Whales, icebergs and...Coronation Street: Having a splashing time in Newfoundland
There’s a rock stuck out in the Atlantic Ocean, where hulking humpback whales leap out of the cold sea, majestic icebergs drift close to the shore and puffins puff as they furiously flap wings that seem too small for their bulky bodies.
And while you may think the coast would be permanently crowded with nature spotters, on a Sunday morning the streets of St John’s in Newfoundland are still and empty, the pastel clap-board houses that cling to the steep streets quiet.
And where are the folk of St John's? Most of them are at home, behind closed doors, peering at their television screens...watching the weekly Coronation Street omnibus.
St John’s is a world away from the cobbled streets of Weatherfield, but the people who live there – in a similar small community where every face is recognised – feel an affinity with the Duckworths, the Battersbys and the Barlows.
The coastline near to St John's is a nature-lover's rugged dream, where the mist rolls in and out
They rave about the Street – everyone knows an avid watcher who never misses an episode and then switches on the repeats at the weekend, just to be sure every ounce of Weatherfield life is absorbed.
Fortunately, thanks to my mother's obsession I was brought up on a diet of Coronation Street, although she still hasn’t forgiven me for being born on a Wednesday night at 7.38pm. So striking up a Street-based conversation in St John's was never difficult.
However, I wasn’t there to swap tales of the cobbles. I wanted to do what most people do – I wanted to see whales and icebergs.
St John’s, just a five-hour flight from Heathrow, is set in a natural harbour along a stretch of coast that can only be described as breathtaking. Waves crash onto the rocks below enormous cliffs, where seabirds wheel and dive as the mist can roll in and out within minutes.
It’s a haunting area, where you always keep one eye on the sea in the hope that you will catch sight of a whale’s spout.
Many of the houses in St John's are painted in bright colours, lifting the gloom when bad weather rolls in
We were taken out in a Scorpio – a hard-bottomed inflatable with a large outboard motor on the back, to Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, leaping over waves as worried puffins bobbing up and down disappeared below the surface with a plop.
Once in the bay we stopped and stared, scanned and peered towards the horizon, looking for the tell-tale signs that whales are present - the spouts.
Five minutes went by, 10, 15. Our eyes played tricks on us, distance became impossible to gauge and depth perception vanished.
Owner of Island Designs and Gifts Randell Porter shows off his Coronation Street wares. He says Newfoundlanders feel an affinity with the show
Until...‘There!’ one of the group yelled. As we spun in the direction of a jabbing finger the engine had already been revved and we were off, skimming the water until we were a respectful distance away and the engine was cut to a growl.
We waited. And then the most incredible whooshing sound, like the blast from a hot air balloon’s burner made us spin around again as the humpback whale emptied its vast lungs through the double blow holes on its head, spraying water 12feet into the air.
There it was, propelling itself out of the water with a flick of its enormous tail – around 13 metres long and weighing 35 tons – arcing out of the ocean and effortlessly diving below the waves and vanishing.
And so the next couple of hours passed – drifting towards spouts, trying to predict where they would surface next, and if we were lucky seeing them lift their enormous tails out of the water and slap them onto the surface before they entered the depths.
Witless Bay is a place to leave sadness and stress behind and marvel at the natural world – although we were a little disappointed not to be sharing the bay with an iceberg – usually a common sight in summer, but not this year.
That afternoon, a little further along the coast we took to the water again, pairing up to kayak along the coast of another, smaller bay under the expert tuition of Stan.
After navigating inlets, exploring a waterfall and paddling into a dark, narrow cave, Stan used a net to scoop up spiny green sea urchins from the bottom, placing them on our hands to be scrutinised.
We watched in wonder as each hard point moved individually as the creature tried to come to terms with its new unfamiliar environment – being cupped in human hands.
