The Irish Loop (312 km)

This scenic and historic drive starts at St. John's and heads south on Route 10 into the heart of Irish Newfoundland, and the magical world of whales, seabirds and caribou, then loops back to St. John's along Routes 90 and 1.

Take Route 10 to Kilbride and Goulds

Kilbride and its neighbour, Goulds, are both now part of St. John's. This is some of the most fertile land in the province where you will see herds of dairy cattle and fields of vegetables as you drive by. The rolling green hills of the area are still being farmed by the descendants of the Irish families who settled here in the 19th century.

Continue on to Bay Bulls

Bay Bulls was first fortified in 1638 when Sir David Kirke governed the colony of Newfoundland from Ferryland. Despite its fortifications, the community was captured and burned by the French on several occasions, the last in 1796. Bay Bulls, 30 kilometres south of St. John's, derives its name from the French "Baie Boules," a reference to the bull bird or dovekie, which winters in Newfoundland.

In the deep waters of Bay Bulls lies the wreck of HMS Sapphire. It was sunk in action against the French in 1696 and the site was excavated during the 1970s. Bay Bulls played an important role in the Second World War as a strategic port for the relief and repair of allied warships and merchantmen. The German submarine U-190 surrendered here during the last days of World War II.

Take a Boat Tour to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve

Today, Bay Bulls, along with Witless Bay and other Irish Loop Drive communities, are embarkation points for tour boats that bring thousands of visitors every year to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve.

The reserve, four islands and the waters around them between Witless Bay and Bauline, is home to phenomenal numbers of seabirds that nest there to raise their young. About 530,000 leach's storm petrels nest off Gull Island, with another 250,000 on Great Island. Green Island has 74,000 murres. And there are tens of thousands of Atlantic puffins, the provincial bird. As your tour boat cruises near the islands – they are protected areas off limits to people – you'll see puffins running and skipping along the top of the water trying to get airborne. Here you'll also find razorbills, great black-backed gulls, northern fulmars, black guillemots and black-legged kittiwakes.

There's a blizzard of birds in the air throughout the day, and they are all looking for something to eat.

That something is capelin. And it's not only the birds that eat them. Whales come near shore in late spring and summer on their annual migration. You'll find the world's greatest concentration of feeding humpbacks along Newfoundland's east coast, numbering in the thousands each year. When the capelin are running (swimming), the whales perform amazingly deft manoeuvres while chasing their favourite snack. They actually herd the fish into tight schools with sound and movement, surround them with streams of bubbles, and then force them to the surface where the tiny, silvery fish quickly become dinner.

Weighing in about 30 tonnes for an adult, the humpbacks are nevertheless extremely graceful. They'll dip below the waves for minutes at a time and then surface with a whoosh from their blowhole. Sometimes a whale, especially a younger one, will come close to a tour boat and raise an eye to all on board. Or one will breach completely out of the water and land with a mighty splash. While all this is going on, there might also be icebergs off in the distance. Some bergs weigh hundreds of thousands of tonnes and can be thousands of years old. They break off from the leading edge of glaciers on Arctic islands and drift slowly south, eventually melting southeast of Newfoundland in the warmer Gulf Stream waters.

Continue further along the Irish Loop

One of the area's gems is La Manche Provincial Park, which is situated in a beautiful river valley, teeming with wildlife. It attracts many nature enthusiasts and artists. One focus of interest is a beautiful marsh with a selection of delicate wildflowers.

La Manche River runs through the area and offers good canoeing and wonderful sightseeing along a hiking trail that takes you to a spectacular waterfall. Another trail takes you to the abandoned townsite of La Manche. It's a breathtaking trip by foot from the highroad to the tip of the ravine, which housed the settlement, and where a new suspended footbridge enables hikers to cross and continue hiking along the East Coast Trail. While little remains of the houses, the river cascades into a beautiful pocket-sized harbour with grassy fields surrounding it - a perfect place for a picnic.

