Planning a trip to Newfoundland requires some restraint. I’m not talking about budget, it’s geography. If you are too starry-eyed in your itinerary plotting, the province will become a blurred landscape in your rear view as you log countless miles on the Trans Canada.
A tempered itinerary will allow you to experience the painter’s landscape of metallic lakes, wind-bent tuckamores and sun-beaten fishing sheds. You can actually feel the tectonic shift from the precipitous cliffs of the east to the glacier-scraped miles dotted with ‘erratics’ (boulders scattered haphazardly across the land from the Ice Age).
It’s important to refine what you’d like to chase: Icebergs? Puffins? Lighthouses? Whales? My wife and I were lucky enough to catch the last four puffins holding ground in Elliston on September 9th (2019). It was a crisp eight degrees with an angry wind that blew our conversation away. But, observing the presence of these flyweights (puffins barely tip the scales at a fluffy 500 grams) was the penultimate on our trip. I can’t imagine the crowds that jam in for the annual July festival (both human and puffin), but, it would be fun to be caught up in the fever pitch. Nearby gift shops hawk puffin-everything from toques to salt and pepper shakers and naturally, puffin poop (chocolate covered nuts). The Puffin Café is a necessary stop for whatever you might fancy as the menu jumps from deep-fried cod tongues to puffin-sized wedges of carrot cake. It should be noted that the Café follows the same schedule as the puffins, and when they migrate south to North Carolina, the owners hunker down too.
Let’s crunch numbers. Newfoundland is a surprising 405,212 km² while Alberta covers an area of 661,848 km². For Islanders wondering how PEI fits into the puzzle, the land size is 5,660 km². With that scale in mind, two weeks in Newfoundland can involve a few figure 8’s and some backtracking because of the limited road system through the interior—which is why we decided to leave Gros Morne National Park (western Newfoundland) until next time. Instead, we chose to visit Ms. Congeniality (Fogo Island) and southern France. Clarification: Fortune, Newfoundland, is just 29 miles (a 55-minute ferry) from the French territory of St. Pierre and Miquelon. Kim and I agreed that it was a necessary detour for authentic croissants and vino, despite the steep Euro and forecast: il pleuvait (10 years of French classes and I can only remember a few colours and ‘it was raining’).
Late May and early June are prime time for cruising bergs, but just like autumn leaves, Toronto road construction or Monarch migrations, there can be delays. A little known service and valuable resource can be found in the Canadian Ice Service, a division of the Meteorological Service of Canada. Their mission is to provide the most accurate and timely information on ice and icebergs in Canada’s navigable waters from the Bering Strait to the Great Lakes to Newfoundland’s iceberg alley.
If all else fails, Iceberg beer is readily available year-round in the province. In 2012, Quidi Vidi Brewing Co. capitalized on the iceberg craze with a lager quickly recognized by its signature indigo blue bottle and 25,000- year-old iceberg water addition. But, don’t limit your tastings to such vintage pours! Quidi Vidi’s drop-dead location in “The Gut” can be reached via a serpentine trail from downtown St. John’s. The hour-long hike following the Lower Battery Trail to Parks Canada’s Ladies’ Lookout Trail to the Quidi Vidi village is quickly rewarded with a 16-tap selection. Buy a flight for $10, take in the live music and the heart-breaker view. Recommended: Bogs & Barrens Bakeapple (bakeapples are also known as ‘cloudberries’). The brewery is so civilized that they encourage purchasing lunch from the food truck outside the brewery and bringing your catch of the day in.
After proper hydration, it’s necessary to visit the nearby local artist incubator at Quidi Vidi Village Plantation and poke around the open studios. Look for John Andrews linocuts and his interpretation of puffins and seagulls as regal royalty. Curious about carving spoons with an axe and scalpel? Spend some time among the cherry and maple shavings at Spúnóg. The artist mediums cover the spectrum, right down to bean to bar chocolates laced with hot chili peppers and dredged in dill.
