ST. JOHN'S, NL - The phone call from our friends and frequent travel companions Dave and Mary Apps from B.C. held promise of a grand new adventure.
“We've found a super deal,” they enthused. “Cruise for 10 days on the Polar Star out of St John's to circumnavigate Newfoundland. Normal rate: $5,000 per person. Special shoulder season September rate: $2,500 per person - taxes in.”
It took us all of two seconds to shout into the phone: “We're in.”
Newfoundland's fall, after all, with its potential for lazy warm sunny days and tranquil seas, is a great time to visit Canada’s youngest province.
The Polar Star, a proud Canadian vessel which carries 105 passengers and 40 crew normally takes passengers to remote Arctic and Antarctic locations but also offers 10-day fall sailings to outports in Newfoundland and Labrador, many of which are accessible only by sea.
The months after that phone call passed quickly and soon we were standing on the deck of the Polar Star admiring the jelly bean coloured row houses that make St. John’s, North America’s oldest city, one of the most colourful as well.
St. John’s iconic landmarks, the Cathedral, Signal Hill, Cabot Tower and the Battery, and its new provincial museum called The Rooms, glowed romantically in the diming sunlight as we left port and set sail for Labrador.
Left: The Polar Star cruise ship looks so small against Newfoundland’s rugged beauty. Right: St. John’s are pure magic.
After an evening of getting to know our shipmates and learning the layout of the Polar Star, we were greeted next morning by humpback, fin and minke whales as well as white nosed and white sided dolphins swimming alongside the graceful vessel as it cut effortlessly through the waves as we approached Bonavista, our first port of call.
There to greet us dockside was Bonavista’s mayor – part of her official duties is to greet all visiting cruise ships, we are told.
Bonavista, which unlike many of Newfoundland’s coastal settlements is built on an open plan, not a steep cove, is home to The Matthew, a modern replica of the ship Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) sailed on to North America in 1497. According to local legend, Cabot first landed at what’s now known as Bonavista when he arrived in North America.
A tour of the Ryan Premises, a faithful recreation of a family business and compound which accurately documents the history of the cod and seal fisheries, long the backbone of the Newfoundland economy, offered a true insight into what the early settlers endured when they first arrived on what’s known as The Rock.
One of our favourite ports of call was St Anthony, located at the north west fingertip of Newfoundland. It’s the gateway to L'Anse aux Meadows, which was settled by Vikings more than 1,000 years ago - 500 years prior to Columbus or John Cabot’s arrival in The New World.
St Anthony devotes itself to the memory of Sir Wilfred Grenfell, a medical doctor and missionary who came to the aid of aboriginals and early immigrants living in abject poverty along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. Grenfell set up the largest of his many hospitals here in 1927 and organized fundraisers for orphanages. He visited fishing families and natives up and down the coasts, encouraging cottage industries, education and better working conditions for local fishermen trapped by the “truck” system, which left them impoverished. The town’s Grenfell Museum is a fitting tribute to his legacy.
At L'Anse aux Meadows, a short bus ride north of St. Anthony, actors in costume and character reenact life as Norse settlers in their recreated sod homes. Bjorn the Beautiful, who fancies himself a modern day Eric the Red, sings and tells stories to visitors at his hearth. Outside Bjorn's home, the foundation outlines of the original sod homes built by the Vikings are clearly visible in the grass covered meadows. This place was pure magic.
Left: Newfoundland's stunning coastline. Right: The Battery clings to the jagged coast of Newfoundland.
Visitors to Newfoundland and Labrador can expect every kind of weather - brilliant sunshine, impenetrable fog, drenching rain, mighty winds and wild seas; all of which can occur in just a few hours. Locals told us, “if you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes.”
During one particularly fog-bound day, our ship's zodiacs delivered us to Battle Harbour on the east coast of Labrador. We followed ghostly avenues heavy with thick wet fog through Battle Harbour, a lovingly restored cod fishing village that dates back to 1770 until we reached the town’s Anglican Church. There we were greeted by the haunting strains of Amazing Grace being played by the Polar Star's Jim Payne on the church's nearly 160 year old organ. Closer inspection revealed that the organ was made in Woodstock Ont., our home town, by Thomas Organ and Furniture back in 1852.
Battle Harbour, like so many Newfoundland fishing villages, fell victim to the Canadian government’s 1992 cod fishing moratorium - the result of overfishing and poor management of the stock - and now has been turned into a living museum where the past is relived for the thousands of cruise visitors who come ashore each year.
Down the Labrador coast from Battle Harbour we docked in Red Bay, infamous as a 16th century Basque whaling centre. At its height, Red Bay accounted for thousands of whale killings annually - local whalers would venture out in small row boats called Chaloupas to slaughter whales for their blubber and precious oil, which lit the world until the discovery of petroleum and electricity.
Woody Harbour, in beautiful Gros Morne National Park, is where 12 of us hiked up a mountain trail behind the Visitor’s Centre and were rewarded with a grand view of our tiny ship nestled between the majestic plateau mountains that sweep down to the sea in this breathtaking place.
Our welcoming committee here was a monstrous bull moose who dared us to return the way we’d just come. Few words can describe the beauty one sees in Gros Morne, which is even more beautiful when it’s draped in its fall coat. The hiking trails, pitcher plants, sundews, tenacious scrub clinging to life and on this day, an endless blue sky, left us speechless.
