A guide to Newfoundland: Very cold, very old and very spectacular

A lifelong dream to return brings travel from Tampa Bay to Canada.
This iceberg, off Newfoundland's coast near St. John's, was estimated to be 15,000 years old and had been tracked on a three-year journey from Greenland. It was 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland where the Titanic hit an iceberg and sunk. Gail Diederich | Special to the Times
This iceberg, off Newfoundland's coast near St. John's, was estimated to be 15,000 years old and had been tracked on a three-year journey from Greenland. It was 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland where the Titanic hit an iceberg and sunk. Gail Diederich | Special to the Times
Published August 22
Updated August 22

“Why did you want to go there?”

It’s a question my husband, Jay, and I heard repeatedly after our return from two weeks in Newfoundland. The answers come with smiles as memories surface of picturesque, stark wilderness and unusual adventures.

It takes effort to accurately describe the beauty of a cold, isolated island where living conditions are tough. Photos, however, are convincing for those wondering what there is to see and do in a place where snow and freezing temperatures reign, towns — mostly very small ones — are far apart, roads are often in ill-repair and fillups on gas or food take careful planning.

I first went to Newfoundland in 1975. At 26, I was captivated by the isolated place. When I saw teaching position ads in the newspaper, I applied and was offered a job in Lewisporte.

Packed and ready to move, I succumbed to pleas from my then-husband, who wasn’t eager to move. That job fell away and so did the marriage. I moved on to other teaching jobs, including one in Florida that lasted 28 years. But I never forgot the offer from Lewisporte, a place to which I felt connected, though I had never seen.

After 9/11, stories circulated of how 38 planes were grounded at Gander, near Lewisporte. From that small town and others, nearby residents opened their hearts and homes to more than 6,000 stranded travelers, providing meals and homelike comforts. Newfoundland people did what comes easy for them. They offered friendship in a time of crisis. The compelling story is now an award-winning Broadway musical, Come From Away.

My urge to return to Newfoundland strengthened. I was keen to share the experience with the man who has now been my husband for 32 years. He was all in.

We planned for seven months and, on May 24, flew from Tampa to Bangor, Maine. We rented an SUV and set out on a 3,800-mile road trip. Following Maine’s coastline, we crossed into Canada and followed New Brunswick’s coast, turned north to Moncton and then east to North Sydney, Nova Scotia. Eagerly, we arrived at the ferry terminal and drove onto the giant boat with a capacity of 350 cars and 1,200 people. We sat near large windows and soon the ferry was moving, bound for Port-aux-Basque, Newfoundland, seven hours away.

The engines’ drone and gentle sway lulled us to sleep. I woke first, looked out and glimpsed far ahead the Long Range Mountains that stretch up Newfoundland’s western border. I gently woke Jay saying, “Look! There’s snow on the mountains.”

The drive along the Great Northern Peninsula has the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the west and the Long Range Mountains and many lakes and ponds to the east. Gail Diederich  |  Special to the Times
The drive along the Great Northern Peninsula has the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the west and the Long Range Mountains and many lakes and ponds to the east. Gail Diederich | Special to the Times

Jay stared in disbelief. For two Florida people acclimated to hot weather, it was stunning to see snow-covered mountains in May. Our hearts raced. We knew adventures were ahead but couldn’t have imagined all we’d encounter before returning two weeks later to Port-aux-Basque, loaded with memories, for the return trip to the mainland.

GREAT NORTHERN PENINSULA

We headed north on the Trans Canadian Highway. Our destination was St. Anthony, 424 miles at the north end of the Great Northern Peninsula.

Corner Brook, with a population of less than 32,000, is the only city on Newfoundland’s western shore. Rising steeply on either side of the Trans Can Highway near the city are giant rugged cliffs that dwarfed our SUV and kept our necks craning for curious views.

The Long Range Mountains, dark and dotted with huge snow patches, sweep up the Great Northern Peninsula. At the base of the mountains, snow bordered pristine lakes and a thin sheet of ice reached toward the middle of the lakes. Dry grass and shrubs surrounded the lakes as blue as the sky above them.

With few homes and businesses, the place looks endless and old. Geological history dates this area back 1.25 billion years with a human history of 4,500 years. Water is everywhere, the Gulf of St. Lawrence is to the west and lakes and ponds lie to the east at the foot of the mountains.

