Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 6, 2009

Newfoundland: Where Hospitality, History, and Toe Tapping Good Times Are in the Blood

… And where people make the destination

From time to time we may all seek destinations that allow us to get away from human hustle and bustle; to escape from the pressures of life in the 21st century, and to regain a sense of order in the world. Newfoundland is that kind of destination. However, it is also a destination where you are constantly reminded that it is the people — a unique maritime culture — who are the benevolent focal point of the destination. There is no one quite like a Newfoundlander. A visit to Newfoundland and the unavoidable interaction with that province’s hardy, funny, and generous people is more than enough food for the soul.

They call it “The Rock”

Newfoundland is known in the vernacular as “The Rock,” because of its geological uniqueness. But it is a rock in many other senses. Although a “have not” region of Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador is home to a people who have a strong sense of themselves. Historically, Newfoundland has known hard economic times in an environment that constantly challenges human survival. But as the old saying goes, “Man does not live by bread alone.” And in Newfoundland you will discover and experience a sense of community that is immediate, genuine, and very refreshing.

In Newfoundland there is no shortage of awesome views: jagged cliffs overlooking the seething Atlantic; lonesome communities of brightly painted wooden houses; multitudes of whirling, diving seabirds filling the air with their cacophony, primeval boreal forests; mammoth icebergs drifting offshore; intrepid whales and other marine life cavorting in a cold sea that belongs very much to them. But if you come to Newfoundland from a milieu of commercial sensory overload, you may need to make a conscious effort to take your time, pause, and look closely at what at first may seem to be simple scenes. If you do, you might just find yourself regaining a perspective on the value of people living simply, honestly, and collaboratively with each other and with their environment.

On a winter’s day, a pickup game of hockey on an empty parking lot overlooking St. John’s Harbour suggests the the sense of community of Newfoundland. A local two-man band playing the timeless tunes of Newfoundland also suggests how Newfoundlanders bond through the medium of music.

The Avalon Peninsula

If you look at a map of the island of Newfoundland, you will notice the complex topography of the place; the multitude of bays, inlets, rivers, and inland lakes. Wherever you are on The Rock you are never far from another spectacular seascape.

The capital city of St. John’s is located on one of the arms of the Avalon Peninsula that extends out into the Atlantic as if reaching for the coastline of Ireland. In a typical “Don’t take life too seriously” attitude the Avalon Convention & Visitors Bureau refers to the peninsula as “Canada’s Far East.” And it is a common practice for visitors to St. John’s to go for a pre-dawn picnic to Signal Hill (from which Marconi sent his first transatlantic message) and to be the first in North America to watch the sun rise on a new day.

The Avalon Convention & Visitors Bureau’s website (they call the area “Canada’s Far East”) is an excellent resource as is its Visitor’s Guide to the area. On the website, be sure to check out the background information and special travel packages. (The latter page is currently under construction.)

St. John’s

This provincial capital is unlike no other in Canada. Situated on hills surrounding one of the most spectacular natural harbours on the eastern coast of North America (carved out of the formidable granite that gives the island its apt nickname of The Rock), St. John’s is a photographer’s digital dream. As you walk up and down the winding streets, in every nook and cranny and around every corner, there is a photographic moment to be preserved. And a stroll along the harbour past the fishing boats and the foreign vessels and cruise ships that visit St. John’s, you will easily imagine why this port attracted so many fishing fleets from Europe long before permanent European settlements were established in the New World.

A Canadian Sense of Place, The Shipping News, and the Largest Movie Set in Canada

For many who have never been to Newfoundland, the film The Shipping News (directed by Lasse Hallström and starring Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, and one of Canada’s best-loved — Newfoundland-born and raised — actors Gordon Pinsent) may have been their first introduction to the majestic scenery of Newfoundland. Various film reviews describe it as “stormy,” “bleak” and “angry.” Whereas these descriptions may at times be appropriate, they refer more to the story than to the setting. Descriptions equally appropriate would be: dramatic, daunting, majestic, wild, and glorious.

Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an emotionally bereft man (Spacey) moving to his ancestral home with his young daughter, is in many ways quintessentially Newfoundland given the struggles and triumphs that the novel relates. It is interesting to note that Annie Proulx, an American, is one of the authors who have contributed to what is referred to as a “Canadian sense of place.” While it is primarily Canadian writers who have defined the illusive Canadian identity by expressing through literature the geographical frames of reference of the Canadian experience, foreign writers have also been attracted to the dramatic spaces unique to the Canadian landscape. Filmmakers of course have felt the same appeal; the entire province is a cinematic “location.”

Newfoundland, 9/11, and an enduring American connection

For many thousands of Americans and other unexpected visitors, their first visit to Newfoundland came at the very worst of times. However, despite the horrific circumstances that caused them to be on The Rock, the reception they were given was the very best of times.

On the tarmac of Gander airport in Newfoundland on September 11, 2001 was a scene that will be remembered for a long time to come. A medley of aircraft (Air France, British Airways, Sabena, ATA, Alitalia, Lufthansa, American, Delta, USAirways, TWA, Continental, and United) were lined up in a neat row.

Across the province at other airports such as St. John’s, Stephenville, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and Deer Lake the scene was the same. More than 130 international flights had made unscheduled stops in Newfoundland.

Newfoundland’s Emergency Measures Organization Plan and similar programs in individual communities were immediately activated. But it was the ordinary citizens who opened their homes and their hearts to their unexpected guests — and gave them traditional Newfoundland hospitality — who helped these thousands of visitors make it through a very difficult time.

Feeding, housing, and in some cases clothing them, the Newfoundland hosts welcomed their guests and entertained these accidental tourists with everything from whale-watching trips, typical Newfoundland concerts, and potluck suppers. Their guests were as gracious in their gratitude as the hosts were in their altruism. Paul Celluci, U.S. then Ambassador to Canada, later travelled to Newfoundland to say thanks:

“Thank you for the extraordinary acts of human kindness and compassion that you provided to citizens of the United States…. The spirit here is an exceptional one. The people here are truly good people.”

The hospitality and empathy shown to the foreign guests by the people of Newfoundland was indeed generous but not unusual. In a culture that for centuries has depended on the sea for its livelihood and all the dangers and deprivations that such a lifestyle can present, coming to the aid of your neighbours was simply what one did.

The airports of Newfoundland, in particular Gander, have historically been the “crossroads of the world” and a stopping off point between Europe and North America, both in the great age of shipping and the early days of aviation. Its close geographical location to Europe made it the obvious refueling and aircraft servicing destination. In 1935, an international agreement between Newfoundland (at the time still a British colony and not a Canadian province), the U.K., the U.S., Canada, and the Irish Free State assured reciprocal landing rights for transatlantic air service. And it was Pan-American Airways that in 1936 was first given a permit to transport “passengers, goods, and mail” twice weekly between the United Kingdom and the United States, by way of Newfoundland.

But it was the Second World War that really brought Americans, Canadians, and Newfoundlanders together. Its obvious strategic location from a military, aviation, and naval perspective led to the building of gigantic airbases at places such as Pepperrell, Stephenville, and Argentia. (A meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt at the latter was a strong signal to the historical defence role of Canada and the United States.) Many of the bases were still in place until the end of the Cold War. And Gander was one of the largest bases, almost Canada and the United States in miniature; the base had a Canadian “side” and an American “side.” The 9/11 passengers had landed at a place that was part of an historic world route.

In response to the hospitality of their Newfoundland hosts, many Americans paid tribute in various ways. Passengers on Delta flight 15 created a scholarship for Newfoundland students; employees of the Rockefeller Foundation who were stranded in Newfoundland donated a new computer lab to a school in Lewisporte where they were housed.

The Viking Trail and Western Newfoundland

Western Newfoundland is one of those experiences and destinations that literally defies description; although the picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words is a good way to initiate your friends and relatives into the Newfoundland experience.

