoundland feast. And maybe a pint or two, with some good fiddle music.
Sea Kayaking, the Avalon Peninsula, and the East Coast Trail
Cape Broyle is a community of less than 600 people that sits in the Irish Loop on the Avalon Peninsula, just south of St. John’s. It’s an area of staggering beauty with crashing waves and hidden coves, teeming with wildlife, riddled with history, and regarded as one of the sea kayaking capitals of North America. In 1976, Stan Cook decided to share his family’s slice of paradise with Newfoundlanders and visitors from around the world. The result was Stan Cook Sea Kayak Adventures. Headquartered in the 120-year-old former R.J. O’Brien General Store, now a recognized heritage building, we were kitted out before heading down to the water’s edge.
For 40 years, Stan has taken visitors on wilderness adventures around the rugged coastline that cater to everyone from absolute novices to experienced paddlers. The Cooks offer a daily shuttle between St. John’s and Cape Broyle, and we arrived as a thick fog silently rolled in from the sea.
Our kayaks were eased into the crystal clear water just as the sun began to warm the air, and we pushed off toward the billowing fog, the gentle scent of salt air teasing our nostrils. Stan Cook Junior led the way, and soon we were paddling along the coast while spying puffins, majestic bald eagles—complete with fluffy chicks—and even an inquisitive seal, who swam to join us in our exploration. Above spotting incredible wildlife Stan regaled us with tales of the area—one so rich with history, so overflowing with caves, sea arches, hidden coves and waterfalls.
“From June to mid-August, you can barely see the ocean for all the whales,” said Stan. “We have a whale-viewing success rate of 90 percent! We’ve often seen several dozen humpback, minke and other whales swim along the kayaks.”
One of Stan’s most popular tours is a full-day combination of sea kayaking followed by an afternoon hike along rarely used sections of the East Coast Trail. The Trail stretches more than 500 kilometres along the Avalon Peninsula, with half of that properly cleared and marked, and all of it offering spectacular scenery and pristine wilderness.
With the fog clearing, we made our way back to Cape Broyle for a quick snack. Clambering free of our gear, we gave Stan a hearty thanks and drove back to St. John’s in search of more foot-stomping fiddle music—believe me, there’s a reason this sound is so beloved in Canada! And yes, maybe another pint—well-earned after our kayak around the coast.
St. John’s is renowned for the warmth and friendliness of its people, and we certainly felt it everywhere. Whether asking for directions or a recommendation for a place to eat, we were overwhelmed by locals who weren’t only unafraid of making direct eye contact but who didn’t scurry away at hearing those most terrifying of city words: “Excuse me.”
Shipwrecks and Ancient Icebergs
The next day (with our heads a little worse for wear due to all that hospitality!), we were up early and headed for Conception Bay South, just a stone’s throw from St. John’s. And no sooner had we climbed from our Team Outpost vehicle than Rick Stanley came to greet us with a hearty welcome.
In 2000, Rick and his wife Debbie founded Ocean Quest Adventures, Newfoundland and Labrador’s only full-service dive and all-around adventure resort. They began their operation modestly—by guiding visitors on dives to some of the province’s estimated 8,000 shipwrecks, regarded by many divers as among the best in the world due to their Atlantic, coldwater preservation. Today, Ocean Quest includes dive facilities, an indoor training pool and an adventure lodge.
“We’re intensely interested in protecting our environment,” Rick explained, as we donned our wet weather gear and headed for the waiting Zodiac. “Without our unique natural resources we could not survive.” And what an environment to explore, here: ancient drifting icebergs, whales that visit annually.
“We can take you snorkelling to see the whales,” Rick said, with an infectious smile.
Out on Conception Bay, Rick kept us entertained by sharing his love of lore and local legend. He told us of the pirates and rum runners who once roamed these parts (the ghosts of whom we may have seen in the pub the night before), plying the waterways for centuries, and whose unclaimed treasures may still be hidden among the caves and bays, inlets and coves. One of these was Peter Easton, an early 17th-century pirate, who, though not a household name like Blackbeard, was perhaps the most powerful pirate ever.
With Newfoundland as his base, Easton controlled a fleet of 10 pirate ships, and in one raid alone plundered 30 vessels in St. John’s harbour. Rick told us that although the wrecks of ships from that time can be found all around the island, much of the gold and other treasures Easton stole from Spanish, French and even other British ships has never been found.