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GROS MORNE NATIONAL PARK

Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lies east. There are more than 40 miles of trails, from leisurely paths to challenging hikes. Along the way are stunning landscapes of mountain formations and lakes carved by glaciers and thrusts of tectonic plates over millions of years.

We experienced the full impact of Gros Morne by taking a Western Brook Pond boat tour. A moderate 1.9-mile walk through coastal bog leads to the dock. There’s no transportation but the walk is easy.

Near the path we saw caribou grazing in the sun, oddly shaped trees twisted and gnarled by harsh weather, and sparrows foraging in the bushes. Two boats, each carrying less than 100 people, run tours lasting two hours into the 9-mile-long narrow lake, also called a freshwater fjord.

A familiar sight along the Trans Canadian Highway in Newfoundland is caribou. Special to the Times
A familiar sight along the Trans Canadian Highway in Newfoundland is caribou. Special to the Times

Rocks rise steeply to 2,000 feet on either side. Far above the lake, waterfalls cascade or drop hundreds of feet, often turning to mist on their way down the cliffs. At the lake’s end and the tour’s turning point, at 1,150 feet, is one of the highest falls in eastern North America.

The tour guide told us that Western Book water is very pure and very cold. There is minimal environmental impact of pollution to the water that is so blue it almost defies description. In late May, we enjoyed sunshine but appreciated layers of clothing, knit caps and warm gloves.

COW HEAD

At the northernmost entrance to Gros Morne, just off the Trans Can Highway, is Cow Head, population under 500. We opted for a two-night stop, breaking the long drive north and allowing time to explore.

The Lighthouse Trail in Cow Head offered one of Newfoundland's best panoramic views of the Long Range Mountains. The trail leads to a rock outcropping called Big Hill and continues to an outdatedlighthouse. Gail Diederich  |  Gail Diederich | Special to the Times
The Lighthouse Trail in Cow Head offered one of Newfoundland's best panoramic views of the Long Range Mountains. The trail leads to a rock outcropping called Big Hill and continues to an outdatedlighthouse. Gail Diederich | Gail Diederich | Special to the Times

The Lighthouse Trail led us through meadows to a huge rock outcropping called Big Hill. Along the path are some of the west coast’s most spectacular views of the Long Range Mountains. The trail continues to an outdated 1909 lighthouse. We saw sparrows, colorful snails and, at the end of the trail, a very old cemetery.

The Dr. Henry N. Payne Community Museum in Cow Head, listed on the Canadian Register of Historic Places, houses artifacts and information about early life in the area.

During summer months, Theatre Newfoundland Labrador, a touring group of professionals, offers plays, musical events and dinner theater in Cow Head.

Shallow Bay Beach is a mile-long stretch of fine sand and natural dunes. The water is shallow enough for wading and swimming on warm days.

HIGHWAY TO THE NORTH

Ahead of us lay 200 miles on the Trans Can Highway, north to L’Anse aux Meadows. St. Anthony, where we’d spend the night, was another 25 miles. Traveling along the Gulf of St. Lawrence we saw harbors jammed with “bitty bergs,” ice chunks that had broken from icebergs and floated to shore.

Along the Trans Canadian Highway on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, harbors are often jammed in the spring with “bitty bergs,” chunks of ice that have fallen from icebergs as they melt. Gail Diederich | Special to the Times
Along the Trans Canadian Highway on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, harbors are often jammed in the spring with “bitty bergs,” chunks of ice that have fallen from icebergs as they melt. Gail Diederich | Special to the Times

Our curiosity was heightened by frequent stacks of cut timber beside the road. It was all the same length and stacked in orderly piles. At one stop we learned details. Wood serves to heat homes. People apply to the government for a certificate to cut wood. When granted an allotment, the person gets a number, cuts the wood, stacks it by the road and attaches the number. When needed, the person retrieves wood from the assigned pile. Without the certificate number posted, government officials can confiscate the wood.

Stacks of logs that have been cut for home use as a heating source are a familiar sight along the highway in Newfoundland, especially in the western region. Gail Diederich | Special to the Times
Stacks of logs that have been cut for home use as a heating source are a familiar sight along the highway in Newfoundland, especially in the western region. Gail Diederich | Special to the Times

Another curiosity was small cultivated plots of ground beside the highway. In one plot we saw a man planting potatoes. Most of the plots had fencing, usually made of small trees and branches but occasionally lumber.