Another option for those touring this section of Newfoundland is the Avalon Wilderness Reserve. You can obtain a permit to visit the 868 square kilometre reserve at the La Manche park office, or at other provincial park offices by calling (709) 635-4520. For those interested in canoeing, fishing or hiking, this is a worthwhile excursion. The reserve is also home to the world's southernmost herd of woodland caribou.

Continue along Route 10 through Cape Broyle

Visit the Devil's Stairway, an interesting rock formation where Satan himself is supposed to have left his footprints in the face of the cliff. Cape Broyle is known as a unique sea-kayaking destination. Within the sheltered harbour, kayakers can paddle alongside whales, seabirds and icebergs when in season, as well as through sea caves and under waterfalls.

Follow the Highway to Ferryland

Literally step right into the past at Ferryland. Sir George Calvert, who later became Lord Baltimore, established the Colony of Avalon here in 1621. The Colony of Avalon derived its name from Calvert's interest in Arthurian myths and legends and it is now the site of an ongoing archaeological dig.

The colony was successful for a number of years until a series of cold winters and other hardships prompted Calvert to seek warmer climates in Maryland, New England. Unusual for its time, the colony was a haven of tolerance for Catholics. Sir David Kirke took over the colony later in that century. During his time, Ferryland's high, rocky cliffs were fortified with cannons to protect the settlement from attack, but later the town was stripped of its guns and fortifications and was unable to resist the Dutch, who landed in 1763 and destroyed it. But they didn't destroy everything, and archaeologists have uncovered a large number of artifacts. Excavation with brush and trowel continues today, and if you've ever wanted to see history being uncovered, just stand and watch. The items recovered are cleaned and catalogued and the most impressive finds are on display in the visitor centre nearby. Beothuk artifacts have also been found in the area, proving these aboriginal people inhabited this part of the coast.

Another Ferryland attraction is an old lighthouse. There's a rough access road across the Downs, but it's best to walk out and see why Newfoundland painter Gerry Squires was so inspired by this area. A walk over the Downs to the lighthouse will be amply rewarded with a delicious lunch from the much-renowned Lighthouse Picnics, which you can enjoy perched on the grassy cliffs overlooking the ocean.

For an introduction to the famous Irish hospitality and culture of the Southern Shore, visit the historic Ferryland Museum in the old court house. The Southern Shore Shamrock Festival and Ferryland-Maryland Days are celebrated here in July each year, and there's a summer dinner theatre based on local stories and songs. Keep an ear tuned for stories of faeries.

Take a short drive down the coast to Aquaforte

A short drive down the coast will bring you to Aquaforte, whose harbour resembles a Norwegian fjord. Long ago a squadron of the French fleet ran aground to avoid bombardment by the English who waited at the mouth of the harbour. Some say they buried a treasure here and made their way on foot across the peninsula to Placentia.

From Aquaforte, continue on to Renews-Cappahayden

Renews is the nearest harbour on the southern Avalon to the fishing banks offshore. Renews and nearby Fermeuse were unsuccessfully settled by Welsh colonists in the early 1600s, under a scheme promoted by Sir William Vaughan. A point of interest in the area is the grotto where Mass was celebrated secretly at night in the late 1500s when Catholicism was suppressed by the Protestant English.

The Portugal Cove South Visitor Centre introduces three very different attractions that can be accessed via a gravel road from the community. Official interpretive tours from the centre take visitors to Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve where rare and unusual fossils date to 620 million years ago. Access to the fossils is by interpretive tour or permit only. Tours are available to Cape Race were the radio operators were the first to pick up the distress signal from RMS Titanic, which struck an iceberg 400 km to the south and sank with a huge loss of life in 1912.

The Myrick Wireless Interpretation Centre is a reconstruction of the Marconi station that stood here almost a century ago. The third attraction is the Cape Race Lighthouse, which has warned mariners of the treacherous ocean since 1856.

Back on Route 10, head west to Trepassey

Trepassey, by coincidence, has a connection with Colony of Avalon in Ferryland. The French version of the Avalon legend holds that departed souls sail off across the sea from a place called Baie des Trépassés in Brittany. The man who sold Calvert the land for the Ferryland colony was the same man who founded Trepassey.