Dive sites also include Second World War ones around Bell Island, Kelly Island and Little Bell Island. Rick told us how Bell Island was home to one of the largest iron ore mines in northeastern North America, a valuable commodity during the war. In 1942, the German Navy sank four cargo ships in the bay as they sat loading.
These ship are among the country’s best dive sites today. One German torpedo missed its target completely, and instead of hitting a ship veered into the loading dock on Bell Island, thereby becoming the only place in Canada that suffered a direct attack by German forces. Granted, Newfoundland was not yet a part of Canadian Confederation.
We have to be honest—if our trip ended here we couldn’t have complained. But as it turned out our time with Stan and Rick was merely a hint of what was to come, as we set off to explore nooks and crannies, highlights and hidden secrets, of Canada’s most easterly province.
With the majority of our adrenaline-busting itinerary still ahead, we bid a fond farewell to St. John’s and hit the road for the almost northernmost tip of Newfoundland: St. Barbe. The next morning we were aboard the St. Barbe-Blanc Sablon ferry that crosses the Strait of Belle Isle, and once back on land, road tripping into Labrador and up to Happy Valley-Goose Bay. (At this point we could describe dining on chocolate bars because we’d said “let’s stop at the next roadside diner,” as we passed by the last roadside diner once too often. But we’re well trained, experienced and hardy Outpost explorers, and none of that would ever happen to us. Ever.)
The next morning we hopped a flight to the very north of Labrador to explore the magnificent Torngat Mountains National Park. The Torngats is a land of jagged mountain peaks, pristine fjords and active glaciers. It is home to polar bear and caribou, wolves, whales and eagles. Parts of the park have never been mapped, and we’d been granted unique access through Parks Canada and the Nunatsiavut Government. Inuit guides would show us around.
We won’t say whether we survived the Torngats, or whether we were ripped to shreds by dozens of cuddly, furry little lemmings because that would spoil the surprise…Oh, who are we kidding? Of course, we survived—do you think the story ends here? I’ll leave it at that. Except to say, we can leap forward to flying out of the Torngats, and back to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, from where the rest of our southward journey starts.
Canoe Races, Kayaking, Indigenous Art
The Great Labrador Canoe Race on the Churchill River was first run with 38 teams all vying to be the winner of the 10-kilometre Classic Race. The following year, 22 teams competed in the Classic, and another 19 in the new 67-kilometre Expedition Race. Team Outpost wanted to enter the race but knew it would be hardly fair to the other competitors; so in the interest of good relations we magnanimously choose to spectate instead.
White Bear Adventures guided us out onto the glorious Churchill River in kayaks, but we managed to veer into a sandbar all the same. Not so bad; we were treated to a packed gourmet-style lunch of French pastries and smoked char pizza, bakeapple cheesecake, and more; then we sat and watched the competitors paddle past.
Though the Great Labrador Canoe Race is an adventure highlight, White Bear takes visitors out year-round: kayaking, hiking and mountain biking during summer, and backcountry skiing and snow-sailing in winter. Once the race had passed we tried our hand at snow-sailing—okay, without the snow and the skis and on sand! (An introduction to the sport, which you can do in winter.) The strong winds and wide river are perfect for the sport, but we quickly realized it took a bit of getting used to, and sheepishly returned to our kayaks when no one was looking! [Editor’s note: White Bear Adventures is no longer operational since we were in Labrador, but here’s a starting point for info on local accommodations.]
Back on dry land and having chatted with a few race participants, we stopped at The Birches Gallery in Goose Bay [Editor’s note: The Birches Gallery has since moved from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador to Kempt Shore, Cheverie, Nova Scotia] Inuit art is renowned the world over for its beauty and its unique portrayal of nature and Indigenous life. The gallery teems with exquisite sculptures by Inuit, Innu, and Métis artists from across Labrador—in soapstone, Labradorite, anorthosite, serpentine, fossil whalebone, caribou antler, and sinew. Gallery owner Herb Brown knows all of the artists personally, which makes the experience of purchasing—or even just reviewing—the exquisite pieces even more memorable.
With minds reeling from exquisite local art and lungs bursting from bucket loads of fresh Labradorian air (you’ve got to come here to believe it!), we collapsed into our beds in the Hotel North Two wondering just how much better Labrador could get!
