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.
"So when do we get to go fishing?" Jesse asks, staring at the endless clouds outside the plane window. Our flight from Newark had left at 10 a.m. and arrived in Halifax at noon, but our connection to St. John's was delayed. The critics are already restless. By the time we land, pick up our car, take a few wrong turns that have us going somewhere that looks wonderful but not quite where we need to be, and arrive at Bonne Esperance House, our B&B in St. John's, it's past sundown. The innkeeper, waiting in the parlor of the Victorian town house, is relieved to see us. She has muffins to bake and laundry to do early in the morning, so she gives us our key, points us to our door, and turns in.
In addition to its own time zone (11/2 hours ahead of Eastern Standard), the island has its own lexicon. To Newfoundlanders, "the Old Hag" is a nightmare; a "banker," a cod-fishing boat; and a "clumper," an iceberg. When I'd called to make a reservation, I mentioned we'd be traveling with two children, and the woman on the phone suggested the "small" suite. This turns out to be the entire second floor of the house: a living room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and den. As I ponder what they would define as large, Elly and Jesse immediately spot a television and set out to product-test Canadian programming.
The next morning we open our door to a cheerful array of jellybean-colored houses. We're in the old section of town, where narrow streets are lined with small Victorians, each painted a brazen combination— blue with red trim, lavender with purple, yellow with green—and adorned with window boxes of geraniums, petunias, zinnias, and cascading lobelia. We make our way to the waterfront and pick up a footpath bordered by windswept grasses and wildflowers that takes us to the cliffs surrounding the harbor. Our destination: Signal Hill, the site where in 1901 Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless telegraph ("s" for success). Inside Cabot Tower, at the end of the trail, a ham radio operator exchanging messages with a Russian ship captivates the kids.
On the walk back, Jesse and I stray off the path and meet up with our first Newfoundland bog—an innocuous-looking moist spot that sucks us in up to our ankles and splatters our legs with mud. After a quick change of clothes at our B&B (did I mention that our "small" suite has a washer/dryer?), we drive to neighboring Cape Spear, the easternmost point in North America, where a white lighthouse dating back to the 1830's guards the bluffs. We fill our lungs with ocean air, find a perch on a cliff overhanging the sea, and watch the waves explode against the rocks. The next day we'll be voyaging in these waters: Newfoundland Coastal Safari, the outfitter we booked on a tip from a friend, will take us by fishing boat to our own little patch of Newfoundland, a base camp on the southern coast.
We leave St. John's at dawn to arrive at our meeting point in the tiny fishing village of Harbour Mille by mid-morning. The drive is long, but the ever-changing landscape—misty lakes, mossy boulders, trees twisted into fantastic shapes by the wind— keeps the kids looking out the windows and not at each other (crucial for maintaining car-ride peace). We know we've reached our destination when the road we're on ends at water's edge. As we step out of the car, a fierce wind slams the doors shut for us. Owen Myers, our guide, greets us anxiously. He explains that our trip to camp, on a beach 12 miles across Fortune Bay that Coastal Safari leases from the government, will have to be delayed because of the storm. We look up at the clear blue sky, squint into the sun, and ask, "What storm?" There had been heavy rains overnight, and while the sky has cleared, the gale winds (which we assumed were the norm) have not. The water is too choppy to cross.
In between barometric readings, Owen amuses us with stories of his life at sea (more than 12 years—as an inshore fisherman, an offshore fisheries inspector, and the manager on an oil rig responsible for protecting it from icebergs) and in Newfoundland's courts (he now practices environmental law during the winter). A Paul Newman look-alike with silver hair and bright blue eyes, Owen is surprisingly cosmopolitan, not just in attire—all black—but also in his grasp of American pop culture (he's more up on The Sopranos than we are). We meet Scott, a fisherman and Harbour Mille native, who helps Owen on excursions. Scott's dialect is a mix of Irish and West Country English accents, apparently common to these parts. I have to ask him to repeat "the waves still have white tops" three times before, bewildered, I look to Owen for translation.
By late afternoon we've had lunch, gotten our fishing licenses at the post office, collected sea glass and scallop shells by the wharf, and made prints of found feathers (see "On-the-Road Art Project," below). But the ocean still looks ominous, and Owen hints that he might have to cancel. Finally, after consulting with village fishermen, he decides it'll be safe to head out in the early evening, after supper.
