Wild by nature: a slice of Newfoundland's beauty
Airborne, the staggering wilderness landscape of western Newfoundland unfolds beneath me. I crane my neck to get a closer look at fjords, forests, serene bays, mountains and strange lunar landscapes. My destination is Gros Morne National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, relatively little known but much loved by those who do. I'm here on a group tour and, as charming as my companions are, a part of me would rather be here on my own, doing my best impression of Ray Mears, surviving by the skin of my teeth - just me and the great outdoors. That's the effect this wild, windswept and elemental landscape has on visitors, and mine, I confess, is a coup de foudre.
I'd never have guessed I'd feel this way growing up. I was raised in Montreal, Quebec, that beautiful bastion of Francophonie on the St Lawrence river. Despite living in Canada for more than 15 years, my family never once took a vacation in Newfoundland, and I'd always harboured a vague perception of the country's easternmost province as a gloomy backwater. This, I should point out, was a time when the province bore the brunt of mocking "Newfie" jokes and most Montrealers I knew headed west on domestic holidays.
The reality I discover 20 years on is quite different. Newfoundlanders (when you can find them - Corner Brook, the only city in Western Newfoundland, has a population of a mere 21,000), far from being gloomy, are musical, outdoors-loving, resilient, upbeat and fiercely proud of their island life and Celtic heritage. About half the population is of Irish descent, the rest English and a mixture of French and Scottish, with a small percentage of Mi'kmaq, Innu and Inuit.
In the late 20th century, Newfoundland struck oil. No longer the poor man of Canada, (its cod-fishing industry had collapsed earlier) the province's fortunes and confidence began to soar - a boon to locals and tourists alike. Newfoundland is vast, roughly four times the size of the UAE. (If it were part of the US, it would rank fourth in size after Alaska, Texas and California.) It is made up of Newfoundland, an island off the Atlantic coast, and Labrador, part of the mainland which forms a border with Quebec. You definitely need a car to get around - public transport is iffy - and as I don't drive, a guided tour is my only option. Most tours tend to feature either the east coast, home to St John's, the province's capital city and a serene seaport, or for more adventurous souls, the "wild" west.
I fall in the latter camp, and Gros Morne National Park, on the coast, is often described as the Galapagos of the geological world. Encompassing nearly 2,000 sq km, the glut of landscape features I had glimpsed from the plane, as well as being home to moose, caribou, whales, eagles, black bears, red foxes, snowshoe hare - though not a single snake, I'm happy to report - and more than 700 varieties of flowering plants and 239 species of birds, it is a paradise for nature lovers.
With time limited, I'm grateful we get stuck in straight away. Although it is possible to camp or rent a cabin within the park, our base is Neddies Harbour Inn, in Norris Point, one of the many sleepy coastal communities within Gros Morne and about an hour's drive from Deer Lake, where I had flown in from St John's. (You can drive here from the capital, but it's a day-long, 700km journey.) Comfortable and informal, the guesthouse is in a glorious spot, backing on to a beach and overlooking the beautiful, serene Bonne Bay. The latter, a fjord carved by glaciers, opens west onto the Gulf of St Lawrence. It is also the playground for minke whales, and from the garden, I spot three breaching within the space of 30 minutes.
Also within view of the guesthouse are the bronze-coloured Tablelands, arguably the park's star attraction. With their flattish surface they might look like a landing pad for a UFO, but in fact they're a slice of ancient ocean floor forced up when the continents of Africa and North America collided millions of years ago. They're also the oldest exposed rocks on the planet, poetically known as the centre of the earth.
The Tablelands are about 10km and a short drive from our digs, and we spend the next morning hiking on the trails around them. I love their barren otherworldliness, but the terrain is not for everyone. One of our group, Nikki, has a dodgy knee, and stumbles over the rocks before calling it quits. The rest of us plod on through howling winds, for a couple of hours. Bar the overcast skies, I could be in the Arizona desert. In theory, the orange-brown rock - it's called peridotite - lacks the nutrients to sustain plant life. But I manage to spot bunches of the reddish insect-eating pitcher plant, the province's national flower, as well, as hardy, purple wild flowers on the trails.
The park also boasts 260km of coastline, and kayaking is a perennially popular pastime. It is also an activity that novices and non-swimmers alike can enjoy: I can vouch for that - deep water makes me nervous, but in the waters of Bonne Bay, trussed up in a life jacket, in a sturdy, bright, buoyant two-person kayak (I'm teamed up with my athletic travel mate, Tim, who does most of the work) and led by a superb guide, it is an exhilarating experience. Not only do I learn about marine ecology and spot eagles and kingfishers, but I burn a load of calories - vital, given the divinely tasty seafood I've been gorging on during my stay.
In Newfoundland, seafood is plentiful and cheap. A huge plate of scallops, for example, will set you back less than US$20 (Dh74). Our lunches and dinners, in small, characterful diners, feature lobster, prawns, halibut, cod tongues, chowder, buttery mussels - in my favourite eaterie, the Old Loft, housed in a restored fisherman's loft, in Woody Point (a short drive from Norris Point) - and capelin, a tiny fish known for its ability to lure whales into the province's waters.
It is not long before the peace and quiet of my surroundings leaves me blissed out. And the ever-changing landscapes are mesmerising. Take the Western Brook Pond Fjord: it is in the isolated northern reaches of the park, about 40km north of Norris Point. A boat trip through the dramatic jagged cliffs - this "pond" is 16km long - makes me feel as though I've tumbled into The Lost World. Getting to and from the pier is a treat too, and involves a 2km walk along a trail lined with irises, pitcher plants, wild orchids, bluebells and daisies.
On our last day I participate in a mock search and rescue, a novel activity set up by guesthouse owners Herbert and Bettina Schumacher. The key component of the rescue team are far better-looking than any Baywatch hunk: Ijiatsuk and Pishuk are a golden retriever and a black Labrador who, a couple of times a year, are called into service to help track down lost hikers. I play the hapless victim, and the dogs perform with brio, tracking me down in no time, and hurtling from human rescuer to myself in a sort of relay, until we're reunited.
Kayaking, hiking and boating in Gros Morne National Park have their merits, but really, nothing can quite compare to finding yourself knee-deep in juniper and spruce forest, and face-to-face with a big wet nose and puppy dog eyes. email@example.com
Updated: April 10, 2010 04:00 AM