Labrador, Where the Vikings First Set Foot
Our southbound odyssey had barely begun but we already knew that every morning in this part of the world is fresh: the air is fresh, the temperature is fresh, the adventures are fresh! We headed to the small community of Cartwright on Sandwich Bay, having been told the area is as untouched as when the Vikings first set foot there more than a thousand years ago.
Cartwright was named for Captain George Cartwright, who became affectionately known as “Old Labrador.” We were soon settled in at the Cartwright Hotel, taking in sweeping views of Earle Island, the Barrow Brooke Mountains, and one of the best place-names anywhere: Favorite Tickle!
When I was little, my aunt used to tell me a joke about a wide-mouthed frog. The joke itself wasn’t all that funny, except that in order to tell it, my aunt had to put her fingers into her mouth and pull the corners wide to imitate the star of the joke. This made it hilarious, and if tiredness or just plain silliness win their battles, it’s the first joke I dig out of my repertoire. I remembered this story at the Cartwright Hotel, not because of exhaustion but because in order to consume their famous Woody Burger, I had to stretch my mouth to proportions that would alarm even a wide-mouthed frog. Which is not to say it wasn’t worth every bite—it was!
After a perfect night’s sleep we headed down for a boat tour of Sandwich Bay with Experience Labrador. [Editor’s note: Experience Labrador is currently on hiatus but may resume operations in the future. For info on iceberg viewing tours around Cartwright click here.]
Pete and George took us cruising along the Wonderstrands, a 54-kilometre-long sandy beach that lines the Southern Labrador coast, and out past the old fishing villages and landing sites of the Vikings. We also got an idea of just why the area is world famous with birdwatchers—or twitchers, as I have always liked to call them, just to show I am up on my ornithological lingo.
Pete explained that the official bird of Labrador is the Grey Jay and the official bird of Newfoundland is the puffin, and without too much trouble found examples of both for us to see, plus dozens of other species. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any of the area’s many caribou, but the birdlife more than made up for any possible disappointment. After a satisfying lunch we hit the road for our 250-kilometre drive to Mary’s Harbour, where we met a photographer named…Mary, and crossed over to Battle Harbour by ferry.
In 1996, Battle Harbour’s historic district was named a National Historic Site of Canada. In the late 18th century, a saltfish processing centre was built at Battle Harbour by John Slade, and so successful was the business that the community became known as the capital of Labrador. It continued as a centre for fishing for two centuries until it was finally closed in the 1990s, most of the area’s residents by that time having been relocated by the government to other communities. Fortunately though, the fishery owner appreciated the area’s historical value, and rather than letting it collapse handed everything over to the Battle Harbour Historic Trust. Six years later, they had painstakingly restored it to its former glory.
As the early morning fog still blanketed the water, Battle Harbour exhibited a ghostly beauty. It was so easy to imagine that at some point during the night we had been transported back 200 years or more.
During a tour of the site, we learned that it was in Battle Harbour in 1909 that American polar explorer Robert Peary called his press conference to announce he had become the first person to reach the North Pole. The town’s Marconi Station hummed with the news as it was circulated around the world, although Peary’s claim has since been questioned (much the way Outpost was questioning the expense claims on our wireless devices!).
Rather than taking the ferry back to Mary’s Harbour, we jumped on board with St. Lewis Sound Adventures, which offers scenic alternatives back to Mary’s Harbour. Out on the water we kept eyes wide open for icebergs and whales. The view of Battle Harbour and its surrounding communities was spectacular. Having regained our land-legs, we waved goodbye to the wonderfully-warm friends we had made and headed for Pinware River Provincial Park, where we set up a cozy campsite right beside the river.
Fly-Fishing on the Pinware River
If Pinware described its campsites as having hot and cold running water with food nearby, they really couldn’t be accused of lying. Measuring just 68 hectares and bordered by the Pinware River on one side and the Strait of Belle Isle on the other, it’s one of Labrador’s hidden gems, renowned for its trout and salmon fishing (running water, food nearby: get it?). All of which is probably why early the next day we found ourselves slipping on dead-sexy hip-waders and learning the art of fly-fishing.
Labrador Adventures, our hosts, were soon effortlessly zinging their lines across the water in fluid and mesmerizing motions, while we just gawked, knowing this would likely not end well for us.
