I wake to the sound of waves licking the shore. A breeze blows the flaps of our tent open and shut, open and shut. It is dawn. My daughter, snug in a cot next to mine, is fast asleep, and judging by the steady rumblings coming from the adjacent tent, my husband and son are as well. I unfasten the mosquito netting and poke my head out to survey the site we'd reached by moonlight. Our tents, clustered at the base of a 700-foot cliff, face the bay; around us are massive outcroppings of red rock. The fishing boat that brought us is moored nearby, in waters that have calmed overnight. This, I decide, is how European explorers must have felt after months of sailing across the rough Atlantic and finally sighting land— the New Founde Lande, they called it.
Newfoundland is, at 43,000 square miles, the world's 16th-largest island, and part of the Canadian province that includes Labrador. During the last Ice Age, retreating glaciers cut fjords, gouged more than 11,000 ponds and lakes, and carried the topsoil out to sea. Although sections of the island are densely wooded, much of the interior, literally bogged down with marshes, is impenetrable. Scattered along the coast are small villages that for centuries were accessible only by water. It wasn't until the Trans-Canada Highway was built in the 1960's that these outposts were connected by land.
My husband and I had long dreamed of traveling to this last frontier in North America. Surprisingly close to New York City, where we live, Newfoundland is still remote enough to render office pagers useless. We both work in media—Robert for television news, I for magazines—and our lives are cluttered with deadlines, beepers, cell phones, and other modern-day balls and chains. Newfoundland promised release. And after Hollywood flashed a spotlight on the province with its version of The Shipping News, filmed on location, we vowed to go while the crowds were still sparse and the prices low. We broached the idea of a summer trip to our children, resident experts in the socially acceptable family vacation.
"Cool" was the response from eight-year-old Jesse. "But what do you do when you get there?" Eight days of family free time in a largely unpopulated, undeveloped, undiscovered land sounded pretty perfect to Robert and me. But this would also be a vacation for kids who are content to inch along a roped queue before being herded into plastic logs and shot through dark tunnels and artificial waterfalls at You Know Where. "We could glide along with puffins, dolphins, whales, glaciers," I ventured. "Go fishing—" "Fishing! Oh yeah! That's it! I'm going!"
Elly, our 11-year-old, a budding ballerina who spends all her after-school time in the dance studio, also gave the trip a thumbs-up. She was less than thrilled with the prospect of handling live bait, but she'd just studied the Canadian provinces in school. Timing is everything.
Our plan was to limit our travels to the Eastern Region of Newfoundland. We'd start with a few days in St. John's, the provincial capital and a major port, then head southwest for a three-day fishing expedition on the Burin Peninsula, and end with a long weekend in a historic village on the Bonavista Peninsula.