Be forewarned, there are sections of the interior and coastlines that will have you wishing you ate another poached pear and fruit-studded muffin at your B&B! By day five, Kim and I learned to top up our rental Jeep’s gas tank at every chance, and fuel up ourselves when (and if) an opportunity presented itself. We learned to travel with a half dozen boiled eggs and Clif bars, like contemporary pioneers. We passed several dew worm vending machines but there were loooong and hungry stretches void of even a chip hut or tiny diner serving eggs over easy. When we did find a variety store, we lingered, marveling at all the variety that was on hand! I was reminded of my days at Camp Walden and the not-so-famous “Three Blob Lunches” that consisted of a scoop of egg salad, tuna salad and potato salad. Most grocery stores had three blob lunches to go and turkey dinners with all the fixings. Distracted by the crazy inventory that included everything from duck blinds to blood sausage links to monument flowers and stove pipes, we also found “stew bags” for $4. Brilliant! Four bucks netted you a whole turnip, a small cabbage, a few potatoes and couple of carrots.
Cod Got Your Tongue?
Most often we grabbed enough goods for breakfast and lunch on the run but were sure to fill in the gaps with the Newfoundland staples that were insisted upon. Like cod tongues. Who knew fish had tongues as big as ours? Deep-fried to oblivion and doused in tartar, a non-expert might think the tongues were from the mushroom family or maybe calamari? We preferred the cod’s body instead—especially as fish tacos served with a pile of slaw.
Also known as a boiled dinner or cooked dinner, it’s a major Sunday event. So-named after a comic strip character in the early 1900s (“Bringing Up Father”), Jiggs is an undertaking. It has its variables, but, here’s the common ground: corned beef brisket, cabbage, yellow turnip, split yellow peas, an entire un-cut carrot, potatoes, salt beef AND blueberry duff (though traditionally, a ‘figgy duff’ which has no figs at all, but raisins instead). The duff is a steamed pudding that tastes much like a very wet pancake—all topped with gravy (also of great controversy. To gravy or not?). Finding the Jiggs Dinner might be your greatest adventure. We accidentally ended up renting a cottage in Terra Nova the same weekend as the RV Explorers club annual jamboree. The owners of Terra Nova Hospitality Cabins (and, RV park) apologized profusely and insisted we enjoy a Jiggs, on them. It’s not often found on menus, though more touristy locations that cater to groups will organize one with a Screech-in ceremony.
There’s a singular rite of passage enforced upon visitors (that’s always enthusiastically received). The Screech-in ceremony involves a shot of Screech (rum), a tall tale by the host and recitation, sometimes a piece of bologna (“Newfie steak”) and definitely a smooch with a frozen cod.
Here’s what you need to do: Reserve a spot at Christian’s on George street for $20—there are two to three ceremonies a day. It’s a notable and historic location as Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of Parts Unknown here in 2018. Chef Lynn Crawford was also screeched-in at Christian’s. Unsure of the whole affair being too tacky? A tourist trap? Just like kissing the Blarney Stone in Ireland, it’s history, heritage and a legacy all in one gulp. Plus, you get a certificate, if your office wall is in need of some impressive credentials.
A true-blue Newfoundlander officiates the ceremony, and the creativity knows no end. You may have to place your foot in a bucket of salt water or kiss the bum of a rubber puffin. Just like the Jiggs Dinner, it’s an on-going surprise.
Despite sounding like something you tie up a ponytail with, scrunchions are bite-sized bits of pork back fat fried up and served with equally fried cod tongues. The scrunchions are like bacon bouillon cubes—super concentrated hits of pork that can elevate your heart rate to hummingbird level in no time!
Kim and I hit our deep-fried quota early on and we were nearly shamed for not trying ‘toutons’ (pronounced tow-tons). Deep fried dough drizzled in molasses. Yes, this is a deep-fried province. You’ll be dreaming of spinach and oats but, but you should still allow for brunch at Mallard Cottage, the cozy 18th-century Irish-Newfoundland vernacular-style cottage in Quidi Vidi. Have the cod cakes, order the hash skillet and a wit bier—everything is divine and the ‘feel’ makes you want to stay long enough that you can eat all over again.