[Editor’s note: Labrador Adventures\Tour Labrador is not operating as of October 2021; however, they do suggest that you check back for updates]
Melton, Bradley and William—three generations of fishermen—and Carmen, too, all casting lines like painters paint canvasses. The fish were obviously pros as well; they were more than happy to embrace their hooks, but steadfastly refused ours. And the fish we did catch couldn’t even be considered hors d’oeuvres. Fortunately, the Sea View Cottages & Restaurant (now called Forteau Bay Cottages) provided us with a fantastic lunch straight from the river, evidently caught by fisher-folk who knew what they were doing!
Whaling History at Red Bay, Labrador
Pinware sits 30 kilometres from Red Bay, yet another must-see destination in Labrador, and so we hit the road. Five hundred years ago whalers from the Basque region of northern Spain and southern France would head to the sheltered harbour of Red Bay to gather whale oil from the right and bowhead whales abundant here at the time. This was among the world’s first commercial whaling efforts, and as long as the whalers managed to survive the wild waters of the Atlantic—and avoid scurvy—they were guaranteed wealth.
Although there were at least 16 whaling harbours along the Quebec and Labrador coasts, archaeologists say that Red Bay is the most complete and best preserved of all. Underwater archaeologists first began their work in the 1970s, and almost immediately discovered the wreck of what they believe was the galleon San Juan. Over the following six years, they cleared what proved to be the most complete 16th-century ocean-going vessel ever discovered.
Their work uncovered many smaller boats as well, and much of what they found is now on display at the Red Bay National Historic Site. Led by Parks Canada guides, we visited the superb Visitor Interpretation Centre, and the rather sobering whalers’ cemetery, the final resting place for 140 of Canada’s earliest European visitors.
Lovely Point Amour and its Lighthouse
We had wanted to stay right in the Point Amour Lighthouse, having come to the thing with grandiose thoughts of long away foghorns and beams of light that stroke the mist over an unravelling night. Alas, overnighting at the lighthouse isn’t an option (but there are options nearby; we stayed at the former lighthouse keeper’s residence). Nonetheless, Point Amour didn’t disappoint. I can honestly declare we arrived to the scene and were rendered light-headed by a case of sensory overload: that incredible structure with all its history, those stunning topographical colours, the wonderful people who care for it.
To say we loved Point Amour would not only be a bad bilingual pun, but would also be the truth. In fact, thanks to Carmen (from Labrador Adventures), we were lighthouse keepers for a time, and remarkably there were no shipwrecks on our watch. The foghorn sounded ominously for an hour or so, which was a little disconcerting and a lot noisy, but we were assured it does that automatically when it detects mist or fog.
We kept an eye out for icebergs and wayward ships, but were really mesmerized by the wild Atlantic Ocean and the red-orange sun. What a cool way to make a living…then Carmen told us that one keeper had been there for more than 40 years and had ascended the 128 steps to the summit (now 132; four were added for safety) approximately 10,000 times. Who needs a Stairmaster!
The lighthouse was built in the 1850s, is the tallest in Atlantic Canada and the second tallest in the whole country (well, you wouldn’t expect Team Outpost to keep just any old lighthouse, would you?). When darkness blanketed the point and the tower’s blazing light intermittently swept its great arc, we retired for the evening, but slept with boots on (well, metaphorically speaking!) in case our lighthouse-keeping skills were needed.
Sea View Salmon and The Pioneer Footpath
After another great salmon lunch at the Sea View Restaurant (did you know salmon is good for cardiovascular health and for preventing cancers and deep-vein thrombosis; so I had a second helping, but just for the health of it), we were led down the Pioneer Footpath by Labrador Adventures. The trail has been in use by English, French and Jerseyman settlers for more than 200 years, and until recently was the only land link between communities.
We followed in their footsteps through the rugged landscape and learned about the hard life of the settlers on our trek from Forteau to L’Anse au Clair. The entire route covers 110 kilometres and stretches all the way back to Red Bay.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” Shakespeare wrote, as he boarded the ferry from Blanc-Sablon back to St. Barbe in the 1590s. OK, that’s just an urban myth (OK, we just made that up!), but we certainly felt that way as Labrador slipped away and we edged back across the Strait of Belle Isle.
