The Complete Guide To ... Newfoundland

It's snowy, windy and remote, but this Canadian province offers natural wonders, thousands of miles of unspoilt coastline and a relaxing return to the simple life. And the local accents - Irish and West Country - will make you feel at home.
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The Independent Travel

WHAT IS IT?

Newfoundland, pronounced like "understand" with the emphasis on the last syllable, is an island off the east coast of Canada in the Gulf of St Lawrence. It lies north-east of Nova Scotia and south-east of Labrador. Cape Spear, on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula, is the most easterly point of land in North America - closer to Ireland than to parts of the Canadian province of Ontario. But, don't believe locals at the Cape Spear lookout who tell you that on a clear day you can see Ireland across the Atlantic.

AREN'T THE LOCALS CALLED 'NEWFIES'?

As "Newfoundlanders" is something of a mouthful, the diminutive "Newfies" came into popular use. However, though they use the word among and about themselves, locals tend not to like its use by non-Newfies. Probably because of their simple - often olde worlde - lifestyles and the province's remoteness, Newfies became the butt of jokes told by other Canadians.

SO WHO FOUND NEWFOUNDLAND?

Newfoundland was first populated around 2000BC by prehistoric hunter-gathers known as the Maritime Archaic People and later by Groswater and Dorset Eskimos. The Beothuks, a tribe of semi-nomadic hunters, arrived about 1,800 years ago, but died out in the early 20th century. At some stage - although it is unclear when - they were joined by the Micmacs, whose descendants still inhabit the island.

The Vikings made it here around AD1000, and some evidence remains of their visit. But they did not stick around for long.

After Christopher Columbus's voyages to the New World, European kings rushed to send out their own expeditions. On a trip sponsored by the English in 1497, the Italian explorer John Cabot - who was looking for a quick route to the riches of Cathay - spotted Newfoundland and Cape Breton and noticed huge shoals of cod in the area. Within 60 years fishermen from France, Britain and Spain were trawling the rich, shallow waters of the Grand Banks and establishing small settlements on the island.

As was customary, the British and French soon began to squabble over the territory. The matter was resolved in 1713 when the Treaty of Utrecht recognised British sovereignty over Newfoundland - though not over two small islands, St Pierre and Miquelon, off the east coast. During the 19th century, Newfoundland's population grew with the arrival of labourers and fishermen, especially from the Celtic fringe of the British Isles.

The island was granted self-government in 1855, and spent most of the next century as a relatively independent state. But in 1948, a majority of the population voted for unity with Canada. The following year, it was welded, politically speaking, to Labrador. Together they became the 10th Canadian province.

Despite attempts to encourage the growth of industry, Newfoundland has suffered from a weak economy. With the lives of many of the population hinging on cod-fishing, the dramatic fall in stocks - and subsequent moratoria on catching cod - has hit the island hard. Some fishermen have switched their efforts to catching crabs and shrimp, while others have changed careers. Nowadays the province's economy depends principally on oil, fishing, and iron ore.

Newfoundland is still a place apart from the rest of Canada. The time zone is half-an-hour ahead of Atlantic Time, one-and-a-half hours ahead of central Canada and currently three-and-a-half hours behind the UK.

WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?

As islands go, it's big, and, at about 120,000 square km, a little larger than Italy. The locals' nickname, The Rock, is pretty accurate: much of the island is an isolated wilderness of granite mountains, glacial valleys and lakes, and forests of spruce, birch and pine. Because the interior is so inhospitable, the majority of the population - which is barely more than 500,000 - is confined to the coast. That's not to say that life is much less harsh there. With a population of 175,000, the capital, St John's, is the only real town, and lies on the Avalon Peninsula.

The Avalon is the most populous of Newfoundland's regions (others are Western, Central and Eastern). Settlements reflect Newfoundland's multi-cultural history with such names as Twillingate, Windsor, Rose Blanche, Channel-Porte aux Basques, and Bonavista Bay. Sniggerers and sign-photographers may want to head for Shag Rock, Tickle Cove and Dildo (the latter is near Heart's Content).

At times it feels more like western Ireland or parts of Devon or Cornwall than Canada, and locals' accents tend to be Irish or West Country more often than "Canadian". The locals are warm and welcoming, though not always easy to understand.

Much of its charm lies in the fact that traditional values haven't died out. Outside the few bigger population centres, life continues to be very simple. It is only relatively recently that many areas were connected to the electricity supply. The traditional joke on flights to the provincial capital is, "We will shortly be landing in St John's, Newfoundland. Please turn your watches back 50 years."

