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
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
I’ll admit it. Until recently, I only had a vague junior high recollection of Newfoundland, and I couldn’t even really pronounce it correctly. For the record, the locals place an emphasis on the “new” and “land” parts of the name, and pronounce “found” like “fun”. But more on that later!
I wanted to spend a few weeks in Newfoundland, but the weather and marine gods wouldn’t have it. The main ferry from Cape Breton Island to Port aux Basques broke down, so I spent about a week hanging out in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Once ferry service was restored, there was simply no room for the Airstream. With barely enough room on board for the Touareg and me, I quickly booked my ticket before availability vanished. I felt like I was travelling in the mid-1960s, but Wi-Fi (albeit slow) was available, and the reclining seats were actually pretty comfortable. I ate two meals in the cafeteria, worked on my blog, listened to some tunes, talked with some of the passengers, and before I knew it, I had arrived in Newfoundland. I found affordable accommodations at the MacLellan Inn & Thackeray Suites in Doyles. It wasn’t anything special, but it was in a good location, it was better than a bland hotel room, and the hosts were warm and friendly.
I had only a few days to visit, so I spent all of my time on the western side of Newfoundland. I just didn’t have time to make the desolate, moose-laden 12-hour drive to the capital city of St. John’s. But I did make it up to Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a little too late in the year to do any of the planned outdoor activities, like the boat tour of the fresh water fjord called Western Brook Pond. I saw the fjord from a distance, drove the Viking Trail, did some sightseeing, took some photos, found a great little golf course, had some pretty incredible fried chicken for dinner, and made the 4-hour drive back to my temporary home in Doyles.
The next day I ventured out for lunch and stumbled upon the Wreckhouse Haven Cafe, almost the only eating establishment open within 20 miles. Debbie, the chef/owner/conversationalist/dishwasher/server, was the real deal. I sat down, had some soup and sandwiches, and talked with the locals all afternoon. I loved it so much I went back the next evening for a traditional Newfoundland supper. Success! I found the perfect spot to learn about the local culture, share my stories, and eat same local meat and potatoes!
While at the Wreckhouse, and when I filled up with gas, and when I had that fried chicken, and when I went golfing, and pretty much anytime I interacted with some of the true locals, I was able to experience that famous Newfoundland accent firsthand. Wow! For the ones with the thick accent, it was like a Scottish/Irish/Somethingish brogue with peanut butter. That is the best way I can describe it–incredibly hard to understand, and definitely unique to that area.
But let me tell you; absolutely, unequivocally, without a doubt, the people of Newfoundland are the most sincere, welcoming, friendly, and memorable people I have met on my journey. It was just a little too remote for me to call home, but I would go back to visit anytime–if they’ll have me.
The photos suck. They really do. These are the best of the bunch. It’s an excuse to visit next year when the weather is better.Read More