We were glad to be back in Newfoundland with all the great adventures we had lined up, but it also meant our Labrador explorations were over—and they had been incredible. Labrador is a corner of Canada most Canadians (ourselves included) tend not to know enough about. But now we were hooked like a spawning salmon swimming upstream when dazzled by the glint of a snazzy-looking lure launched by an expert fly-fisherman (see what we learned?). We will never forget the rugged grasslands and mountains and coastline, the wildlife and the history, the incredible fresh food.
Newfoundland: in Search of Bergs and Whales
There’s just no way Team Outpost would ever make the mistake of driving the wrong way on the Viking Trail out of Deer Lake. It couldn’t happen. Turning the wrong way and not realizing it is a beginner’s error, not the practice of seasoned professionals. We have navigated dense bush, featureless plains, undulating desert, even the discount aisles of big-box superstores. So when headed for Gros Morne National Park and instead suddenly finding ourselves entering Corner Brook, Newfoundland, we knew there was sumptin’ fishy going on.
Fortunately, Sumptin’ Fishy was the name of a restaurant, and before turning around and returning north on the Viking Trail, we had some absolutely heavenly fish and chips, arguably the best of our lives. Clearly, taking the turn to Corner Brook was our intention all along. (That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.)
For the Vikings, heaven was not fish and chips, it was Valhalla: an enormous hall in Asgard that was the home of the god Odin. The word Valhalla comes from the Old Norse for “Hall of the Slain,” and the Vikings believed that if they died in battle they might be led there by valkyries. Our path to Valhalla was much more straightforward: we simply followed the signposts to Gunners Cove and turned into the Valhalla Lodge Bed and Breakfast where we spent the night. If only the Vikings had known it was that easy!
The next morning we supped on a fantastic breakfast that included homemade partridge berry jam (no partridges were hurt in the making of the nectar), before heading down to the water’s edge and boarding a Zodiac. Having grown up watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries we have always loved Zodiacs and believed them synonymous with adventure and wildlife.
Lindon of the Quirpon Lighthouse Inn (see Linkum Tours) explained that this is one of the best places in-season in all of Newfoundland for sighting icebergs, and one of the best in the world for humpback whales and Atlantic white-beaked dolphins. He had that brilliant knack of providing loads of information with great humour, and we were soon lapping up his commentary as eagerly as we were the birdlife and scenery surrounding us.
Alas, the whales of northern Newfoundland were every bit as discerning as the salmon of Labrador’s Pinware River, and we saw none. However, we did wheel around the islands that form the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, and Lindon added that one of these shares the same latitude as the northwestern coast of Ireland. So if Lindon happened to turn the wrong way (not that anyone does that!), we might just be having Irish stew for dinner!
L’Anse aux Meadows Historical Viking Site
Long before the English, French and Irish settled in Newfoundland, and even before the Basque whalers arrived in search of Mr. Right (err, right whale, that is), the island’s first inhabitants are believed to have crossed over from Labrador. The Southern Branch Maritime Archaic people are thought to have first reached Newfoundland approximately 6,000 or more years ago, and there is evidence of their campsites along almost the entire coastline. They in turn were followed, thousands of years later, by the Vikings, the first Europeans to set foot in North America.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, L’Anse aux Meadows is one of the best Viking spots in all of Atlantic Canada, and is in fact the only known Viking village on the continent (excluding Greenland). Archaeological digs began in the 1960s and soon revealed artifacts and the foundations of buildings. Three of these Norse structures have been reconstructed to their original form of a thousand years ago, and the site also includes artifacts and exhibits of the Viking lifestyle.
The Proud Beothuks
At the time of the arrival of the first Europeans in Newfoundland, the people who called the island home were the hunter-gatherer Beothuk. Their numbers were never plentiful, likely less than a thousand at the time of the first contact, and unlike most Indigenous People throughout North and South America, they actually “benefited” from European arrival — albeit accidentally, and only initially. As the seasonal whalers and fishermen headed back to Europe with their loads, they left behind their wharves and some of their metal tools, which the Beothuk put to good use.
Sadly, the Beothuk weren’t so fortunate when the permanent settlers arrived centuries later, and, as they sought to avoid contact with the new communities, they increasingly found themselves isolated. Shanawdithit, the last known Beothuk, died in St. John’s in 1829, and is remembered at the Beothuk Interpretation Centre in Boyd’s Cove. [READ “The People Who Were Murdered for Fun,” the story of what happened to the Beothuk people, in a 1959 issue of Maclean’s magazine.]
