A UNESCO Trilogy – Three World Heritage Sites

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has identified just over 800 places in the world that are of outstanding natural and cultural significance. There are 17 in Canada, and three are in Newfoundland and Labrador. Two of them – Gros Morne National Park and L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site – are located on the west coast of the Island of Newfoundland, and are only a few hours drive apart on the aptly named Viking Trail. The third – Red Bay National Historic Site – is part of the Labrador Coastal Drive. It can be reached via ferry from St. Barbe, Newfoundland, to Blanc Sablon, Quebec. From there it's a short one-hour drive to the site.

Day 1 – Stand upon the earth's insides

We begin in Deer Lake, which has the nearest airport to Gros Morne National Park. Gros Morne was named a World Heritage Site because it provides a rare example of continental drift, plus its spectacular scenery caused by more recent glaciation. Turn off Route 1 onto The Viking Trail, Route 430, and the park entrance is about a 30-minute drive. Today, we will explore the southern part of the park along Route 431. The Discovery Centre just outside Woody Point is an excellent introduction to the park, which was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987.

The flat mountain seen from Route 431 is the Tablelands, and is just the first of the park's major geological attractions. The rocks comprising the Tablelands are peridotite, a material usually found only in the earth's inner mantle. It's toxic to most plant life, which is why the soils are so barren. It was thrust to the surface during a period of geological upheaval eons ago. The current shape of the surface is due to repeated glaciation, deglaciation, and sea level changes over the past two million years.

There's a four kilometre moderate hiking trail into the Tablelands that can be completed in about two hours. The nine kilometre Green Gardens trail (short route) ends at a staircase that leads to a rare pillow lava formation along the coast. Several other trails from Route 431 range from moderate to strenuous. There's also kayaking available on Trout River Pond, which also has a tour boat operation.

Day 2 – Beautiful beaches, a glacier-carved fjord and some theatre

Today we explore the central and northern areas of the park.

Rocky Harbour is the largest town in the area, and a good place to pick up any supplies you need. The next community, Norris Point, is the site of a major research project by Memorial University. The Bonne Bay Marine Station was built here because the area includes both the northernmost limit and southernmost limit of various marine species. You can take a peek at research in progress, and see what the underwater camera in Bonne Bay is picking up in real time.

Next it's off to Western Brook Pond, one of the park's most popular natural attractions. Don't let the modest name fool you. It's actually a huge glacier-carved fjord. A 45-minute walk along a boardwalk from The Viking Trail, Route 430, brings you the dock of the tour boat that operates here. The fjord's walls are 2,000 feet high in some places, and several waterfalls stream from the high country into the pond. The mouth of the pond features a wonderful sandy beach.

Tonight we stay at Cow Head – which has another fabulous beach – and end the day with a performance at the Gros Morne Theatre Festival. Depending on the night, it could be dinner theatre, a local comedy, or maybe a drama based on a shipwreck.

Day 3 – A visit with Vikings

The Vikings were great travellers, ranging east to Moscow, south to Mecca – and west to North America. Their adventures were written down in the 14th century in the Sagas, but the visits to the place they called Vinland were all but forgotten for centuries. There had been speculation that Vikings from Greenland and Iceland had reached North America – and specifically northern Newfoundland – but there was no concrete proof until the 1960s when adventurer Helge Ingstad and his archaeologist wife Ann Stine Ingstad found a series of collapsed sod huts that the people of L'Anse aux Meadows thought had been an aboriginal campsite.

Excavations during the 1960s by the Ingstads and Parks Canada archaeologists uncovered a smithy where bog iron had been turned into nails, the remains of the sod huts and other evidence, which proved that indeed the Vikings had been there around the year 1000 AD. It's likely they explored further south because some of the plant remains found at L'Anse aux Meadows were from a warmer area. It seems they stayed only a few years and had troublesome relations with the aboriginals who lived here. The Sagas record that one of their numbers was killed in a clash, and that the first European child born in the New World was a boy named Snorri who came into the world right here.

