|NEWFOUNDLAND - THE AVALON PENINSULAR
"You know my dear, I've always wanted to see Newfoundland but it's just soooooo far away. We're off to Ireland this year. We love the pubs, the music, and the accents are soooooo cute. Maybe next year eh?"
OK. OK. - I've heard it all before. I've also quaffed more than my share of Murphy's Best in the fine hostelries of Dingle, and lost my voice to the chorus of "A Black Velvet Band!" But I've always had a yearning to dip my toe into the boiling spume at Cape Spear - figuratively anyway!!
A WestJet "Seat Sale" was the clincher. Suddenly I am being transported 6000 kilometres to "The Rock". I am off to the island where colourful characters are as prolific as cod's tongues at a kitchen ceilidh!
In St John's, North Americas oldest settlement, rows of picture-perfect, wildly painted clapboard houses cascade down steep higgledy-piggledy streets, with names like Hill O'Chips and Temperance Avenue, to the harbour below. "They just black topped the cart tracks and built in between, see."
British and French fought for control of the place - and the cod, "which were so dense you could walk across 'em without getting your feet wet!" The British won out in 1762.
Irish and West Country English began arriving in droves in the 1800's settling separate parts of the island. "Good Catholics were allowed to pray for the souls of the Protestants, they just weren't allowed to talk to them". Thankfully, it's different now.
Powered by adrenaline, I climb Signal Hill. My very first iceberg is emerging through the fog. " Wow" exclaim the couple from South Carolina. "Will ye just get a load of that. Only ever seen one of them in National Geographic." I agree.
I decide to tackle Newfoundland in chunks. St Johns is the perfect base to visit The Avalon Peninsular. A titillating microcosm of what lies beyond.
Day1- I head north, up The Killick coast. It's a short jaunt so there's lots of time for just "firking around" - A Newfoundland term meaning pottering about! Through the pretty settlements of Outer Cove, Middle Cove, Torbay - Well kept homes, nice sailboats in small harbours. It's commutable distance to town.
Looping down Conception Bay, I join a ferry line in Portugal Cove. Don't know where it's going but it's a beautiful day and for $5 return it must be worth a bit of firking around eh?
I nip past a "No Passengers" sign to the bridge. Our Skipper quickly becomes my new best friend. "Hey take 'er over b'ye. I'll get me a coffee ha ha."
Bell Island, once a thriving mining community is now reduced to around 3000 residents and weekenders, but the underground museum and Karsh portraits are worth the trip. I spot a windsock and a bunch of miniature planes buzzing around an old airstrip.
The Radio Controlled Flyers Club. "Used to be called The RC Flyers Club 'til someone asked if we took Protestants!" said Ryan, readying "Nudder Toy" for take-off.
More icebergs are heading through Conception Bay. The ice-cream lady hands me a note. Her friend is documenting Bell Island history. She thumps the roof of my car as I drive back onto the ferry. "Mister mister, If she arses me your name what will I say?"
Tomorrow will be more of a challenge.
Day 2 - A map of The Baccalieu Trail is so crammed with names, they could have been scrawled by a floundering finch! I pass a shopping centre. No cars in the parking lot, just dog obedience classes. Sunday is for church.
Gaff-rigged schooners once packed Holyrood Bay, a reliable supply base for squid to bait the cod lines of dory men. Their sails were ochre, from being dipped in "bark" pots full of pitch and tar.
Along Highway #70, Bacon Cove, Cupid's Cove, Gallows Cove, and Butter Pot are tiny outports in picture-perfect spots on dead-end lanes. Many churches are deserted and homes shuttered, reflecting tough economic times.
My favourite is Brigus, a perfect little town with a babbling brook, gentrified clapboard houses, and a tiny museum. The Country Corner Café makes great cod chowder, pie and a cup of tea for $6 - If you can understand the West Country brogue of the earnest waitress.
Way up at Grates Cove, on the bleak Northern tip, Irish settlers built a maze of traditional stone walls to divide the land and shelter their livestock from winter storms. "On your walk please add a rock," pleads the sign.
