We’re so glad we planned our summer road-trip through Maritime Canada the way that we, so that we’d finish the route in Newfoundland. Had we started with Newfoundland, it’s possible that we may not have appreciated the other provinces in the same way. Newfoundland is simply unique – expansive, rugged and beautiful, and simply unlike anywhere else we’ve explored so far. The landscape is positively breath-taking, with towering mountains, pristine lakes and fjords, rocky beaches and desolate stretches that are reminiscent of the arctic tundra. There are so many areas of Newfoundland that are practically untouched, with just a ragged dirt road to lead you through miles and miles of incredible scenery. The cities are charming and full of character that aligns perfectly with the easy-going and wonderfully friendly people of the ‘Big Land’. Newfoundland was a phenomenal book-end to these whirlwind few months and we can say with certainty, it won’t be the last time we visit!
The North Sydney – Port Aux Basques Ferry
Port au Port and Cape St. George
The North Sydney – Port Aux Basques Ferry
We had been planning for (and worrying about) this ferry ride for most of the summer. This Marine Atlantic Ferry run makes the trip from the North Sydney (on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia) to the lower western city in Newfoundland, Port aux Basques. It’s a minimum 6.5 hour excursion, not including the mandatory time needed for check-in or disembarking. For most people this isn’t a big deal, but it’s far more stressful when travelling with pets. We had taken short trips on small ferries when we traveled from Campobello Island to mainland New Brunswick where we just stayed in our campervan the entire time, but this was completely different. The ferry offers a pet kennel service, but it requires each pet be in a hard-sided travel carrier and traveling in a small RV with little storage space, this obviously wasn’t an option for us. The alternative is that you leave your pets in your vehicle, which unfortunately, you aren’t able to access for the duration of the trip (almost 8 hours from beginning to end). It also requires acknowledging the reality that in an emergency, pets are not the crew’s highest priority. So if you’re like us and your pets are your family, you understand why this trip had us concerned.
Arriving at the ferry dock, it is recommended that if you are travelling with pets you arrive 3 hours early for check-in – for us that meant 8 am for our 11 am departure. After picking up our tickets and being assigned a cue line, we were left with 2 hours to sit and wait. There is a green space designated for walking dogs and there are signs posted saying all leashed dogs must be muzzled as well, although we seemed to be the only ones following that rule. We boarded just before 10 am, making sure the dogs got out for a last walk before having to leave them. Thankfully, our guys are all puppy-pad trained as well, so we made sure to leave a couple down, just in case there were any emergencies. We stocked them (and the cat) with snacks and plenty of water and headed up to the cabin we had booked. Unsure of how either of us would fare in regards to sea-sickness, we opted to book a birth (room), just in case, preferring to be sick in private if necessary. We were grateful that it was pretty clear and calm day to cross and for any future ferry rides, probably wouldn’t spend the money to do that again.
We explored the ship until we began leaving port and then headed back down to our room just in time to watch Ghostbusters on one of the movie channels. Our room was basic, but had everything to make the trip comfortable – two twin beds, a small desk, television and full bathroom with a shower. We spent our time alternating between our room and the upper deck to watch for whales (we didn’t see anything, but did see a dolphin), until about the last hour, when things got a little rougher and lying down seemed like the better option. We pulled into Port aux Basques, almost exactly 6 ½ hours later and it took about 30 minutes to dock and let everyone head back to their vehicles. Our furry kids were little troopers, seemingly no worse for wear.
Right up the road is the Visitor’s Center and after a quick stop to grab some planning materials, it wasn’t long before we greeted by stunning views and an incredible landscape. Even in the rain, it was a pretty spectacular welcome to Newfoundland!
Port au Port and Cape St. George
After a surprisingly restful night in an Irving Truckstop, we were off to explore a couple sites along the western coast. We stopped in Port au Port for the Gravels Hiking Trail that is almost like a ‘choose your own adventure’ hike, weaving along the coast and through the woods with multiple trail branches and detours. With tired doggies in tow, we headed off to Cape St. George, another spot recommended by many of the people we had encountered on our travels. The drive out to the Cape, followed a looped route passing through a number of small towns that connected by their Acadian heritage. Boite au Cap Park is at the western most point of St. George and offers some incredible views of the cliffs and the ocean, and also has a fantastic picnic and free overnight campsites. This was one of the few municipal parks that really encouraged overnight parking, hoping that people will stop at the shops and local businesses along the way. It also had its own Acadian-style wood-fired stone oven that they use to bake fresh bread in daily as a nod to this rich French history.
