Newfoundland, Eh? (3 of 4) – Canada

Around Historic Avalon
Newfoundland, Canada

Gannets at Bird Rock, Cape St Mary’s.

The Avalon region of Newfoundland consists of several long peninsulas, separated by bays, dotted with historic towns and villages, and teeming with wildlife. We were fortunate in that it only rained on one of our four available days, so we were able to see and photograph some of its interesting sights.

At the south end of one peninsula is the small outport of St Brides, and nearby is the Cape St Mary’s Ecological Sanctuary with its famous Bird Rock. It’s home to one of the continent’s largest colonies of Northern Gannets. These huge birds have a wingspan of some six feet (1.8 m): think of them as “seagulls on steroids”. There are lots of murres, auks, ravens and other birds too.

Upon arriving, I parked at the information centre, where warning signs advised me that this is a completely unsupervised and unguarded pathway, and I’d be strictly on my own if I proceeded. Then I walked for almost an hour through a rough and rocky sheep pasture. With my arthritis and a recent knee replacement, it felt like climbing Mt Everest – but I made it there and back! Bird Rock is separated from the sheer cliff at the end of the path by some 50 feet (15 m) of water, and I was later told that some visitors have just “disappeared” due to carelessness. To my mind, the photos I got were well-worth the effort and the danger.

Rugged cliffs on the Cape Shore route.

The next day we headed north along the “Cape Shore” highway. While it was in excellent condition, it provided the only disappointment of our trip. It has fabulous vistas, like those of the Big Sur or Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail. Unfortunately, there are no shoulders to speak of, and no lookout points at all, so I couldn’t park to take pictures. Now there’s an oversight for the Province to fix!

At the north end of the highway is the town of Placentia, which as “Plaisance” was France’s intended island capital. All that remains there now are the ruins of their once impressive fort at the top of Castle Hill. (There’s nothing left of France’s North American “empire” now, except the tiny islands of St Pierre and Miquelon off Newfoundland’s south shore). Going on from Placentia we arrived at Argentia, the site of a US Navy base throughout the Cold War, and the terminus of the ferry from Nova Scotia. What is really of interest, though, lies a few miles away over a gravel road. Now picture this in your mind’s eye…

You’re living in the isolated outport of Ship Harbour in August 1941. You’ve already been at war against the Axis powers for two years. One morning you awaken to a mind-boggling sight – the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the cruiser USS Augusta are lying at anchor just offshore. In that unknown place where they were sure no enemy could find them, Churchill and Roosevelt met to sign the Atlantic Charter, which would outline their vision of how nations should behave in the post-war years. That document was later ratified by all Allied forces, and would eventually be used as the basis of the United Nations Charter. An anchor, a tasteful monument and a tranquil picnic area now bear witness to this historic event.

Placentia (Plaisance) from abandoned French fort.

Next we drove across the small isthmus connecting the Avalon Peninsula to the rest of the island, and proceeded up the “Discovery Trail”, stopping at three places of historic interest. Our first stop was at the picture-perfect little town of Trinity, settled in the 1500s. It was the site of several “firsts”, including the introduction of vaccination to the New World around 1800. Today its enormous Anglican church and dozens of heritage buildings are still in use, and its summer theatre productions have made it a popular holiday destination for Newfoundlanders as well as tourists.

John Cabot’s ship the Matthew, a three-masted 15th-century caravel, crossed the Atlantic from Bristol in 1497. Five hundred years later an authentic wooden replica was built and repeated the voyage in 54 days. It was 78 feet (24m) in length, 20 feet (6m) in breadth, with a draft of only 7 feet (2.1m), and a crew of 19. It measured 76 feet (23m) to the top of its tallest mast. Its displacement of 85 tonnes was more than Cabot’s ship, because of modern engines and navigational gear. One can’t help marveling at the sheer guts of the “iron men” who sailed tiny caravels across cruel and uncharted waters long ago, without the benefit of radar or auxiliary engines. With such a shallow draft they must have bounced around continuously like a cork, giving the poor lookout in the crowsnest one roller coaster of a ride!

Small outport on Trinity Bay.

After visiting many other North American ports and spending the winter at Toronto, the replica went back to Bristol. Realizing what a terrific tourist attraction it was, the residents of Bonavista used their centuries of shipbuilding experience to build their own authentic replica, which remains there, and which we visited.

Later, after going to remote Cape Bonavista where Cabot landed, we headed back toward St John’s, pausing at Come By Chance. This port is the site of a major refinery which, together with the recent production from offshore fields, has given Newfoundland a healthy 6% economic growth rate in 2002. Finally, we stopped to look at the pretty little outport bearing The Rock’s most famous name – Dildo. Folks there proved to have a good sense of humour, and they make the most of the name to promote their festivals and crafts.

We had to go home the next day, but we’re looking forward to the time when we can spend a few weeks really getting to know this wonderful island and its friendly people.

Read all four parts of Newfoundland, Eh?
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four