The plots are gardens. People pick a spot alongside the highway, till, plant and harvest largely root crops such as potatoes, carrots and onions. These crops grow reasonably well, other crops not so much so due to the soil quality and short growing season.

The northern half of the west coast is the French Shore, where for more than 300 years French fishermen maintained their culture and language. Throughout the area, festivals are planned with song and dance that reflect that culture.

L’ANSE AUX MEADOWS – VIKING SETTLEMENT

Going north, the temperatures grew colder. We came to L’Anse aux Meadows where the Vikings first settled in North America five centuries before Christopher Columbus arrived. A brisk wind and 35 degrees made us scramble for hats and gloves. We walked alongside 7-foot-high snow banks to the visitors’ center where historical information grabbed our attention. A map showing the Vikings’ journey from Greenland was stunning. A small replica of a boat they would have rowed told us the Vikings were not only physically tough, they were determined and fearless to make the journey.

Bracing against the wind, we walked through the grassy meadow to the rebuilt Viking village.

Viking living enclosures accommodated 20 to 30 Vikings during their days of living at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Gail Diederich | Special to the Times
Viking living enclosures accommodated 20 to 30 Vikings during their days of living at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Gail Diederich | Special to the Times

Three docents dressed in Viking garb welcomed us, and we were drawn to the open fire that made the large enclosure warm and snug. We had questions and “the Vikings” had answers. We learned that up to 30 people would live in the large enclosure and they’d be there for months at a time as snow, ice and extremely low temperatures dictated.

Visiting the village answered many questions and stirred up others. We braved the cold wind whipping over the waters and chilling us despite our warm clothes. We truly wondered how the Vikings survived.

ST. ANTHONY

St. Anthony, population about 2,200, is located at the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula and serves a regional population of about 25,000 from northern Newfoundland and Labrador.

Named in 1534 by explorer Jacques Cartier, St. Anthony has a safe harbor and was a favorite spot for fishermen.

In 1892, British doctor Wilfred Grenfell arrived to study regional fishermen’s health. His interest in the people grew. He stayed and started a medical system that continues to serve the region.

At Grenfell House, visitors can learn of Grenfell’s work. A visit to St. Anthony in late May or early June may reward visitors with views of icebergs as they travel south from Greenland. The Lightkeepers Seafood, once the lightkeeper’s residence, is now renovated into a restaurant on Fishing Point, facing the sea. Underneath the cliffs of Fishing Point is a lookout over the Atlantic Ocean, reached by a 30-minute walk on boardwalks and stairways.

TWILLINGATE AND LEWISPORTE

Our next stop was Twillingate on Newfoundland’s northeast coast at the entrance to Notre Dame Bay. One of the province’s oldest seaports, Twillingate once bustled with cod fishing until a 1992 government moratorium ended nearly 500 years of fishing. The cod had been depleted.

Twillingate turned to tourism for economic support. The population of 2,000 soars in the summer as visitors come to enjoy outdoor adventures, festivals and concerts. Touted as Iceberg Capital of the World, Twillingate draws those who hope to see the ice giants that float in from Greenland to the shores of Newfoundland from April to June each year, with occasional sightings in July.

We stopped in Lewisporte, where I had once been offered the teaching position. The town with a population of about 3,500 is located on Burnt Bay, which opens to the Bay of Exploits. Shores are lined with birch, spruce and pine trees. Beautiful homes are surrounded by well-kept lawns that spread down to the sparkling blue bay dotted with white sailboats.

We continued north to Twillingate. Rounding a bend, we gasped. There in the harbor was a giant iceberg, the first we had ever seen. It was incredible. We drove to a lookout for a better view. It was hard to pull ourselves away from the very thing that had brought us to Twillingate.

The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast looking over the harbor. Cold rain slashed at the windows. I asked our server what the white blobs mixed in the rain were. She replied, “Snow.”

It was June 3. Two Florida people were speechless.

ST. JOHN’S

St. John’s, capital of Newfoundland and Labrador province, is North America’s easterly most city. With a population of about 115,000, the city has a rich history going back to the 16th century. St. John’s history, culture and location make it a destination for visitors who choose from a wide variety of things to do.

