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Canada: the history and must see sights of Newfoundland

Kieran Meeke / 16 January 2017 ( 21 March 2019 )

Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017, Canada is a fascinating country full of history and intrigue. We take a closer look at Newfoundland and Labrador.

Panoramic views with bight blue summer day sky with puffy clouds over the harbor and city of St. John's NewFoundland, Canada.
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.

Delving into the history of Newfoundland and Labrador

Newfoundland and Labrador is the most eastern province of Canada, facing the Atlantic Ocean. It's this ocean that the Vikings crossed in order to become the first Europeans to arrive, in around 1000 AD. 

Other Europeans 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 in Canada 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. 

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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.

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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.

Canada travel surgery: A reader asks...

We are planning to fly to St John’s, Newfoundland, in October and hiring a car in order to explore Eastern Canada/ the Maritimes on our way to Ottawa to visit our daughter, taking 10-14 days. We would be interested in seeing an itinerary that takes in the best of what that part of Canada has to offer, plus some advice about driving.

Our answer

We contacted Discover Canada whose Nim Singh conjured up a wonderfully detailed itinerary with great advice.

Nim says, ‘Thats a fair old distance but an amazing journey that will really capture a lot of what Canada is all about. However, it’s very easy in Canada to underestimate driving times and distances. Two weeks is a lot of driving and not much time to stop to do anything much like take a hike, enjoy an extended lunch, or go for a paddle in a canoe!

‘My main driving and sights recommendations would be, check out one-way drop-off fees for car hire first as this can sometimes be surprisingly costly.

‘Don’t underestimate driving distances and times. It’s not all three-lane motorway and the speed limit is often 55 kph. Limit your driving time so as not to drive at dusk/dawn/night. Moose collisions are most common at that time and it’s rare for a car to come off better in such an event! 

'Highlights in my opinion would be the quirkiness of St. Johns, Newfoundland and Labrador - time to acclimatize and the ruggedness of Gros Morne National Park.

‘Drive the Cabot trail in Nova Scotia , Cape Breton  - one of North America’s top drives and enjoy the coast of New Brunswick, and take in the coastline of the St. Lawrence River.

‘If time is available, stop off for a whale watching trip either from St. Johns horbour, on Cape Breton, or on the St. Lawrence. Taking in the history, location and fine cuisine of Quebec City  and/or Montreal for is joie du vivre. 

‘Do bear in mind, a lot of tourist attractions in these areas tend to close after Labour Day Weekend (early September) or Canadian Thanksgiving (early October) and don’t always open up until late May.’


Saga readers say...

'We did a lot of research before we visited Newfoundland and Labrador, and found contacting local tourist groups well beforehand was a great help; English visitors are rare, so they went out of their way to help us.

My sister and I did a trip to Newfoundland and Labrador some 15 years ago, to visit North West River where our paternal Grandmother was born at the Hudson's Bay Post there, and they laid on a tea party for us of geriatrics like ourselves, whose families had known our family then.

The third member of our party was a Grenfell, who wished to follow the work of Dr. Grenfell who founded all the medical services there, as well as creating all the sea charts of that area, by sailing ship - which are still used by the local ferries today.  

Our tea party produced one lady who had been a maid at Dr. Grenfell's house, and the two of them had a great conversation - shouting at one another, as both were little hard of hearing!

There is so much to see in both places, magical small museums, but there is little tarmac road and the distances are long - some car hire firms do not cover you for travelling on dirt roads.  

We flew into Halifax, then on to near Corner Brook where we picked up our car at dead of night, only to discover that it had a mysterious security gadget tucked under the dashboard, which meant we could not switch on the engine - luckily a kind local showed us where it was or we would have spent the night in the car.

The ferries are wonderful: we took one across to Labrador, then another overnight to Goose Bay, where there was a wonderful show of the Northern Lights from the ship, and where we finally left our car, returning to St. John's with its magnificent harbour, by air.  We regretted not having time to visit St. Pierre-et- Miquelon which is still part of France.

We had no time to visit the Maritimes, but would recommend Saga members to acquire a U.S. visa before they go - Maine cuts a huge lump out of the topography, and the roads appear to meander across the border from time to time.

If I were doing their trip, I should consider leaving the car at Quebec and travelling along the St. Lawrence to Montreal, and taking a train on to Ottawa;  local transport is good and you avoid the hassle having to park in a city you do not know, and it means you can indulge in the good food and wine with a clear conscience.

Travel as light as possible, most motels, etc. have laundry facilities and an iron, to freshen up your one smart outfit, and a few restaurants still insist a man wear a tie;  I now manage with one wheelie and an overnight bag.

Jinny, via email


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.