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Using the urchin on his palm as an example, Stan explained how the urchin caught and devoured its food - before he whipped out a knife and deftly hacked the poor creature open like a conker, proudly removing a sliver of meat which he proclaimed to be a delicacy in Japan. The seafood lovers among us were delighted with the freshest sushi they had ever popped into their mouths. And as they handed their creatures to the executioner for their taste, I slipped mine back into the clear water and winked as I watched him sink to the bottom – safe for another day.
Stunning scenery, like this waterfall that drops into the sea, awaits sea kayakers who opt for a paddle on the clear waters off the coast of Newfoundland
The island's rocky bays are perfect for kayaking: Alex Millson and boating buddy Kylie Rathbone enjoy a paddle
Paddling back we looked into the water to see we were just inches above swarms – millions upon millions - of baby jellyfish, none bigger than a fingernail, giving the sea a silvery shimmer.
Back in St John’s there was time for a quick peek at the delicacies on offer at the local supermarket – seal flipper pie (but what about their big brown eyes! They’re surely too cute to eat!), halibut cheeks and…cod tongues. Yes, the tongues of codfish. Battered and deep fried in a waste-not-want-not way – but really quite unappetising. That night in a local restaurant, as the group tucked into fresh lobster, I opted for caribou steak with sun-dried cherries and dark chocolate sauce – Rudolph beats a bowl of cod tongues any day.
Newfoundland is famed for its fresh seafood - but some things are slightly less palatable, like this urchin (left), fresh from the sea and salted cod tongues, sold in the supermarket
And then it was time to hit the famed bars of George Street – a quarter-of-a-mile stretch of bars and pubs, where bands play Celtic-inspired folk, blues and rock and the population of music fanatics dance the evening away.
And there we were, in the busiest bar, on the busiest street in the biggest town - population 99,000 - on the rock, drinking the local beers and Screech rum and chatting with the locals, whose Canadian accents veered with varying degrees towards Irish, and sometimes even Cornish, lilts.
Newfoundland even has its own dictionary, of 5,000 words and expressions unique to the rock. And, despite the occasional eyebrow raised at why we were there in the first place, revellers seemed pleased that we had bothered to visit.
To shake off the excesses of the night before, the next day I wandered the quiet streets of the town, peeping into gift shops, stopping for coffee, slurping down fantastic ice cream from Moo-Moos parlour and nodding hellos to the locals.
A humpback whale measuring around 30ft pushes itself effortlessly out of the water in Witless Bay...but you have to be quick to catch them on camera
Nothing seemed to be too much trouble - the drivers even stop their cars and wave you across in front of them if you so much as even glance at the kerb.
As I ambled along Water Street, a familiar sign in the window of a shop named Island Designs and Gifts caught my eye - a replica Coronation Street road sign. Venturing in I was confronted with an impressive display of memorabilia – T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘Real men watch Coronation Street’, mugs and T-towels. Behind the counter the pony-tailed owner finished his phone call and asked if he could help me.
I just had one question – why are Newfoundlanders so fascinated with Coronation Street? To the extent that a single actor on the soap can have a lucrative one-night earner simply by appearing at St John’s biggest theatre and being interviewed on stage. In the last couple of years the actors playing Les Battersby, Fizz and most recently Sean and Becky have all made the trip and seen sell-out audiences of 1,100 pay $35 a ticket for the privilege.
The islands off the coast teem with colonies of puffins
Randell answered immediately.
‘I don’t watch it – I used to but I don’t any more. But here’s the reason people like it so much - the people on Coronation Street live normal lives. They’re colourful characters but they’re just real people with real lives. I work in a shop here and they work in shops too. It’s not like these American soaps that you just can’t believe. And, of course, we’ve got a British cultural heritage too.’
Put like that it seemed totally plausible. Despite the leaping whales, icebergs moving silently by, bowls of crispy cod tongues and a winter wind that would chill the hardiest Brit to the core, maybe Newfoundlanders are closer to us than the few thousand miles would suggest.
We’re both populations living on over-sized rocks jutting out into the Atlantic and, for whatever reason, we just want to put our heads around the door of the Rovers Return and see what’s happening on the Street.