Labrador Coastal Drive (623km)

The completion of a road link to central Labrador and the world beyond, and the extension of ferry service between Newfoundland and Labrador to a year-round operation, is bringing change to the southeast coast of The Big Land. For the first time ever, residents can drive north and then west to North America. It has also opened up this area to exploration by visitors who are eager to see a part of the world that was previously beyond their rubber-tired reach. What these new explorers find is a wild land dotted with a few coastal settlements inhabited mainly by the descendants of fisherman who began to settle here 200 years ago.

Begin your journey with a 90-minute ferry ride

This Labrador tour begins on Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula, at the Viking Trail community of St. Barbe, where you can take a ferry ride across the Strait of Belle Isle to Blanc Sablon on the Labrador-Quebec boundary. In winter, when St. Barbe is icebound, the service operates with an ice-strengthened vessel from Corner Brook. When travelling by coastal boat or ferry it's always a good idea to plan everything in advance. Schedules can vary. The crossing is a good time to look for seabirds like fulmars, shearwaters, jaegers and murres.

You can also reach the Strait of Belle Isle area on the Quebec coastal freighter operated by Relais Nordique that serves ports along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. This boat calls at 12 ports between Rimouski and Blanc-Sablon over a four-day period.

Depart Blanc Sablon (Quebec), the western terminus of the ferry, and drive 3 kilometres north to Route 510. The first 80 kilometres of Route 510, as far as Red Bay, are paved, and the remaining stretch to Happy Valley-Goose Bay is gravel.

Just 5 kilometres from Blanc Sablon

L'Anse-au-Clair is the first community that you'll come to in Labrador. It was founded by the French in the early 1700s. While you are visiting this scenic fishing outport, you can check out the local craft store. There's also a restored early 20th-century church, which now serves as the Gateway to the Labrador Visitor Centre displaying the history and heritage of the area and information on what to see and do. The nearby Jersey Room Hiking Trail leads to an interpretation area on Jerseymen from the Channel Islands who fished here in the 17th century.

Along the Forteau and Pinware Rivers during the months of July and August, trout and salmon anglers should be prepared to meet their match on the many pools, steadies and rattles. Pinware River Provincial Park is an ideal base for exploring the entire area.

Before we go further, let's talk about the flies. Here, black-flies take no prisoners from mid-July to mid-September, whenever the air is warm and calm. Where it's cool and breezy, they're not much of a problem. Bring an insect repellent and cover up. If you go fishing, bring a head net and gloves.

At nearby L'Anse-Amour

This is the location of the Maritime Archaic Burial Mound National Historic Site where archaeologists discovered the oldest known funeral monument in North America. The Maritime Archaic people buried a 12-year-old boy here 7,500 years ago with an elaborate reverence that is unique for that era.

Aboriginal people lived here as early as 9,000 years ago when it was on the edge of the retreating glaciers. A series of small campsites and burial grounds are all that remain of these early relatives of Paleo-Indian caribou hunters of northeastern North America. The descendants of these early inhabitants of southern Labrador later fished and hunted whales in the Strait of Belle Isle. The numerous species of fish and seabirds along the coast also supported later bands of Inuit and even Newfoundland's Beothuk Indians who made their homes here. Some of the artifacts found at the site have been reproduced and are on display at the Labrador Straits Museum and Craft Shop just a few kilometres away overlooking L'Anse Amour. The museum features displays on the contribution women have made to the Straits area.

Visit the Point Amour Lighthouse Provincial Historic Site, a 109-foot lighthouse, the second tallest and one of the two oldest still working in Canada. It was built in 1854-58 to aid navigation through the Strait of Belle Isle. The interior features costumed interpreters and exhibits covering four centuries of maritime history. Next door, the Labrador Straits Natural Heritage Centre has exhibits on plants native to the area, and offers walking tours and other programs during July and August.

There are many tales of shipwrecks along this coast, including that of the HMS Raleigh which went aground near Point Amour in 1922. The vessel was headed for Forteau Bay where some of the officers had planned to go salmon fishing. A trail from the lighthouse leads to remnants of the ship that lie on the beach.