After an 8.5 hour push across the island, we arrived in St. John’s. This city is unique and quirky, full of maritime charm and modern touches. Narrow streets wind up and down steep hills filled with houses painted or sided in vibrant colours, living up to the nickname of ‘jelly-bean row’. Overlooking the city, is the Signal Hill heritage site which provides a spectacular view of the city on one side and an amazing ocean view on the other. Once the site of a military fort and the site where Guglielmo Marconi first received the first trans-Atlantic signal in 1901, it now seems to be a great stop for tourists and a popular spot to walk and hike for locals. Another great dog-friendly site, we hiked both the Gibbet Hill and Ladies’ Lookout trails, both were short and relatively easy and led us to some incredible lookouts over St. John’s.
A note for RV’ers: We tried to take our campervan down into the village of Quidi Vidi after hearing about the microbrewery and how cute the town was. We made the trek, but found that between the narrow streets and insane amount of summer traffic, there was absolutely no place to park, even after circling for almost a half hour. The Quidi Vidi brewery has very limited parking and maneuvering the streets was extremely tight in our campervan, it’s hard to imagine anyone making their way here in anything longer than 21 feet, let alone finding enough room to stop.
Since we couldn’t spend the afternoon in Quidi Vidi, we headed off to Cape Spear. Cape Spear is home to another great National Historic Site and lighthouse and is an incredible spot to whale watch. Located at the most eastern point in North America, the site runs along a stunning cliffside with deep drop offs which are apparently perfect for whales. Our closest vantage point yet, we got to see almost a dozen whales gracefully make their way along the coastline, ‘ohhing and ahhing’ with the rest of the camera-clad tourists.
We love finding places off the beaten path and maybe a little outside the areas where most tourists tend to go, so we set our sights on Cape Race. At the southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula, Cape Race is renowned for being the site where Marconi received the first distress signal from the Titanic. Another attraction, where the drive itself is an adventure, the route takes you through landscapes completely different from what we had seen so far in Newfoundland. The further south we drove, the more the landscape changed – no more rolling green mountains, only tundra-like plains with short shrubs and very few trees. After 11 km of the some of the roughest dirt roads and likely the steepest hill we had taken Hrudy down, we arrived at the Cape. The lighthouse was still in use and houses one of the most powerful lights in the world, but the buildings surrounding seemed to have fallen into disuse. The remaining site offers a small museum and a few interpretive panels outlining life during Marconi’s time there and how the community survived, existing in an area that was so incredibly isolated. If you plan to make the journey, Cape Race is also a great site to view whales and puffins and is also home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for a fantastic collection of fossils dating back to 575 million years ago.
After an incredibly stormy night free-camping at St. Vincent’s Beach, we headed off early to the Salmonier Nature Preserve. The preserve acts as a rehabilitation and housing center for injured animals native to Newfoundland. They provide a safe and as natural space as possible to help animals heal from injury and if possible work to release them back into their environments. Animals that would not survive in the wild are provided a safe haven in surroundings meant to be as close to living in the wild as they can be. There is no guarantee that you will see animals here – they are given shelters and enough space to roam freely or create underground or completely hidden natural homes. We only spotted animals in about half the enclosures and were actually really happy to see empty pens that had signs stating they were waiting for the next animal needing rescue.
Our last stop before leaving the Avalon Peninsula, was the small town of Harbor Grace. A popular locale in many a ‘Great Big Sea’ song, this pretty little town secured it’s notoriety on being the spot in which Amelia Earheart departed from on her successful 1932 solo transatlantic flight.
Things We’re Enjoying (or that are keeping us sane in less than 100 sq feet):
Cally’s Reading: The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
Graeme’s Reading: I Like My Life – Abby Fabiaschi
What we’re listening to:
Tim Ferriss Podcast – The Magic, Misdirection and Mindset of David Blaine
This American Life (Podcast) – #282: DIY
Spotify Playlist of the Moment: Remember Us to Life – Regina Spektor
WHERE TO NEXT: Newfoundland (Part 2)