Cape Bonavista, where Cabot landed in 1497.
My wife and I recently took our first trip to Newfoundland. Still relatively unknown as a tourist destination, this large island is a treasury of fascinating history, scenery, great seafood, ghostly “happenings”, traditional music and friendly people. Situated where the Gulf of St Lawrence meets the Atlantic Ocean, it is the island portion of Canada’s youngest province, “Newfoundland and Labrador“. With about one-quarter of the province’s total area, it’s about the size of the two “Irelands” combined. Since we had just one week available for this trip, we limited our visit to the Avalon Peninsula region in the south-east.
Much of the early history of the New World revolves around “The Rock”, as Newfoundlanders call it. The first European settlers were the Vikings, around 1000 A.D., five centuries ahead of Columbus, as confirmed by their recently-discovered settlement at L’anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland’s northern tip.
This is a typical coastal scene.
Next came the Basques, who fished the abundant waters and did some exploring, but didn’t settle. Then John Cabot (actually an Italian named Giovanni Cabota), sailed westward across the Atlantic, looking for a passage to the Orient for the King of England. His tiny ship the Matthew landed at Cape Bonavista in 1497. Next, it is believed, the Portuguese explorer Corte-Real discovered St John’s harbour in 1501, and brought back word about fish so numerous that they jumped right into your boat. Thus began Portugal’s ongoing love affair with bacalhau (dried cod), and their perpetual presence in Newfoundland.
In 1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed the island for England, and it became England’s first colony, with St John’s as its capital. Soon a few adventurers, mostly English, settled in scattered locations around the Avalon Peninsula, while St John’s, North America’s first English town, became a rowdy hangout for fishermen, soldiers, sailors and pirates.
Puffins, the provincial bird.
Because it was so close to Europe, “The Rock” was soon a popular way-station for those heading for the Americas: even the Mayflower stopped at Renews to get provisions in 1620. Shortly thereafter Lord Baltimore founded a settlement for Catholics before moving on to Maryland. Pirates were also plentiful, until Captain Cook put them out of business for good. The Dutch failed in an attempt to capture St John’s, and France claimed the entire island, setting up a rival capital at Plaisance (now Placentia). There were numerous battles, and they captured St John’s three times, but were defeated for good in 1762.
For centuries the interior of Newfoundland remained a semi-wilderness of maritime vegetation similar to that of Nova Scotia or Maine. Its coasts were dotted with isolated fishing villages, or “outports”. Cod were so important to the English, Scots and Irish, who formed the majority of the inhabitants, that their informal motto was “In cod we trust”. Later came mining, a little agriculture and pulp- and paper-making, but fishing remained the principal occupation until foreign factory ships depleted the cod stocks in the 1990s.
Hundreds of enormous icebergs pass by every year.
Newfoundland became a self-governing British colony in 1832. In 1949, following a referendum it became Canada’s tenth province or, as they like to put it: “Canada finally joined us”. In 1997 oil began to flow from the massive Hibernia offshore field, finally ushering in an era of economic growth and relative prosperity.
There were plenty of “firsts” along the way. In 1796 the first vaccinations for smallpox were done at Trinity, which was also the site of the first Admiralty Court in 1615. In 1866 Heart’s Content became the western terminus of the first transatlantic cable. In 1901, Marconi received the first overseas wireless signals at St John’s. Cape Race came to house the wireless station for all Atlantic ship-to-shore communications, including the ill-fated one from the Titanic. In 1918 Alcock and Brown made the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic to Europe from St John’s, and in 1932 Amelia Earhart became the first woman to do so, flying out of Harbour Grace. In 1941 Churchill and Roosevelt signed the Atlantic Charter on board the cruiser USS Augusta at anchor in Ship Harbour.
Newfoundlanders are a unique breed. They have a genuine empathy for the misfortunes of others, as thousands of stranded air travellers discovered on September 11, 2001. Many of their settlements bear weird names, such as Blow Me Down, Tilting, Come By Chance, Witless Bay, Joe Batt’s Arm, Jerry’s Nose, and everyone’s favorite – Dildo. They’re unabashed individualists: ever since standard time was devised, they have steadfastly maintained their own officially recognized 25th time zone, GMT-3½. As they put it, “eventually the rest of the world will come to realize that they are all half an hour out of sync”.
Actual-size replica of a viking boat.
Nature is a big drawing card, especially for photographers. This is one of the best places for whale-watching. Every spring about 2,000 giant icebergs, like the one that sank the Titanic, float along the coast. Two of North America’s largest seabird sanctuaries are located in the Avalon region, as is the world’s most southerly caribou herd. Farther inland, Terra Nova National Park marks the northern extremity of the Appalachian Mountains. On the west coast, Gros Morne National Park is a huge UNESCO World Heritage Site, with rugged fjords, unique geology, great hiking, and spectacular views.
More information and photos follow in the next two articles. An’ it’s “NewfoundLAND”, b’y, not “NewFOUNDland”!
A Few Facts
To obtain their exceptionally complete 200-page Travel Guide, contact 800-563-NFLD or www.gov.nf.ca/tourism.
Air Canada serves St John’s from major eastern cities. Go to www.aircanada.ca , or phone 888-247-2262. Gander is the major airport served by foreign airlines.
Marine Atlantic vehicle and passenger ferries connect Sydney, Nova Scotia to Argentia (East – closest to St John’s) and Port aux Basques (West). For reservations phone 800-341-7981 or go to www.marine-atlantic.ca.
Foreign tourists can get rebates of the 15% sales tax on accommodations and most items. Application forms are available from visitor information centres, and at most hotels and stores.