Newfoundland and Labrador’s vast, unspoiled wilderness offers glimpse back to Viking times

24 Mar 2010

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Newfoundland and Labrador may lie in the Atlantic a time zone ahead of the rest of North America, but visiting Canada’s easternmost province is like taking a step back in time.

With 11,000 miles of spectacular coastline and 180,000 square miles of pristine wilderness in Labrador alone — not to mention nearly two dozen species of whales, hundreds of thousands of moose and caribou, 35 million seabirds and the 10,000-year-old icebergs floating offshore — it’s small wonder that few places on Earth can match the natural wonder of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Its unspoiled forests, mountains and shores is a glimpse into the long-ago past, way before the first Viking explorers settled here more than a millenium ago.

When it comes to such diverse natural splendors, size does matter. Comprised of the large island of Newfoundland and the Canadian mainland region of Labrador (which more than lives up to its nickname, “The Big Land”), the province spans such a huge area that it would be the fourth-largest American state, behind Alaska, Texas and California.

To explore and experience everything such a vast expanse has to offer, many travelers divide their visits into touring the four main regions of Newfoundland — the Avalon Peninsula in the southwest, central Newfoundland, and the eastern and western coasts — plus the southern coast of Labrador.

The first stop in Avalon is typically Newfoundland’s capital city of St. John’s, the island’s historic epicenter (and site of its main airport). A main attraction of the city’s bustling downtown are the colorful, late-19th century rowhouses and national sites reflecting its long history as a major shipping and fishing port.

Cape Spear, the easternmost point in North America, is a prime location for spotting icebergs and watching whales. Also in St. John’s harbor is Signal Hill and the Cabot Tower, built more than 100 years ago to commemorate English explorer John Cabot?a>??s landing in 1497. The tower also is where inventor Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic radio transmission in 1901.

Further along the Avalon coast are the ecological preserves of Witless Bay and Cape St. Mary’s, summer home to the area’s immense population of seabirds.

Nature abounds on Newfoundland’s east coast as well, where Terra Nova National Park offers a chance to see moose, black bears, birds and whales along with plenty of hiking, camping, kayaking and fishing.

A highlight of central Newfoundland, known for its vast forest and abundance of beautiful bays and tiny islands, is the town of Gander and the North Atlantic Aviation Museum.

Western Newfoundland, along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is where mountains, glacier-carved fjords and rugged coastline combine to make a visit to this part of the island an unforgettable experience.

Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has more than 60 miles of hiking trails — and a 10-mile trek up Gros Morne Mountain, the second-highest on Newfoundland (almost 2,600 feet), that offers stunning panoramic views.

If Newfoundland’s breathtaking landscape isn’t enough, Labrador and all its charms is just a short boat ride away.

From Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, hop a car and passenger ferry for the 90-minute trip across the Strait of Belle Isle to Blanc Sablon, Quebec, which is right at the boundary of Labrador.

A drive up the Labrador coast on Route 510 begins at the scenic town of L’Anse-au-Clair, known for its trout and salmon fishing, and continues north alongside an amazing ocean view - dubbed Iceberg Alley for obvious reasons - rustic villages caught in a time warp, and endless miles of untamed wilderness to satisfy even the most adventurous of souls.