Newfoundland and Labrador offer dramatic scenery, the freshest seafood, and plenty of wide-open space!
By Max Hartshorne
Newfoundlanders are patient with the many Americans who visit their fine province. They forgive us for not knowing how to pronounce the island–it’s New-found-LAND.
More than 514,000 visitors came in 2017, and the province is just four hours by air from Ireland. It’s also easy to reach from Boston with a one-stop flight to the capital St John’s.
St John’s is a lively city, right on the waterfront, and that’s still a very active waterfront, with a cargo port and cranes to boot.
The main drag, Water Street, is full of interesting options, from marijuana shops (it’s legal!) to happening cafes with live music, and a string of great late-night options right down on the waterfront.
No Crowds in NL
The best part about Newfoundland and Labrador is that there are no crowds even at the most striking natural formations and tourist locations.
The distances here are stunning–to cross the island of Newfoundland, it’s a nine-hour drive. Over on the other side of Strait of Belle Isle is the other half of the giant province, Labrador.
With more than 18,000 miles of coastline there are so many stunning views and little seaside nooks you’ll have all to yourself. That’s the thing that surprised and delighted us about Newfoundland and Labrador.
Bustling Water Street
Our accommodations were perfectly suited, right in the thick of things off Water Street at the Murray Premises Hotel.
The hotel has a nice little courtyard for outdoor dining and morning coffee, and rooms with views of the harbor.
That’s one thing that’s pretty cheap here, ocean views are a dime a dozen…and are everywhere! website
Dining in St. John’s
We arrived late and were famished….where to eat? We ducked into the Boca Tapas Bar and quickly got into a conversation with the friendly woman behind the bar.
Like almost every other person we’d meet during our trip, she was eager to share her delight and enthusiasm for living here, and like many of her friends, she had left for college and returned to St. John’s.
The city with about 250,000 residents contains half of the population of the whole province. There are many great places to dine in this capital city, and Raymond’s Restaurant has the crown as the most famous and best joint in town.
But it’s hard to get a table and it’s definitely four $$$$. Later on our trip, we’d meet a forager who supplies Raymonds with many of their exquisite hard to find produce and sea creatures.
St John’s Fish Exchange
We were happy to join a throng at the very popular and highly recommended St John’s Fish Exchange, right on the harbor.
There is something about a restaurant that’s rocking and you hit it just right….the Saturday night excitement and enthusiasm for the food, the ambiance, and the whole experience made for a memorable meal.
Cod Cheeks, local mussels, and panko-crusted cod from Newfoundland filled the bill. website
Cod is back in eastern Canada, and that’s a new development since for decades fishermen were prohibited from catching their signature species, due to overfishing. A carefully managed moratorium has been partially lifted so that there is a commercial season for this delicious specialty, and we tried it on nearly every stop in the province.
Exploring the Rooms
The next morning we got some exercise walking the hilly streets of the city, setting out to discover some local painters and museums. Our first stop was The Rooms, a giant museum built in 2005 by the province to showcase the art and history of Newfoundland and Labrador.
You can spend a lot of time in the four stories here, that mix history exhibits with the local art. One shows how Irish and English fishermen settled the island in the early 1600s, and a sculpture show by Billy Gauthier of Labrador presents his fantastic intricate carvings made out of whale and other animal bones.
I’d recommend stopping in to learn about the province and to enjoy the views from the fourth floor. website
Another of the city’s many art galleries worth a visit is the Peter Lewis Gallery, which is filled with very colorful and memorable paintings by the artist who is very well known in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Lewis’ use of color, in a dramatic way, really sets his landscapes apart and has made him a big success here.
Getting out on the Water
Any trip to St John’s and Newfoundland requires some time on the water that’s all around you. We joined Iceberg Ocean Tours on a whale watching trip in the afternoon, and it didn’t take long for us to hit paydirt.
All around us, 50-foot fin whales cavorted, puffing out the air from their blowholes like tired horses.
Joining them were the dolphins merrily slicing through the wake of the boat, and after we got closer to shore, we got some close-up time with sea lions.
These large beasts park themselves on the backs of boats, buoys, and anything else they can find.
As the boat passed out of the harbor toward Cape Spear, we saw huge supply ships that venture hundreds of miles offshore to service the oil drilling platforms. We also saw many dilapidated but still scenic shacks that used to be part of the fishery here but now stand in some cases disregarded, and in others restored. website
To Bay Bulls
Newfoundland and Labrador is really a road trip kind of place. Taking off on a sunny August morning, we headed south from St John’s and then turned north, up to the Bonavista Peninsula, with the namesake town at the very top.
The highways can be a bit of a bland drive, passing through forests and not much else. It’s a big place!
Bonavista is one of the towns that’s received a lot of government funds to promote local industries using local products, including a salt seller, a clothing manufacturer and a restaurant, the Bonavista Social Club.
We drove up the winding road after we entered the village of Port Rexton and parked at the office of Fisher’s Loft Inn.
That’s what everyone must say when they look around at the magnificent view that surrounds this 33-room luxury property!
Not only do they provide their guests with the killer view, but the Fishers also run an excellent restaurant here where the local seafood takes front and center.
John Fisher told us a few things about the peninsula, that’s seeing more and more tourists in recent years. “Sophistication, imagination, and creativity, are the things we want this area to be known for, ” he said.
Fisher has been very involved with the Bonavista Biennale where 22 artists were commissioned to create art exhibitions that blend in with the local scenery and bring new ideas to the fore.
Fisher gives artists a chance to stay in the hotel for free once a year during the off-season to create art, a modern-day artist in residence. He also displays paintings and sculptures in the conference center at Fishers Loft.
“Tourism should be culturally driven,” Fisher said. To that end, he’s helped raise funds from businesses to promote the Biennale and to bring murals to the airport –and piano players too.
We set out on a hike to explore the big peninsula that sat out in the bay in front of Fishers Loft Inn, and passed by more dramatic cliffside views….again, and as we expected, with no other hikers in sight.
Newfoundland and Labrador is proud to have the most concentrated moose population of anywhere on earth, plus an abundance of black bears and an ocean still brimming with fish. Life is good!
Bonavista is a windy and in some ways, desolate place, like an outpost just before you go into the deep wild. We enjoyed learning a bit of the history of the province and for that, we visited the Ryan Premises Historic site, where the original cod fishery of the 1800s was located.
The tour takes you through the once-booming codfish trade when huge catches of the plentiful large fish were dried, salted and put into barrels for export. Everyone back in the day worked in the cod business, and it was made men like James Ryan rich.
The museum has hundreds of artifacts and replicas of the cod fishing equipment and tells the story of the business that thrived until most of the fish were gone. In 1992, a moratorium prohibited any cod fishing and many thousands of islanders had to find a new occupation.
Just outside the village of Bonavista is the large Bonavista Lighthouse, like many lighthouses in Canada, is painted red and white. It operated from 1843 until 1962, and now it’s a provincial museum. Along this same coastal road, we explored some dramatic large openings along the shoreline, called Dungeon Provincial Park.
You might have thought there would be a big crowd to see such impressive sea caverns, called Sea Mounts, but there were only a few visitors there. These natural archways are quite stunning, and many of the visitors also like to pet the horses along the roadside. The one thing you can count on when you visit Newfoundland and Labrador: There is plenty of room up here!
Our visit was sponsored by the Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism board, but the opinions are all our own.