Come from Away—the Tony-winning hit theatrical production that’s now playing to international applause—is a musical reminder that the famously gregarious folks here tend to have big hearts . . . and big personalities. Luckily, for vacationers, the province itself also has big tourist attractions, some made by man and others molded by nature.
Reaching them will, admittedly, take a bit of doing because the island of Newfoundland (affectionately nicknamed The Rock) sits alone in the North Atlantic, while ruggedly remote Labrador (a.k.a. The Big Land) borders northern Québec. The payoff is huge, however, for anyone who makes the conscious effort to come from away—four unforgettable UNESCO World Heritage sites attest to that.
MARKED BY MANKIND
History lovers will appreciate the fact that Canada’s youngest province is actually very old. The UNESCO-designated Red Bay Basque Whaling Station, for instance, is proof that Labrador was already an international industrial centre well before our “motherland” made its first attempts to settle further south. On-site, visitors can ogle archaeological finds that recall the mid-1500s and catch a film recounting the heady days when whalers from France and Spain busily manufactured much-coveted oil from blubber here (www.parkscanada.gc.ca/redbay).
That seems like only yesterday compared to Newfoundland’s millennium-old sister site, L’Anse aux Meadows. Leif Eriksson and his Viking crew arrived on the spot in 1000 AD, then proceeded to build shelters out of the earth and craft iron from the bog-ore it yielded. Their settlement was so shrouded in time that its very existence was dismissed as a myth until 1960, when Helge Ingstad and his archaeologist wife, Anne, uncovered what was left of it. Today it features atmospheric sod huts, faux Vikings, and an artefact-filled visitor’s centre (www.parkscanada.gc.ca/meadows).
ETCHED BY THE ELEMENTS
While exploring the province’s coastal waters in summer, you might observe whales like the ones that lured the Basque fisherman all those centuries ago, or see supersized icebergs that predate the Vikings. The land itself, moreover, is positively primeval. Just witness another World Heritage site, popular Gros Morne National Park, where you can float on a freshwater fjord sculpted by retreating glaciers during the last ice age and admire geological anomalies formed hundreds of millions of years ago when tectonic upheavals thrust the earth’s crust upward (www.parkscanada.gc.ca/grosmorne).
Tellingly, the extraordinary animal fossils discovered at the province’s most recently inscribed UNESCO site, the 5.7-sq.-km (2.2-sq.-mi.) Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, date back further still. With a discerning eye and a knowledgeable guide, you can spot 20 different species embedded right on the surface of the wave-washed rocks. Representing the oldest complex multi-cellular life forms ever found, they are more than half a billion years old (www.gov.nl.ca/ecc/natural-areas/wer/r-mpe).
Such ancient attractions—together with others that are officially protected, privately operated or provided by Mother Nature—are tangible reminders of Newfoundland & Labrador’s timeless appeal.
Improvements to top Gros Morne trails—including Western Brook Pond, Green Gardens, Lookout and Gros Morne Mountain—create safer, more enjoyable and sustainable trails. Steep grades are lowered, drainage is improved allowing for drier conditions, boardwalks and stairs are eliminated in most areas and new sections are opening to offer new views for hikers to enjoy, making the experience even more memorable (www.parkscanada.gc.ca/grosmorne).
A pair of new passenger ferries now plies the Strait of Belle Isle, improving marine connections between Newfoundland and northern Labrador. The MV Qajaq W services the Strait of Belle Isle with a capacity of 300 passengers, 120 passenger vehicles and eight tractor trailers. The MV Kamutik W services communities on the north coast of Labrador and Black Tickle (lmsi.woodwardgroup.ca).
Combining stories, music and food, the Bites of Basque History program lets visitors experience life in the past lane at Red Bay National Historic Site (www.parkscanada.gc.ca/redbay).
Two recently-launched craft brewers—Ninepenny and Bannerman—give thirsty travellers new reasons to say “cheers” (www.ninepennybrewing.ca; www.bannermanbrewing.com).
Another reason to cheer? Newfoundland’s newest craft beer event, the Big Land Craft Beer Festival, debuts in June in Labrador City and Corner Brook.
St. John’s—which has earned a spot on National Geographic’s list of “Top 10 Oceanfront Cities”—is a compelling mix of old and new. Designated heritage venues and classic Crayola-coloured houses blend with contemporary office buildings in this upbeat seaport. Boutiques, galleries and restaurants, many of which give tradition a modern twist, are plentiful here. So are bars: jumping George Street reputedly has more per square metre than any street in North America! The province’s largest urban centre also boasts its broadest selection of accommodations, including business class and boutique hotels, historic inns and quaint B&Bs (www.stjohns.ca).
Corner Brook, the province’s second city, makes a convenient base for sports and nature-loving day trippers. Sitting in the shadow of the Blow Me Down Mountains, it puts visitors within easy reach of both Marble Mountain and Humber Valley. An average annual 5-m (16-ft.) snowfall draws an international contingent of downhill and cross-country skiers to the former each winter, while the latter is a favourite locale for anglers and golfers. Sailing or kayaking on the boater-friendly Bay of Islands is a memorable summertime alternative (www.cornerbrook.com).
