“Wow, that’s a huge boat,” I thought as Jeff and I pulled up to the ferry terminal. We arrived two hours before our 5:30 PM departure from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Argentia, Newfoundland, a 16-hour overnight sail. We caught up with our friends Don and Karen; they were booked on the same ferry, and we hung out on a hot afternoon until we got word to load. The ferry boat appeared to have nine levels and seemed almost as large as a ship from the Carnival Cruise Line. We had made reservations six weeks prior but, even then, the sleeping cabins were already booked, which meant overnight in a chair.
There are two ferry routes from North Sydney to Newfoundland: a short 6-hour sail to Port aux Basques on the island’s southwest side and a long 16-hour sail to Argentia on the southeast side. Because there is only one east-west road across the island, we took the long ferry to the southeast and rode west and north; this allowed visiting many places along the way before departing at St. Barbe for Labrador.
“Hey Jim, Karen and I have a cabin with four bunks; you and Jeff are welcome to join us.” Sometimes it pays to follow up with a phone call instead of taking no for an answer on the internet. Finding the cabins all booked via his search online, Don called and was offered a four-bunk room. “Thanks, Don, that is a very kind offer; we will take it.” It was incredibly kind, as we later learned they celebrated their anniversary on this trip but generously offered Jeff and me a place in their tight quarters.
Twenty-five motorcycles were first to roll into the bowels of the ferry, followed by countless cars and several dozen eighteen-wheelers and RVs. The ferry service crew recommended tying down the bikes with two to four straps, which suggested a rough sail. An elevator from level 3 to level 7 opened to the Mosquito Bar, where a gin and tonic hit the spot. While enjoying our drinks, an elderly, gregarious, and helpful ship stewardess suggested many must-see/do sights and events in the capital of St. John’s. I took notes.
When asked about the two-hour departure delay, she said, “Not to worry. Just a little problem with the hydraulic lift gate; Captain Heidi will get you all to Argentia on time tomorrow.” “Captain Heidi?” we asked. “She is the best captain this boat has ever had,” she said cheerfully and confidently. “I should know; I have been here for a while; we have had several of the male variety.” Without further elaboration from this most indubitable voice, I knew we would have a safe and pleasant sail. After dinner, I retired earlier than my three traveling companions. I was exhausted. I slept soundly. Captain Heide got us to our destination smoothly and right on time. I think only one tie-down would have been needed on my motorcycle.
The clouds were close to the tops of Newfoundland’s hills when we departed the ferry. Nonetheless, we still had an excellent view of Placentia, a small village on the shore of the Avalon Peninsula. That view was offered from Castle Hill National Historic Site, a fortification initially called Fort Royal by the French who built it in 1662. In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht forced the French to abandon their establishments in Newfoundland. It was a lovely view; a rising sun on a clear morning would have made it stunning. We couldn’t see it from Castle Hill, but within the village was a pub/bistro called The Three Sisters. We found it. Their Portuguese fish soup, a large chunk of sourdough bread, and an excellent coffee made a delicious lunch on this cloudy, chilly day.
The weather didn’t improve during our second day on the island. In fact, it rained on and off all day as we visited the chief attractions of St. John’s, the capital of the Newfoundland/Labrador Province. Signal Hill, now a National Historic Site, was the site of St. John’s harbor defenses from the 17th century to the Second World War. The final Seven Year’s War battle was fought here, with the British defeating the French. It is where Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi, in 1901, received the world’s first transatlantic wireless signal 2,000 miles away in Cornwall. The signal was Morse Code for the letter S. Now, imagine how many million (billion?) texts, phone calls, and other wireless communications are transmitted across the Atlantic in a single day.
The rain was relentless. When traveling via motorcycle, you have choices: Stay in your hotel room, tent all day, or put your rain gear on and ride. The answer is to ride if it’s a light rain or drizzle, but only if you have good rain gear. The yellow Darian jacket and AD-1 pants by Aeostich from Duluth, MN, did the job. They are Gortex, waterproof, and tailored carefully around the collar, arm cuffs, and all zippered openings to keep out even a driving rain.
We rode in the rain from Signal Hill to the Johnson Geo Centre, a deep underground experience of planet Earth’s incredible history covering Earth’s natural forces, including earthquakes, volcanoes, and tectonic plates, to the evolution of marine and terrestrial plants and animals—a really unique natural history presentation that one could “hear, see, touch, and feel” and be overwhelmed by its impact.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s most significant public cultural space is called The Rooms, a huge multi-level museum building housing the country’s diverse peoples’ history, heritage, and artistic expression. Its collections, exhibits, and programs tell stories through art, artifacts, archaeology, architecture, and archival records. Since it opened in 2005, The Rooms has presented hundreds of exhibitions and thousands of education and public programs for over a million visitors. When in St. John’s, it is a must-see/do attraction. We spent two hours in The Rooms; if you can, to do it justice, plan for two days.
