The Discovery Trail (230 km)

There are three gateways to the Discovery Trail. You can take the west entrance from the Trans-Canada Highway onto Route 233 at Port Blandford; the central entrance near Thorburn Lake at Route 230; or the eastern entrance onto Route 230A at Clarenville. On this trip, we'll take the eastern route through Clarenville, loop up through Trinity and Port Union to Bonavista, and then cruise down the western shore to Port Blandford.

Clarenville

After turning off onto the Discovery Trail you'll find yourself on Balbo Drive, named for General Italo Balbo, the Italian fascist who, after visiting the area in 1933, left such an impression the townsfolk named a street after him. In 1933, on his way back to Rome from the Chicago Exhibition, Balbo led a squadron of flying boats into nearby Shoal Harbour. He was paraded and welcomed in Clarenville, but later, came to an unhappy end – as did many of his political ilk – and after becoming governor of Libya, he was shot down over Tobruk by Italian guns in 1940.

Clarenville is a friendly town, and a modern one. Now a service centre for the Discovery Trail, you can still see traces of its days as a major shipbuilding centre. Take some time to explore this town. Originally known as Clarenceville, probably in honour of the Duke of Clarence. It dates from the 1890s, which is relatively new by Newfoundland and Labrador standards.

The White Hills Ski Resort just west of Clarenville offers downhill, cross-country and snowboarding.

Tour through Shoal Harbour

In Shoal Harbour, now part of Clarenville, there's a piece of land in Milton where shallow waters of Northwest Arm lap a shore that is deep in history. It was from the Shoal Harbour area that in 1822 William Epps Cormack and his Micmac guide Joseph Sylvester left on their now-famous trek through the Newfoundland interior. They didn't find any Beothuks, as Cormack had hoped, but he became the first European to walk across the island and write about it. A plaque on the left, just before the causeway, marks the start of the walk.

Shoal Harbour is the location of the now abandoned Bonavista Branch Line of the Newfoundland Railway, which closed in 1984. There is also a Canada goose refuge here. Summer and early fall are the best times to see these birds.

Take a look around Random Island

As you cross the causeway and arrive in Random Island, two things are obvious: a few hundred yards of water spelled isolation for the people until the causeway was constructed in the 1960s; and, two centuries of logging have not come near to exhausting the potential of the island's robust and well-managed forest. Hickman's Harbour has long been the island's logging centre, but everywhere you go there is evidence of logging: there's wood stuffed into barns and sheds, wrapped with tarpaulins against the rain and otherwise protected from the elements.

Legend has it the eastern part of Random Island was the last stronghold of the Beothuks in eastern Newfoundland. Driving through this hilly, wooded section, the legend is easy to believe. The spirits of the land that drew the Beothuks to this place still seem to inhabit it.

Turn onto Route 239 to Trinity

The little town of Trinity is a gem, a national treasure. It's a must-see on anyone's calendar. Most of the old town is a national heritage community, and there are several provincial historic sites as well. People interested in Newfoundland history will find plenty here.

Four years after Cabot's voyage, Gaspar Corte Real explored Newfoundland's coastal waters and, according to legend, named Trinity because he came across this section of the coast on Trinity Sunday in 1501. Much later, Trinity became an important fishing and mercantile community. The English considered it so valuable and prized a harbour, they built a fort here. The remains of the fort are accessible along the road to the lighthouse. In 1615, Trinity played host to the first court of justice in North America when the British admiralty tried to bring order to the constant raids and thieving that were a blight on the migratory fishery for many years.

What strikes you right away about Trinity is how solid the houses are. The 19th-century styles of architecture seem derived from an earlier era. This was a prosperous town, and a progressive one, too. In 1798, Dr. John Clinch, a doctor and minister, administered the first smallpox vaccine in North America. Get out and wander around Trinity. Narrow lanes weave in between the houses. Stop at the community museum, which is chockablock with exhibits, and has community records dating to the 1600s. Or drop in at the Green Family Forge, once an important part of the town's commercial life. Its decorative iron products are sold in the craft store.