A BIG ROCK IN THE ATLANTIC - SOUNDS COLD

It can be, although not by Canadian standards. Because of its maritime location, Newfoundland is milder in the winter and cooler in the summer than much of the mainland. It is on roughly the same latitude as Paris, ie closer to the Equator than anywhere in mainland Britain. Yet for much of the year, it has a fairly miserable climate. St John's seems proud of its place as the foggiest, snowiest, windiest, wettest and cloudiest city in Canada. The chances of fine, warm weather is highest between July and September.

WHAT CAN I DO THERE?

Start in the capital St John's, which claims to be the oldest city in the New World, with the oldest street in North America. Not that you would know it - two-thirds of the city burnt down in the 19th century and many more old buildings were demolished in the 20th. However, there are lots of pretty, clapboard houses built in the 1890s after the big fire (many are now B&Bs).

Drive or walk up to Signal Hill, where, in 1901, Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless message. Visit the Cabot Tower, which houses a ham radio, on the hilltop for great views of The Narrows and downtown St John's.

On the way, those with an interest in geology will want to stop at the brand new Johnson GEO Centre (001 709 737 7880, www.geocentre.ca) much of which is built underground - admission is $6 (£2.70), open daily from 9.30am-5pm, expect Sunday when it is open from 1pm-5pm.There are few other sights in town, although the Provincial Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador, 285 Duckworth St (001 709 729 2329, www.nfmuseum.com), gives an excellent introduction to the island's natural history and cultural heritage; admission costs $3 (£1.40).Open daily from 9am-4.45pm and weekends from 9am.

Visit Duckworth Street and Water Street for excellent restaurants, the latter and George Street for wild nightlife.

WILD NIGHTLIFE?

After a fashion. Newfoundland's folk music is a curious nautical mixture of traditional music from Ireland, England and Brittany: all jigs, reels, and shanties featuring fiddles, accordions and pipes. You can do-se-do your partner at one of St John's many pubs; try Green Sleeves, 14 George Street (001 709 579 1070), O'Reilly's, 15 George Street (001 709 722 3735), or the Rose and Thistle, 208 Water Street (001 709 579 6662). Alternatively the Newfoundland Folk Music Club (001 709 576 8508, www.sjfac.nf.net/folkclub.html) meets every Wednesday evening at the Ship Inn (265 Solomons Lane off Duckworth Street) and features live music from local musicians, both professional and amateur. Admission is $5 (£2.20). You might want to time your visit to take in the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival (001 709 576 8508; www.atlanticcanada.info) which will be held next week in the city's Bannerman Park (1-3 August).

Don't fret if none of this appeals - on most summer evenings the choice of live music in St John's is surprisingly eclectic, with an alarming number of karaoke nights.

WHAT IF MUSIC ISN'T MY FIRST LOVE?

Theatre festivals are also popular. They include Stephenville Theatre Festival (until 10 August, 001 709 643 4553, www.heritage.nf.ca/arts/ stephenville_festival.html), Gros Morne (until 13 September, 001 709 243 2899, www.theatrenewfoundland.com) and Trinity (until 11 October, 001 709 464 3232, www.risingtidetheatre.com). If you prefer the roar of engines to cries of "encore", be there between 13 and 20 September for the Targa car rally (001 709 722 2413, www.targanewfoundland.com).

Many are attracted to Newfoundland for its natural wonders and fauna: there are almost 10,000km of coastline, much of which is perfect sea-kayaking or hiking territory. A dense mat of tangled trees and bushes known as "tuckamore" grows along much of the shoreline. Twenty-two types of whales frequent Newfoundland's waters, peak viewing season is between May and September. O'Brien's (001 709 753 4850, www.obriensboattours.com), a leading whale-watching operator, offers two-hour trips from Bay Bulls (a little south of St John's) to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve for $48 (£30). As well as being home to the largest population of humpback whales in the world, the reserve has an enormous number of sea-birds, including puffins, kittiwakes, cormorants and murres. There are plenty of ospreys and bald eagles, too. Twitchers will want to visit Cape St Mary's on the Burin Peninsula: a cliff-top walk leads to a viewing-point just 15 metres from one of the world's largest, most accessible seabird rookeries; among other species you'll see thousands of Northern Gannets.

If you prefer your fauna with four legs, there are huge amounts of woodland caribou and moose. The latter aren't native to Newfoundland - six were introduced between 1878 and 1904 with spectacular results - current estimates put the moose population close to 150,000. You may also see black bears and arctic hares.