Cape Spear National Historic Site, eight miles southeast of St. John’s, is Newfoundland’s oldest surviving lighthouse. It served as the chief approach light for St. John’s harbor since 1836. The lighthouse is perched on a rugged cliff at the continent’s most easterly point. It was a beacon of safe passage until 1955, when a new tower was built nearby, using the original light.
Other notable sites on our St John’s tour were Hawthorne Cottage National Historic Site, Quidi Vidi Village, Petty Harbor at Maddox Cove, and Water Street Downtown St. John’s—all worth a visit, rain or shine.
It was all about cod fishing and puffin watching at Elliston, a small community on the Bonavista Peninsula of northeast Newfoundland. A 3-hour foggy ride from the St. John’s area took us to this picturesque site, which left us plenty of time to find where the puffins were hanging out and time to study the history of Bonavista, a famous fishing village. A short, scenic walk took us to the edge of a break in a steep cliff. Across the gap were hundreds, maybe thousands of puffins hanging out doing what puffins do. My iPhone camera didn’t do the scene justice, but I did get a fuzzy photo of these unusual birds.
Puffins nest from Labrador/Newfoundland to Maine. Most of the world’s Atlantic puffins are found in Iceland, where sixty percent of the population breeds. They are excellent swimmers, using their wings to propel themselves in water and their feet as rudders. They got their name due to their downy feathers that make them appear puffed.
The story, as we heard, is that when John Cabot first set eyes on northwest Newfoundland in 1497, his first words were “O buono vista!” which, when translated into English, means “Oh happy sight!” In a different context, we felt the same as we rolled into Bonavista: Oh happy sight! What a beautiful village on the water’s edge with a working harbor, coffee shops, excellent restaurants, and friendly people. We first visited the unique lighthouse on the tip of the peninsula. It operated from 1843 until 1962 and is now a local museum interpreting life in a lighthouse during the 1870s.
Historically, Bonavista’s primary claim to fame was its salt cod fishery, thoroughly presented at the Ryan Premises National Historic Site by Parks Canada. One species of fish clearly symbolized Newfoundland’s history: The Atlantic cod. This historic site commemorates this history and tells the story of the Ryan family, who pioneered generations of business success in the fishery. James Ryan was the son of an Irish immigrant who built the salt cod fishery into an international company in the mid-1800s. His family continued the fish trade until 1952 and remained in the retail business until 1978. The site includes exhibits telling the story of the Atlantic cod business. The story was brought to life by Rick Street, a Canada Parks employee who did a remarkable demonstration for Jeff and me of the entire process of cod butchering, cleaning, salting, drying, and preparing for shipping.
Our hotel was called the Harbour Quarters Inn, a heritage 1920s general store located right on Bonavista Harbour and next to the Ryan Premises National Historic Site. It had a great restaurant, Skipper’s, specializing in, you guessed it, pan-fried cod with excellent sides and condiments. And it had some nice local beer choices.
The weather improved a bit; it was still cloudy, but it didn’t rain. Therefore, it was a pleasant 5-hour ride from Bonavista to Twillingate via the town of Gander and Terra Nova National Park. Gander is quite famous for its international airport due to its strategic location on the edge of the Atlantic between the U.S. and Europe. We stopped at the terminal to review its history.
Gander’s beginnings date back to 1936, when construction began on four paved runways; it would become the largest airport in the world at the time. It was ready for the outbreak of World War II in 1939; it became the main staging point for the movement of Allied aircraft to Europe and for refueling and maintenance of bombers flying overseas. After the war, it became a major refueling stop for all commercial aircraft flying to Europe. By the 1950s, it was one of the busiest international airports due to transoceanic traffic. The arrival of the jet age led to a dramatic decrease in commercial traffic but an increase in private aircraft services.
Our visit was primarily to learn more about Operation Yellow Ribbon. On September 11, 2001, with the U.S. airspace closed due to the terrorist attacks, Gander airport played host to 38 airliners and 4 military aircraft totaling 6,122 passengers and 473 crew. Gander airport was able to handle large aircraft, but the town of Gander, about 10,000 people, was tiny. Nonetheless, the reception these travelers received has been one of the most widely reported happy stories surrounding that day and was dramatized in the musical “Come from Away.” A large part of the terminal showcases airport history and the events of 9/11/01. Ganderites were terrific in their generosity and care for the stranded travelers.
One gets a similar feeling about the kindness and generosity of the local people at the Silent Witness Memorial just outside Gander. In line with airport runway 22, in a clearing next to Gander Lake, is a memorial dedicated to the memory of 256 American soldiers who lost their lives in a plane crash on December 12, 1985.
