Circumnavigating Newfoundland in 10 Days
My wife Sue and I had often dreamed of travelling with Adventure Canada – a family-run organization that specializes in cruises to the Artic, including Greenland, Iceland, the Northwest Passage, Labrador…and, incredibly, Antarctica as well! Finally we decided to book for their Newfoundland Circumnavigation cruise. We had only been in Newfoundland once before, loved it, and were anxious to return. When we saw the itinerary for this Newfoundland trip we felt it’s now or never…it was time to get back to that magical island. What we ended up experiencing exceeded all our expectations: first, on the beauty front, and, second, regarding the friendliness and humour of its people. Our on-board Cruise Directors, Laura Baer (Assistant Director) and Ellie Clin, were enthusiastic, and more importantly, organized leaders. Meanwhile, co-founder Bill Swan kept us on our toes with his incredible energy and positive vibes.
Before I write about the bright spots of our itinerary, I feel compelled to mention the “Taste of Place” food program on board which was coordinated by Lori McCarthy, a wild-chef, forager, hunter, educator, and knowledgeable person on all things local (Lori was recently acknowledged by the Globe and Mail as one in ten of the most innovative chefs in Canada). Being a self-confessed “Foodie” I was intrigued by this locally focused food program. I’ve always felt that any culture on earth can often be expressed by its cuisine along with its beliefs and attitudes about agriculture, clothing and community. Lori was ably assisted by Alex Blagdon, another forager and enthusiastic foodie who guided us one afternoon on a terrific foraging expedition.
In company literature the Taste of Place program is accurately described as follows: first, a celebration of local foods and traditions; second, engaging with farmers, foragers, fishers, and various suppliers of regional foods; and third, a way to educate diners about the source of their food as well as making people aware of the families and communities involved in its production along with the historical relevance and sustainability of our food choices (I was especially pleased to see that all our seafood was Ocean Wise certified). I personally believe that intimate knowledge about our food suppliers adds an emotional connection in our eating experience. I often illustrate my point about emotions by asking people to compare the taste of a tomato from a major grocery store with one from their favourite stall at a Farmers Market with one from their grandparent’s garden. I instruct them to cut a slice from each tomato and sprinkle a touch of sea salt on each one and then compare the taste… without exception their grandparents tomato will win the taste test hands down. Why? It’s because of the emotional tie that elevates the experience. This principle explains the invisible factor in our eating experience… truly knowing the person who grows or makes your food will make it taste better… call it Bob’s axiom on eating or whatever, regardless it’s true.
This principle that knowing the people who grow your food actually enhances your taste experience is at the core of my restaurant company, The Neighbourhood Group of Companies, and its built into our strategy and culture. In fact, the tag line at our Borealis Grille & Bar is “Local Tastes Way Better” and this goes to the heart of our marketing program. On Food Day Canada (a great initiative created by Anita Stewart, on the first Saturday in August) we have special menus where each course has a notation telling our guests how many kilometers the ingredients travelled to get to their plates…and who grew it There are now five restaurants in my Group with combined sales exceeding $10 million. I can confidently say that our “buy-local” purchasing policy has been the main driver for our success.
Now getting back to our cruise here’s some introductory details:
Every day (night actually) our well-equipped and comfortable ship cruised to a new location. We were woken up each morning by the indefatigable Tony Oxford, the man I christened the “glue” of the voyage. Tony, a songwriter among many other talents would write a clever song about our previous days outing – it was a great way to wake up in the morning. Tony also had a wealth of information about Newfoundland’s history and any conversation with him turned out to be enlightening. He was part of most group presentations, thereby getting my nickname for him, “The Glue”, because he represented a constant thread through most gatherings.