The sun is setting along spectacular Highway #80. The western side of the loop. Old Perlican. Winterton. New Perlican. Six icebergs, pink as babys' cheeks, appear against the reddening sky.
Hearts Desire, Hearts Delight, Dildo - With such names, it's no wonder there's so much action under the fog blanket! When it comes to "amor" Newfoundlanders have long led the nation, averaging 8.8 times a month!
10pm. Back in St John's, my favourite little hole-in-the wall eatery, The K Cafe is still open. I tuck into a plate of cods tongues, (chewy!), blackened salmon and strawberry greens, (delicious), partridgeberry-topped cheescake, (heavenly!).
Day 3 - Today will be action-packed! I head south along The Irish Loop, where accents are as dense as a peat bog, to Cape Spear. "No you can't dip your toe in" says the pretty Parks Canada employee. "Can't have you being sucked off the rocks now can we?" "But but!" I settle for a photograph of the most Easterly point in North America.
The fog rolled onto the coast a couple of days ago. "How can you see Puffins when you can't even see the bow of the boat?" Joe O'Brien is a fast talking Irishman who figured the fishery was "about done b'ye" back in 1985. "No one thought folks would shell out 50 bucks to see a bunch of Puffins eh! Now we've got three boats, 2 stores and 36 employees," he chuckles.
Outside Bay Bulls, the fog thins. Our lovely hostess, Deirdre, bursts into song. Living in a small community means recycling boyfriends but she is well versed on the conjugal habits of Puffins who mate for life, spend winters apart and breed in the spring. "Better than our life" taunts the lady from Singapore whose 'shifty' husband has moved to Toronto. "I only see him once a year!"
The air is buzzing with Gulls, Kittiwakes, and Auks. Tiny Puffins dart by like newly-wound toys. Each species inhabits a "naturally-segregated" portion of the rocky island. We bounce around teasingly on the edge of lens range. Remember to buy the postcard!
The weather is crummy - It can turn on a dime here - Wind that cleared the fog has brought horizontal rain. I nip into small harbours heading south: Tors Cove, Burnt Cove, Island Cove. The few remaining fishermen are busy checking traps, nets and adding a last coat of bottom paint.
"Welcome to Ferryland settled in 1621" boasts the sign. Digs to unearth the commune of Sir George Calvert, and his ostracized band of Catholics, are not the sort of thing you linger over on a day like this. (He and his wife pushed off in 1629 after a particularly foul winter).
Still, Gortex-clad folks are fighting a head wind up the long craggy lighthouse trail. I follow on. Must be something happening up there, eh b'ye?
The sign says "Lighthouse Picnics." From the number of people inside, it must be worth the half hour struggle. Baskets laden with ham and brie or roasted red peppers and Feta, packed between slabs of freshly baked molasses and oatmeal bread are being lovingly dispensed - and consumed, with equal enthusiasm.
Forget clifftop whalewatching from a complimentary blanket today. Eating inside you are under the framed, watchful, eyes of Jill Curran's relatives. Her great grandfather was once the lighthouse keeper before solar-power replaced man-power.
In a moment of youthful madness (they are both still in their early thirties), she and super-cook pal, Sonia O'Keefe, set about the daunting task of renovating an abandoned light house with dreams of opening a business. Lighthouse Picnics has won several awards including 2007 restaurant of the year.
The highway crosses barren rock, past small ponds and outhouse-sized fishing shacks. Outports on the barren South Coast are semi-deserted. The fog rolls in again as I boot it up the western portion, more intent on making it back home than admiring the scenery!
Tonight I'll try a Jigs dinner (corned beef and cabbage) or maybe pan-fried cod and scrunchions (fried pork fat) at Velma's Place.
One thing I know for sure. I will wind up at O'Reilly's Pub - my fave among 20 along two blocks of George Street. I will start with a pint of Murphy's Best to oil my voice. Fergus O'Byrne will surely need help with a chorus or two of "A Black Velvet Band!!"
IF YOU GO
Copyright © 2008 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.