It doesn’t make any sense. As extraordinary as Newfoundland is, only 100,000 foreigners visit the big island each year (400,000 more come from mainland Canada). That’s less than one-sixth the number of internationals that visit Iceland. To add insult to injury, most outsiders can’t even get the name right (it’s pronounced “newfin-LAND”).
What gives? “There is no question other destinations’ marketing budgets far exceed ours,” admits Gillian Marx of Newfoundland Tourism. “And getting here takes a concerted effort,” she adds, in reference to the multiple layovers most will endure before setting foot on the easternmost plot of North America. “But even after a 20-year tenure, I still get satisfaction watching travelers come here for the first time, being touched by the experience and feeling like they’ve been let in on a secret. This destination has a soul.”
She gets paid to say that. But after spending a weeklong road trip through Newfoundland, I can confirm her sincerity. This place is unassumingly exotic, if not magical. I still can’t figure out why word hasn’t spread. But that doesn’t take away from lasting adventure, friendly locals, unexpectedly good food and slowed time my brother-in-law and I experienced while visiting last month.
Provided you’re still out of the loop, here’s what you’ve been missing.
If Norway and Scotland had an Ireland-sized baby together, Newfoundland might resemble the child. That’s an imperfect metaphor, of course. This place has its own charm.
For one, it’s home to Western Brook Pond, the most fantastic fjord of North America (i.e. picture a slightly shorter Yosemite being flooded by naval waters). Colorful, rectangular homes speckle seaside horizons. In summer, the Avalon Peninsula is as emerald as the island that culturally influenced it (e.g. Ireland). There are bogs here, Pacific Northwest-like rocky cliffs and calming sea inlets populated with belugas, bald eagles and singing humpback whales. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, there are icebergs swimming to shore.
All told, Newfoundland is a rare combination of natural beauty, wildlife and forgotten but persistent culture. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Of the small but growing number of people that visit the island, most of them come for one of three things: the whales, the iconic fjord and the icebergs. I was fortunate enough to experience the latter two, which were undoubtedly highlights of the trip. But I also did a lot of things I hadn’t planned on doing.
I bouldered the edge of the world and napped on a grassy knoll while overlooking the ageless Atlantic at Cape Spear. I illegally drove down George Street and the Canadian cop that pulled us over laughed us off with a warning. I hiked the jagged coast of Skerwink Trail and sang while driving the Trans-Canada Highway. I caught cod fish, made new friends and bought pottery in King’s Point. I weathered one angry sea, watched the sun set over the Atlantic at Arches Provincial Park and had $47 of delectable bakeapple jam confiscated by airport security (safety first).
I could have done so much more. You can, too.
While traveling, you’ll often encounter friendly people that mostly keep to themselves, rude people that mostly keep to themselves or overbearing people that never keep to themselves. In Newfoundland you’ll encounter friendly people that are polite and as engaging as you want them to be. In fact, they work as a team to make sure you get the most from an island they very much love and want to share with the world.
For me, there was Phil the informer, Steve the butcher’s son, Cal the friendly trail guide, David and Linda the artists, Ryan the “principal of awesome,” Perry the Labrador miner, Shelby the food runner, “Musician” Mike, Clem the fjord guide, Suzanne the candy lover, the “yellow glasses dude” that offered us triple whiskeys, Dez the Irishman and a dozen more.
I wrote down their names because they are people worth remembering.
Newfoundlers (or “Newfies” as they are colloquially called) are sometimes derided by mainlanders for being “hick-ish.” That may or may not be the case, but one thing is certain: Newfies know how to cook.
I gorged on maple scallops, meaty cod tongues and the finest dill halibut I’ve ever masticated in my life at Oliver’s Cafe (and washed it all down with several virgin bakeapple mojitos). I shoved cinnamon-sugar toutons into my pie-hole as fast as I did New Orleans beignets the first time I tried those. I drained the best bowl of clam chowder, ate fresh pan cod and washed all that down with bakeapple and coconut butter fried ice cream at the Ocean View Restaurant. And I delighted in vinaigrette oysters, the complex but not overbearing flavors and surprisingly good lamb shanks at Saltwater.
Newfoundland: You may be routinely overlooked, but you’ve found a new ally in me. I will spend a lifetime singing your praises and encouraging everyone within earshot to consider your significance.
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Top photo: Emmanuel Milou, CC-BY
Off the Grid columnist Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. Visit his website or follow @blakesnow.