First stop: Bonavista Peninsula
Sue and I signed up for special tour on this stop; our excursion was called the “Bonavista Social Club” (a play on words from the great Cuban documentary about that country’s amazing older musicians). We left the boat on zodiacs for Trinity East and immediately were bused off to a remote farm and restaurant, near Upper Amherst Cove, serving pizza and pasta among other items like soups, salads and sandwiches. Our first order of business upon arriving was to be introduced to chef Katie and her husband Shane Hayes. While Katie headed back to the kitchen Shane gave us a tour of their farm where most of their ingredients came from. I was amazed at the variety of produce given their short growing season… many vegetables are not even planted until early June! This past summer had been rather cool and the tomatoes had not even ripened so they had been moved into their greenhouse The amount of effort required to maintain soil fertility was also staggering. After Shane described the laborious efforts to incorporate compost and natural fertilizers into the gardens to ensure their health, I reflected on my luck in having access to so many vegetables and herbs in Southern Ontario. During our tour we also foraged for a while and found partridge berries and blueberries. Shane also showed us the beekeeping operation headed up by Katie’s father, Mike, who also owns “Patterson Woodworking” which produces plates, bowls and spoons… all for sale in the restaurant along with some Newfoundland Salt Company’s sea salt, honey, local jams, etc.
After our farm tour my admiration for the farmers in Newfoundland grew exponentially… to grow anything in this province, correctly referred to as “The Rock”, required persistence, intelligence and fortitude. Our group now moved into the restaurant where we were stationed in the open kitchen which featured the only wood-burning oven in Newfoundland. Chef Katie, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of Canada and a Red Seal Chef, had grown up in in Upper Amherst Cove thereby giving her an intimate knowledge of its wildlife and all things to be foraged. We were all given a pizza shell to roll out and then top with various toppings that Katie had prepared (some of our group’s combinations were rather comical). I opted for a pesto base on one side and tomato sauce on the other, a sort of yin & yang thing…then I added mushrooms, pepperoni, hot peppers and cheese before taking my creation over to the wood-fired oven. Ten minutes later I had a delicious pizza which went down perfectly with a local brew. Overall, it was a fun experience.
On our way back to the shop we convinced our bus driver pull into Port Rexton so we could visit the Port Rexton Brewery & Tap Room. Owned by two women, Sonja Mills and Alicia MacDonald, the ambience was not only cozy but above all else, they served good beer. Most of us left with our personal growlers for later consumption on board. The group pitched in for an extra growler for our accommodating bus driver (afterall, the brewery stop was not on our original itinerary!).
Second Stop: Conche
From the Bonavista Peninsula we cruised overnight to the town of Conche on the north-east coast. After Tony’s rousing wake-up call we headed for a delicious buffet breakfast and then disembarked into zodiacs and headed into Conche, population 170. Our first stop was the local church which had original handmade quilts draped over all the pews. Our host, Mary, gave us the history of the area. Next, my wife and I headed into the town proper to visit the French Shore Interpretation Centre to view the amazing French Shore tapestry which is 216 feet long! It tells the history of French visitations in the 16th and 17th centuries. The tapestry was embroidered by the women of the village and replicates the techniques of those used to create the famous Bayeux tapestry in France. The Conche tapestry is absolutely beautiful… a true Newfoundland “treasure” as the guide books say.
As part of “Taste of Place” program we were treated to a special dinner that night in the Conche community hall. Once more we ran into Mary (who gave us the historical information at the church). Mary acted as MC and also did some singing and dancing. With her red curly hair and vivacious personality, I don’t think I’ll ever forget this woman. If Newfoundland could somehow bottle her energy and charm, and sell it, I don’t think they’d need to drill for off-shore oil or lament the loss of the cod fishery! She was a real highlight of our trip.
That night we were presented with a “French Shore Salting Feast” - which first needs an historical introduction. From 1504-1904 French fleets of fisherman came to these shores to catch and dry cod each summer. In the fall they would wait for the top of the tides in October to return to France. Before they left “Terre Neuve” they’d have a party to celebrate their harvest. Part of the celebration was recalling all the salt they needed to use for the cod preservation. Hence the name of that celebration: “A Salting Feast”.