As we returned to the Polar Star to continue our journey at day's end, we awakened a Grey Whale and her calf slumbering on the harbour's surface. We followed them quietly out of port, wine glasses in hand, into a slowly setting sun.
Just in case anyone might think Newfoundland is all rock, the fertile Codroy Valley might change your mind. At this wonderful port of call we were met by what seemed like the entire village of Codroy, who had driven their vans and family sedans to the Codroy River mouth to meet our zodiacs and take us on private tours of the area.
Left: A hike up Gros Morne offers spectacular views. Right: Meeting wildlife is worth the cruise alone.
Our driver, Cal, took us to see Codroy’s many attractions, including a Wetland Preservation Centre, the Lighthouse, the local fish plant and the Wildlife Museum where we met Charlie, the Moose, close up. At the end of the day, the group reunited to celebrate with a “mug up” that included local music, drinks and dancing. Codroy was a highlight of the entire cruise. There we met friendly, lovely people and were treated to Newfoundland’s famous hospitality. It was a day that ended too soon.
After a stormy night at sea that featured 40 knot winds and huge waves, we made port at Francois, pronounced “Fransway” by locals in a teasing pretence of ignoring their French origins. This tiny fishing village on the south coast of Newfoundland snuggles inside a massive fiord, protected on three sides by steep mountains and peeking out through a narrow ocean inlet that looks south toward the French islands of St Pierre and Miquelon, visible in the hazy distance.
Once an outport village of 300, Francois has now shrunk to 120 thanks to the loss of the cod fishery. Villagers lovingly care for their stilted homes decorated with colourful paint and festive lights that are connected by wooden walkways. A strenuous hike up a mountain trail to a lookout afforded us grand views of the harbour, the village, the ocean and St Pierre off in the distance.
That evening we were joined by locals on board the Polar Star for a salmon barbeque. Then we all went back ashore for a “kitchen party” with people so friendly and welcoming we wished we could stay forever. It was the perfect way to end a perfect visit to a perfect place called Newfoundland and Labrador. We can’t wait to go back.
ARRIVING BEFORE THE CRUISE
Brian and Laurel doubled their cruise value by taking advantage of a West Jet seat sale to fly to St John's a week early. Once there, they rented a van to drive six hours to Twillingate where they had reserved a seaside cottage for three nights (Google Ocean View Retreat Twillingate – make sure you reserve months in advance). The large deck overlooking the village and the ocean was the perfect spot to enjoy locally sourced cod, lobster and crab dinners each evening at sunset. They stayed four days, but could have easily stayed a month. While there allow one full day for a ferry trip to Fogo Island where you will visit Tilting, a wonderfully restored fishing village designated as a National Historic Site (www.townoftilting.com)
On the return trip to St John's Brian and Laurel took the scenic route, angling south-easterly to Cape St. Mary's Seabird Ecological Reserve where they marveled at a colony of 150,000 Northern Gannet pairs nesting on a sea stack so close to shore that binoculars were not needed. Then it was off to Witless Bay, Bay Bulls, Petty Harbour and Cape Spear, the easternmost tip of North America, on the drive back to St John's.
Back in St John's for three days before the Polar Star cruise, Brian and Laurel loved the self guided walking tours of the downtown, the jelly bean hews of the historic row houses and the many first-rate restaurants which featured locally caught seafood such as pan fried cod with scrunchions, cod au gratin, lobster and fresh scallops. You can also try salt fish and brewis, jigg's dinner, figgy duff, toutons and blueberry grunt. They tried them all. Mind you, they drew the line at seal flipper pie.
Where can you get the best fish and chips ever? Easy. It's served at Beachy Cove Cafe in nearby Portugal Cove (www.beachycovecafe.com).
Every first time visitor has the idea that Newfoundland is a small island. Not so. You can spend a whole holiday just driving unless you plan carefully. Best advice is to pick the east coast or the west, saving the other for your next trip. It can take fourteen hours to cross the island on the Trans Canada Highway, and you will miss far too many of the seaside charms.
One of Brian and Laurel’s favourite day trips was the drive north of St John's along Marine Drive with stops in Logy Bay, Outer Cove, Middle Cove, Flat Rock and Pouch Cove. Each stop afforded them an opportunity to hike a short section of the spectacular East Coast Trail or just stop to enjoy a picnic, always keeping an eye out for whales in the summer and fall or icebergs in the spring.
Another favourite drive of theirs was to head south of St John's through Cape Spear and Petty Harbour, picking up Route 10 through Bay Bulls, Witless Bay, Burnt Cove and Ferryland.
Best evening activity in St John's? Head for George Street to enjoy east coast music at its best. Favourite pubs with live music are Bridie Malloy's and O'Reilly's. Not to be missed. www.whatsongeorge.com.
• The Polar Star offers spacious, well appointed cabins, each with its own private bath and large double windows which actually open to admit fresh sea air which resulted in our. best sleeps ever!
• Daily land excursions are guided by expert historians and marine biologists.
• Unlike larger cruise ships which charge hundreds of dollars extra for escorted day trips at ports of call, all Polar Star shore excursions were included at no added charge.
• As an added bonus, passengers are invited to bring their own beverages.
• Dollar for dollar, this was one of the most affordable cruises ever.
• For more on the Polar Star, go to www.polarstarexpeditions.com.