Adrift in Canada: Simon Calder on the edge of Newfoundland

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Windswept and wild, friendly yet forlorn: the island of Newfoundland is a corner of Canada steeped in beauty and sadness.

So this is how the western world ends: a grassy hillside tumbling down to a shore of ancient sandstone sculpted by the Atlantic. But as you face the ocean from the edge of North America, you are unlikely to be deep in contemplation about the great continent at your back, of Manhattan and mountains, of Disneyland and desert. Your attention is, instead, seized by the extraordinary performance taking place offshore. Beneath the lighthouses deployed to protect shipping from being speared by Cape Spear, a troupe of fin whales is, frankly, showing off.

They spout, then surface, sleeker than submarines. One giant mammal surges almost clear of the water, taunting sightseers who will later discover their cameras have caught only the perfect splash, roughly the size of, well, whales.

Nature even lays on an amusing maritime sideshow in the shape of a squadron of rotund puffins: imagine a squadron of potatoes with wings flapping frenetically as they struggle to lift clear from the surface of the sea. Yet Cape Spear is only one of the joys that awaits on this Newfoundland shore, the eastern edge of the western world.

The first pleasure: how gratifyingly close is this corner of Canada. During the summer, closely correlating with whale-watching season, Air Canada flies non-stop from Heathrow to Newfoundland's capital, St John's. The Atlantic crossing takes only five hours – the stretch from Wales to whales is 2,000 miles. Within another hour you can clear immigration, collect your luggage, pick up a rental car, get lost a couple of times (local signage ranges from rudimentary to baffling), discover how forgiving the local motorists are when stuck behind a confused visitor, and clunk to a halt in North America's easternmost car park.

You will find plenty of space. Newfoundland is just about as far for the average Canadian as it is for the average Brit. The exceptionally friendly locals are mainly descended from Scottish and Irish folk – and the province's weather emulates the Celtic fringe of Europe, too: summer visitors need not arrive overburdened with sunscreen.

This south-eastern corner of Newfoundland is far more developed than the rest of the island – yet it has a forlorn air, a place adrift. The island remained a colony of Britain, separate from Canada, until 1949 – which is roughly the era in which much of Newfoundland seems, endearingly, to be lodged.

The fishing villages that dot the coast are untarnished by time, and their cottages in primary colours brighten the bleakest day. Outside St John's, you will struggle to find a café or restaurant that you can walk to from your B&B, or which opens much beyond 7.30pm. Do tourists steer clear because facilities are few, or is an indifferent infrastructure the result of global indifference towards Newfoundland? Who cares, when you find yourself at the place where it all began, at 10am on the last Monday of July, with not another soul in sight. The Colony of Avalon, founded in 1720, occupies a beautiful bay cradled by a headland that, predictably, sports a lighthouse. This wasn't quite the first settlement in Newfoundland, but it was where the Europeans first took root – and possession of the island and its fishing grounds.

In 2011, an archaeological dig is taking place (though evidently not at 10am on Mondays) to unravel the secrets of Sir George Calvert's colonial adventure. The name that had been taken from English legend was eventually bestowed on the whole crumpled south-eastern corner of Newfoundland. The Avalon Peninsula is a land of pine forests draped across hills and lonely moorlands speckled with lakes, and embraced almost completely by jagged shores.

For those with more than a week or less than a rented Chevrolet Impala, the way to experience the shoreline is on the East Coast Trail, a long-distance footpath that starts in St John's and rambles south. To sample one of the finest stretches, make for La Manche Provincial Park, about halfway down the coast. The path carves through thick forest, then suddenly opens up to reveal a couple of surprises: some shattered concrete slabs are all that remain of a fishing village obliterated 45 years ago by a winter storm; the channel that gouges deep inland, along which the destruction arrived.

Today (or at any rate, last week) the mosaic of rock and forest and water presents a placid picture, best observed from the wooden suspension bridge that straddles the ravine and is designed to be just wide enough for two people to squeeze past, in the statistically improbable event that they should meet. The trail that slinks north from the far side could seduce the most reluctant rambler, though the same signposting syndicate appears to have been deployed on the East Coast Trail as on the parallel Highway 10.