On our list were three main things: a tour out of Bull’s Bay, hoping to see puffins, those colorful little seabirds that return to the area each year to nest; a visit to Cape Spear; and taking in St. John’s National Historic Site of Signal Hill.

BULL’S BAY — PUFFIN EXPEDITION

We hoped for a clear day but got the opposite for our 90-minute boat tour out of Bull’s Bay, about 20 miles south of St. John’s, to Witless Bay Ecological Reserve and surrounding coastal waters. Eager to capture pictures of puffins and other seabirds, we pulled on waterproof parkas. We found top deck spots hoping for good visibility.

Thousands of Atlantic puffins return each spring and summer to Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, south of St. John’s near Bull’s Bay, to mate, nest and raise a solitary chick. Special to the Times
Thousands of Atlantic puffins return each spring and summer to Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, south of St. John’s near Bull’s Bay, to mate, nest and raise a solitary chick. Special to the Times

Our boat launched and we were thrilled to approach another iceberg, this one from a much closer view. Our guides said this iceberg was estimated to be 15,000 years old. It had been tracked for three years on its journey from Greenland. We learned that about one-tenth of the iceberg is above the water, leaving 90 percent below.

With heavy fog, we heard the seabirds long before we saw them. There were thousands of kittiwakes, small gulls that nest on cliff ledges, often in very tight spots. We watched as a bald eagle attempted to steal eggs but failed when scores of kittiwakes with loud squawking chased the eagle away.

We approached the Atlantic puffins’ nesting grounds, where thousands of the little birds with the orange legs had returned to their ground burrow nests. Atlantic puffins spend most of their life at sea. They choose a mate for life but spend most of the year separated, returning each year to the same nesting site where the pair raise one chick. Then they return to the sea. The life span of an Atlantic puffin is more than 20 years.

Further along, we saw scores of common murres, also known as auks. Sitting upright on the sea cliffs, they resemble penguins. In the colony also were “Bridled” murres and razorbill murres, all nesting very close together. Murres, like puffins, hatch only one egg per year.

CAPE SPEAR

Cape Spear Lighthouse, about 18 miles south of St. John’s, is on Canada’s easternmost point of land, looking over the Atlantic Ocean. Cape Spear is the oldest remaining lighthouse in Newfoundland and Labrador. The area is designated a National Historic Site due to the age and architecture of the lighthouse and the area’s history during World War II.

Far below the lighthouse, the Atlantic surf breaks against large boulders. Guided tours tell the history of Cape Spear and hiking paths allow for scenic views. Depending on the time of year, visitors may see icebergs and whales from the paths.

SIGNAL HILL

Signal Hill rises above St. John’s, overlooking the city, the harbor and “the narrows” — the small entrance that ships maneuver when entering the harbor. Scenic views of the Atlantic Ocean stretch far.

It was from Signal Hill that the St. John’s harbor was guarded from the 17th century to World War II. Signal Hill was where Guglielmo Marconi received the world’s first trans-Atlantic wireless signal in 1901.

Cabot Tower sits atop Signal Hill. Building of the tower began in 1897, marking the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s landing in Newfoundland. The building was completed in 1900.

HEADING BACK WEST

We had traveled Newfoundland’s far western border, driven as far north as possible and journeyed to the easternmost point on the island. Places on our itinerary that we had hoped to visit were checked off.

Visitors can opt to take an 18-hour ferry to North Sydney, Nova Scotia, from Argentia, about 90 miles south of St. John’s.

We opted to drive back to the west, taking two days and stopping for a night in Grand Falls. We arrived in Port-aux-Basque with time to visit J.T. Cheeseman Provincial Park. We walked the chilly beach and set our camera’s timer that snapped one last picture of us on the island.

Early the next morning, we drove onto the ferry, climbed the stairs to the lounge and found windows facing Port-aux-Basque. Jay and I stood together silently and watched until Newfoundland slipped to the horizon. We were changed forever by the experiences we’d had on this very old, very cold and very spectacular island.

The Western Brook Pond boat tour in Newfoundland comes to this turning point after a 9-mile journey. Special to the Times
The Western Brook Pond boat tour in Newfoundland comes to this turning point after a 9-mile journey. Special to the Times

Gail Diederich is a retired Pasco County teacher of 32 years. Contact her at gdiederich@gmail.com.


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