In the north-west of the island, Gros Morne National Park is a Unesco World Heritage Site, renowned for its flat-top mountains and glacial gorges and lakes. Don't miss the boat trip (001 709 458 2730; $35/£16) on Western Brook Pond, a 16km-long fresh-water fjord hemmed in by sheer granite walls. There's a 45-minute walk between the parking area and the jetty. The park's visitor information centre (001 709 458 2066, www.grosmorne.pch.gc.ca) can organise guided walks and boat excursions and point you in the direction of hiking trails and campsites. Basic entry to the National Park costs $7.50 (£3.50) for adults. If you're lucky you'll spot black bears, arctic hares and woodland caribou. Terra Nova National Park - close to the Bonavista Peninsula - is also worth a visit, particularly for hikers and kayakers.

Icebergs that have drifted down from Greenland can often be seen floating in the bays between May and mid-July. However, the best place to see them is Twillingate, where the season lasts longer as the "bergs" get trapped around the jagged coastline; contact the Iceberg Shop (001 709 884 2242, www.icebergtours.ca).

WHAT ABOUT THOSE ESKIMOS?

Port aux Choix, halfway up the west coast of the northern peninsula, has the remains of an ancient settlement of the Maritime Archaic People from around 2000BC. In addition there is a collection of artefacts left by the Dorset and Groswater Eskimos; for information call 001 709 458 2417.

The best archaeological remains in Newfoundland are at Bloody Bay, near the small town of Burnside to the east of the Terra Nova park. Burnside Archeological Boat Tours (001 709 677 2474) visits this site and the remains of other Archaic, Paleo-Eskimo and Beothic settlements on the mainland and on nearby islands.

AND THE VIKINGS?

Almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus set foot in the New World, Viking sailors from colonies in Greenland were blown off course and discovered a land full of lush meadows, rolling hills, and rivers teeming with salmon. They also found wild grapes growing in the forests and subsequently called the place Vinland.

According to two 13th-century Icelandic sagas, the Norsemen continued to visit the area, but were eventually driven out by the native inhabitants, whom the Vikings called skraeings, or wretches. But the location of Vinland is still debated.

In 1960, the Norwegian writer Helge Ingstad, in search of Vinland, uncovered ruins at L'Anse aux Meadows on the tip of the Northern Peninsula; the closest town of any size is St Anthony's. It is probably not the site of Vinland - there are no wild grapes on Newfoundland - more likely these are the sparse remains of a Norse village. Either way, this is the earliest known European settlement in the Americas, and has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. The actual remains call for a strong imagination, but you'll also see reconstructions of four Viking buildings, Viking artefacts and several informative exhibits at the visitor centre (001 709 623 2608, www.parkscanada.gc.ca).

L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Park is open 9am-8pm daily from mid-June to Labor Day (the first Monday in September), 9am-4.30pm daily mid-May to mid-June and Labor Day to October. It's closed October to mid-May. Admission is $5 (£2.20). Nearby is Viking Boat Tours (001 709 623 2100) which offers trips on a replica Viking ship.

Virtually across the road, an entire Viking port of trade was reconstructed three years ago to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the Viking landing. Admission to Norstead (001 709 623 2828, www.vikingtrail.org) is $7 (£3) and it is open daily from 9am-7pm. Exhibits include the "Snorri", a full-size replica Viking boat.

SO IS THERE ANYTHING STILL STANDING ON THE ISLAND?

Outside St John's there is plenty to see of Newfoundland's more recent history. The Bonavista Peninsula (three to four hours' drive from St John's), for example, is a delightful area. There you'll find Trinity, a picturesque village with vibrantly coloured clapboard houses, picket fences, village gardens and a magnificent 19th-century wooden church. Nearby at New Bonaventure you can visit a reconstruction of an early 1800s fishing village (001 709 739 0447) built as the film set of Random Passage, a TV mini-series due to be shown in Britain on Channel 5 later this year. The book was written by local author Bernice Morgan.

Bonavista itself has hundreds of heritage buildings and the Matthew, a replica of Cabot's ship (mind you, there's also one in Bristol next to the SS Great Britain) and a historic lighthouse on the nearby cape.

WHERE WILL I SLEEP?

