“Are these towns really 500 miles apart?” I asked my husband, Bob, as I opened a map of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s easternmost province. He was preparing our Class B Sprinter motorhome for a long summer drive while I worked on our itinerary. We had allotted three weeks and would need every bit of it to explore the 42,000-square-mile island of Newfoundland and track down relatives my husband had never met.
In late July at the Marine Atlantic terminal in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, we joined cars, trucks and other RVs lined up for our northbound ferry. After a smooth, six-hour sailing of 112 miles across Cabot Strait to Port aux Basques, we were greeted by rain as we set our watches a half-hour forward to Newfoundland Time and drove north.
Numerous yellow signs on the well-maintained Trans-Canada Highway (TCH) warned us to watch out for moose on the road. Hundreds of collisions annually, the signs reminded, have resulted in damage and even fatalities for both man and beast, so we kept a close watch in the fog.
We entered Gros Morne National Park, a geological World Heritage Site on the Northern Peninsula situated between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Long Range Mountains. At Lobster Cove Head, the keeper of the park’s 1897 cast-iron lighthouse provided our first taste of Newfoundland hospitality.
“Come inside for tea, dear, and I’ll teach you how to speak Newfoundlandese,” she said. It was a timely offer — we had already encountered thick local accents and unfamiliar words. “Tuckamore” was the term for wind-stunted evergreens; “bakeapples” were summer berries we’d noticed alongside hiking trails. A “scoff” was a big meal, a “scuff” was a public dance and a sunny day might turn “mauzy” if it was foggy and damp.
Mauzy days were gone for good the next afternoon as I donned shorts to hike a 1.8-mile trail leading to the park’s largest lake, Western Brook Pond. Onboard a tour boat, our guide pointed out waterfalls cascading hundreds of feet down to the lake as passengers gazed up at billion-year-old granite cliffs carved by glaciers.
We drove 186 miles north the next day on the Viking Trail, a coastal highway adorned with fields of berries, lupine and other wildflowers. Isolated roadside wood piles and garden plots were far from any towns but seemed to need only makeshift scarecrows for security.
Our destination for the weekend was the northernmost tip of Newfoundland and the L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, the only authenticated Viking settlement in North America. Costumed re-enactors in reconstructed sod huts gave us a look at what life might have been like 1,000 years earlier after the first Norsemen landed.
Nearby in St. Anthony, no bergy bits were visible in “iceberg alley” offshore, though they linger throughout the spring and summer some years. To search for whales instead, we boarded Paul and Lewis Alcock’s Northland Discovery tour boat, the Gaffer. Biologist Paul scanned the horizon with binoculars while Captain Lewis manned the helm and steered toward spouting humpbacks. The boat cruised past sea caves and islands populated by migrating arctic terns before returning to St. Anthony harbor.
After five days exploring the peninsula, we turned south, rejoined the TCH and headed east off the beaten track to the Baie Verte Peninsula. Our mission: to visit Bob’s mother’s birthplace, a once booming mine town called Tilt Cove.
“I’ve written to tell everyone you’re coming,” my 100-year-old mother-in-law had said last December. A fifth-generation Newfoundlander who had left in her youth and returned only once years ago, Renee Goodier had warmed to the idea of our RV trip. But she had died in February, leaving behind a sorrowful family and the list of people we now hoped to find.
Where to stay for the night? After much searching online, I found a nine-site campground in a fishing port a few miles from Tilt Cove. With low expectations, we drove north over rugged roads, down to La Scie harbor and up a hill to Island Cove Park. “I’ve been expecting you,” said Beverly Shea, our genial campground hostess, directing us to a cliff-side 20-amp site with a millionaire’s view. We set up camp chairs, built a fire and drank in an orange-pink sunset that painted the rocky coastline.
The next morning we inquired about “Come Home Year 2012” signs around town. “Ah yes, I’ll be full come Friday,” Beverly said. Such homecoming celebrations draw visits by Newfoundlanders who had to leave to find work elsewhere. Jobs disappeared after the 1992 governmental cod fishing moratorium, but recent discoveries of offshore oil are helping turn the economy around.
Beverly directed us into town for free Wi-Fi at the lace-curtained Outport Museum and Tea Room. After serving coffee and homemade raisin buns, owner Valerie Whalen learned of our mission and brought out a binder. “Here’s the history of Tilt Cove,” she said. We read hair-raising tales of a shipwreck and avalanche as she prepared components of a “jiggs dinner” of salt beef and vegetables for her evening menu.
We stayed on for pea soup with dumplings as others arrived and ordered lunch plates of fisherman’s brewis, a traditional dish made with cod and hard bread. Mid-meal, Valerie demonstrated an “ugly stick” musical instrument made from broomstick, boot and bottle caps. Soon an impromptu kitchen party was underway, complete with guitar and drum.
