The Canadian island of Newfoundland lures visitors to North America's easternmost point, where they fall head over heels.
By Jacquelyne Froeber
1 of 14Photo: Michael Hanson
"Now close your eyes and pucker up," the bartender tells me. Usually I require dinner and drinks before such a request, but when in Rome—or, in this case, Newfoundland—do as the Newfies do.
I squeeze my eyes shut and feel a damp, cool sensation brush across my lower lip. The bar erupts with cheers as a man holding a large fish moves on to another patron, and I down the Screech rum shot he's just put in front of me. I'm sitting in Christian's, a small, wood-paneled tavern in the capital city of St. John's, where the Newfies (locals) are sandwiched around the bar like sardines.
Pictured: Brightly colored homes dot the rugged coastline south of Newfoundland's capital city of St. John's.
2 of 14Photo: Michael Hanson
Become One of the Newfies
"Congratulations," the bartender says with a wink, passing me a yellow certificate. "You've kissed the cod and done the shot, and now you're an honorary Newfoundlander."
I've just been "screeched-in," a tradition that—according to the makers of Screech rum—started in the 1970s, when departing sailors would kiss a cod before heading south to Jamaica to bring boats full of rum back to Newfoundland (pronounced new-fin-LAND).
Pictured: A local fisherman holds cod, a staple on most Newfoundland menus.
3 of 14Photo: Michael Hanson
Downtown St. John's
While there are other places around town that perform the ritual, Christian's has a cult following. The bar is packed with people hugging and laughing—and there's something so wonderful about feeling like you belong. After all, that's why I'm here.
To feel the love in this province that has passionately painted pink, yellow, and purple "jellybean" houses overlooking the water, and towns with names like Cupids and Heart's Content. This fantastical island off the coast of Nova Scotia has an allure unique from other parts of Canada—or the world, for that matter. (Where else can you dip your toes in Conception Bay?)
4 of 14Photo: Michael Hanson
Grab a Local Brew
My road trip starts here, in one of the oldest cities in North America, St. John's—a historic shipping and fishing hub with a working harbor. I walk down famed George Street, known for having the most bars packed on a half kilometer in North America.
The people-watching is addictive: Flanked by a rainbow of buildings, the road is closed to vehicles at night and fills with groups walking hand in hand, dipping into dive bars such as the red-brick Yellow Belly Brewery & Public House and hanging out on outdoor patios. It feels a bit like Mardi Gras as laughter floats through the crowd along with guitar riffs from a live band and the smell of fried pub fare.
5 of 14Photo: Michael Hanson
At the corner of George and Queen streets, I pass Chinched Bistro, where earlier I devoured potato-wrapped salt cod and Korean pork belly in the posh upstairs dining room (which overlooks a gentleman's club and rivals George Street for people-watching gold).
A man stepping out of the restaurant cheerfully asks me if I'm up for a scuff. "Excuse me?" I say. He laughs and explains that "scuff" is Newfie for "dancing." The English spoken here is unique: It includes some seven dialects and about 60 language subgroups, all based on where people live along the coast. Maybe it's not quite the language of love, but it certainly adds an extra layer of charm.
6 of 14Photo: Michael Hanson
Live in Luxury
Waking up in downtown St. John's at the opulent Ryan Mansion Boutique Hotel & Spa, I feel like royalty—and it's not just because Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, have stayed here; wispy curtains, a sleek writing desk, fireplace, and an impossibly dreamy marble tub with therapeutic jets make it easy to pretend I'm queen for a day.
Keeping with the fantastical spirit, the property's crown jewel is its grand staircase, built by the same craftsman and in the same style as the staircase on the infamous luxury liner Titanic, which sank in the icy waters just south of Newfoundland.
Pictured: Family farm south of St. John's
7 of 14Photo: Michael Hanson
Savor the Sweet
I'm lured into Newfoundland Chocolate Company by the smell of still-warm sugar. Playful gobs of fake chocolate are suspended from the ceiling at Newfoundland Chocolate Company, and beautifully wrapped boxes of sweets, including the signature truffles, are displayed throughout the store. Each handmade treat is one of a kind, molded by a company chocolatier. I sample a tartly sweet black currant truffle before giving in and buying two boxes.
