The first thing you need to know if you’re planning a road trip through Newfoundland & Labrador: double your estimated time of arrival.
Not because signs along the roads warn you of moose (there are 100,000 of them on the island) and the day is sometimes mauzy (like driving through a bowl of milk).
Not because you’re busy falling under the spell of names like Come by Chance, Little Heart’s Ease, Old Perlican and Malady Head.
Not because you slow down to gawk at the dazzling coastline.
You’re late — if you’re keeping mainland time — because everywhere you stop, someone’s got a story. Newfoundlanders are famous for saying things exactly as they are, but they also love to spin a yarn.
Like photographer Dennis Flynn, who took most of the images you’ll see here — including the delightful lead photo which was taken near a lighthouse we get to visit.
We’re standing on the East Coast Trail‘s restored suspension bridge in the ghost village of La Manche. In 1966, a tidal swell swept away nearby buildings and the bridge. Flynn points to a rocky ledge where a house used to be.
When waves punched in the front door, he tells us, his friend’s grandfather tore across the room and threw open the back door — hoping the ocean would roar out like a rowdy, rum-soaked guest on his way to another party.
Then there’s Marnie Parsons of Running the Goat Books in Tors Cove — an enchanting village that overlooks an island bird sanctuary located just off its coastline.
She tells us that on dark nights, drawn like chubby moths to the lights of the houses, baby puffins beat their blunt wings across the nearby channel and drop to the streets, exhausted.
Around 2 a.m., Parsons says, members of the Puffin Patrol pluck the chicks from the ground and toss them aloft so they can batter their way back to the bird sanctuary. If you’re visiting between August and October, you can volunteer.
We also meet artist Clifford George in Whiteway. At his studio, this tall, effusive man shakes our hands and asks: “What stories do you want to hear?” That’s got to be Newfoundland’s motto.
George is the patron saint of Newfoundland ponies. “There’s nothing I’d rather be than a horse,” he says. His shaggy white hair and beard could be clippings from the mane of his thick-necked stallion, Skipper of Avalon.
Skipper’s ancestors crossed the ocean with the earliest Europeans and became a distinct breed, part of the daily lives of rural families and numbering in the thousands. A mare who comes to George’s call turns sideways to protect her foal. The seven-day-old beauty is a graceful, long-legged avatar of hope. Once, there were only 60 of her kind left; now she’s one of 500 spread across Canada.
We stay that night just down the road in Green’s Harbour at the serene, salubrious Doctor’s House Inn. After a meal prescribed by the chef — a Doctor of Delicious — we meet the property’s resident ponies, descendants of those raised by George. One of them, I swear, looks into me with George’s warm, intelligent eyes.
The second thing you need to know about Newfoundland & Labrador? Local talk is salted with words like scrammed (numb with cold) and scad (flurry of snow). Like mauzy, these are weather terms, but the most crucial word on this island is fish.
To the rest of Canada, fish could mean halibut or salmon or red snapper or pickerel or trout. Here, fish is cod. And if you want to eat fish — back on the menu since the inshore fishery started again — you’ll tuck into filets, yes, but also tongues, cheeks and sounds (the cod’s air bladders). All of it comes with scrunchions, bite-sized pieces of fried pork fat. Yum!
Another confounding culinary term is lobster boil. At Mallard Cottage, a celebrated restaurant set in a heritage building just outside St. John’s, we discover that “boil” isn’t only the tail and claws cooked in boiling water — but lobster bisque, barbecued lobster, mussels with cream and bacon, and a large cast-iron pan of roasted veggies, beans and devilled eggs.
At the North Street Café in Brigus, a coastal heritage village whose charm rivals any in Ireland or Wales, we come upon another term new to our cooking lexicon — partridge berries.
Because we’re too early for the moose stew bubbling in the oven, the owner, Debbie O’Flaherty, sends us away with a small tub of her red berry jam. “A bit sour,” she says, “but I adds some apple sauce and a secret.”
And here’s the final need-to-know in our travel guide. You may think you’re driving to the edges of the earth, but you’re not. You always end up at the start of something grand.
At the northern-most wind-scoured point on the Avalon Peninsula, we discover Grates Cove Studios and café owned by Courtney (originally from Chauvin, Louisiana) and her artist husband Terrence Howell.
They met in South Korea while both were teaching English, eventually lived together in Louisiana and then, post-Katrina, moved to the village that was Terrence’s great grandfather’s home.
For lunch, we order an inspired cod couvillion, a saucy marriage of New Orleans and Newfoundland with home-made bread to sop up the juice.
The Ferryland Lighthouse is another surprising find. At the highest point of the cliff that lifts us above soaring gulls, we dig into a picnic basket a loving mother could’ve packed.
In the dangerous waters below, a ship called the Torhamvan went aground in 1926. Ferryland fishermen saved the crew, but the cargo — soap, paint and macaroni (so much of it the beaches turned white) — was lost. At least that’s what the locals said.
A year later, all the houses gleamed with new paint and the townspeople, it was noted, had developed a taste for macaroni with their fish.
Towards the end of our visit in Newfoundland and Labrador, we stroll through a small village en route to catching the ferry to Fogo Island for our final two nights. A sign on the cutest post office in the world says: “Left at 10ish. Be back tomorrow.”
Maybe not tomorrow, but we’ll be back. We didn’t get our fill of fish and scrunchions, we’ve yet to meet a moose and, more importantly, what is it with those sea-faring sheep, noses to the air, in that small boat?
I’m dying to know the story.
Editor’s Note: This post was produced in an arms-length collaboration with Legendary Coasts and Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism. For more stories written by Lorna Crozier, a Governor General Award-winning Canadian poet, check out Sidney B.C. by the Salish Sea, A Poet in the Great Bear Rainforest, Exploring Light’s Birthplace and Gobsmacked in Newfoundland & Labrador.
Founded by two Canucks on the loose in a big country, Toque & Canoe is a blog about Canadian travel culture.