"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.