Quirpon Island, Newfoundland
The Quirpon Island Lighthouse was purchased by Ed English and his family in 1998, and turned into an inn. Not only is it possible to have the quintessential lighthouse experience at Quirpon, but Ed will take you on a hike around Quirpon island proper, or out for a spot of sea kayaking in search of whales. Ed’s grandfather was the captain of the SS Ethie, which ran aground in a horrible storm in 1919. Remarkably, all 92 passengers were saved, including a baby sent ashore in a mailbag. Not much remains of the ship today, but you can still clearly see its rusting ribs rising from the tide not far from Cow Head.
Early Medical Missionaries of St. Anthony
Shortly after our southward trek from L’Anse aux Meadows began, we stopped at St. Anthony, a place of which I can boast some familiarity (it’s so rare I get to boast of anything that I ask for your indulgence here).
Some years ago, I came across a book by Wilfred Grenfell. It was a name I was ashamedly unfamiliar with, but the book looked interesting and I bought it. Little did I imagine that just a short while later I would be standing in front of the Grenfell House Museum in St. Anthony.
Grenfell was a medical missionary who was sent to Newfoundland in 1892 to help the fishermen and residents. He established a hospital in Indian Harbour, and set up a chain of cottage hospitals along the Labrador coast. He was later knighted for his efforts, and when he died in 1940, his ashes were returned to St. Anthony, where they now overlook the harbour.
During our travels, Team Outpost has encountered all sorts of roadkill throughout the world, but never before had a long driving day been halted by a Cow Head. Granted, this was the picturesque town of Cow Head within the boundaries of Gros Morne National Park, but we couldn’t resist the bad pun.
Gros Morne National Park, Essential Adventure
Buzz Aldrin’s description of the Moon was “magnificent desolation.” It’s a bit like those backhanded compliments my grandmother paid me when I wore something she didn’t quite approve of but didn’t have the heart to say so. Except that Buzz really did intend it as a compliment. There are many places on this planet that Buzz’s description match perfectly, and they are stunningly beautiful, even if in a less conventional manner. Broom Point is one of these.
Broom Point sits in Gros Morne National Park, jutting out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Twenty years ago, the Mudge family cabin and fish store were restored by Parks Canada and opened for visitors. They are a classic example of the hard life Newfoundlanders have lived for centuries, yet the silhouette of these buildings against the dark sky and rugged landscape is indeed the earthbound epitome of magnificent desolation. Worth the visit, in every way.
Not too far away is Western Brook Pond fjord, which we explored by boat. The fjord is one of many in Gros Morne, carved by glaciers and hidden amid the Long Range Mountains, the northern end of the Appalachians. The freshwater is so pure that the local tour operator BonTours had to pass stringent environmental tests before being allowed to operate here. Amid a mighty gale, we strained eyes skyward at 600-metre-tall cliffs and waterfalls that turn to mist before reaching the ground. We couldn’t help but think this is where Peter Jackson should have filmed Lord of the Rings, if he was a Newfoundlander, and not a New Zealander!
Ziplining, ATVing and Humpback Skeletons
I always thought it would be cool to be caught in a natural disaster, until an earthquake overturned the cornflakes in my bowl of milk one morning and put paid to that idea. Still, hearing that Hurricane Leslie was barrelling toward us was kind of exciting, and when strong winds snatched off one of our hats and sent it to the depths of Western Brook Pond, we confess to a tingle of expectation.
When we awoke at the Glynmill Inn in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, the next morning and heard the wind lashing against our window, we headed for the curtains with high hopes of a magnificent airborne maelstrom. We were due to try ziplining but couldn’t imagine it would go ahead. Just to be safe, we called Marble Zip Tours and from their reaction wondered if they’d even noticed the raging storm. Evidently, Newfoundlanders are as tough today as they were centuries ago!
We headed over to their office, where Reg and Daniel kitted us out in safety harnesses and helmets, and drove us up the mountain to the first launch platform.
After a tutorial on safe operating, we were clipped to the line and suddenly found ourselves flying over a spectacular waterfall in the Humber Valley. In all we soared across the gorge on nine ziplines, and just couldn’t imagine how anything comes closer to flying without a plane…except maybe falling from one.