Geology and history in Western Newfoundland are inseparable. This particular area is also a destination within a destination where an understanding of the geology and the history of the area is internalized; the visitor is a time traveller. Understanding the beauty, significance in terms of New World history, and the timelessness of this area does not require a stretch of the imagination. The sights, sounds, and sensory experience permeate your consciousness.

This is an ancient land where the Earth’s mantle pushes up to the surface of the planet. It is a land of majestic glacier-carved fjords, ancient forest, and ubiquitous wildlife. As is the case of much of Newfoundland, you will also encounter solitary outport fishing villages that exemplify the tenacity and endurance of the people of The Rock. Wildlife abounds: Arctic hare, rock ptarmigan, woodland caribou, and moose. (There are more moose in Newfoundland than there are people in the capital city of St. John’s; more caribou than there are people in Newfoundland.)

This amazing region of Newfoundland is also unique in that it has two UNESCO World Heritage sites and three National Historic Sites.

Towards the southern end of this “Great Northern Peninsula” is the World Heritage site of Gros Morne. This 1,805 square kilometre national park has an astounding variety of scenic and cultural attractions including the Long Range Mountains, fjord valleys, deep glacial lakes, coastal bogs and a wave-sculpted cliffs. (For more information, see the Viking Trail website or the Parks Canada Gros Morne website.)

At the other end of the peninsula is L’Anse Aux Meadows. The name originates from the French fishers in the area during the 1800s and 1900s who named the site “L’Anse aux Meduses,” which translates as “Jellyfish Bay.” The name today is an English corruption of the French because it is primarily an open area of meadows.

Most importantly, L’Anse aux Meadows is the site of the first European habitation (although not long lasting) in North American. It is the story of the Vikings who first set foot on the shores of the New World 500 years before Columbus. Here you will find artifacts found in the excavations along with a model of the site as it probably looked at the time of the Norse. (For more information see the Viking Trail website or the Parks Canada L’Anse aux Meadows website.

One-stop-shopping Tours to Newfoundland

Although Newfoundland is a very traveller-friendly destination and one that is easy to navigate by car, there are also many tours that you might want to consider. One company that specializes in Newfoundland as well as the other provinces in Atlantic Canada is Maxxim Vacations. The company’s theme package tours (Whales, Birds and Bergs, Voyage of the Vikings etc.) are especially good value and well-organized.

Some fast facts about Newfoundland and Labrador

(a) Newfoundland joined the Canadian Confederation at midnight on March 31, 1949 and, united with Labrador, it became the youngest Canadian province.

(b) The island portion is about the size of Virginia and Labrador is the size of New York state.

(c) It has 17,000 kilometres of coastline.

(d) Two important ocean currents meet just off shore: the Labrador Current and the Gulf Current. This meeting of two great currents attracts a great array of sealife including whales, dolphins, and porpoises. On the land more seabirds make their home than anywhere else in the world. You can see puffins, kittwakes, storm petrels, gannets, murres and numerous bird sanctuaries. Whale and bird-watching tours are very popular in Newfoundland from June to September especially. Sea kayaking is a popular way of getting up close and personal with sealife.

(e) Icebergs calved from great northern glaciers in Greenland can be seen in “Iceberg Alley” just offshore from May to July.

(f) Moose are not indigenous to Newfoundland but were introduced in the late 1800s. They now number 110,000.

(g) Newfoundland has some of the world’s largest land-locked salmon.

(h) The Island of Newfoundland is the result of tectonic shifts and two great continental plates colliding. This accounts for the precambrian granite that is found on the island. Geologists come from all over the world to study rock formations that haven’t changed for millions of years.

(i) Labrador is one of the world’s last truly untouched wilderness areas.

(j) Some 9000 years ago, humans already lived here. Today they are referred to as the Maritime Archaic Indians. Paleo-Eskimos can be dated back thousands of years as well.

(k) Bonavista Newfoundland is where John Cabot arrived in the New World in 1497. On seeing the Bay he said, “Buena Vista.” Newfoundlanders will argue that it was Cabot not Columbus who was the first contracted explorer to “discover” America because Columbus landed in what is today the Caribbean as opposed to the continent.

