The Atlantic Ocean exalts Newfoundland, a wind-whipped, rugged island whose unbridled beauty cradles an indefatigable spirit.

By Paige Porter
March 17, 2003
John Sylvester

I've never described a place as fearless--until now. I'm in Newfoundland, on a grass-covered cliff overlooking the Atlantic. The only thing between Ireland and me is the wide open sea, a mantle of blue that wraps the island and pierces it with hundreds of inlets, coves, and harbors. Around them the province's people have, over the centuries, built their lives.

Newfoundlanders long thrived off the cod that crowded these cold waters, but 500 years of fishing robbed the sea of its bounty--and many people of their livelihoods.

The boats that remain now search for shrimp, scallops, halibut, and crab. Many of the fishing stages--sea shacks painted in cheerful hues that defy their fatiguing structures--sit empty on stilts. But don't be mistaken. Newfoundland is no breeding ground for melancholy. Optimism, resilience, and tenacity seem, like kindness, indigenous to Newfoundlanders. Go anywhere and the locals will tell you, "Wait a bit, my love, and the sky will clear."

On this pinch of the earth, 500 feet above the waters at Cape St. Mary's, I wait. I'm lost in a fog the color of milk glass. Then comes the promised miracle: The gauze melts away, and what remains is what has been here all along--some 50,000 seabirds, their rice-white bodies a blanket atop the jagged cliff called Bird Rock. Around it beats ceaseless wind, so strong the plateaus behind me bear spruce that look more like shrubs than trees. And still the blue flag irises, dainty flowers with fragile violet petals, survive valorously beside them. This is Newfoundland.

Don't come to the island (often called "The Rock") expecting to conquer it in a week. "It's better to focus on a few areas and get to know them than to spread yourself thin," says Jason McGrawth, an interpreter at the Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve.

The Avalon Peninsula warrants a week in itself. Fly into St. John's, where a fair number of hotels and inns house tourists intent on seeing North America's easternmost city. Its streets, in no particular grid, slope toward the water in San Francisco fashion. Some are quite steep, none more than Signal Hill Road. Take the circuitous footpath along the water to Cabot Tower and watch the sun, or the moon, rise. You'll think you're at the edge of the world.

You are--almost. Just 12 kilometers outside St. John's is the Cape Spear National Historic Site where, since the 1830s, a lighthouse has marked the eastern end of the western world.

A day trip south to Cape St. Mary's is a must. You'll hem the coast on two-lane roads that climb and fall, roller-coaster fashion--a journey as breathtaking as the blizzard of white seabirds at the ecological reserve. Begin your day early, because you'll want to have dinner back in St. John's.

Aqua on Water Street offers some of the city's best appetizers--including a tomato seafood chowder and warm bread with citrus butter. Reserve the upstairs window table at Django's Restaurant on Duckworth, and try the steamed mussels or grilled scallops. At Duck Street Bistro, the oven-baked halibut sends tourists swooning. A city known for fish and chips, St. John's now boasts restaurants whose move away from the deep fryer has been welcomed with open mouths.

If you do feel like getting your fingers greasy, try Ches's. Or hope that, on your way to the Bonavista Peninsula, you stumble upon Newfoundland's best fast food--campers, parked roadside, where gracious men and women fry up fresh fish and sell it for the cost of a couple of candy bars.

The Bonavista Peninsula claims two of Newfoundland's best lodgings, so plan to spend half your time here. The Trans-Canada Highway, guarded by millions of spruce trees, leads you to the picturesque peninsula and Port Rexton, where Fishers' Loft Inn overlooks Trinity Bay. Home to Dame Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey during filming of The Shipping News, the inn provides the province's best beds and the island's strongest coffee.

From Port Rexton, Route 230 winds its way to Cape Bonavista, where John Cabot is said to have landed in 1497. The views from the lighthouse are rainbows of blue--shades interrupted only by the white splash of a humpback whale or the passing of a sailboat. Don't leave before visiting Skipper's Café, where the salt cod cakes give Baltimore crab cakes a run for their money.

Then satisfy your sweet tooth at The Campbell House B&B Retreat. Its cozy dining room offers the second-best place to enjoy partridgeberry crépes. The best? On the deck overlooking the placid cove. "I live and work in the world's most peaceful, quiet spot," says owner Tineke Gow. "Each morning when I wake, I watch fingers of fog tap their way across the cove and lift. And then, the water. Everywhere, water."

Water is indeed everywhere in Newfoundland. Even the lakes and inlets echo the blue of the sky, a welcome interruption amid the flurry of evergreen.

"I've traveled all over the eastern Canadian coastline and the northeastern United States," says Mary McMillan, of Toronto. "No coast compares to this, in terms of untouched beauty. This is the East Coast's Alaska, how nature is supposed to be. When I have to go home, I'm going to pack my bags and cry."