Before leaving, we toured Valerie’s small museum. “Outports” like La Scie, we learned, were fishing communities scattered along the island’s 18,000 miles of coastline that relied solely on boat transportation in days before connecting roads and electricity. Wooden sheds we had seen by the water were “fish stages” with platforms called “flakes” used for salting and drying cod.
That afternoon, accompanied part way by a nervous moose, we drove down a gravel road to Tilt Cove to meet Margaret and Don Collins and see the tiny museum they maintain to preserve the history of a town where 2,000 people lived before the mines closed. They are two of just seven remaining occupants.
“I’m not sure exactly how we’re related,” Bob said after chatting a while with this couple that had been sending Bob’s mother holiday cards for years with photos of icebergs, cod fish and their small daughters, now grown and gone.
“We’re not related,” Margaret said. Her husband nodded.
“When Renee visited Tilt Cove, we invited her up for a cup of tea,” Don said.
With a reluctant farewell to Tilt Cove and La Scie, we returned to the TCH and continued on the long cross-island drive southeast with an overnight at the Sanger Memorial RV Park in Grand Falls Windsor. We loaded up on groceries at Dominion, a grocery chain that had become my favorite, and filled our tank at a “gas bar.” Although our diesel was less expensive than gasoline in Newfoundland, all fuel prices were at least one dollar per gallon higher in Atlantic Canada than in the U.S.
Following a relaxing weekend in Terra Nova National Park, we continued to the Bonavista Peninsula. Italian explorer Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) landed here to claim the island for the British on June 24, 1497, an important first step by continental (non-Viking) Europeans on North American soil. At Bonavista’s Ryan Premises National Historic Site museum, we gained deeper appreciation for the key economic role played by commercial cod fishing and seal hunting for centuries here.
On the other side of the peninsula, in the coastal village of Elliston known for an abundance of root cellars, we happened upon a large colony of Atlantic puffins burrowing on an island across the water from a grassy cliff. We grabbed our binoculars for a closer look at the orange beaks and feet of Newfoundland’s official birds as they waddled around the sunny hillside.
In Trinity we strolled through a charming 19th century village, a film location for “The Shipping News,” and stepped into reconstructed buildings including a merchant’s home and a working blacksmith’s forge. At Trinity Cabins, the modest campground where we stayed, owners Coreine and Glen Johnson offered coffee, directions and the warmest hospitality RVers could ever hope to encounter.
For a last burst of sightseeing in St. John’s, capital of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, we headed for the Avalon Peninsula and Pippy Park, a city-owned campground on the north side. We drove up Signal Hill Road for a beautiful overview of the city from Cabot Tower and out to the easternmost point of North America, Cape Spear Lighthouse.
The capital city’s youthful atmosphere was irresistible. We parked the motorhome to walk steep streets lined with brightly painted houses, and ducked into a bustling pub popular with Memorial University students for lunch. On a tour of Quidi Vidi Brewery (pronounced kiddee viddee), we sampled five craft beers including blue-bottled Iceberg Beer made with 25,000-year-old water melted from local bergs.
At The Rooms, a cluster of museum and archive buildings, I was absorbed for hours by historic exhibits and began to understand where those thick Newfoundland brogues originated — more than 50 percent of the island’s population has Irish roots due to an 18th century migration of men seeking work in the cod fishery.
In the final days of our trip, Bob’s many phone calls and scribbled directions led us down highways and byways to meet his mother’s cousins. In Shoal Harbour, 93-year-old Edna insisted we stay for chili. In Paradise, Doris brought forth laden platters and introduced us to 10 family members she had gathered for the occasion. And in Robinsons, back on the west coast, Ellen and Calvin invited us to lunch and gave Bob a big hug before we left for Port aux Basque and our return ferry.
We now understood why RVers often return to spend an entire summer in warm-hearted Newfoundland. We felt a new kinship, not only with Bob’s relatives, but also with many other Newfoundlanders who embraced us. Scores of scenic outports still waited to lure us off the beaten track. A “Come Home” visit was in order for the future.
Reserving a ferry
Marine Atlantic operates a year-round, six-hour ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques on the southwest coast. In summer months only, it adds a second, more expensive, 14-hour ferry to Argentia, 90 minutes from St. John’s on the east side. Rates are based on vehicle length, passengers and options. Our cost was $476 roundtrip for two people and a 22-foot motorhome. We booked daylight crossings on the shortest route both ways and did not purchase reserved seats or a cabin. Larger motorhomes with towed vehicles will pay more. Reservations: 800-341-7981, www.marine-atlantic.ca
For More Information
Island Cove Park, La Scie
Northland Discovery Tours
Outport Museum and Tearoom
Trinity Cabins and Campground