Avoid hotel and motel chains, and instead go for character. Since the Newfoundland Hotel, the atmospheric grande dame of St John's, was knocked down a few years ago, I'd suggest choosing from the plethora of B&Bs, many in charming 1892 houses. Elsewhere in the island there are two fascinating properties alongside lighthouses: the Cape Anguille Lighthouse Inn (001 877 254 6586; www.linkumtours.com) (about 40 minutes from Port-Aux-Basques), which has doubles from $105 (£46) and the very popular Quirpon Lighthouse Inn (same booking line) on an island close to L'Anse aux Meadows with doubles from $266 (£118).

At Port Rexton, 20 minutes from Trinity, stay in Newfoundland's best inn, Fisher's Loft (001 709 464 3240, www.fishersloft.com), overlooking lovely coastline. Doubles from £110 including breakfast and dinner. Hike the Skerwink Trail and climb to the top of the headland at Fox Island: ask for Kevin Spacey's room (he stayed here while filming The Shipping News).

You won't find too much sophistication, but for a really unpretentious, typical Newfoundland experience I recommend the Beach Rock B&B (001 709 884 2292), on Little Harbour, 4km from Twillingate: doubles are £27 including breakfast.

IS IT DIFFICULT TO GET AROUND?

Because much of Newfoundland is so isolated, the best way to see the island is by car. Contact Budget (0800 181181, www.budget.com) or National (0870 600 6666, www.nationalcar.com). The latter offers weekly rates of around $461 (£204) for a small car picked up in St. John.. Be warned - accidents involving moose are a very real danger, particularly if you drive after dark. Public transport is a bit thin on the ground - there is no longer a train service, though a number of bus companies operate out of St John's. DRL coachlines (001 709 738 8088) stops at most of the principal towns on the main highway that runs between St John's and Channel-Port aux Basques, and also services the Burin Peninsula in the south. Several smaller minibus companies travel to more remote parts of the island.

If you plan to visit the Gros Morne National Park it might be worth flying to nearby Deer Lake and then hiring a car. Flights from St John's to Deer Lake are operated by Provincial Airlines (001 709 576 1666, www.provair.com) and Air Labrador (001 709 753 5593, www.airlabrador.com). They can be booked through Air Canada or your travel agent (see below) for £180. Hire a car at Deer Lake Airport with Budget or National as above.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

Only Air Canada (08705 247226, www.aircanada.com) offers direct flights between the UK (Heathrow) and St John's; flying time is about five hours. August departures cost from £697. Travelmood (0870 111 8384, www.travelmood.com) has special fares with Air Canada from £662 and these allow you to combine St John's with Toronto or Montreal - but you must book by 31 July. When you book, be sure to specify St John's, Newfoundland (code YYT). It would be inconvenient to end up in St John in the province of New Brunswick (code YSJ) or worse still Fort St John (YXJ) in British Columbia. There are also ferry services connecting Newfoundland with Nova Scotia, Labrador and Quebec.

ARE THERE ANY INCLUSIVE TOURS?

Wildlife Worldwide (020-8667 9158, www.wildlifeworldwide.com) offers five-day Humpbacks of Newfoundland trips for £1,195 per person; 1st Class Holidays (0161 877 0432, www.1stclassholidays.com) runs an 11-day Newfoundland Explorer (£1,709 per person). The Canadian company Maxxim Tours (001 709 754 6666, www.maxximvacations.com) has various itineraries.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE INFORMATION?

There's a paucity of guidebooks specific to Canada's eastern provinces (though a new Frommer's guide to Newfoundland and Labrador is due out shortly).

Try the provincial government's website, www.gov.nf.ca/tourism or 001 800 563 6353.

Get away from it all in an 'outport'

MANY SETTLEMENTS ARE ONLY REACHABLE BY BOAT

Long before Newfoundland had a road system, fishermen (and sometimes their families) built homes in remote coves and bays near their favourite fishing grounds. Some settlements grew and were eventually serviced by roads: others relied on occasional ferries or the twice-yearly visit of the supply boat. Between 1950 and 1977 the provincial government undertook a massive resettlement programme using fair means (and, it is claimed, foul ones) to persuade residents of these "outports" to move to the more established towns. The attempts at persuasion continue: the costs of not only connecting these remote places to the road and utility networks but maintaining hundreds of kilometres of road and power lines for a handful of people make little economic sense. The coast is dotted with ghost towns, the remains of deserted outports. Some, though, struggle on and can be visited: if life in the rest of Newfoundland is too "fast lane" for you, why not take refuge in a quiet outport on Newfoundland's south coast, many of which are only reachable by boat. For real isolation get a ferry from Hermitage-Sandyville to Francois, a tiny village surrounded by mountains where there are no cars.

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