Canada: the history and must see sights of Newfoundland

Kieran Meeke / 16 January 2017

Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017, Canada is a fascinating country full of history and intrigue. The fifth installment in a series of articles, we look at Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Newfoundland and Labrador is the most eastern province of Canada, facing the Atlantic Ocean from where Vikings were the first Europeans to arrive around 1000 AD. 

Other European in search of cod, most notably John Cabot in 1497, then “discovered” the fisheries, with Basque whalers setting up an oil processing station at Red Bay around 1530. 

More permanent settlers began to arrive during the 17th century, with a major influx of Irish in the 18th and early 19th centuries to work in the fisheries. These Irish settlers have left a permanent mark on Newfoundland’s accent and culture, particularly its music.

There was also a strong French presence during the 17th century, but this fell away as the rest of Canada came under British rule. 

Newfoundland resisted incorporation into the rest of Canada, seeing its links to Europe and the Atlantic as stronger than to the mainland.

It was not until 1949, by a narrow margin, that the British Colony of Newfoundland became a full member of the Canadian Confederation, its youngest province but with its oldest city, St John’s. It was officially renamed Newfoundland and Labrador in 2001.

The decision to join Canada was driven by the poor economy, an issue still haunting the region, especially with the collapse in fishing stocks. 

Made up of the island of Newfoundland (called “The Rock” by locals), countless small islands and Labrador on the mainland, the province earns its wealth through the oil and gas industry and mineral exploration. 

Tourism is also a mainstay, with the rugged Atlantic coastline adding to the area’s natural beauty. 

The weather is notoriously changeable, though, with one verse of the provincial anthem “Ode to Newfoundland” starting: “When blinding storm gusts fret thy shore, 

And wild waves lash thy strand.” In fairness, another verse refers to the glories of summer. However, it is a place where four seasons can be expected in one day, so dress accordingly.

Getting Around

Renting a car is the best way to explore what is a surprisingly large province. In St John’s, there is a tourist bus in the summer months that operates on a cheap daily rate and stops hourly at most major attractions. It also meets cruise ships. The intra-provincial ferry system operates car and/or passenger ferries throughout the province.

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Major Sights

L'Anse aux Meadows

This Norse archaeological site at the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula is now on the Unesco World Heritage list. 

The remains of a Viking village were found here in 1960 and dated to almost 1000 years earlier, the first known European settlement in the Americas. 

Three halls and five smaller buildings have been preserved, while Viking re-enactors help bring a village of reconstructed sod huts to life.

Must-do: Join one of the costumed tour guides to learn more about the Norse history of this unique site.

St John’s

The capital of Newfoundland and Labrador was settled by the British in the 1600s and in many ways retains the feel of a small English town – apart from the Irish accent of the locals.

Its small size, colourful “Jellybean” row houses and working harbour make walking around a delight, while its pubs and restaurants are cosy escapes from any Atlantic weather. 

The port-within-a-port of Quidi Vidi is even more of a small fishing village, albeit with its own brewery, looking like it could be in Cornwall or Kerry.

Must-do: Enjoy the view of St John’s from the fourth floor cafe at The Rooms, a museum, art gallery and gift shop in a beautiful building.

Signal Hill

The world’s first transatlantic wireless signal was heard here by inventor Guglielmo Marconi in 1901. 

He chose St John’s as it is almost the closest point to Europe in North America, with the signal being sent from Cornwall. (Marconi later built another wireless station at Cape Race in 1904, the first to receive an SOS message from the Titanic in 1912.) 

Cabot Tower on the hill tells the story, and also has a gift shop and amateur radio station for use by qualified visitors. Signal Hill overlooks the harbour of St John’s and the walk to the top is a scenic one.

Must-see: The Johnson Geo Centre near the foot of the hill is an enjoyable geology museum that also holds artefacts from the Titanic.

Cape Spear

A short drive from St John’s and dominated by its historic lighthouse of 1836, this is the most easterly point of North America. 

Blustery Atlantic winds mean many people linger only long enough for the photo opportunity, but it is a scenic cliffside spot where you might see icebergs, whales or porpoises. 

An interesting exhibition in the lighthouse, the oldest surviving in Newfoundland and Labrador, details its history and the life of its former keepers.

Must-do: Wrap up warm and get up early (watch for moose on the road) to see the sun rise over North America.

Whale Watching

Some 20 species of whales – humpbacks, minke, sperm, orca and blue among others – pass along the Newfoundland coast between May and September. 

You can see them from viewpoints and hiking trials onshore or in tours by kayaks or boat. Fast boats provide the chance to see them close-up, and also visit some of the puffin and other busy seabird colonies of the coast. 

Choosing the right time of year is important, with spring and early summer being the right season to potentially add icebergs to the spectacle.

Must-do: Toast your nautical adventure with a glass of iceberg water, vodka or beer.

Gros Morne National Park

The glacial fjords, cliffs, waterfalls and rocks of this ancient landscape are another local Unesco World Heritage Site and its geology is a primer in the concept of plate tectonics. 

Hiking this western coast of Newfoundland is rewarded by spectacular views of sea and more, with wildlife that includes many bird species and bigger fauna such as moose and caribou. 

Exploring by kayak is also popular, with guided tours available. Several small towns have excellent lodging and restaurants as well as a reputation for intimate arts festivals that cover writing, music and theatre.

Must-see: The Tablelands is a unique, desert-like area of ancient rocks from deep within the earth that are too poor in minerals to support much plant life.

Red Bay Basque Whaling Station

This desolate spot on the coast of Labrador was a whaling station for only a short time in the late 16th century before the local whale population collapsed. 

Happily, you can perhaps now see them again here in season offshore. The station was set up to produce oil, shipped to Europe for lighting, and a small museum tells the story of its rise and fall. 

A drive-on/drive-on ferry operates across the Strait of Belle Isle to Newfoundland between May and early January.

Must-do: Hike around Saddle Island and imagine what life must have been like for these early arrivals, 150 of whom are buried here.

Major Events

Exploits Valley Salmon Festival

This five-day event in Grand Falls-Windsor showcases the traditional music of Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as its food and drink. 

The original purpose was to celebrate the arrival of the migrating Atlantic salmon and it is still held in July and launched with a salmon dinner. 

Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues Festival

This four-day event in July fills some 200 venues in St John’s with top Canadian and local musicians. Recent award-winning headliners have included Colin James, Brianna Gosse and Holly Cole. 

St. John’s Time

This 11-day event is an umbrella for the four different ones listed below that span 11 days from late July to early August. 

George Street Festival

Six days of music during late July and early August attract 40,000 people to the self-styled “biggest little street in North America”. One ticket allows entry to different venues each night, indoor and out. 

The Royal St John’s Regatta

One of North America’s oldest annual sporting events has been held on Quidi Vidi Lake since at least 1816. It is held on the first Wednesday of August (or the next day of the weather steps in), when some 50,000 spectators to enjoy a local civic holiday. 

Newfoundland & Labrador Folk Festival

This long weekend of traditional music and culture in St. John’s is held at Bannerman Park during early August. You can learn a traditional dance, hear a folk tale or just settle back to listen to some great local bands. 

Downtown Busker Festival

Set up in three stages downtown during the last days of the folk festival, this event features a different artist every hour. Jugglers, acrobats, magicians and some that are a bit of everything show off their talents from 10am until 10pm. 

Roots, Rants and Roars Festival

This culinary event in the town of Elliston spans a Friday and Saturday in mid-September. Its signature event is Saturday’s Culinary Hike, where you stop at various stalls along a 5K coastal route to sample offerings from top local and national chefs. 

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