The first European settlers on the Southern Labrador Coast came from England, the island of Jersey in the English Channel near France, and Newfoundland, and in the mid 19th century most arrivals were from Dorset, Devon and Somerset. After that, settlers tended to be Newfoundlanders moving north, such as those who eventually settled at L'Anse-au-Loup – where you'll find the Battery Hiking Trails – Captstan Island, West St. Modeste and further north in Lodge Bay in what were at first only temporary summer fishing stations.

During the month of August, Forteau is the home of the annual Labrador Straits Bakeapple Folk Festival. The event is named for the golden-coloured berries, also called cloudberries, that grow in abundance along this coast. They are a great delicacy when prepared as jams, jellies or sauces. The festival has lots of berry picking, but the fun also includes baking contests, traditional music, dance, song and storytelling. A variety of distinct craft items are sold during the festival. They range from caribou skin mittens and rug work to tapestries, carvings and colourful embroidered clothing. While in town, stretch your legs on the Overall Fall Brook Trail.

Heading north again you'll notice an unusually large number of boulders – glacial erratics, as they're called – deposited here by melting glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age.

At the end of the paved section of Route 510 you'll find Red Bay

Red Bay is a community where one of the earliest industrial complexes in the New World – a Basque whaling station – has been declared a National Historic Site. Archaeologists have discovered several shipwrecks from the period of 1550-1600 when this was the world whaling capital, supplying Europe with oil for lamps and soap.

Archaeologists have uncovered an astounding number of tools and personal effects that confirm European habitation of this coast during the 16th and 17th centuries. Many of these are now conserved in the Interpretation Centre. Self-guided tours of nearby Saddle Island, where the main station was located, are available during the summer months.

From Mary's Harbour take a boat to Battle Harbour

Battle Harbour brings 200 years of history back to life. It was a fishing port as early as the 1750s, and was one of the first European settlements along the coast. In the 19th and 20th centuries it was a major centre for the floater fishery from Newfoundland, and in 1893 Dr. Wilfred Grenfell established his first Labrador hospital here. But a fire in 1930 destroyed the hospital, school and other buildings, prompting many people to move to nearby Mary's Harbour. By the 1960s it was abandoned, used only as a summer fishing station, but with most of its older commercial and public buildings intact. As a result, the modernization that swept Newfoundland and Labrador in the decades after Confederation in 1949 bypassed Battle Harbour and left it untouched and unspoiled.

In the 1990s a major restoration program helped preserve what is the most intact fishery outport in the province. It was declared a National Historic District in 1997. To visit Battle Harbour, which is accessible only in summer via a one-hour boat trip from Mary's Harbour, you should make reservations. Once there, you will find a restored salt fish premises and community, interpretation centre, boat charters, walking trails and overnight accommodations. It's like it was 100 years ago when there were no cars or other machinery (there is an electricity generator), a slow pace of life, kerosene lanterns for light, and just your neighbours to help you out if you got into trouble.

Staff at Battle Harbour Inn try to recreate that atmosphere in a very simple way: everyone eats at the same table. Spend the day exploring and touring, then spend the evening with your fellow guests. If it's a clear night, look for the incredible northern lights, which are visible in Labrador about 240 nights a year.

Dr. Wilfred Grenfell

Dr. Wilfred Grenfell first went to coastal Labrador in 1892 as an employee of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. Conditions were grim. Aside from some Moravian missionaries who had rudimentary medical training, there was little medical help anywhere along the rugged and sparsely populated coast. On his return to England he began to raise money and in 1893 brought two doctors and two nurses with him, along with funding for two hospitals. Over the next few years he toured Canada and the United States explaining the plight of people in coastal Labrador, and raising funds. From 1896 to 1899 he returned to Britain at the mission's behest, but returned to Labrador and northern Newfoundland and spent the rest of his working life bringing medical care to this remote area while raising funds through books and lecture tours. Eventually he cut his ties with the mission and established the International Grenfell Association to oversee his work.

His influence went beyond medicine. He established co-operative stores in several communities, encouraged women to produce handicrafts for sale, started a sawmill which eventually failed, and established orphanages, schools, agricultural stations and other social and economic endeavors.