(l) Newfoundlanders have a long heritage of music and dance with an Irish/English flavour. The Newfoundland accent reflects these roots and Newfoundland speech is known for its many colourful expressions.

(m) Newfoundland is a surprise winter activity destination. The Humber Valley (Corner Brook, Deer Lake, and Marble Mountain) gets 20 feet of snowfall a year. It is also a complete winter sports getaway destination.

(n) The island of Newfoundland is actually the northern part of the Appalachian system; its major bays, peninsulas, river systems, and mountain ranges are aligned in the typical Appalachian southwest to northeast orientation.

(o) Newfoundlanders are renowned for their sense of humour, sometimes self-deprecating and often teasing. Below is one of my favourites. For Newfoundlanders who do not consider themselves isolated and insular, those who are not from Newfoundland are “from away” or “Mainlanders.”

A Mainlander in Newfoundland is driving down the highway and runs over a rabbit. Wondering what happened, he stops his car and gets out to look. As he is standing there, looking at the dead rabbit, a Newfie drives by. The Newfie, wondering if he can help, stops and asks the tourist what’s up.

The Mainlander says, “I’m here visiting your fair province and I seem to have killed one of your land rodents.”

The Newfie looks down, sees the dead rabbit and says, “No problem, b’y. Hang’er down a few.”

He then goes to his truck and returns with an aerosol spray can. He empties the spray over the rabbit, chucks the empty can into the ditch and says, “There ya go, me son. Enjoy yer stay.” He gets in his truck and is gone.

The rabbit gets up, hops 10 feet towards the woods, turns around and waves, hops 10 feet more, turns around and waves again, and then is gone into the woods.

The Mainlander is astounded. Wondering what the Newfie did, he retrieves the empty can from the ditch and reads the label: “Hair spray. Guaranteed to bring dead hair back to life with a permanent wave”

Recommended website and resources

Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism

This government website should be your first stop when preparing a trip to Newfoundland. A handy toll-free number (1-800-563-6353) is also all you need to begin planning a trip.

The Newfoundland and Labrador tourism department also publishes a comprehensive, one-stop-shopping travel guide. It can be ordered through the website or by calling the toll-free number. The guide is well-organized and very traveller-friendly, covering all the regions of the province: Western Region, Central Region, Eastern Region, Avalon Region, and Labrador Region.

The introduction to this guide is also one of the most literate and evocative pieces of writing I have found in tourism material. Like the people of Newfoundland, the guide demonstrates the dynamic use of language for which the people of The Rock are so well-known. One excerpt in particular resonated with me as genuinely Newfoundland; expressing a clear collective sense of self, self-determination, a sense of history, and the very subtle Newfoundlander sense of humour.

As the youngest province of this nation we brought a culture already older than that of the confederation we joined. It was formed by thousands of years of Aboriginal, English, Irish, and French influence. We are the original gateway to North America as European presence here pre-dates the voyage of Columbus by five centuries and our colonists likely watched the Mayflower sail by.

Wind, waves and tectonic movement are to be applauded for the job they’ve done sculpting the sudden cliffs and craggy outcrops of our shores over the last several million years… the fracture and fissure of granite like the face of an old storyteller… But there are human treasures here in each and every town in the form of an extended hand, an embrace, and a cup of tea; beauty outside and beauty inside.

Yes, this is Newfoundland and Labrador, a nation, a province, a home to people who will welcome you as their own. Because the only thing bigger than our heart is your encounter with the land in which we live.

Another excerpt evokes the kind of reaction (often unexpected) that travellers to Newfoundland and Labrador often experience.

I have been to India to lift my spirit, to Vietnam for its beauty and serenity, to Australia for its adventure. Then I came here, and the colour of everything that I experienced faded in the face of this vibrant place. — Inscribed on a stone by a visitor to Gros Morne National Park



  1. Amazing write up; you have brought our Island all the ways up to the 7th heaven! =)

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