With windshield wipers working overtime, we continued our journey south to the village of Robinsons and what we thought would be shelter from the storm. Instead, no sooner had we arrived and complained about our streaked mascara (not really true) than Ruth and Paul Gale of Pirate’s Haven Adventures took us out on ATVs to show us firsthand the spectacular topography of the area.
For thousands of years glaciers pushed and scraped their way through Newfoundland, leaving trails of ice, rock and soil in their paths. Robinson’s Head is the only place in the province where you can see the end of this process—and it’s a wholly dramatic sight, as moraine meets ocean. And if it wasn’t enough to see something I vaguely recall from tattered high school textbooks, Paul also told us that the beaches we were looking at, with their cliffs and caves, were the very ones pirates are believed to have hidden their treasures. So the question was, did we spend a wet and windy afternoon making our geography teachers proud…or hunt for buried gold? Well, me hearties, we’ll best leave that unanswered!
Our one planned night in a cozy chalet turned to two, as Hurricane Leslie insisted we spend extra time with the aptly named Gales. Which just goes to show you that in Newfoundland, even the hurricanes are hospitable.
With the worst of the storm over, the next day we continued on our way and arrived in King’s Point, just in time for lunch at the By The Sea Resort and Café. We hiked the Alexander Murray Hiking Trail, with its 600-foot gorge, and checked out the town’s fantastic King’s Point Pottery Shop. King’s Point is nestled on idyllic Green Bay, a spot that’s clearly an inspiration for Linda Yates and David Hayashida who own the studio. Every shelf is filled with incredible handcrafted works made by the couple and other Maritime artists.
Not far from the studio is the Dr. Jon Lien Humpback Whale Pavilion. Ever wonder what a humpback looks like naked? Just over a decade ago, the carcass of a humpback whale washed up at nearby Cobb’s Arm. Rather than leave it to nature, The King’s Point Heritage Society decided to retrieve it for future display and education. Volunteers spent days malodorously removing the flesh from the bones, before placing the skeleton in crates and depositing them in the sea to let nature finish the task.
Finally, they shipped the jigsaw puzzle to dinosaur experts in Alberta, who reassembled it for display in the town’s new interpretive centre. The building and exhibit serve as a testament not just to the magnificent creature, but also to the commitment of the local people. One whale of a task indeed.
Bays by Zodiac Whitewater Rafting
Adrenaline is produced by neurons in the central nervous system that helps us cope with danger and fear and really good shoe sales. That buzz you get from a burst of adrenaline is also addictive, hence the term adrenaline-junkie. Just in case our neurons hadn’t produced enough while ziplining in Steady Brook, ATVing during Hurricane Leslie or Karaoking in the car on the drive down, we decided we couldn’t call our trip an adventure without a spot of whitewater rafting.
After a night at Riverfront Chalets, Paul and Joy Rose offered to introduce us to Newfoundland’s biggest and longest waterway: the Exploits River. We met our fellow Exploits Canyon Rafting adventurers in Aspen Brook, and after a somewhat daunting safety briefing, headed into the wild waters. This was awesome stuff, with some truly gnarly whitewater churned through an 80-foot, vertical-walled deepwater canyon to give us the biggest rapids on the island. (I would like to stress here that Team Outpost’s white knuckles were the result of the cold water, not fear.)
In the weeks since we arrived on The Rock and explored Newfoundland and Labrador, life had been just one happy adventure after another. Which is funny, because leaving Aspen Brook our next stop was the town of…Happy Adventure! First settled in 1817, this community of just 245 is centred on three inlets beside Terra Nova National Park. Chuck Matchim welcomed us to the Inn at Happy Adventure, and promised to take us out in his Zodiac bright and early the next morning.
With a cool nip in the air, Chuck had us navigating beneath soaring cliffs and exploring secluded bays. He took us into Smokey Bay, a favourite hiding place for pirates, which history says (or maybe it was legend, hard to separate at times) was pirate code for “Small Key,” owing to an outcrop of rock near the entrance with one large and one small hole, thereby resembling a keyhole. Small Key, Smokey—get it? This was a sign that the bay was a safe hideaway. Can you just picture a pirate map with treasure chests, x’s marking the spots and a keyhole inked on? (Well, I can.)
