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Down the Viking Trail

By Shelley Cameron-McCarron, Canadian Geographic Travel Club
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I wake in Norris Point, in Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park, and slip quietly from my waterfront room at Neddies Harbour Inn to walk the pebbled shore of Bonne Bay alone in first light. Gulls swoop and dance along the shoreline as morning mist casts a silvery sheen over soaring cliffs and whispers of sea roll softly at my feet. I walk on, not normally given to such solitude, but man, this land holds such raw kinship for me. I linger even though I know I must meet friends to continue down the Viking Trail. See, that’s the thing about this island flung so far east — it’s almost otherworldly. It seeps into your soul. And, “my lovey,” it’s fun. Just two days into a road trip up Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula to see Gros Morne and L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, the UNESCO World Heritage sites bookending Route 430, I’ve revelled in laughter and language lessons, been hugged by a stranger happy to see their homeland and had gifts of postcards and cloudberry jam pressed into my hands. Here are five highlights.

Talking Tablelands

“Your life is going to change,” Cedric Davignon, a Parks Canada guide, warns as we step into a horizon of orange-brown rock once part of the Earth’s mantle. “There will only be before and after walking on the Tablelands. Wander around. Fill your soul with the beauty.” I do, drinking in the amazing geological story (continental collision, age-old rocks pushed from ocean depths) that helped earn Gros Morne its UNESCO designation. That, and its exceptional beauty. Seaside towns, timeworn mountains, waterfalls, fiords and endless activity fill the spectacular 1,805-square-kilometre park.

Storytelling and song

In Rocky Harbour, at the Ocean View Hotel, I drift to sleep humming “Sea People, the water’s command,” my thoughts a happy jumble of hope and heartbreak after a terrific show by Anchors Aweigh, the lively house band whose tunes and tales draw sell-out crowds to the hotel’s Anchor Pub. “One of the things we like to do in this province is tell stories,” says Reg Williams, the accordion player whose one-liners pepper the fun. “People don’t know how hard it is to stay here,” adds frontman Wayne Parsons. “But if you can stay, the rewards are great.” Make it a night. Book dinner in the upstairs restaurant (ask for an ocean-view table) and reserve a room.

Humbled by nature

The view is perfect at Lobster Cove Head Lighthouse (pictured above), past Rocky Harbour, where a short trail through an elfin forest leads to two red Muskoka chairs overlooking fishing boats working the Gulf of St. Lawrence. And every side trip wows: walking Martin’s Point past the famed wreckage of steamship SS Ethie, beached since 1919, stopping to watch sun glint off icebergs and exploring Broom Point Fishing Exhibit, a showcase of the time when cod was king and in these coves.

Step into a Viking court

Bitter wind whips off the Atlantic as I shove my hands in my pockets and walk bogs and barrens toward sod huts, stunned by how captivated I am by L’Anse aux Meadows, North America’s only authenticated Viking settlement. “People are overwhelmed by it, even me,” says Clayton Colbourne, our Parks Canada guide who grew up playing on these meadows. Once inside I nearly stumble, so real is the scene: bearded Norsemen sit hunched on skins and blankets, gruff faces cast over a roaring fire, reciting legends of long ago.

Road food

The majestic five-hour Viking Trail drive can leave the traveller astonished, hungering for more — but also just hungry; it helps to know a few of the strategic points and refuges of the route. Begin with the fresh, local focus (and mean partridgeberry cheesecake) at Neddies Harbour Inn’s Black Spruce Restaurant. Otherwise grab a coffee, buy art or linger over lunch at funky, organic Java Jack’s Restaurant & Gallery in nearby Rocky Harbour, in the cradle of Gros Morne National Park. Halfway up the peninsula, taste tradition — homemade fish cakes, cod tongue and moose burgers from game shot by the grandmotherly proprietor — at Pointe Riche Restaurant in Port au Choix, a fine place to eat and energize before the final three hours to L’Anse aux Meadows. On the retreat from the Viking ruins a short detour to Saint Anthony is in order. Snug in the Lightkeeper’s Restaurant (“everyone goes for the chowder,” says one local), storm-churned ocean and wild wind fills the thrilling view from this former lightkeeper’s home.