skerwink trail

When It Lifts, or Some Scattered Thoughts on Summertime in Newfoundland

I bought my copy of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News in a bookstore in New Orleans’ French Quarter (‘ol’ E. Annie,’ the owner called her), right before I had to leave for the airport. I don’t remember what drew me to the book (I had not heard of ‘ol E. Annie, nor seen the film version of Brokeback Mountain, her most famous short story), but I do remember spending the flight in the sort of white-out immersion I’d experienced often as a child (The Long Winter! Anne of Green Gables! Vols 1-5 of Harry Potter!), and rarely thereafter. I finished The Shipping News right as the flight touched down, greedily, with a full-body gnaw, and have wanted to go to Newfoundland ever since.

trinity bay, newfoundland

The Shipping News, if you haven’t read it (go read it!), is about a blundering, down-and-out newspaperman who finds luck and love in a hopeless place Newfoundland, his ancestral homeland. It’s a classic underdog tale, set in an unorthodox — but very underdog-friendly! — location, and the language takes its cue from the setting: the descriptions are rough and pummelling; the dialogue terse, and salty. It’s not that the picture ol E. Annie paints of Newfoundland is inviting, exactly — it’s all freeze and fog, squid burgers and pocked skin and fearsome winds — but it latched onto me. I feel a pull towards cold, remote places that are still, somehow, inhabited, and what is more remote than a hunk of rock so far east it has its own time zone, so generally inhospitable that its denizens still speak in the heavy brogues of their great, great, great grandparents?

For years, I kept my interest in Newfoundland confined to Google image searches and the occasional travel blog, and that’s likely where it would have stayed if my husband hadn’t bought bought us two tickets to St. John’s for my birthday this year. In preparation, I read The Shipping News for the fifth time and went through all of the wonderful Edible Roadtrip coverage of the island and watched Youtube videos of Newfoundlanders screeching tourists and explaining choice Newfie phrases.  Last Friday night, we set out, last Saturday morning we set out again, this time successfully, and went on to spend three nights in St. John’s, and one night up the coast in Trinity.  The trip was a heady whirlwind of fog and sun, seeping quiet and spilling hubbub, foods fried and foods fresh, and excellent ’90s rock.
skerwink trail
If you, too, have a Shipping News-inspired hankering to get ye to The Rock in the summertime, here are some observations that might prove useful:

1. In Newfoundland, July can feel a lot like April, thanks to the glacial current coming from near(ish)by Labrador. It was 45 degrees when we landed, and then vaulted up to 72 on our third day. While the summer clothes I packed didn’t go entirely unused, I mostly wore leggings and a puffer. This was not a problem, sartorially, as Newfoundland dress code is casual in the extreme.

2. The landscape, in the summer, is mostly greys and greens: fog, rock, ocean; spruce, bracken, moss. In the towns, sturdy box and row houses in jewel and Easter and popsicle hues cut through the mist, but on the highways and byways, you’d be forgiven for wondering if you’d somehow tumbled into some land before time, primordial and raw and huge.

3. But then the sun comes out (maybe! If you’re very lucky!), and the grey scatters and the greens go emerald and the ocean and lakes turn sapphire and the landscape seems less primordial than majestic, luxuriating in the drama of its sweeping cliffs and shaggy hills and endless waters.

4. The water — good lord, there is so much of it. Lakes and rivers (here, called “ponds” and “brooks”, no matter their girth) dot the Trans-Canada like pearls, and the coastline’s many bights mean that miles inland, you are never too far from a cove or an inlet. Even the land can be amphibious; on the sunniest of days, the footpaths squelch beneath your shoes; step off one onto the fluffy moss and you’ll sink a full foot.

5. Outside of St. John’s, this north-east temple of Neptune is mostly empty, apart from the occasional long-haul trucker on the road, the bright-red trawler in the distance. On the lakes, there are lily pads but no frogs; at the beaches, there are gulls, swooping and preening, but no swimmers.  

6. The wind is a crouching tiger, hidden dragon. By which I mean that, while mild in the summertime, its effects are everywhere, from the worn-away karsts at the edge of the sea to the drunken, sparse bent of the trees. While the fastest gust ever recorded was on Mount Washington, Newfoundland’s aptly named “Wreckhouse” region  regularly sees speeds above 100km/hour (they’re called “Wreckhouse Winds”), and the island in general is known as the windiest province in Canada.skerwink trail

7. The people, too, are wind-beaten — and white. Canada’s reputation for ethnic diversity does not extend to this island of Anglo-Saxons. Most of the current population is of Irish,  western-English, or Scottish descent. A small percentage hails from France, and a much smaller one is indigenous (there were originally two tribes on the island, but settlers wiped out the Beothuk people and their language; today, only the Mi’kmaq remain). You rarely see a face that isn’t ruddy, pink, cream, freckled.

8. The accent is generally closest to Irish, though occasionally you’ll get a stream of Queen’s English, fine — and brittle — as china. The dialect, though, is a lovely hodgepodge, part preservation (‘ye’ for you, ‘me’ for my/mine), phonetic borrowing (as in hangashore, ‘layabout,’ from the Gaelic ainniseoir, and bakeapple,  from the French baie qu’appelle, ‘that berry’), part elision (n’arn, for ‘nary a thing,’ and b’y, which is technically ‘boy’, but is used more like ‘bub’, or ‘bud’), part fun with prepositions (‘where ya ‘longs to?’), and part pure sonic joy (a tickle is a channel, a scruncheon, a fatty morsel, a tuckamore, a low clump of trees).

9. The food goes beyond fish and chips and seal flipper pie. In St. John’s, it felt like every touton-and-baked bean action had an equal and opposite squid vindaloo reaction. The pubs and casual places tend to offer up the more traditional, rib-sticking, scurvy-inducing fare, which is definitely worth trying (check out the Christmas-light-decked, poorly-named Bagel Cafe for a bevy of options), while newer spots like the Adelaide Oyster House and Mallard Cottage offer up inventive takes on local ingredients, such as the aforementioned squid vindaloo and a spicy, zingy vermicelli salad at the former and glorious hunks of salt-baked turnip and whole flounder, simply broiled with herbs and lemon, at the latter.

10. This stuff will set you back a pretty penny. Newfoundland is not a budget travel destination; most of the tourists are around or past retirement age, and the establishments, particularly outside of St. John’s, reflect this: lots of twee gift shoppes and very small-scale artisan stores (in tiny Trinity, we saw stores offering speciality chocolate, seal-skin slippers and hats, landscape paintings, and yoga (Tuesday and Thursday afternoons)), along with a handful of whale, puffin, and iceberg tour outfits.

In the high season, expect to spend at least $150/night for a room at a B&B in a small town and $200+ in St. John’s. In nice restaurants, prices are on par with New York’s — low teens for appetizers, mid-twenties for entries (yes I’ve already converted from Canadian).

11. That said, there is one wonderful free activity available all over Newfoundland: hiking! There are well-maintained trails all over Newfoundland’s coast, including the East Coast Trail, a continuous 540km stretch along the Avalon Peninsula. In St. John’s itself, we hiked the switchbacks up to Signal Hill (so called because it is the site of the first successful transatlantic wireless transmission, aka the beginning of our addiction to all things wireless and the reason I can publish this today!). It was really more of a walk than a hike, and it wended through cozy streets full of neat, cheery row houses and at the top in addition to views of the sea and of St. John’s spread (or really, dotted) out before us, we saw six humpback whales! Six! They were close enough to see with the naked eye, but a nice man gave us an up-close look through his enormous tripod binoculars. They had massive white fins that appeared aqua in the water, and the knack all vast creatures have for making quick movements seem slow and languid. signal hillOutside of St. John’s, we hiked first outside in Bulls Bay in an attempt to see puffins (unsuccessful in that regard but the trail was very Gandalfian in its shrouds of mist and craggy rock, and utterly empty). In Port Rexton, we hiked the famous Skerwink in Trinity Bight. It’s not called the one of the best coastal trails in Canada for nothing: the views — of the cliffs and karsts and sea and inlets and, towards the end, a squat, lonely lighthouse — are staggering, and the lovely Canadian Parks Service built hundreds of wooden steps to facilitate the taking in of them, and the rough-hewn charm of the steps strung along the lush moss and tuckamore (new word!) gives the whole thing a serious woodland faerie vibe.

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In both instances, there was absolutely nothing but our own senses to keep us from going over the cliffs, which made us feel very adventurous and also slightly worried, as we hail from the land of guardrails stay back keep away single file please!

In conclusion: go to Newfoundland, and bring yo jukebox money. (And a sweater! And binoculars for the whales!)

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