Two 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.

Day 1 – Stand upon the earth's insides

We begin in Deer Lake, which has the nearest airport to Gros Morne National Park. 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 kilometres 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

This day we continue north along the coast to our second UNESCO World Heritage Centre – the 1,000-year-old Viking site at L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site.

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 number 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.

The tour ends at St. Anthony, which is the closest airport to L'Anse aux Meadows. You can fly out from here or drive back down the Viking Trail to Deer Lake.

Add a day to the tour and discover even more

If you drive back down the peninsula, there are several natural and cultural attractions well worth a visit.

Port au Choix National Historic Site is about halfway between L'Anse aux Meadows and Gros Morne National Park. In 1967, during excavations for the foundation of a theatre, workers uncovered an extensive graveyard that proved, on further research, to belong to the Maritime Archaic people who lived here 3,300 to 4,400 years ago. And they weren't the only aboriginal group discovered. Subsequent archaeological research in the Port au Choix area uncovered evidence of Dorset Paleo-Eskimo, Groswater Paleo-Eskimo and Recent Indian occupation.

All these groups, plus the Europeans who followed, were attracted to the area because it's a peninsula that juts out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which bring the residents just a little closer to the marine resources they still depend on. The people and the technology have changed over time, but the close connection to the sea stays the same.

It may be possible to watch an ongoing archaeological dig at a Maritime Archaic village that has recently been discovered. Ask at the interpretation centre.

Just north of Gros Morne National Park is a geological oddity: sea caves carved by underwater action that have been thrust above the surface. It's called The Arches, for pretty obvious reasons. It's a lovely place to have a picnic.

South of the park and almost back to Deer Lake is the Newfoundland Insectarium. Here, you'll find thousands of live and preserved insects from all over the world, plus a butterfly house where many of these beautiful insects flit around. It's a wonderful end – or beginning – to a tour of the Viking Trail.