Exotic Canada NL: Where the sushi swim
National Post - View Source Article
By Susan Hiller
Off the craggy coast of Cape Broyle on the southern shore of Newfoundland and Labrador, you can dine on fresh uni sushi — one of the top delicacies in Japan — straight off the paddle of a kayak.
It’s all part of the experience with Stan Cook Sea Kayak Adventures. However, Stan Cook Jr., who helps run the family business, didn’t quite realize it at first. It was only when a Japanese tourist started screaming: “Uni, uni!” during a tour at low tide that he truly understood the star value of the prickly urchins once commonly referred to as “whore’s eggs” by fishermen due to their propensity for ripping nets.
“She scooped up around 30 or 40 of them on the spray skirt and started cracking them open with her paddle and eating them all at once,” recounts Cook, cutting open a sea urchin and handing it around on his paddle for a taste test to our group. “She was going crazy. She was so excited, I thought she might fall out. She kept looking at them all in the water and saying ‘Stanley, it’s like floating $20 bills!’ ”
Cook pauses. “What do you guys think? Most people think it has a salty cantaloupe melon flavour. It’s not fishy at all.”
We nod in agreement. But fresh sushi plucked out of the Atlantic Ocean is just one part of the larger adventure when you head out “down the Shore” on the Avalon Peninsula. North America’s biggest population of whales feed on this rocky coast and from mid-June to mid-August, there’s a 90% chance you’ll be paddling alongside minkes and humpbacks.
You’ll also very likely be paddling toward glinting giant icebergs and the sea around you will be littered with bergy bits and growlers (massive ice chunks). Many kayakers insist on bringing home a bergy bit in a cooler for the bragging rights. And, for some groups, Cook will break out a cocktail shaker on the open water. He scoops up a bergy bit, smashes it against his paddle and shakes the 2,000-year-old ice bits with locally made Iceberg Vodka to create a perfect martini.
It’s a good way to calm your nerves and, as a newbie kayaker, I could have used a cocktail myself on this recent paddle on the first day of the season (May 29: This is Newfoundland and Labrador, after all). Unfortunately, there were no whales and icebergs to be seen yet, but we paddled through waterfalls, sea arches and alongside the Cliffs of Insanity and Rocks of Death (so named by the locals) and into eerie hidden sea caves nicknamed Dragon’s Throat and Seven Sisters for the strange gurgles and roars they emit when the waves swell inside their walls. Gannets dive into the water behind us. A bald eagle cruises by. It’s a spectacular experience.
Cook’s father, Stan Sr. — a retired teacher — started offering canoe and hiking trips into Newfoundland’s wilderness during the summer months in the early 1970s. When Stan Jr. graduated from university in the mid- 1990s, he convinced his dad to start the province’s first adventure tourism business with a focus on sea kayaking.
“I had done some travelling and saw what other tour groups were offering out there, and it was nothing like what Dad was doing here in terms of adventure and interpretation,” he says. “I said, ‘Dad, let’s give it a try. We have something unique here on the ocean. There is nothing like experiencing nature on a kayak.’ ”
Operating until the end of October, their trips include guided coastal hikes and half- and full-day kayaking in single and double kayaks (with all tours, you’ll no doubt get a good cardio workout combined with a ecology/history lesson). Cape Broyle, a sheltered fjord, is about a 45-minute drive from St. John’s and the Cooks have converted the former R.J. O’Brien General Store Premises — a recognized heritage structure at least 120 years old — into their kayaking headquarters. Cook’s wonderful mom, Nancy, looks after the phones and greets the tourists with hot chocolate and lots of local lore.
The family has won just about every tourism award you can name and served on every possible provincial tourism board. Kayakers come from all over the world to paddle here. And they often say they get their money’s worth within the first 20 minutes on the sea, describing the trip as the highlight of their visit to the province. Outdoor enthusiast Justin Trudeau even had his bachelor party here. It was May and the waves were choppy. They ended the day with a bonfire complete with steak and lobster on a pebble-stone beach in a tiny cove.
“Being May in Newfoundland, there were literally snowflakes and Sacha, Justin and the boys went for an impromptu swim,” Cook says. “The water was beyond frigid. I was impressed. They are tough. They have travelled everywhere, but said it was truly a different kind of adventure here. They were in awe.”
There is no better way to top off such an exhilarating experience than with a Ferryland Lighthouse Picnic at the nearby Colony of Avalon, an active archeological dig overlooking this coast. It’s a 25-minute hike up the hill to the lighthouse, which was built in 1869, and sits on a crest of rock jutting out over the slate-blue ocean.
The lighthouse was empty for more than 25 years and restored in 2005 by Jill Curran and Sonia O’Keefe, friends from the area who were living away and looking for a reason to move home. They came up with idea of serving gourmet picnics cliffside and approached the town of Ferryland about taking over the lighthouse. Curran is the great-great granddaughter of one of the original lighthouse keepers. O’Keefe went to organic cooking school in Ireland.
During peak season, you have to book your picnic weeks in advance. Truly, there is no other picnic like it. They make all the food fresh at the lighthouse each day — yummy treats such as molasses oatmeal bread, orzo and fresh mint salad, curry and raison sandwiches, cranberry scones and lemon-lavender-pistachio loaf. On a trip last year, a tourist almost had a meltdown beside me when she discovered the crab cakes were not on the menu that day. “I came all the way from New York for the crab cakes,” she hissed. “I read about those crab cakes.”
The exquisite food is just part of the overall magic. When you arrive, you order your picnic and you are given a blanket and a flag. You pick out a spot amongst the cliffs surrounding the lighthouse, lay out your blanket, set up your flag and await your meal. Your pretty basket is delivered by a server who spots your flag along the headland. The food is served on real plates with real silverware and the lemonade is served in jars with screw-on lids so they don’t spill. You can then dine al fresco while watching the whales, seals and icebergs from your spot high above the water’s edge.
In fact, in season, you can often see an incredible show of up to a dozen whales breaching, spouting and frolicking in the bay. You can’t help but gulp back the salty breeze and completely relax with the sounds of the birds and waves punctuated only by “Look! Look!” as another whale is spotted. The colourful blankets and flags dotting the unforgiving cliffs make a gorgeous sight.
And if the hike back down the cliff makes you hungry again, you can always stop at the Riverside Café back in Cape Broyle to grab a homemade moose burger for the road. On this trip, the waitress hands over our burgers and notes proudly: “He was definitely from the neighbourhood.”