The Avalon Peninsula is home to over half of the island’s population of 500,000. St. John’s, the capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador, is near the tip of the northeast corner of the peninsula. It is the oldest English-founded city in North America and has the oldest street in North America. It also has some of the steepest streets I have ever seen.
Just a few minutes after arriving downtown, about to head up to Signal Hill, the oil pressure light in the Touareg went absolutely berserk. This isn’t the normal oil light with a gentle ding. It is the other light with a piercing alarm and warning to stop the engine immediately. The street was so steep that I temporarily lost oil pressure. Apparently I was a few quarts low on oil! After pouring in four quarts, I was good to go again. Note: keep a better eye on oil levels.
The steep climb up to Signal Hill is worth it, though. It has panoramic views of the city, the harbor, Quidi Vidi Lake, the Atlantic Ocean, and nearby Cape Spear, arguably the easternmost point in North America. It is also the spot where Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901. Yes, there is a ton of history in this part of Newfoundland.
I stayed at a campground about a half an hour outside of St. John’s. It let me head into the city quickly, but also let me easily check out other areas like Brigus, The Irish Loop, Trepassey, Saint Vincent’s, Petty Harbour, and Witless Bay.
For years, I have been on the lookout for whales. From the Inside Passage of Alaska to Cape Breton Island of Nova Scotia, a close-up view has always eluded me. Sure, I have seen them from afar, but never up close and personal. Bay Bulls and Witless Bay seem to have all the popular whale watching tours in Eastern Newfoundland. Most are on giant tour boats capable of holding several hundred passengers. I chose a slightly smaller one – an eight-passenger Zodiac from Witless Bay Eco Tours.
After jumping into our bright red survival suits, we headed to a spot just outside of the bay where whales had been spotted earlier in the morning. Sure enough, within a few minutes, the first humpback whale appeared on the horizon. So the captain sped towards the spot where we saw the spray. We found not just one, but a pod of humpbacks. One of the big tour boats had also spotted the pod, and was right on our tail. The whales were staying near the surface, coming up for air every few minutes. Every one in our boat was pretty excited to be a few dozen feet away from the whales. And I swear the big tour boat was about to tip over as everyone walked over to the starboard side. And then, out of nowhere, some of the whales made their way to our boat. At the time, I was so excited that I didn’t quite comprehend that some 40-ton, 50-foot mammals were directly underneath our postage stamp-sized home on the water. It was absolutely unbelievable! Soon the whales left, and we did the same. For a pure adrenalin rush, it was the most exciting two hours of my entire three weeks in Newfoundland.
It takes quite a bit of work to get all the way over to the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland, Canada, but it is so worth it. To get on the island, I took the short five-hour ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques. But since I made the trek over to the eastern side, instead of driving back to the ferry at Port aux Basques, I decided to take the ferry from Argentia back to North Sydney. If you don’t like boats, then this probably isn’t the ferry ride for you. It took 17½ hours, plus a couple of hours to board and an hour to disembark. In all honesty, it wasn’t that bad. There is a restaurant, a cafe, a bar, a movie room, a game room, a gift shop, and plenty of places to sit and watch TV or hop on (unreliable) Wi-Fi. I didn’t get a berth, so I stayed up for as long as possible and then napped for a few hours in a reclining seat. I even had a steak dinner, some wine, and a little dessert at a table with white linens. See, it wasn’t so rough.Read More
What country outside of Canada is the nearest neighbor to Newfoundland? Is it Greenland? Nope. The United States? Not even close. It is France! Saint Pierre and Miquelon, an archipelago of eight islands, is a self-governing territorial overseas collectivity of France. It is only 12 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. There is a daily ferry that runs from Fortune, Newfoundland to the capital city of Saint-Pierre. Unfortunately, it is a passenger-only ferry, so I couldn’t take the Airstream or the Touareg. Even so, it was an adventure!