We came to Newfoundland for a bit of adventure; we just hadn't expected to find it on a boat navigating 15-foot swells. Scott is at the helm, carefully steering us head-on into each wave. (This, we're informed, is preferable to having the waves hit broadside, which could capsize us.) The kids love the ride and scream with every rise and fall, but Robert is looking green and I'm thinking about the Titanic. It's late in the season for icebergs (they float down from Greenland and usually melt by midsummer), but even in the darkness I can make out rocks that could easily splinter a small craft. Owen says he ordinarily does the trip in 45 minutes; it takes us well over two hours.
In the morning I peek out of our tent at a corner of the world that feels about as far from civilization as you can get. Our camp in the wilderness consists of four canvas platform tents, each with a pair of cots, sleeping bags, and pillows. A cabin houses the kitchen, a shower, and a woodstove that takes some of the chill off the morning air. Owen is already up, brewing coffee and tea on a propane stove and setting out a breakfast of toast with homemade blueberry and partridgeberry jams. The shower water, piped in from the pond above camp, is hot but brown (it isn't rust—just the peat moss that lines the pond's bottom and is, I notice, an excellent hair conditioner).
The sun is coming up over the cliff when Jesse emerges. "I'm catching a fish today," he announces, utterly confident although, in truth, no one in our family has ever fished before. Luckily, there's no skill required. Owen's boat is equipped with radar and a fish-finder that detects underwater activity, large and small; judging from his screen, this ocean is mobbed. Each of us is given a pole and line with six phosphorescent flies that we drop whenever Scott stops at a promising spot. In minutes we're pulling up four, five, six mackerel at a time. But this is just the bait for bigger fish. After Scott threads our hooks with strips of the mackerel (Elly doesn't have to touch bait after all), we cast again. Before long, Jesse's rod starts to bow. "I got something!" he screeches, while Owen reels in a three-foot cod. In less than an hour, our coolers are full.
Back at camp Robert and I sip Chardonnay as Scott fillets our catch and Owen prepares a feast of fish-and-chips, mackerel sushi, and tossed green salad. Jesse, the avid fisherman, has never been the most enthusiastic fish-eater, but after several helpings of cod he smacks his lips and says it's as good as any chicken he's ever had. Although the adults, by now fairly groggy with food and drink, would be content to sit for a spell, the kids persuade us to explore the inlets around the bay by kayak. Elly and I paddle to a waterfall and watch a bald eagle circle high above. We coast in silence past a village abandoned in the 1960's when the provincial government forced residents of isolated settlements to relocate to areas with electricity, running water, and roads.
The itinerary has us leaving camp tomorrow, but, given our first day, Owen offers to extend our stay. We accept gratefully: there's still the cliff above camp to climb, more bogs to sink into, blueberries to pick, scallops to harvest, and caribou to track. When we finally say good-bye to our idyllic spot, Jesse informs us that he plans to return—as a professional fisherman. On the boat ride back to Harbour Mille (calm and without incident) we fill two more coolers with fish and attract an escort of puffins.
Next stop: Trinity, the Nantucket of Newfoundland. On the way there we pass communities whose old wooden dwellings have been supplanted by prefab structures clad in aluminum siding. Not in Trinity. Its pastel clapboard houses, picket fences, and cottage gardens draw movie producers (yes, this is where The Shipping News was shot), Canadians from the mainland, and Americans like us. When we get to our B&B, the Campbell House, we follow a path lined with wild lupines and foxglove to inspect our lodgings, a 150-year-old cottage overlooking the bay. This time we have two floors to ourselves, not to mention down comforters, soft white linens, and thick terry robes that we make immediate use of; our camping experience has each of us eager for a long, sudsy soak in the tub.
We spend three days in Trinity, happy to just be. Jesse befriends a Newfoundland dog named Leni, Elly and Robert read books, and I walk around town taking pictures (after the second day, locals seeing me with my camera smile and ask politely, "Still at it?"). We hike along the coast, though we never spot any whales, something the town is famous for. And of course we cannot resist Trinity's best gift shop, the Dock Marina (great hand-knit sweaters made from heavy wool—I buy the same one that Kevin Spacey did). One afternoon, Rising Tide Theatre, a resident troupe, performs a pageant: actors portraying historical figures lead a small crowd on a walking tour through town, re-enacting scenes from the lives of 18th- and 19th-century settlers. The most poignant skit takes place in an old church, the audience playing the part of parishioners at a funeral for 24 village men and boys—all lost in an ice storm while out hunting seals.
Fishing is still the primary occupation here, and though life is less treacherous than it once was, the island remains a place where nature rules and man complies. We leave thankful that such a place exists. Our plane descends through a dense fog into Newark airport. Throngs of people—who suddenly seem terribly pale—rush about, cell phones affixed to their ears. Right on cue, Robert's pager, silent for the duration of our trip, begins to wail.
