I appear to have taken a year off blogging my travels; I’m not sure why. There was the wonderful five-week trip to South Africa & Namibia in October / November (with a stopover in Dubai), a superb trio of safari’s in Kenya in February, lovely island hopping to seven of the Greek Cyclades in May, and weekends in Hannover / Bremen, Luxembourg and Liege, one pre-Brexit and two more embarassing post-Brexit visits. This is a 5-week 4-5000 mile road-trip, so a travelogue is compulsory to avoid excommunication from the Wanderlust Association, and this is the first of three parts, two in the four Atlantic provinces of Canada and one in four New England states at Fall. Here goes……
The first astonishing fact is that it is only 4h30m flying time from London to St. Johns. It’s probably the best entry point into the North American continent – it took one hour from landing to downtown, including immigration, baggage claim, customs, car hire collection, and driving to my destination! All very civilised. The second astonishing fact is that the province has only been part of Canada since 1949, until then a colony, then an autonomous Dominion of the British Commonwealth. The province consists of the island of Newfoundland and Labrador, the earternmost part of the North American continent, in total 50% bigger than the British Isles but with less than 1% of the population – 500,000 people (90% in Newfoundland and just 10% in the remote and sparcely populated Labrador).
I started with a couple of days in the capital, St. Johns, a busy working harbour entered through a narrow channel. There’s no gentrified waterside, but more bars and restaurants per square foot or per person than just about anywhere else, and colourful terraces of wooden houses on steep hills leading down to the port. Amongst its attractions is a unique museum / gallery /archives called The Rooms, with great harbour views, and a geological museum cut into one of the oldest hills on the planet, with the rock itself as its walls. It was a nice couple of days aclimatising before I set off on my first long drive NW to the opposite coast, a 7-hour 450-mile journey which I broke overnight in Grand Falls, which weren’t. More conifers than you normally see in a lifetime, littered with many lakes and rivers (many of which were called ‘ponds’ and ‘brooks’ in a somewhat understated way). An attractive landscape, until I got close to my destination of Rocky Harbour, when it suddenly became spectacular.
Gros Morne National Park is an extraordinary combination of geological phenomena, diversity of vegetation and an awful lot of water. On the first afternoon and the following morning, the overcast skies didn’t do it justice, but when the sun shone it was a real treat. It’s highlight was The Tablelands, the mantle of the earth thrust to the surface by continental drift. Amazing. Then there was the lovely fishing port of Trout River, the many waterfalls, the lighthouse at Lobster Cove and extraordinary rock formations at Green Point. I had to drag myself out.
The journey to my next destination was a return to the landscape of the St Johns – Deer Lake road, until it got close to my destination, the Northern tip, when things again looked up. L’Anse aux Meadows is where the Vikings first landed in North America, 500 years before the other Europeans credited with ‘discovering’ it. Though there is little visible evidence, as the digs have been covered with sod, there are lots of artifacts and faithful recreations of buildings (based on Icelandic ones buried in volcanic ash) and a palpable sense of awe at their achievement in crossing the North Atlantic in small boats. They first encountered The Labrador coast, naming it Markland, and then Newfoundland, which they appeared to call Vinland, though this was probably after the vines which they saw on their sorties to what is now New Brunswick. Butternut stones from there were found at L’Anse, which seems to confirm this theory. L’Anse also had one of Newfoundland’s finest restaurants which I dined at on my first night. I tried to book to return on the second evening, but was told they were closing for the season that evening, which left me with a combination of feelings – disappointment that I couldn’t experience it again coupled with delight that I’d experienced it at all.
In nearby St Anthony, I immersed myself in the life of Wilfred Grenfell, a British doctor-missionary who brought medicine to the poverty-striken Labrador people and went on to provide hospitals, nursing stations (one of which, now a B&B, I stayed in on my next stop), childrens homes and dietary help, eventually virtually running healthcare for Labrador and the North-west of Newfoundland based on donations, whose facilities were only recently handed over to the state. I visited his home and museum and in the now enormous hospital, some stunning ceramic murals.
I’d been becoming increasingly nervous about my visit to Labrador, with tales of the treacherous straits to cross and cancelled feries because of 90km winds, risking being stranded and causing havoc to the subsequent itinerary. The crossing over was a bit choppy, but the return was like glass, and it was well worth it. There’s only 50 miles of paved road, so I was relieved my original plan of driving the 100 miles to stay at Battle Harbour was scuppered by their season closure. It was worth the trip for the climb into the light of the 18th century lighthouse at Point Amour and even more so for the visit to the 16th century Basque whaling station at Red Bay. You don’t associate North America with fascinating history, but their story was as captivating as the Vikings, making an annual trip across the Atlantic, catching whales and turning them into oil to take back to light Europe’s lamps and keep the gentry clean! Labrador was a bit like stepping back in time – the B&B used one of those sliding credit card machines that takes an impression of your card and the Ferry Office printed tickets on paper with those punch-hole margins!
I broke the journey east in Rocky Harbour again and was greeted by my B&B hosts like a long lost friend, all very welcoming, as have all six B&B’s on this leg. Almost as soon as I got to my final stop, Trinity, in the north-east, I regretted I was only staying one night. It’s a delightful fishing village, seeped in well preserved history (including a Victorian post-box still in use!) and I had a room at a lovely inn which had another of Newfoundland’s best restaurants where I was invited to join a couple (both Vets) from Ontario for dinner. The Canadian’s really are welcoming and genuinely friendly, but the Newfie accent can be very strong, particularly in the west and north. I had one ‘conversation’ with a filling station attendant where neither of us understood a word the other was saying, and I was baffled at breakfast one morning by a safety trainer; when he left I told a Toronto couple that I didn’t understand a word he said and they responded ‘us too’!
A lovely start. Two thousand miles behind me and it’s on to Halifax, Nova Scotia (by air), a new car and my second adventure. I’ve already decided it will start with a driving-free Friday tomorrow…….