In Newfoundland, the term "get lost" is laden with meaning as heavy as an overweight puffin. You feel adrift from the rest of the world, not least because of the very particular time difference of three-and-a-half hours from UK time.

You will also be transported, technologically, to a time before mobile phones: for the best part of a week, the only communication from my mobile was the message "No Service", and the effect was blissful disconnection. Curiously, though, Newfoundland has primacy in global communication. Cabot Tower, a turreted pepperpot perched on the edge of St John's, was named for the first transatlantic traveller to reach this part of Newfoundland (the Vikings had inhabited the far north of the island centuries before John Cabot turned up in 1497).

When, in 1901, Guglielmo Marconi wanted to test transatlantic wireless telegraphy, he climbed the stone steps to hear the joyful "dot-dot-dot" of the letter S arriving from Poldhu in Cornwall. This single Morse consonant dashed the hopes of the transatlantic cable companies, whose submarine wires came ashore, predictably, in Newfoundland. The first such cable rusts gently west of here on the shore of Trinity Bay, in the deliciously named town of Heart's Content. (A nearby, equally appealing port, shares its name with a sex toy; look it up if you must, the first letter being dash-dot-dot.)

The wireless revolution proved more profitable for Newfoundland than the cables had done. Marconi's mighty contrivance was seized upon by the transatlantic shipping lines. Passengers were soon queuing to pay 10 cents per word to have urgent messages transmitted to the first wireless station that could be contacted on the westward voyage to New York: Cape Race.

That this slab of rock high above the ocean supports a lighthouse is no surprise. But what may amaze you is the blanket of fog that fills the cove beneath it, with wisps of mist drifting off on the breeze. The Cape has claimed dozens of vessels and thousands of lives, notably the SS Anglo Saxon. In 1863 she strayed too close to the shore, and 237 souls were lost.

Even more poignant was an event half a century later in which the wireless station at Cape Race was an unwitting accomplice. Shortly before the Titanic struck an iceberg on 14 April 1912, 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, the liner's radio room had made contact with Cape Race. Dozens of passengers wanted to send telegrams to friends and family in the US, to announce their impending arrival in New York. According to evidence at the subsequent US Senate Inquiry into the disaster, this lucrative business meant that crucial messages from nearby ships warning of ice were not accorded the importance that could have saved the ship.

The testimony of Cyril Evans, the young wireless operator of the Californian, is as chilling as the fog that billows around Cape Race. He related his final Morse conversation with Titanic thus: "At 9.05 New York time I called him up. I said 'Say, old man, we are stopped and surrounded by ice.' He turned around and said 'Shut up, shut up, I am busy; I am working Cape Race.' "

Shortly afterwards, Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, with the deaths of 1,517 passengers and crew. Cape Race was the last place to receive a radio message from the doomed vessel. Like so much of Newfoundland, the heart-stopping beauty of the Cape is tangled with heartbreaking tragedy. But just offshore, the whales dance on.

Travel essentials: Newfoundland

Getting there

* Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com/uk) flies daily from Heathrow to St John's until 23 September. Fares for late summer start at £594 return.

Getting around

* Rental cars are scarce and expensive, due to the remote location and short tourist season. Simon Calder paid £320 with Avis (08445 810 147; avis.co.uk) for eight days' hire of a Chevrolet Impala at St John's airport.

Staying there

* In St John's, the writer stayed in the Captain's Quarters (001 709 576 7173; captainsquarters.ca); a two-room apartment cost C$190 (£127) a night, with breakfast; and at the Quality Hotel Harbourview (001 709 754 7788; choicehotelsuk.co.uk), for C$192 (£128) a double room only. Down the coast, he stayed at the Bears Cove Inn, Witless Bay (001 709 334 3909; bearscoveinn.com); an apartment cost C$202 (£135), with breakfast.

More information

* Tourist information: 001 800 563 6353; newfoundlandlabrador.com

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