The Hiscock House Provincial Historic Site – once known as Mountain Ash Manor – is where, around the turn of the 20th century, widow Emma Hiscock and her daughters lived. The style and grace of the period have been perfectly captured in this Provincial Historic Site. In the old business district you'll find the Lester-Garland Premises National Historic Site. Now reconstructed, this brick house must have been the talk of the town when Francis Lester built it after arriving in the 1770s. From here, he ran a fishing empire before returning to England. Nearby is the Mercantile Building Provincial Historic Site, a restoration of a 19th-century merchant store undertaken by the provincial government. Take time to visit the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, and the Society of United Fishermen (S.U.F.) Hall which was built more than 150 years ago.

In addition to its history, Trinity has the good fortune to have other attractions that appeal to a wide variety of visitors. One is whale watching, and boat tours ply coastal waters in search of humpbacks and other whales. However, the main attraction here is the theatre festival staged each summer by Rising Tide Theatre. There's a popular comedic walking tour of the town several times a week, and stage productions too.

The feature movie The Shipping News was filmed in the Trinity Bay area. And at New Bonaventure you'll find the set built for the TV series Random Passage, which is based on two novels by Bernice Morgan. On Sundays, there are entertainment sessions at the site featuring local musicians, writers, historians, scientists and naturalists.

(Note: There is another community named Trinity on Route 320 in Bonavista Bay, which is not to be confused with this Trinity, located in Trinity Bay.)

Head North again around Trinity East and Port Rexton

When you head north again, take time to drive around Trinity East and Port Rexton. The scenery here is wonderful. It's also a good area to see icebergs in early summer. Lockston Path Provincial Park on unpaved Route 236 is a good place to camp, and keep an eye out for moose! The woods grow close to this road, and as you drive along you might spot the faint trails the moose use as their "highways" through the forest.

Next stop: Port Union

Port Union is part of the municipality of Trinity Bay North, which also includes Catalina and Melrose. Port Union was built in the early 20th century as a model town by Sir William Coaker and the members of his Fishermen's Union Trading Company and the Fishermen's Protective Union, which Coaker founder in 1908. Port Union is unique for rural Newfoundland: it has row houses built for fish plant workers, and you usually don't find row houses outside St. John's. The old railway station, now the Port Union Historic Museum, houses a display on Coaker and his era. The Bungalow, his house, is open to the public.

The word "graveyard" just doesn't do justice to the grandiose little meadow atop which Sir William Coaker is buried. His body rests in a white marble sarcophagus topped by a half-statue of the man himself which has, depending on your point of view, either its back turned to the sea or its gaze directed to the coast where lived the fishermen he served. Coaker left Newfoundland in the early 1930s – at the height of the Great Depression – and passed his later years in Jamaica and then Boston, where he died in 1938.

Take a side trip to Maberly and Elliston

You're getting closer to Bonavista, but first, a side trip to Maberly and Elliston is in order. Just offshore is a group of islands where seabirds nest each summer to raise their young, so bring your binoculars. Kittiwakes, murres and puffins are some of the birds that nest here. Elliston bills itself as the Root Cellar Capital of the World, and there are hundreds of these rustic, pre-modern food preservers in the town. If you want to get really close to a puffin, go to the area known as the Neck where the small, colourful birds will be just a few feet away from you.

Up to now, the Discovery Trail has been thickly wooded, except for the more frequent spots where peat bogs dominate. Now, as you reach the top of the hill overlooking Bonavista, the traditional barren Newfoundland coastline comes into view, thickly covered by the houses and other buildings that comprise one of our most famous towns.

Bonavista

If you can't find your way around Bonavista, don't panic. Get lost. That's the best way to see the town. There aren't many road signs. And keep an eye out for one-way streets. You can drive, walk or bicycle all over town. In recent years many of the town's historic structures have received a new lease of life through a major renewal program. A very popular restored community attraction is the old Garrick Theatre, which once again hosts movies and concerts.

Mention "Bonavista" and people here think of John Cabot, a Genoese adventurer known in his hometown as Giovanni Caboto. History can do strange things, like change your name. Christofo Columbo suffered the same fate. In 1497, just five years after Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean, King Henry VII and the burghers of Bristol, England, sent John Cabot west to investigate what lay in the northern section of the western Atlantic. He was looking for a northerly route to China and Japan that would allow English trade with these Asian nations to bypass the Spanish-Portuguese monopoly of the more southerly routes. Instead, he found fish, lots and lots of fish. The race was on to scoop it up, dry it and ship it to Europe. Countless fortunes have risen and fallen on the fish trade ever since.