My day started so early that I had to actually set my alarm. I know! I drove to the ticket office, filled out some Customs forms, showed them my U.S. Passport, parked in an off-site parking lot, took a shuttle to the ferry terminal, waited outside with other somewhat confused tourists, and then finally boarded the catamaran ferry. I don’t know if it was the Newfoundland way, the French way, or a little of both, but the entire process was confusing. No matter, it was still pretty cool!
Fortune is about 30 miles from Saint-Pierre. After almost an hour on the fast ferry, we arrived at the downtown port. Again, it was a total free-for-all. There was a bus tour leaving immediately, but it would have gone right through lunch time. That wasn’t going to happen for me. I walked around town a bit, and finally found a restaurant open for lunch. Apparently it is French custom to close businesses from 11AM-1PM. Other than the random wandering tourist like me, it was amazing how the streets were empty. With a full stomach, I ventured out again, wandered the slowly filling streets, and figured out the same tour was available later in the afternoon. Well, it was available if enough people signed up for it. Apparently five was the magic number. Counting the driver and tour guide, the seven of us went for a ride on a giant bus.
I am so glad I did the tour. Spread out and built on the side of a small mountain, the town wasn’t really designed for walking. In just a couple of hours, the bus took us to different parts of town and all over the island. The tour guide spoke first in French, and then quickly explained in English what she had just said. I loved it! So what did I learn? Here is what I can remember:
65% of the 6,000 residents work for the French government. The other 35% are seasonal workers usually unemployed in the winter. While unemployed, they receive 75% of their normal salary. There are over 5,000 cars on the island; they usually get shipped in directly from France. Almost no stop signs are found. Instead, the driver on the right has the right-of-way. Because of the rocky ground, very little produce is grown on the island. Since almost everything is shipped to the island, food prices are higher than average. In the local grocery store, a gallon of milk from Canada costs more than a gallon of milk from France. The new $100 million airport has two commercial airplanes. It is more expensive to fly from Saint-Pierre to Montréal than it is to fly from Montréal to Paris. There are four jail cells for the six current inmates. All police officers (or gendarmes) arrive directly from France; otherwise, it would be a conflict of interest since everyone on the island knows one another. There are over 10,000 buried in the one and only cemetery, often three to four levels deep. Once an entire family line dies out, the gravesite will be given to another family. If a person dies in the winter, the body is kept in the dépositoire (a morgue-like building) until the ground thaws enough for burial. To be honest, it was so touching, I almost didn’t take a photo.
The entire experience was so educational. But with the ferry leaving again in the afternoon, I had to make my way back to the terminal. Oh, first, I had to get rid of a few euros, so I bought a bag full of croissants – some plain and some filled with a chocolate cream. Yes, the island operates entirely on the euro system. A few places may take Canadian dollars, but I had to get another tourist to trade his euros for my dollars. I only spent the day in Saint-Pierre, but now I can officially say I have been to France!Read More
Every once in a while, I turn around and decide to head right back to where I just left. I get a feeling when I think I have missed something worth seeing. And every once in a while it turns into something magical. It happened in Talkeetna, Alaska last summer and it happened this month in Bonavista, Newfoundland.
From my research, from the staff at the visitor center, from fellow travelers, it was clear the Bonavista Peninsula was a place to visit. The problem: it was a couple of hours from the TCH (Trans-Canada Highway), the one nearby provincial park was booked, and another private campground had less-than-stellar reviews. So I rolled through with the Airstream, trying to navigate the tight spaces of places like Trinity, Elliston, “The Dungeon,” Spillar’s Cove, and Bonavista Head. It just wasn’t working. I took a few photos, rushed through the area, and started to head back to the TCH – right past the campground that others had disliked.
A few miles outside of town, I got that feeling, made a u-turn, and decided to try the campground for the night. I stayed for five days. It wasn’t anything fancy at all, but it was clean, quiet, perfectly priced, and convenient to everything on the peninsula. Best of all, the owner went out of his way to make sure I knew of all the places to visit. The next time you find yourself on the Bonavista Peninsula of Newfoundland with an RV, stay at Paradise Farm.