Hadas Dembo is a freelance photographer and writer based in New York.
Who Found Newfoundland (and Other Key Facts)
1497 Explorer John Cabot lands, though the Vikings likely preceded him. His reports of a sea "swarming with fish" lure European fishermen.
1583 England claims the island. Colonists encounter poor soil and brutal winters (nothing to do but fiddle, nothing to eat but fish).
1949 Newfoundland joins Canada.
1990 Commercial cod fishing is restricted due to depleted stocks.
2003 Fishing (now more shrimp than cod) is still the main revenue source.
Ready to learn a few words, ducky?Newfoundlanders may call a narrow, rocky lane a "drung," newly frozen ice a "slob." A "clobber" is an untidy state of things, as in "This room is a clobber!" "Scuff" is a dance; "scoff" is a large, often impromptu meal. Just don't let anyone call you a "slieveen" (a deceitful person).
On-the-Road Art Project
During our trip my kids and I made fossil-like prints of found natural objects—feathers, driftwood, a dried mackerel—to embellish the pages of our vacation scrapbook. You should try it.
What you'll need: A four-inch rubber roller (available at art supply stores), white acrylic paint, black paper.
What to do: Apply paint to roller, then run roller over one side of object (flat items work best) until it's thoroughly coated. Press the painted side of the object down onto the black paper, cover it with a blank sheet, and press again. Then carefully lift the paper and object to reveal your perfect print. How's that for a lasting impression?
WHERE TO GO
Newfoundland is about the size of Tennessee, and 95 percent of it is public land—in other words, there's a lot of terrain to cover. Plan to limit your travels to one or two portions of the island.
We concentrated on the Eastern Region, which is easily accessible from the East Coast of the United States and offers both wilderness and the comforts of village life. Many vacationers head west to 446,000-acre Gros Morne National Park. Visitors can hike through rock formations resulting from tectonic upheaval—chunks of the earth's inner core thrust up to the surface—and over cliffs marked with pillow lava, hardened remnants of molten rock from beneath the ocean floor. The Department of Tourism's Web site (www.gov.nf.ca/tourism) and free guidebook (available through the site) can lead you to numerous well-priced package deals.
WHEN TO GO
We scheduled our trip for late August, hoping for warm, dry weather (even in summer Newfoundland is unpredictable—don't forget to pack warm clothes). We had success on that front: there were a couple of overnight storms but not one day of rain. However, if you want to see icebergs, whales, and dolphins, head to the eastern coast in spring or early summer. An ecosystem of small plants and fish develops in the fresh water of melting icebergs; this, in turn, attracts larger sea animals.
HOW TO GET THERE
No direct flights go to Newfoundland from the United States, but you can connect from any major Canadian city. (We arrived in St. John's via Halifax, and returned via Toronto—the latter the more direct route.) From St. John's you can fly to the island's remote areas, such as the town of Deer Lake for visiting Gros Morne National Park. Ferry service, with car transport, is also available from North Sydney, Nova Scotia. Though there are buses and ferries between towns, service can be limited. To cover ground you'll want to rent a car at the airport.
ST. JOHN'S AND VICINITY
Bonne Esperance House Spacious, nondescript accommodations in adjoining Victorian town houses. suites from $100, including breakfast. 20 Gower St.; 709/726-3835
Duck Street Bistro A departure from the standard fish-and-chips: pork tenderloin with wild-berry port sauce, fudge cake with warm chocolate sauce and fresh whipped cream. dinner for four $65. 250-252 Duckworth St.; 709/753-0400
Newfoundland Coastal Safari Offers three-, five-, and seven-day excursions from Harbour Mille, June through September. $200 per person, double, for three days; 877/888-3020; www.coastalsafari.com
Campbell House An 1840's building on a hill by the bay with two guest rooms. We stayed in one of two cottages equipped with a television, VCR, and children's videos. Cottages have kitchens, but for an extra fee you can partake in the sumptuous breakfast for guests in the main house. cottages from $150. High St.; 877/464-7700 or 709/464-3377; www.trinityvacations.com
Artisan Inn Recently bought and restored by the owner of the next-door Campbell House, this restaurant was our favorite. You need to reserve for the five-course dinner by candlelight. The night we were there, we ate salmon mousse, potato leek soup, fresh cod, salad, and blueberry tart. dinner for four $78. High St.; 877/464-7700; www.artisaninn.com
Rising Tide Theatre Presents plays, dinner theater, concerts, and outdoor pageants daily from June through September. Warning: The shows often sell out—many visitors come to town just to see them. Trinity Arts Centre; 888/464-3377; www.risingtidetheatre.com