We slept every which way—at the fancy-pants harbourview ALT hotel in St. John’s, in a canvas tent, an Airbnb bunkhouse, a B&B, a two-bedroom cottage, in a one-bedroom house, a boutique Queen Anne Revival house/hotel and an oceanfront cabin on Fogo. You must book in advance here, especially if you are chasing puffins and icebergs!
Recommended: The Painted Fish B&B in Hatchet Cove is a true sanctuary. Steep in a hot bath, soak in the sunrise. This place is designed for staring—it would be a shame to distract from the view and read a book! Play some old vinyl by the wood stove and watch bald eagles cruise by. In the morning, enjoy individual cast-iron omelettes and delightful conversation with Darlene and Neville, the consummate hosts. Or, have a snuggle with Bailey and Jake, their doting dogs (and sometimes sock burglars).
On Fogo, book the Cabin by the Canal in lieu of mediation classes. A two-nights’ stay is the equivalent of several yoga sessions, I’m sure. The DIY paint studio was an unexpected and fun distraction on a foggy night. Put the kettle on and release your creative hounds on a rock—then add it to the growing painted rock collection on the back deck. Be sure to see the Fogo Island Inn (with reservations) for a fireside cocktail (like the 49º 54º collaboration brew by Beau’s made with local partridge berries, sea salt, torrified birch bark and island ‘myrrh’). You might land at just the right time to meet Make and Break, the affable 150-pound Newfoundland dog ambassadors of the Inn.
Must: ‘Ome Sweet ‘Ome is worth all the hype and dollars (and drive). Yes, it’s just a canvas tent, but, it’s curated every which way, right down to the cinnamon sticks and tea bags in the morn. We stayed here on the night of the full moon and burned a bundle of firewood listening to the ethereal call of loons across the cove. There are piles of quilts (and a propane heater for the frostier nights)—trust me, coffee in the morning will never taste so satisfying. The not-for-profit social enterprise has helped boost a sustainable local micro-economy. Founded actor and comedian Shaun Majumder (from Burlington, NL), the tents are a magical slice of real estate. If you prefer walls, the OME Pod will keep you snug too. Don’t leave without hiking the Dorset Trail in Smith’s Harbour. It’s like walking on a Casper mattress! The lichens and moss and jewel-like partridge berries make this trail feel totally fairy-tale.
We simply ran out of days to hike more trails and eat more cod tacos. The Skerwink Trail in Trinity East is unforgettable. The Port Rexton Brewery is undiluted cool. On Fogo, you have to drive at a turtle’s pace through Tilting to properly absorb the National Historic Site and 18th century Irish settlement. You’ll feel transported back in time. Don’t miss the Terry Fox memorial in St. John’s–Fox began his Marathon of Hope here, at Mile Zero. And, if you can pry your eyes from the puffins, the historic root cellars of Elliston are a marvel. In fact, Elliston is the Root Cellar Capital of the World with hundreds of man-made frost-free cellars hidden in the hills.
There’s so much to love about Newfoundland. When you come from away, you wonder how you can worm your way in and stay for good. But if you must leave, take in the best send off with Canada’s first glimpse of sunrise at Cape Spear.
Jules Torti’s resume reads more like a well-folded treasure map. She has been a canoe outtripper, outdoor educator, colouring book illustrator and freelancer. Jules has volunteered (and eaten all sorts of questionable things) in the soupy jungles of Costa Rica, Uganda and the Congo. Her work has been published in The Harrowsmith Almanac, The Vancouver Sun, The Globe & Mail, travelife, Canadian Running and Coast Mountain Culture. She actively feeds her blog, Alphabet Soup, with posts on books, birds, burgers and beer (in no particular order) across the latitudes from Zanzibar to Iceland. Closer to home, she was grandfathered into the Galt Horticultural Society, was the caretaker of a 155-year-old stone heritage cottage and has chronic fantasies about church conversions, beekeeping and owning llamas. She has been known to slam on the brakes for photo ops of saltbox houses, saddle roof barns, snowy owls and sunflower fields. As editor-in-chief of Harrowsmith she is thrilled to be able to curate, write and read about the very best things in life.