So what is the Bonavista Peninsula, anyway? Why is it so cool? And why is it named Bonavista? Remember that Newfoundland is an island about the size of Cuba or Iceland. Its rocky and rugged 6,000 miles of coastline is full of inlets, bays, and peninsulas. On the northeastern side of the island is one particular peninsula that extends farther out into the Atlantic. Imagine sheer cliffs down to the ocean below. Imagine crazy rock formations carved out by the sea. Imagine locals with a crazy accent. Imagine brightly colored, old, historic buildings. Imagine little islands full of birds. Imagine whales swimming among those islands. That is the Bonavista Peninsula. In 1497, famed Italian explorer John Cabot first landed in North America on the tip of this exact peninsula, supposedly shouting, ”O Buon Vista!” (“Oh, Happy Sight!”). The town, the cape, and the entire peninsula became known by the word “Bonavista.” It really is a happy sight.
The Discovery Trail runs from the TCH to Cape Bonavista, the tip of the peninsula with a lighthouse. There are a few different routes, but without stopping, it’s about a two-hour drive. In reality, the drive is much longer because of all the interesting towns and villages to visit along the way. My campground was only about 20 minutes from Cape Bonavista, and only about ten minutes from the towns of Elliston and Bonavista. So I spent a lot of time exploring those areas!
The main road into Bonavista has panoramic views of the ocean with a skyline full of historic wooden buildings. I was surprised at the size of the town; it is bigger than any of the other historic fishing villages in the area. I spent most of my afternoons in a small cafe with good food, a great staff, and so-so Wi-Fi. It was there that I got to hear the famous Bonavista accent firsthand. Some local gentlemen came into replace a refrigeration unit. (It was insanely hot and muggy.) In the few minutes they spent talking to one anther, I recognized maybe five words – maybe. Some other Americans in the cafe were in disbelief, too. It is unlike any accent I have ever heard. In my attempt to find an example, I stumbled upon a somewhat controversial ad for the Nissan X-Trail Bonavista Edition. View the video on YouTube to get just a taste of the accent.
Just beyond town is Cape Bonavista. It is popular with tourists because the paved road ends at a parking lot that overlooks the ocean below. As such, it is always full of people hoping to catch a glimpse of a whale or two. It doesn’t hurt that an awesome hole-in-the-wall restaurant is right on the way. Dungeon Provincial Park is just a few miles before the lighthouse. Not nearly as many people seemed to find this gem because of its gravel road entrance, but I managed to make my way down the bumpy road with the Airstream. The views were incredible! Even more hidden is Spillar’s Cove. So hidden, in fact, I went there three times before finding the entrance. It was so incredibly rugged, I felt like I had hiked three days to reach the cove. I saw only one other person out there, and cautiously explored the cliffs while puffins and whales played in the water below.
Nothing compared to the puffins and whales in Elliston, though. Besides being the self-proclaimed “root cellar capital of the world,” Elliston is famous for having one of the closest land views of puffins in North America. And, by “close,” I mean puffins-at-your-feet type of close. It was pretty amazing. Hundreds of puffins were jostling for position on land, in air, and on water. They would feed on capelin, a small fish found only in cold saltwater. But they weren’t the only ones looking for food. As the puffins flew past my head, I was watching humpback and minke whales in the distance. They, too, were feeding on the capelin. At the time, I thought it was pretty incredible to see whales a few hundred yards away. Little did I know that, in just a few days, the whales would be the ones at my feet!Read More
So, Newfoundland. What an incredibly unique place! Officially part of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Newfoundland itself is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean. Most people with RVs take a ferry from Nova Scotia to reach the island. You could also take a ferry from the mainland part of Labrador. Or you could fly there. There are no roads or bridges to Newfoundland; there is simply too much open water surrounding the island.