Jeff and I rode the half-mile gravel road to the site. We were alone at the memorial. It was eerily quiet. By now, the sun was shining around puffy white clouds casting shadows on different parts of the site. The monument depicts an American soldier standing atop a rock holding the hands of a civilian boy and girl. Each child has an olive branch indicative of the peacekeeping mission of the 101st Airborne Division, Screaming Eagles, on the Sinai peninsula. These soldiers were returning from a tour of duty when their plane crashed on takeoff. All were lost.
In June 1990, the statue was dedicated with several hundred people in attendance. A large cross was erected made from parts of the crashed aircraft. We were honored to be able to pay our respects on behalf of our comrades in arms. The site continues to be maintained by the kind folks of Gander.
We ended our day’s travels at Twillingate, a small village on a peninsula north of Gander. The highlight was watching a half-dozen humpback whales traverse the point around the picturesque Longpoint Lighthouse.
Horizons Unlimited is an international long-distance and round-the-world motorcycling group that maintains a website and organizes Travellers Meetings worldwide. The group, via the website and at their meetings, offers information: why go, choosing a bike, needed paperwork, shipping a motorcycle, border crossings, living on the road, safety and health, recording your trip, and love of travel. As part of our trip, Jeff and I spent 3 days at their Newfoundland Travellers Meeting adjacent to Gros Morne National Park.
The meeting was staged at Killdevil Church Camp near Lomond at the edge of Gros Morne National Park. I had been to several other H.U. Travellers Meetings; this was the first time the group met in Newfoundland. There were 75 participants from Canada, the U.S., and several other countries. Several travelers gave presentations. A sample: Welcome to the Rock (Newfoundland); Overland to India from the U.K.; Fresh African Tracks; 30,000 km Through Australia; Holiday in Cambodia; Videoing Your Adventure.
The local hosts were super, the camp was comfortable and in a beautiful environment, the food was good, and the beer was cold. The afternoons were free for local rides to nearby Trout River and Rocky Harbour, both pretty coastal villages. Due to our common interest, long-distance adventure riding, it was easy to make new friends.
During our 25-day trip, we only had two days of rain; therefore, I had no standing for complaints. However, the ride from the rally site up the west coast to St. Anthony at the island’s tip was very wet. Three hours of light to heavy rain was no fun. Upon arrival at the hotel in St. Anthony, appropriately named Haven Inn, the staff greeted us warmly. Karen, the bar lady, and the beer she served, made us forget our wet ride with her stories about growing up in this most isolated place in Newfoundland. Several of her stories recounted how brutal the winters were and how little she and her siblings had growing up as their parents struggled to make ends meet. Having given me the sense that she was stuck in this place against her will, I asked if she ever wanted to move to St. John’s or some other large community. “Oh no,” she said quickly. “This is home; I love it here.” As a country boy and small-town person, I can relate to that sentiment; however, I enjoy traveling and meeting other folks in other places, including Karen in her little village in far north Newfoundland. “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.”
It was the Vikings that brought us to far-north Newfoundland. To be more exact, the L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site was the first and only known site established by Vikings in North America and the earliest evidence of European settlement. L’Anse aux Meadows was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978.
The site contains the excavated remains of a complete 11th-century Viking settlement. Tree ring analysis of three structures at the site date it to the year 1021. The site consists of eight timber-framed turf structures built in the same style as those found in Norse Greenland and Iceland from the same period. Artifacts at the site show evidence of iron production and woodworking, which were likely used for ship repair.
Who were the Vikings? Scandinavians of the medieval period are referred to as Norse. A thousand years ago, most Norse people were farmers and traders, but raiding became a common way to gain wealth and fame. The term Viking, Old Norse for raider or pirate, is appropriately used only to describe men engaged in raiding. Archeological evidence shows that the Vikings stayed at L’Anse aux Meadows for about a decade and then returned to their homeland because, basically, there was nothing to raid.
Furthermore, logistics for starting a new colony were not promising, given the length of the ocean voyage, adversarial interaction with aboriginal peoples, and likely problems establishing regular trade with Europe. They left willingly, taking their tools, weapons, and belongings with them, and burned their buildings behind them. Nonetheless, this brief encounter between Europeans and Native Americans closed the Earth’s east-west circle of human habitation.
While backtracking to Saint Barbe for the ferry ride across the Strait of Belle Isle to Labrador, we followed the coast and visited Cape Onion and the village of Raleigh. The coastline was some of the most beautiful we had seen.
Now on to Labrador and Quebec via the Trans-Labrador Highway.
For the first travel blog of this Canadian series, go HERE.
For other motorcycling travel stories, go HERE.