More recently, the town was the starting point for several transatlantic flights including the one in 1928, when Amelia Earhart, as a passenger with William S. Stultz and Lou Gordon, became the first woman to fly the Atlantic. The caribou from the Avalon Wilderness Reserve sometimes cross the highway here during their annual migrations.

This region is a popular base for the hunting of upland game birds such as the willow ptarmigan and for salmon and trout fishing expeditions. There are three excellent rivers in this area – North East Brook, North West Brook and Biscay Bay River. They offer a good run of fishing during July and August. Barren ground and isolated heath characterizes this area.

Take a short diversion off Route 10 to St. Shotts

Beyond Trepassey, a short diversion off Route 10 will take you to St. Shotts, best known today for its huge deposits of peat. Hiking trails provide a dramatic view of a coast that has claimed many vessels over the centuries, and the remains of a few wrecks are still visible.

Back on Route 90, head north

A few kilometres away are the communities of Peter's River, St. Stephens and St. Vincent's, where sheep raising has a long history. At St. Vincent's, a long stretch of sandy beach runs parallel to the highway. This is a marvelous place for beachcombing, whale watching and birdwatching. Deep water near the shore enables whales to swim very close to the shoreline. There's an observation area with coin-operated binoculars at the parking lot.

In the community of St. Mary's and throughout this region you will hear an Irish-influenced dialect of Newfoundland English and see a lifestyle similar to Ireland's. All along the way you meet the descendants of the original settlers and visitors to St. Mary's from the Emerald Isle are amazed so Irish a place exists outside their homeland.

From the communities of Coot's Pond and Riverhead on Route 90, you can take a scenic detour to O'Donnels and Admirals Beach on Route 94. Then travel up Salmonier Arm toward St. Joseph's, near the mouth of one of the best spots for salmon in eastern Newfoundland: Salmonier River. There are a number of good fishing pools in the 15-km stretch between the mouth of the river and Murphy Falls, accessible from the highway. The best pools are Back River, Pinsent's Falls, Butler's and Murphy Falls proper.

The Wilds Golf Course, whose out of bounds sections include rare plants, is along this stretch of the Irish Loop. You can stop by for a round of golf, or just get out and stretch your legs along the course’s nature trails.

Another favourite stop along this route is the Salmonier Nature Park, a 1,214-hectare wilderness reserve area with a large exhibit of 30 species of animals and birds indigenous to Newfoundland and Labrador. The park provides the opportunity to see at close range flora and fauna, which you might miss in the course of normal travels within the province. Kids love the park. As you walk along the boardwalk trail you will see moose, beaver, caribou, owls, otters, lynx, foxes and others.

Drive onto Route 1 toward St. John's

The last piece of the Irish Loop Drive is Route 1 between Route 90 and St. John's. Near the Witless Bay Line (Route 13 which takes you to Route 10) you will see evidence of the great ice sheets that once covered North America. Large boulders, known as glacial erratics, sit where they were dropped by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago. In fact, this is probably the most southerly arctic/alpine region in the world, and a variety of plant life reaches its southernmost limit here. On the small ponds in the vicinity, you may catch a glimpse of Canada geese, which share this habitat with ptarmigan and horned larks.

You may wish to relax and investigate this wonderful part of nature during a stopover at Butter Pot Provincial Park. The park is a popular weekend rendezvous for campers. Butter Pot has a sandy freshwater beach, spacious campgrounds and an interpretation display. Guided nature walks are conducted by a park naturalist on the hiking trails within the park boundaries.

Ask at the park office for directions to the Hawke Hills Ecological Reserve, which is on the south side of Route 1 between Routes 90 and 62. The reserve protects the easternmost and southernmost Canadian ranges of a variety of arctic alpine plants.

Just east of the park is the ‘City Limits' sign that means you're near St. John's. You can continue on Route 1 into the northwest section of the city, or you can go downtown on Route 2, which ends at Water Street, one of the oldest European thoroughfares on the continent.