In 1908 en route to see a patient, he became stranded on sea ice during a blizzard and had to kill three of his dogs to survive. He wrote about the experience in the book Adrift on an Ice Pan, which became his best-known literary work.

Meanwhile, back on Route 510

Just north of Mary's Harbour, Route 510 swings inland away from the coast and through the wilderness, while a new road connecting St. Lewis, Route 513, stretches 30 kilometres to the east.

Port Hope Simpson, located on Route 510, is a logging community and one of the newest towns in the province. It was founded only in 1934 when a sawmill was constructed to cut pit props in the extensive forests near the town. People have fished near here since the mid-1800s.

Motorists are advised to borrow a free preprogrammed satellite phone before driving the more remote stretches of the Trans-Labrador Highway. There are no services outside the towns, and cellphones won't work way out here. Simply pick up the phone before you set out and drop it off on your arrival.

Charlottetown evolved into a permanent settlement from a collection of smaller coastal villages that depended on fishing and trapping. Around 1949 the current location was chosen because it had lots of timber, fresh water and flat land for a future airstrip. You can reach it via route 514 from Route 510. A coastal boat from Charlottetown goes to the remote communities of Norman Bay and Williams Harbour, and also stops at Port Hope Simpson. When travelling by coastal boat or ferry it's always a good idea to plan everything in advance. Schedules can vary.

At the end of Route 514 is Pinsent Arm

The coastal scenery here is beautiful. This heavily wooded area contrasts sharply with northern Labrador where tundra dominates the landscape.

Offshore is the Gannet Islands Ecological Reserve, the largest razorbill colony in North America and a major breeding colony for murres, puffins, and black-legged kittiwakes. Only scientists are permitted to visit the island.

At road's end, find Cartright

At Cartwright Junction, about 93 km from Port Hope Simpson, Route 516 heads to Cartwright, 91 km away, while the newly built portion of Route 510 continues to Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Cartwright was named for Capt. George Cartwright, a merchant adventurer who lived along the coast for about a decade in the late 1700s. Cartwright had better relations with the Inuit than his contemporaries. Cartwright was the subject of a 1990s novel called The Afterlife of George Cartwright, which was nominated for a Governor-General's Award for Canadian fiction. The community bearing his name is a major service centre for the coast.

The New Road – Cartwright Junction to Happy Valley-Goose Bay (299 km)

The new gravel road between Cartwright Junction and Happy Valley-Goose Bay opened in late 2009. Completion of this link means almost all the communities in southern Labrador are connected by road and open for exploration, and the others can be reached by coastal boat (no automobile capacity, however).There are no services along this road outside of communities, so it’s a good idea to take along a free satellite phone just in case.

Some people believe the Lake Melville area was the Markland – the Land of Forests – of the Viking sagas. It was probably here that Norse rovers Thorvald Eiriksson and Thorfinn Karlsefni landed on their journey westward to undiscovered lands.

In winter, a great adventure along this part of the coast is a trip on the groomed snowmobile trails that connect the communities of southeast Labrador.

Southeastern Labrador by Coastal Boat

From Charlottetown you can catch the coastal boat north to Norman Bay. This used to be a wintering station for people from the nearby coast until the 1960s. One family resisted efforts to be resettled to larger communities and they were eventually joined by a few others, who kept the tiny village alive, commuting to Charlottetown for supplies by speedboat when the water was free of ice and via snowmobile in winter. Now they can take the coastal boat during the shipping season.

Pinsent Arm is about 20 kilometres southeast of Charlottetown, and although it was a winter residence for some stationers on and off from the 1860s onward, it was permanently settled only in the 1950s, and was electrified only in 1985 when a diesel generator was installed.

Williams Harbour, south of Pinsent Arm and 35 km east of Port Hope Simpson, is another community whose status changed from summer fishing station to permanent settlement. Migratory fishermen from England first fished here in the 1700s, and the harbour was settled in the 1840s, declining and increasing with the fortunes of the fishery. The establishment of a fish plant in the late 1970s persuaded residents to abandon their winter place at nearby Rexon's Cove and move to Williams Harbour permanently.