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
This province boasts a 29,000-km (18,020-mi.) coast and land that encompasses everything from daunting mountains and dense boreal forests to starkly beautiful barrens. So, naturally, it has much in store. For starters, it is home to four national parks, including Akami-Uapishku-KakKasuak-Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve—Atlantic Canada’s newest and largest—which is working towards developing natural and cultural tourism opportunities for visitors. In this early phase, potential visitors should be aware that programs and services are limited, with minimal infrastructure and services. The remaining three—Gros Morne in western Newfoundland, Terra Nova in eastern Newfoundland and the Torngat Mountains on Labrador’s northernmost tip—are all stand-outs in their own right. Collectively, they offer activities ranging from snowshoeing and mountain climbing to hiking, biking and botanical treks, along with kids’ programs and campfire events for all ages. These parks, however, don’t hold a monopoly on outdoor fun.
Take the Humber River area. Known primarily as a skiing and snowboarding destination, it promises warm-weather pursuits like hiking, golfing and caving, too. On-the-water options in the province include world-class salmon fishing, kayaking and whitewater rafting. Increasingly, scuba divers and snorkellers are donning dry suits for a peek at what lies beneath as well. If you would rather see the sights from a boat deck, whale and birdwatching trips are widely available, but that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. From April to July, berg chasing is so popular that the tourism board maintains a website to track the movement of these mountains of ice (www.icebergfinder.com).
HERITAGE AND CULTURE
The past is proudly displayed at dozens of historical attractions and more than 100 museums. Some are modest operations; others, such as The Rooms—St. John’s provincial museum, gallery and archives complex—are state-of-the-art. Yet the true beauty of Newfoundland & Labrador’s strong culture is evident everywhere. History and folklore, for instance, are passed on orally with the number of tales being matched only by the number of enthusiastic tellers. Music is handed down as well, so old tunes from Europe sound as fresh as they did when they were first carried across the Atlantic. Traditional influences are equally apparent in the visual arts because the motifs that knitters, quilters and other craftspeople used for generations have been adapted by today’s cutting-edge artisans.
MUST SEE, MUST DO
Start your day by watching the sunrise at Cape Spear Lighthouse. Dawn breaks at this easternmost point before anywhere else on the continent (www.parkscanada.gc.ca/capespear).
Get a bird’s eye view of gannets at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve or pretty Atlantic puffins at Witless Bay Ecological Reserve (www.gov.nl.ca/ecc/natural-areas/wer/r-wbe).
Twillingate is the place for vacationers wanting to go with the floe. This old-school outport on Notre Dame Bay calls itself “The Iceberg Capital of the World” (www.visittwillingate.com).
A series of architecturally advanced studios turned tiny Fogo Island into a big art-and-design destination. Now a stunning inn provides five-star lodgings (www.townoffogoisland.ca).
Norstead, a recreated Viking village near L’Anse aux Meadows, features costumed interpreters, authentic-looking structures, and a full-scale replica of a period ship (www.norstead.com).
SCENIC DRIVES Moose alert! Newfoundland’s 120,000 moose can be a major hazard for motorists. So be especially careful when driving highways at dusk and dawn.
The Viking Trail, 526 km (327 mi.) on Newfoundland’s west coast, paves the way to a pair of World Heritage sites—L’Anse aux Meadows and Gros Morne National Park—providing a crash course in history en route.
The 349-km (217-mi.) Discovery Trail winds along Newfoundland’s east coast. The ample cod stocks John Cabot observed in 1497 have been depleted, yet fishing villages, fertile farmlands and tall timber stands remain.
The Kittiwake Coast—Road to the Isles Route, 187 km (116 mi.) in the province’s Central Region, stretches from Notre Dame Provincial Park to Notre Dame Bay where icebergs, whales and coastal hiking trails await.
Kids will love the Johnson GEO Centre on Signal Hill in St. John’s. Viewing the innovative exhibits, participating in the interpretive programs, then enjoying the Amazing Earth Theatre show is like taking a cool geology class without having to worry about homework (www.geocentre.ca).
THE PROVINCE IS ISOLATED ENOUGH TO WARRANT ITS OWN TIME ZONE (NST, 1.5 HOURS AHEAD OF EST).
GROS MORNE NATIONAL PARK
There is a reason why this UNESCO-designated national park outside Corner Brook is one of Newfoundland & Labrador’s signature sites. The place rocks . . . literally. Brush up on its natural history at the Discovery Centre in Woody Point; then, either independently or on a guided excursion, explore the Tablelands—a massive flat-topped formation created when the North American and African continental plates collided. Cap your visit by hiking the trail to Western Brook Pond and boarding a tour boat for an up-close look at spectacular fjord-like scenery dating from the Pleistocene period. A range of engaging interpretive programs is also available (www.parkscanada.gc.ca/grosmorne).
National Parks and Historic Sites: