It was time to leave sunny and warm Rocky Harbour for the harsh realities of the northern peninsula, a land of moose, icebergs, norsemen and potholes. On our way we stopped at a couple of places, firstly Port au Choix, a small port best known for it’s cold water shrimp and valuable archaeology. Port au Choix National Historic Site is a desolate place, a limestone headland, devoid of vegetation and very exposed but which nevertheless attracted a progression of different peoples over a 6000 year period to exploit the natural riches found in the area. The visitor centre gave an overview of which peoples were there and when and why it was so appealing to them. Outside were a number of walks to see evidence of their habitations. Uninspired we moved on in search of food, in the form of divine shrimp sandwiches at the iconic Anchor Cafe.
The next stop was Flowers Cove, one of only 2 locations on earth where thrombolites can be found. A short walkway lead to a beach littered with these huge geological momentos and the village council had provided an information board.
Finally, the road turned east and we headed inland towards our destination, St Anthony. We were staying in the Grenfell Heritage Hotel & Suites, notable only for its history about Wilfred Grenfell, a doctor who brought healthcare to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador in the early 20th century.
Our target the next day was L’Anse aux Meadows, the only known site in North America with remains of a complete 11th-century Norse settlement, the earliest evidence of Europeans in North America. En route we stopped off at yet another fantastic Newfoundland cafe, Cafe Nymph, owned by the Dark Tickle company. As is normal for local companies, they have several strings to their bow, from cafe, to boat trips to..fruit. The local area is rich in berries: partridgeberries, bakeapple and blueberries. These are used in a number of different products, all available at exorbitant cost (they are handpicked after all..). They also did proper coffee, a rarity in Newfoundland. And great milkshakes. And Curry. All with a hint of berry.
L’Anse aux Meadows documents the arrival of up to 3 Norse trading ships led by Leif Ericson, a Norse trader based in Greenland. The emphasis was on trading, not conquest hence the distinction between Norsemen and Vikings, and it is thought Ericson saw profit in skins and wood products being shipped back to Greenland and ultimately Norway. The group lived in low structures built from a wooden frame and turfed, an effective way of combating the ferocious winter weather. It seems as though this was a short-lived venture, the ships only staying 2 or 3 years as limited trading opportunities (and, perhaps, aggressive Natives) making the project unsustainable.
The site has a great walk around the area in which the Norsemen (and women) lived. A wonderful reconstruction taken from details in the Norse Sagas. Along the coastline we came across river otters and Black duck duckling-minding services before encountering the inevitable red chairs.
Despite L’Anse aux Meadows being a Canadian Parks site (i.e. a serious archaeological exhibit), describing the actual findings at the site rather than an interpretation (see below), the publicists obviously couldn’t resist ensuring that the first thing one sees on arrival is a large sculpture of ferocious-looking Vikings…
Back in St Anthony we went to the Lightkeepers Cafe as they were staying open until 9pm as it was Canada Day (aka “kick the brits out day”). Located at a prime whale and iceberg watching point we saw an iceberg before enjoying moose spring rolls and various bits of fish and shellfish. Our waitress, however, proved to be the most entertaining act of the night. Too young to serve us alcohol, she held a licence to shoot one moose per year. She was at university in St John’s doing biochemistry and hoped to become a paramedic.
The 2nd of July, a very special day requiring considerable forethought and preparation. As was proving increasingly common, the weather forecast was dire but the weather was fine. We headed up to Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve, a reserve for purists located in the aptly named Ha Ha Bay and lacking all fripperies such as visitor facilities or information. A very rough track led onto the headland, a barren site indeed with some areas devoid of vegetation, others well covered. Lacking any botanical knowledge there was little to gain from peering at the plants so we walked to the end of the peninsula and watched the sea between us and Labrador. It was fantastic, with Great Northern Divers (Loons, as they’re known in N America), auks (Guillemots, Razorbills, Black Guillemots) and Black Ducks dotted across the huge expanse of ocean and Minke Whales popping up now and again…in glorious warm sunshine at the top of Newfoundland. A truly magical place.
That afternoon we returned to the area, this time to Norstead, a reconstruction of a Viking Age settlement together with actors playing key roles in the various buildings. The best building was the boat shed, housing a replica Norse trading vessel. This was built in the US and sailed to Newfoundland as a gift for the exhibition. The village is a more tourist-friendly, and commercial, feature but does claim to be based on actual Norse villages found in Greenland and elsewhere. The ships were able to transport up to 20 tons of goods plus a crew of 35, all having to work and sleep exposed to the elements. As a birthday treat, I had my runes read by an authentic(!) rune-reading Norsewoman called Albruna. I had to choose 3 stones, past, present and future. My past indicated a belief and sensitivity to my ancestors, my present involved a challenge and my future involved water and writing (poetry). Considering where we are and what we are doing, I am now obviously a convert.
Other interesting buildings showed us living quarters, where up to 25 people slept. In the blacksmiths forge we were told the average age for death was 25 -30 as they succumbed to black lung. This meant their sons started in the forge aged 9 so they were ready to take over when their father died!
In the most unlikely spot in Newfoundland is found the Norseman restaurant. More remote than L’Anse aux Meadows, in a shack located overlooking the west coast of the bay, this has to be the best restaurant on the island. With our table overlooking the ocean, we watched as the sun slowly set, Helen worked her way through the free glasses of fizz kindly provided by the staff and we worked our way through some proper food, lobster ravioli, shrimp on a pea fritter, rack of lamb etc etc
This was the end of our stay in the north of the island. One interesting fact about Newfoundland is that most people instinctively think it is located in the far north and this isn’t true. The Norseman is actually at the same latitude as the New Forest and so the majority of the island is on a par with France in terms of the power of the sun.