We continued on to the town of Salvage, one of Newfoundland’s oldest communities. As we motored past in Chuck’s powerful Zodiac, it wasn’t difficult to imagine what this place looked like for the first sailors and settlers—and yes, even pirates—and the enormous challenges they faced hundreds of years ago.
Some of your most unforgettable meals don’t necessarily centre on gourmet fare. It can be the company with whom you share the feast, or the surroundings. Our lunch with Chuck that day qualifies as exceptional on both counts, as we sat on the beach of a secluded bay, eating sandwiches beside crab pots. A meal we will never forget.
We’d certainly had a happy adventure in Happy Adventure, but waving goodbye to Chuck and his time-travelling Zodiac we headed next door to Terra Nova National Park. This was the province’s first national park, and our trek took us through some spectacularly beautiful bogs, wetlands and thick forest, all permeated by the constant scent of the ocean. The park borders the sea at Bonavista Bay, and has deep bays which penetrate miles inland. Early settlers used these bays as their winter refuge away from the wild storms of the open coast. They would repair their boats during the long winter months ready for spring, and support themselves by hunting.
We hiked the Blue Hill West Trail, and climbed the Ochre Hill Fire Tower with its breathtaking panoramic views. At the visitor’s centre, Parks Canada staff told us about some amazing backcountry campsites that can only be reached on foot or by canoe or kayak…yet another reason to return to this incredible part of the planet.
Hospitality at its Finest, Adventure at its Fullest
Before we left home, Team Outpost knew Newfoundland and Labrador was special. We were aware of the wildlife and scenery, the local hospitality, the unique customs and culture and traditions. Yet as we discovered, we had a far too little grasp of just how wonderful the eastern corner of Canada really is. We left with memories for a lifetime, were left stunned by the dramatic scenery—from spectacular coastline to unspoiled forest, rugged hills to pristine lakes and rivers, quiet inlets to cozy coves hidden in perfect isolation.
We had ziplined, rafted, canoed, kayaked, climbed, trekked and even treasure hunted. We’d spotted whales and icebergs, dolphins, eagles and puffins. There were moose and caribou and bears and polar bears. We were captivated by history, and learned more about the origins of Canada than we could’ve imagined. The food was awesome (so colourful, so fresh!), the local brews unforgettable, the people like long-lost friends or newly discovered family. And as if they thought all that wasn’t enough—it was!—they even invited a hurricane to spice things up, to give us extra bragging rights back home. Now that’s some eastern hospitality.
Into Canadian Confederation
We easily forget now, but it’s not so long ago that Newfoundland was not a province in Canada but the Dominion of Newfoundland, and a part of Great Britain. It even issued its own postage stamps (which can still be used in Canada, should you have one). It was only in 1948 that the people voted by a narrow margin to join Confederation, and the following year, Joseph Smallwood officially became Canada’s last “Father” of Confederation. Joey Smallwood was born in Gambo on Freshwater Bay, and every year the town of 2,000 celebrates the Smallwood Days Festival.
Songs that Sing of Mystical Places
What Canadian didn’t grow up singing “I’s The B’y”—but how many actually understand the lyrics? (My third line of the chorus went something like “all go twirling in Morecombe Harbour,” instead of the correct “Fogo, Twillingate, Moreton’s Harbour.“) Twillingate and Moreton’s Harbour both sit approximately 100 kilometres north of Gander, while Fogo Island is due east. The town of Tilting on Fogo Island is a National Historic Site of Canada, and Newfoundland and Labrador’s first provincial registered Heritage District. It’s a beautiful little spot of colourful houses and wooden wharves, old fishery buildings, and a small cemetery that tells almost mystical stories.
Terra Nova Today
As Terra Nova is Latin for “New Land,” and history is synonymous with Newfoundland and Labrador, there is still a town of Terra Nova, a Terra Nova River, and a Terra Nova National Park in the province. When British polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott headed for the South Pole in 1910, he did so aboard the Terra Nova, a ship built in Dundee, Scotland, but which had spent much of its life in the sealing industry in Newfoundland and Labrador. His expedition had purchased the ship from C. T. Bowring & Company of St. John’s—of the now-defunct Bowring retail company, for whom the silhouette of the Terra Nova served as a logo.
Text by Simon Vaughan, photos by/files from Sergio David Spadavecchia. Report updated in June 2020. READ MORE adventure and travel options in Newfoundland and Labrador here.