Newfoundland Labrador's mystique, beauty lure adventurers

27 Jul 2012

By Jayne Clark
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A view off the Bonavista Peninsula in northeastern Newfoundland.
By Jayne Clark, USA TODAY

CUPIDS, Newfoundland Labrador – Up on the rooftop garden of the Cupids Legacy Centre, Peter Laracy is delivering some stern advice. About fairies.

"If you hear strange music, don't follow it. It could be fairies trying to lure you away," the manager says.

Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a fist-sized rock-solid piece of hardtack. "Here, take this to throw at 'em," he says. "You never know when fairies are going to get you."

In any other setting, you'd walk the other way. But in this rugged, remote and, yes, strange land, you take the hardtack and slip it into your pocket. Just in case.

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With its dramatic coastline, quaint villages and pristine wilderness, Canada's northeasternmost province is one of North America's last unexplored frontiers. (Newfoundland, an island known as "The Rock," is the most populated portion of the province. Labrador, a vast, empty mainland expanse north of the island, has a scant 30,000 inhabitants.)

Signs reading "Puffins, Whales, Icebergs Ahead" pop up on the roadside the way "Gas, Food, Lodging" do in more mundane realms. There is one moose in the province for every four human inhabitants (150,000 and 500,000, respectively). And its jagged, 18,000-mile coastline means there are few direct routes from Point A to Point B.

But its quirks extend beyond geographical kinks: Newfoundland Time runs a half-hour ahead of the next time zone over. The favorite local brew, Iceberg, is made from 25,000-year-old iceberg water. It's one of the few spots on the planet where you can swim with 50-foot-long humpback whales. A popular snack is cod tongues with scrunchions (fried pork fat, and quite delicious).

Find your Heart's Desire

And then there are the place names that hearty seafaring settlers — English, Irish, Portuguese — bestowed on this land. Some are sentimental: Heart's Desire, Heart's Content, Heart's Delight. Some are ominous: Horrid Gulch, Witless Bay. And some, like Dildo (not to be confused with South Dildo), are just plain curious.

"We're just a little community," says Doreen Higdon, a waitress at the Dildo Dory restaurant on Dildo's picturesque harbor.

But its name does entice tourists to pause for a photo with the Dildo sign at the edge of town. Among recent visitors: singer John Mellencamp and actress Meg Ryan, who stopped by the restaurant and left an autographed photo raving about the "to die for" Dildo sticky pudding.

There are no accidental tourists to this end-of-the-road island. Visitors come by design, and it isn't for the weather. They come for the natural beauty, the welcoming people and its uniqueness. There's a lilting musicality to local dialects and enough idiosyncratic verbiage to fill a 5,500-word Dictionary of Newfoundland English.

"The thing about a developed destination is its predictability," says John Fisher, who runs the family-owned Fishers' Loft Inn on the stunning Bonavista Peninsula. "This is an emerging destination. It's Newfoundland, not Disneyland."

A scant 40,000 visitors annually make their way to this craggy spit of land jutting off the province's east coast, also the location for the movie The Shipping News. But tourism is growing here and elsewhere.

Fishers' Loft Inn, a collection of six handsome saltbox-style dwellings decorated with locally crafted furniture and artwork, just opened a conference center. The complex overlooks Trinity Bay and is steps from the Skerwink Trail, a 3-mile loop that cuts through forests, meadows and some of the most spectacular cliff-top coastal views anywhere.

Nearby in the town of Trinity, Tineke Gow relaxes after dinner on the dock behind the Twine Loft Restaurant. With its vacation homes, artists' studios and summer theater, the town is as close to a tourist haven as the Bonavista Peninsula can muster. (Its year-round population: 36.)

The weather's 'mauzy'

The Dutch-born Gow arrived in the early 1990s. A moratorium on cod fishing — once the prime industry in Newfoundland — had just been imposed. Historic saltbox houses stood vacant, and she bought one because it had a well. She bought a second house and eventually opened them as the waterfront Artisan Inn.

"The weather is kind of mauzy (damp in Newfoundland-speak), but people aren't coming here to lie on the beach. They're coming to be in touch with nature," she says. "They're seeking hard days and soft nights at four-star places."

The Newfoundland dining scene, not long ago a bastion of the Jiggs dinner (a one-dish concoction that includes pickled salt beef), is evolving, too. At the Bonavista Social Club on Upper Amherst Cove, chef/owner Katie Hayes serves organic produce grown on site. She also raises goats, bees and chickens, and she bakes bread. The moose burger (available only in season) is served with "ketchup" made from wild partridgeberries.

In the capital, St. John's, award-winning Raymonds, a fine-dining harbor-front eatery, serves innovative twists on game, seafood, berries and other local ingredients. At Bacalao, also in St. John's, the chefs specialize in "nouvelle Newfoundland cuisine" with offerings that include a daily salt-cod special.

Active options are diversifying, too. One of the more unusual tours is swimming with humpback whales off the coast of the Avalon Peninsula, not far from St. John's. An estimated 5,000 humpbacks — just one of a dozen or so species — migrate here in June and remain through July.

Rick Stanley of Ocean Quest Adventures had been leading scuba divers to area shipwrecks (there are 10,000 documented wrecks here) for 13 years when he realized taking snorkelers out on his Zodiac to swim with humpbacks would have broader appeal. This is his third season in the venture, and demand is so high that he has more than doubled the number of tours over last summer.

"If we don't see a whale, I'll eat my hat," Stanley declares as the boat motors out of Petty Harbour with eight hopeful, wetsuit-clad passengers. Within 10 minutes, dolphins are jumping near the boat and whales are spouting in the distance. Before the craft returns three hours later, almost everyone has gotten at least a fleeting glimpse of a humpback in its own underwater habitat. Stanley's hat remains intact.

Former fisherman Bruce Miller leads a different sort of excursion with his Rugged Beauty Tours in New Bonaventure. He takes guests to former fishing settlements that were abandoned in the 1950s and '60s, after the government urged residents to move from the headlands and into towns where basic services were available.

After cod fishing was banned in 1992, many turned to crabbing and shrimping for their livelihoods. But that's dwindling, too, as many long-time residents seek bigger paychecks working in the oil sands of Western Canada. Only two professional fishermen remain in New Bonaventure, Miller says.

Fortunately, for him, "this little boat tour fell in my lap. As long as tourists come, I'm not goin' nowhere. And if tourism fails here, I'm going to be one of the guys turning the key."