The local women of the village prepared and served a menu of Pan Fried Cod, locally grown potatoes, peas and carrots, home make pickles, French bread and homemade jams. All delicious! N.B. Our Mary was even helping to serve dinner!…WOW!
Third Stop: L’Anse Aux Meadows
This stop was one of the main reasons I wanted to join Adventure Canada on this voyage. L’Anse Au Meadows is an UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is the only authenticated former Norse settlement in North America. The site dates from approximately 1000 AD. The location was anticipated due to a close reading of the Viking sagas. The recreation of the Norse settlement includes a few Norse-style sod buildings. We were guided through the site by our on-board archeologist, Latonia Hartery, who brought the history into focus for us. Latonia was just one of the many experts onboard our ship, which was probably the most important facet of the voyage in my view. Latonia is also an award-winning filmmaker! Like many of the experts onboard, she was a multi-talented person with lots of stories to share.
Another interesting person on board was John Houston, who, I discovered one night, was a specialist in Inuit art. When I was told about John I immediately thought about the famous James Houston, the Canadian artist, author and filmmaker who had introduced the world to Inuit art in the 1950’s and also introduced printmaking to the Inuit. The reason I made this connection was because my mother once dated “Jimmy” and often told us stories about his interesting life. It was a real pleasure to actually meet his son John! …and share a beer with him one evening. Here again, we had another expert on board with numerous talents, as John was a seasoned filmmaker (we viewed one of his films one day about the difficult topic of Canadians reconciling with our First Nations people). John has an art gallery in Halifax called “Houston-North-Gallery”.
Fourth Stop : Red Bay, Labrador
One of the joys of travel is it often presents unexpected discoveries – Red Bay is a good example…I knew nothing about this Basque Whaling Station dating back to the 1500’s. Red Bay had just become a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013. I had never appreciated the importance of whale oil in 1500-1800’s Europe before this stop. The Basque would come to red Bay on the Labrador coast to hunt for whales. Once caught the whales were dragged to harbour, cut up and then the fat was rendered into oil in large cauldrons. One barrel of this oil would be worth thousands in today’s dollars. At the end of a season the ships would be loaded with 800-1,000 barrels and return to Europe. In red Bay researchers found a wreck,, the San Juan, from 1565 that had sunk in a storm. Again, in today’s dollars, their cargo of 900 barrels would be worth well over a million dollars! What a loss for those Basque seafarers. We spent the day touring remnants of the Basque settlements on Saddle Island and visited the local interpretation centre (where I bought some lovely jewelry featuring the Labradorite gem stone – this stone has a local mythology which fascinated me… it is believed that this multi-coloured gem has actually captured the Northern Lights).
Fifth Stop: Gros Morne
For years, I’ve seen pictures of Gros Morne National Park on television, newspaper ads, etc. … It looked like a stunning park and Sue and I couldn’t wait to visit it. Unfortunately, on the day we disembarked at Woody Point to board a bus to the park it was rainy and very windy. We did manage to see the tablelands where the earth’s mantle had been pushed above the earth’s crust… an eery landscape to be sure, but we couldn’t spent much time exploring due to inclement weather. The interesting phenomenon of the mantle being pushed to the surface was explained to us by our on board geologist, Paul Dean, a great story teller and knowledgeable man.
The pictures of Gros Morne we had seen for years were not of the tablelands but they were from an area miles away. The amazing and famous, cliffs and valley picture was from a place called “Western Brook Pond”. Sue and I made an instantaneous commitment to one another that we’d be returning to Gros Morne during one summer.