Today the remains of the original archaeological dig remain covered to preserve them, but some of the artifacts are displayed at the site's interpretation centre. Some of the huts have been reconstructed using the same techniques the Vikings used ten centuries ago, and interpreters in period costume show visitors what life was like in that long-ago time. The Vikings were a truly adventurous people, and despite their fierce reputation in Europe, they were skilled navigators who lived in what is now North America five centuries before Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain to the Caribbean.

About two kilometres from the World Heritage Site is a fanciful recreation of an 11th-century Viking port of trade called Norstead. Viking games and a recreation of a Viking ship, the Snorri, which sailed here from Greenland, are among the highlights.

Overnight in the L’Anse aux Meadows-St. Anthony area, keeping in mind it’s a two-hour drive from here to the ferry at St. Barbe. Check the ferry scheduled and arrive at least one hour before sailing time.

Day 4 – Our newest UNESCO World Heritage Site

Red Bay is about an hour drive from the ferry terminal in Blanc Sablon. Follow Route 510 north from the Quebec-Labrador border.

Back in the 16th century, whale oil was a valuable commodity in western Europe. It was burned in lamps to provide light, and used in cosmetics. The Basques were renowned whalers who came from the Bay of Biscay area in northern Spain and southern France, and by the time they reached North America, had been hunting whales for half a millennium. Beginning in the 1530s they established a network of whaling stations along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, the largest of these being in the Strait of Belle Isle at Red Bay. They hunted bowhead and right whales, rendered the blubber into oil in onshore factories called tryworks, and shipped the oil to Europe in wooden barrels.

Whaling was a dangerous occupation. Many men drowned when their boats capsized, while others perished on shore from disease, exposure and starvation. At Saddle Isle, just offshore from Red Bay is a cemetery with at least 145 graves.

The Basques whaling heyday was the 16th century. After that, whales had been hunted so heavily their numbers declined, and by the 1620s the Basques had abandoned Red Bay and their other stations.

Over the subsequent centuries, the memory of Basques whalers in Newfoundland all but disappeared. Some headstones were preserved in cemeteries in Placentia Bay from Basques cod fishers, and the name of the town of Port aux Basques bears witness to their importance here in times past.

Skip ahead to the mid 20th century when a young English woman named Selma Huxley moved to Canada. Here she met and married the architect Brian Barkham, who had studied in the Basque country. He died in 1964, and his wife subsequently moved to Bilbao with a plan to research Basques history in North America through the extensive archives that existed, but hadn’t been consulted in centuries.

What Selma Barkham found was a treasure trove of historical documents she used to trace the locations of Basque stations. In 1977, with a grant from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, she led explorations of several of these harbours and discovered the remains of the Basque station at Red Bay. In terms of its size, scope and importance in the early history of Canada, it was a sensation.

Over the next 15 years, extensive archaeological work was carried out, and in 1982 divers from Parks Canada found what is believed to be the wreck of the San Juan which sank in a storm with a full load of oil aboard in 1567. Among the planks recovered was one depicting drawings of a ship, which was another sensational find because until then no one was really sure what 16th-century ships looked like. Another great discovery was the remains of a chalupa, a small open boat from which the Basques hunted whales. It has been preserved and is on display in Red Bay. The San Juan remains in the cold waters of the harbour where the temperature helps preserve the wood.

In 1979, Red Bay was named a National Historic Site of Canada, and in 2013 it received the prestigious designation of World Heritage Site from UNESCO.

There are two main buildings in Red Bay that interpret the site. One is the main interpretation centre, and the second houses the chalupa. The buildings are open from June to September and attract thousands of tourists. Over the next few years additional work will be undertaken to make sure the story of the most extensive, best preserved and most comprehensive whaling station of its type is brought to a larger audience.

After nesting birds have hatched and fledged in late June or early July, you can take a three-minute boat ride to Saddle Island. Here you’ll see remains of the tryworks where blubber was rendered, and the graves of those who died here. The remains of red Mediterranean roof tiles provide quite a contrast to the lock rock formations.