8 of 14Photo: Michael Hanson
On the way out of town, I follow the winding Sugarloaf Path along the water to Quidi Vidi historic fishing village, where I'm told the holy grail of microbrews exists. Here, shining in the sun, is the hunter green building that houses Quidi Vidi Brewing Company Limited, the largest microbrewery in St. John's and home to Iceberg beer, a light brew made with 25,000-year-old iceberg water.
The tasting room overlooks blue and red fishing boats gliding through the water. Giant silver vats process the award-winning drafts. I buy a six-pack of Iceberg for later, and wave goodbye to some fishermen on a sky blue vessel.
9 of 14Photo: Michael Hanson
I drive about an hour south of St. John's, park in a grassy knoll, and walk a wide dirt path to the 1871 Lighthouse at Ferryland Head. It's a sight that conjures fairy-tale landscapes; the cobalt sea and azure sky stretch to the horizon, with only tufts of white clouds to break the endless blue. A towering cherry red light is surrounded by green pasture that curves out to the cliff's edge.
The grass is dotted with couples lying on flannel blankets, enjoying ham-and-Brie sandwiches ordered from the restored keeper's quarters turned lunch spot. Owner Jill Curran re-opened the light in 2004 knowing she wanted to fuse this idyllic setting with gourmet meals served in charming picnic baskets. "You'd be surprised how many people get engaged here—or maybe it's not a surprise," she says with a laugh.
10 of 14Photo: Michael Hanson
It's an easy drive North to Bay Bulls, where, in keeping with the appetizing theme, the deliciously named Bread and Cheese Country Inn overlooks the water.
Bread and Cheese is a family-run inn, and owner Rita Williams tells me that although it's quiet here, there's a lot going on—from hiking the East Coast Trail past sea stacks and adorable puffins to whale-watching tours. "We are lucky," she says. "We're part of something really special."
Pictured: The East Coast Trail
11 of 14Photo: Michael Hanson
See Wildlife Up Close
The next morning I drive past the bright yellow signs that signal moose crossings in Canada on the way to Stan Cook Sea Kayak Adventures, family-owned and operated here since 1970. Stan Cook Jr., our leader, gets our group of 14 settled in to blue, yellow, red, and aqua tandem kayaks. We glide through the Cape Broyle water, slicing across the surface with ease. I'm paired with a woman from Nova Scotia, and as we get a good rhythm going, we follow the group into a cave and feel the mist of a waterfall.
Cook positions his kayak next to a large rock jutting out of the water, reaching out to pluck a spiky black urchin that clings to it. As we pass the little guy from kayak to kayak, I'm distracted by a faint splash of water to my right. We paddle a little closer and discover two furry sea otters diving through the water. Their small teddy bear faces emerge for just a moment before they head off, continuing to wrestle and bob through the surf.
12 of 14Photo: Michael Hanson
Arts and Adventures
Time passes in a blink, and once we're back at home base, Cook apologizes to the group. "Usually we have humpback whales that swim right under us," he says.
I say my farewells to the group and get back on the road, heading toward the tiny town of Cupids, the first English colony in Canada. Today, the community curves around a U-shaped harbor. Most visitors stop here to see the New World Theatre—a small, wooden structure modeled after Shakespeare's Globe in London. I take a peek inside; the intimate space smells like fresh timber and is a throwback to the 16th century, when it was just the actors, the stage, and an audience—no technology required.
Pictured: La Manche Provincial Park south of St. John's
13 of 14Photo: Michael Hanson
I walk on to Spectacle Head Hill on the north side of town. It's a rather easy hiking trail to the summit—a cleared dirt path cuts through rust and green brush to the top. About 30 minutes later, I'm 100 meters above sea level. Golden meadows and the calm, blue waters of North Conception Bay stretch to the horizon. The rooftops of homes are mere dots around the harbor. On the way down the hill, hikers tell me I may be able to catch sight of floating icebergs near the town of Heart's Content, about an hour northwest.
14 of 14Photo: Michael Hanson
Find Your Heart's Content
Back behind the wheel with that mission in mind, I pass signs for the small fishing villages of Heart's Desire and Heart's Delight on my way there. I pull up to the Heart's Content Lighthouse. Its candy cane red-and-white swirl is a beacon of security for the community, the natural, sheltered cove a safe place for ships during a storm. I walk to the light and look out over Trinity Bay. No icebergs today—they must be too far north. But that's fine by me. I'm beyond content, and officially in love with Newfoundland anyway.