But was Cabot the first European to reach Bonavista? History suggests so, but what of the Vikings? Could they have explored this area from their base at L'Anse aux Meadows at Newfoundland's northern tip nearly 1,000 years earlier? And what of Saint Brendan? He supposedly sailed west from Ireland even before the Vikings. Claims could also be made for the Spanish, Basques and Portuguese, especially the latter. Were the businessmen of Bristol risking their money or betting on a sure thing when they sent Cabot here? Bristol fishermen had claimed to have reached rich fishing grounds far to the west of their home port in 1480. John Cabot's importance lies not so much in what he did – a sailing feat though it was – but rather as a symbol for the opening up of this part of the New World to European trade and culture.

A reconstruction of John Cabot's ship, the Matthew, resides here in Bonavista, and you can also visit the Ryan Premises National Historic Site, which tells the 500-year history of the East Coast fishery. For historians, the Bonavista Archive, with its extensive genealogy records, is in the old courthouse on Sweetland's Hill. In front of the Court House is a recreation of the old Whipping Post where rough justice was administered to lawbreakers in centuries past.

Another must-see spot in the town is the Mockbeggar Plantation Provincial Historic Site, which gives visitors a taste of life in days past. The Big Store on the property is at least 200 years old, but the site, which was once a fishing “room,” has been occupied since at least the late 1700s. In the Methodist Cemetery you'll find some of the oldest gravestones in the province.

Stop to explore the Cape Bonavista Lighthouse. First built in 1843, it has now been restored as a Provincial Historic Site where visitors can step back a hundred years to experience the isolated lifestyle of a 19th-century lighthouse keeper. The lighthouse is open in summer and staffed by knowledgeable interpreters. Nearby is the Dungeon Provincial Park. There you will see a collapsed sea cave with a natural archway carved out by tidal action. And a statue to Cabot is also near the lighthouse.

Back through Bonavista to the west

Back through Bonavista, head down the trail's west side. This is a very pretty area. The road weaves through timeless coastal fishing villages and near several pebble beaches where beachcombers will spend time just looking, and maybe even finding. This section of the trail is perfect for side trips.

Drive out the south side of Blackhead Bay to Keels. One of the local traditions has it that Cabot left a keel-mark here while stopping for water. Others have speculated it might be Kialarness mentioned in the Viking sagas. There are families here with the surname Keel, but the community pre-dates their arrival. It was a fishing station in 1675 and appeared on maps almost a century before that.

Returning from this side trip, have a look around King's Cove. While most communities here are English, King's Cove has a few Irish descendants, and many English people from Bonavista and Trinity also settled here. The first Catholic church north of Harbour Grace was established here in 1815, but the community was first settled in the 1700s. Check out the churches here and in other small fishing communities along this part of the coast and you'll find some very fine architecture. King's Cove is a wonderful place to visit in the fall. Because of the long history of logging in the area, there are large stands of deciduous trees, and hills painted all the colours of autumn lend a romantic tinge. Later in the year, when snow blankets the landscape, the benefits of thick woods become apparent to skiers, while snowmobilers have enormous areas to explore and enjoy. And, of course, there are ponds, which are perfect for ice fishing.

The base of the route is farming country around Lethbridge and Musgravetown. In season, you can get lots of fresh vegetables here, or visit farmer's field day. It's a lovely, relaxing area. A good place for a panoramic view is Brooklyn. Farmers here gather dead seaweed that has washed onto the narrow, sandy beaches and truck it off to their fields to help nourish the soil.

From here, you can continue on to Port Blandford

There's good salmon and trout fishing in this area. Middle Brook offers good salmon fishing, while families interested in recreational fishing should try the Terra Nova and North West rivers. And there's also a championship 18-hole golf course at Port Blandford, so bring along your clubs.

Southwest Arm Drive

East of Clarenville, you'll pass by Deep Bight before coming to Routes 205 and 204 on the north and south shores respectively of South West Arm.

Here you'll find communities with very colourful names, such as Hatchett Cove – where there is a 9-hole golf course – St. Jones Within (yes, there was at one time a St. Jones Without), Caplin Cove, and Little Heart's Ease.

Route 205 is a particularly pleasant drive. Many residents of the area keep colourful gardens and, in early summer, the bogs are afire with red. St. Jones Within, at the end of the road, is a beautiful, hidden gem, built around a sheltered harbour and surrounded by high, wooded hills. And the view across South West Arm to Hodge's Cove is stunning.