Despite only being situated several hours by ferry from Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador is a world away from the rest of Canada in terms of its culture. Alongside Quebec, this province possesses a distinct society that owes it existence to the geographic and political isolation from the mainland that was in place for over 500 years from the start of permanent habitation here.
The difference in language is so pronounced here that the brand of English spoken here is an official dialect, as words, meanings, and phrases that are used as part of everyday communication here will only draw confused stares everywhere else across the nation.
Another pleasant aspect of this place is the lighthearted demeanour of its people. Of all the comedians that Canada has produced over its history, a significant share of them have come from the Rock, which is a testament to the undercurrent of humour that underlays the psychological makeup of your average Newfoundlander.
While meeting the friendly folk of this remarkable corner of Canada is reason enough to make a trip here, its natural assets vastly overshadow anything else that can be found in Atlantic Canada, making both Newfoundland and its mainland territory of Labrador an essential destination for outdoor enthusiasts. The lack of crowds here compared with the mountains of Western Canada will make you simultaneously grateful for an outdoor space that isn’t overrun by tourists and confused as to why more people don’t know about a wondrous place like this.
Despite the historic lack of travel into this part of Canada and challenging access that is constrained by lengthy drives and expensive flights, word is quickly getting out to the rest of the world via recent brilliant marketing campaigns about the virtues of Newfoundland and Labrador.
While it is unlikely that it will ever get as swamped as the Canadian Rockies or the cities of Central Canada, heading here while its profile is still relatively low will still allow you to retain travel bragging rights before this province becomes a mainstream travel destination in the near future.
What To Do – Culture & History
Begin your exploration of the island of Newfoundland in the provincial capital of St. John’s. Situated at one of the highest points of the city near the mouth of its incredibly scenic and well-protected harbour, Signal Hill is home to significant portions of this province’s history. It was home to the final battle that the French fought against the British in the Seven Year’s War in the mid-18th century, it served as a military citadel that stood on guard during the Napoleonic and American Civil War, and it was a marine flag communication facility from its earliest days until the 1960’s.
The most important historical event that took place here though was the reception of the first wireless signal in human history in 1900. Guglielmo Marconi pioneered the project and was here to receive the legendary transmission, a breakthrough that led to the development of radio in the 20th century.
Just outside St. John’s is Cape Spear, a place which is considered by geographers to be the furthest eastern point in North America. Jutting out into the wild North Atlantic, this point is home to heavy crashing surf, and due to its proximity to the capital, it was deemed to be the perfect place to build the lighthouse denoting the entrance to St. John’s Harbour in 1836, and while another structure was built to provide automated light in the present day, the architecturally spectacular original still stands to this day.
Given its strategic positioning relative to convoy routes in the Second World War, a gun battery was also built here for use during that conflict, with the pill box and gun barrels still remaining for war buffs to pour over and admire.
For many years, it was widely accepted that Christopher Columbus was the first European to run into the North American continent. That is, until the discovery of an ancient settlement at L’ Anse aux Meadows turned conventional wisdom on its head. Found at the top of the northern peninsula of the island of Newfoundland, this Norse village was founded here around the year 1000, almost 500 years before Columbus ever left his home harbour back in Spain. The sod structures include living quarters, blacksmith shops, and other workshops that composed this tiny civilization before they were run off by natives in the area.
While these sights are worthwhile attractions for the cultural tourist, the most important thing you can do while in Newfoundland is to tour outport fishing communities that used to form the backbone of this province’s economy. These days, mining and oil and gas carry the load, but the bones of remote fishing communities can be found along its rugged coast, many of which are still populated, but are fading quickly in the face of nonexistent economic prospects.
The best place to embed yourself in the fishing communities of Newfoundland is along its south coast, where many villages can only be accessed by ferry, being located at the base of impenetrable mountains or on offshore islands. Here, you’ll be exposed to the full-on weight of Newfoundland English, which can be unintelligible to outsiders when the locals really turn it on.
On the southeastern coast of Labrador, the UNESCO recognized former whaling station of Red Bay sheds light on life in the area before permanent settlements were attempted. Basque whalers would come over in the summer months in the 14th century to hunt cetacean creatures, sometimes paying with their life in the process. Several ships have been found on the surface of the ocean floor nearby, while a graveyard containing the bodies of 140 sailors that died over the years due to various causes, usually exposure or drowning, is also located at this historic site.
What To Do – Natural Attractions
Due to Newfoundland’s proximity to the massive continental ice sheets of Greenland, it is positioned optimally for visitors to partake in iceberg viewing. These monoliths of glacial ice drift down the north, west and east coasts of the island between the months of April to June, making it well worth braving the chilly air of a Newfoundland spring to view these wonders of nature.
Compared to the world class snow resorts of Western Canada, the hills of the East usually pale in comparison. Marble Mountain in Western Newfoundland is a notable exception to that rule, as it is carved into the side of one of the peaks of the Long Range Mountains, one of the higher and most northern portions of the Appalachian Mountain chain. With a vertical of almost 1,800 feet and being situated in the midst of a snow belt that sees over five metres of snow dumped on its slopes per winter, this resort is the perfect tonic for the powder-starved traveler in Eastern Canada.
A couple of hours further to the north, Gros Morne National Park is a geologically significant site that is home to one of the few spots in the world where the rocks of the Earth’s mantle is exposed. The specific place within the park where this is visible is the Tablelands, where the orangish mantle stands out like a sore thumb amidst the boreal forest, creating a landscape that looks more like Nevada or the surface of Mars instead of Newfoundland.
Another site worth checking out here is Western Brook Pond, a land locked fjord. Hemmed in by land, this lake contains some of the purest water on Earth, which makes it strange that a boat tour would be permitted to operate on its waters. It is though, and its charming tour guides will take you deep into the fjord, increasingly hemmed in by high granite walls, and festooned by misty waterfalls which descend from moor creeks on the plateau above.
If you have the dough to afford the elevated costs of access to Canada’s newest national park, planning an expedition to Torngat Mountains National Park is well worth the effort. This heavily glaciated landscape has no shortage of beauty, as the tough granite has resisted erosion to form spectacular peaks that rank among the highest in Eastern Canada.
While the climate here is too harsh for trees, the grassy valleys and tundra explode with wildflowers in the spring and summer, and caribou, arctic hares and the mighty polar bear roam the land. Ensure that you have an armed Inuit guide with you at all times.