After almost a week we were in awe of the scenery we’d already seen in the northern part of the province…and we hadn’t even sailed into the southern shore fjords yet!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the best parts of the voyage - listening to the “experts”. Our usual schedule included assembling in the Nautical Lounge around 4pm each day where we’d get a presentation about some facet of our trip. One of my favourite talks was by Gabrielle Bastien, The Founder and Executive Director of Regeneration Canada, who gave a wonderful presentation about the importance of healthy soils…a subject close to my heart as our restaurants favour local farmers who practice sustainable farming techniques. Sue and I especially enjoyed meeting Naturalist Tony Power who had the best sense of humour. We had the pleasure of cruising with him on one of the zodiacs as we floated through a fjord. We had more than a few belly laughs thanks to Tony. Another good speaker was Historian Kevin Major who gave us lots of background on major developments in Newfoundland’s past. One of the best presentations was given by Anita Stewart, University of Guelph’s “Food Laureate”. Anita gave us an inspiring, grand view of Canadian Cuisine describing our northern bounty coast to coast…too many Canadians don’t appreciate the rich history and availability of foods in every province!
To travel for 10 days and to be continually enlightened about subjects as diverse as soil microorganisms, the cod industry, the rocks along the coast and have it all done in a light and informal fashion was part of the reason Sue and I are anxious to travel with Adventure Canada in the future.
Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Stops: The South Shore
The southern shore has a lot of spectacular bays and we sailed into three of them: Garia Bay, Facheux Bay and finally, Francois Bay (pronounced locally as ‘Fransway’). All of these “bays” (actually fjords) were beautiful with dramatic cliffs and granite. We managed to explore each one but the most fun was when we docked in Francois Bay and visited its land-locked town which had no cars, just ATV’S for transportation. This town was everything I expected of a village that’s only contact with the rest of the world was by sea – there’s a weekly ferry for residents to leave the town and pick up supplies from the larger centres. We spent the day hiking around town and in the surrounding hills (about a thousand feet high). That evening the town of 165 people (only 5 kids were in the school!) threw us a “kitchen party” featuring a local musician and locally prepared snacks. By the time the music started the dance floor was full. After a few beers, Sue and I left and ended up in a tiny bar called “Killicks Pub” where we had a raucous and hilarious night. The owner, Greg, lived in Halifax but had decided to comeback to Francois Bay because he knew our ship, the Ocean Endeavour, would be docked for the day and night. We met all kinds of folks, some from the town, visitors from Ottawa and a few rather wild friends of Greg’s. After a few more beers, which Greg wouldn’t allow us to pay for, we made our way back to the dock to catch a zodiac back to our ship … a very memorable evening.
Ninth Stop – Saint-Pierre
One of the peculiar historical developments between France and the new world is its ownership of two islands off the southern coast of Newfoundland: Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon…it’s like a remnant from it’s exploring past. This was another highly anticipated part of our itinerary. Sue and I had just spent the last few years visiting Paris and Provence (specifically, the village of Lourmarin) and were looking forward to seeing this French outpost, thousands of kilometers from the home country. Adventure Canada had arranged some local musicians to give us a welcoming greeting as we disembarked. Then we were bused into the town of Saint-Pierre where we had a tasting of local specialties. I couldn’t resist a visit to their wine stores to compare prices with Ontario and France as I’d heard once that these islands are heavily subsidized. I managed to find an excellent bottle of Bordeaux wine which was priced a lot lower than an equivalent bottle in Ontario… it now rests in my basement wine cellar.
We spent the day roaming the streets and soaking in the foreign ambience. Along the harbour were some beautiful traditional dories (classic fishing boats with flat bottoms and rising bow and stern). Later that day we had a bus tour of Saint-Pierre and, from a distance, saw the island of Great Miquelon (the islands are attached by a long peninsula)
Back on board we participated in an outdoor BBQ as the weather had warmed nicely and the sun was shining. It was a great way to finish up with a Taste of Place outdoor feast. That night we sailed back to St. John ‘s and in the morning disembarked after many farewells and “see you next time” promises.
Generally, I’m not given to hyperbole or what looks like “hype”(which in this case, it isn’t), but this trip had such an extraordinary combination of personalities, staggering scenery and history, good humour, and, of course, interesting foods that I couldn’t resist enthusiastically expressing my overall pleasure and satisfaction in this essay. I truly expect Sue and I will be on board again with Adventure Canada… and soon.
Websites and Contact Information
St. John’s Places of Interest
www.therooms.ca (a marvelous museum!)