I took the ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. This is probably the most common crossing because it only takes about six hours and runs year round. Port aux Basques is only a few hours away from Gros Morne National Park, easily the most scenic area of the entire western half of the island. Back in the fall of 2010, I briefly visited Gros Morne, but vowed to return for a longer stay with better weather.
This time, the weather was absolutely perfect! I stayed right in the middle of the national park, at a KOA campground with electricity and Wi-Fi. I tend to stay away from the whole KOA scene, but having free Wi-Fi in a foreign country is a major benefit. The campground was just off the Viking Trail and minutes away from Norris Point and Rocky Harbour, two picturesque villages right on the ocean. I would go down to the harbor, find more free Wi-Fi from a local hotel, sit with my laptop, and work with views of fishing boats, rocky cliffs, and miles of ocean on the horizon. I also made sure to visit one of the places I missed on my previous visit.
Western Brook Pond is just up the Viking Trail from Rocky Harbour. Carved out by glaciers, it is a freshwater lake with 2,000-foot rock walls on either side. Some of the rocky cliffs are visible from the main road, but the lake is only accessible by a two-mile hiking trail. And to get a true sense of the beauty, you really have to go on the two-hour boat tour at the end of the hiking trail. And you even learn things! On the tour, I learned the water in Western Brook Pond has the highest purity rating available. So pure, water pumps failed when they couldn’t find the mineral levels required to know water was even flowing through the system. And I got my first taste of traditional Newfoundland music. About twenty minutes before returning to port, they played recordings from a local band. It actually was pretty cool, and an absolute perfect start to my extended stay in Newfoundland!Read More
On my first visit to Nova Scotia back in 2010, I took the long way through New Brunswick. This time, I took a shortcut. A ferry across the Bay of Fundy to the town of Digby cut the day’s drive down to just a few hours. My plan was to check out the western part of Nova Scotia, most of which I missed the last time. Unfortunately, a low pressure weather system moved in about the same time I did.
In the fog and mist, I made my way to the Digby Neck, a peninsula made of two thick lava flows. Near the tip of the peninsula is “Balancing Rock,” a 30-foot-tall basalt column that has somehow balanced itself for over 200 years. The rock is on Long Island, a section only accessible by a 3.5-minute crossing aboard the Petit Princess ferry. Normally just a $5 round-trip toll, I had to pay a $1.50 surcharge to take the Airstream on the ferry. Not a bad deal! Once on the island, and after a quick drive through the small village of Tiverton, there is a gentle 1.5-mile hike down to St. Mary’s Bay. Then, there are 235 steep steps to get an eye-level view of the rock. Yes, 235 steps! It was quite literally breathtaking—at right around step number 460 on the way back up.
I don’t know if I ran over something on that little side excursion or if I simply had a tire failure, but soon after getting back to the main road, one of the tires on the Airstream had a major blowout. A good Samaritan let me park in his driveway and even drove into town to fetch the local mechanic. Yes, I was in the middle of nowhere! Within an hour, I was back on the road with my spare tire. (It took over a week to find a replacement Airstream tire near Halifax.)
With things definitely not going as planned, I decided to head straight to Lunenburg, one of my favorite places in Nova Scotia. I ended up waiting there a week for the weather to improve. It gave me time to check out Mahone Bay and Blue Rocks, two communities on either side of Lunenburg. In Blue Rocks, I met a family who had come from Quebec to deliver their baby out in the country. Before listening to the older sister tell the story, I had no idea the baby in her mom’s arms was a mere three days old! By the way, the girl was about four years old and was telling me this in both English and French (which her mother and grandmother translated for me). It was pretty adorable.
Blue Rocks is Lunenburg’s version of a place called Peggy’s Cove Village, just outside of Halifax. It is a working fishing village with a few shops and one famous lighthouse. Any visit to the Halifax Regional Municipality is not complete without a visit to Peggy’s Cove.
I would have spent much more time in the Halifax area, but with the weather improving, I had a boat to catch in North Sydney. Next stop: Newfoundland!Read More