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Newfoundland & Labrador: overview

Anyone seeking to understand Canada’s role in shaping North America should spare a few days for Newfoundland, a bracing province of hardy fisherfolk – the first Canadian land to be ‘found’ and the last to join the Confederation, in 1949. The land and seascapes are impressively rugged and the spirited people a sheer delight.

Life in isolated fishing communities has given Newfoundlanders a keen sense of local identity. Citizens of the capital St John’s and the area around it are ‘townies’, while those who live anywhere beyond the northeast Avalon Peninsula are known as ‘baymen’. Every coastal town and village, large and small, is referred to as an ‘outport’. The term ‘Canadian’ is still reserved for mainlanders.

‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God,’ says the provincial motto. ‘But on your way, look out for Newfoundland,’ seems to have been the slogan of the old North Atlantic navigators, from the Irish Abbot Brendan in the 6th century and the wild Norsemen in the 11th, to all the Basque, French, Spanish and Portuguese fishermen who preceded the Genoan explorer John Cabot, paid £10 by Henry VII for finding ‘the new isle’ in 1497.

It was the fishermen who really knew what the island was worth – the Grand Banks to the southeast of Newfoundland are the richest cod breeding ground in the world. For centuries, the island existed only for its offshore fish. Any permanent settlement was actively discouraged, so as not to compete with Britain’s West Country merchants. Even after the first serious colonisation in the 17th century, the coastal forests were exploited only in order to build fishermen’s cottages and their ships. No towns were built away from the coast until the 20th century.

Newfoundland’s first day as a Canadian province was 1 April 1949, a day when practical jokes, especially ones involving tall stories, are played with impunity. Humour is such a part of the Newfoundland way of speech and life that it is often hard to know when a joke is being played.

Places to visit in Newfoundland and Labrador

St John's 

Folklore insists that the name (not to be confused with Saint John, New Brunswick) comes from the saint’s day of John the Baptist, 24 June, when John Cabot is said to have arrived here in 1497. Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital and largest city retains the allure of the fishing port it has always been. However, as a now booming offshore oil capital, you will find plenty of choice when it comes to hotels and excellent restaurants. 

The picturesque harbour is the place to begin an exploration. In the 19th century the town burned down five times, but people still stubbornly built wooden houses overlooking the waterfront. Their brightly painted walls offset the gaunt grey trawlers in the docks. The old buildings on Water Street, which dates to the 16th century and may be North America’s oldest street, have been converted into trendy boutiques and art galleries. Parallel to the harbour, on Gower Street, you’ll find the prettiest Victorian houses, painted burgundy, lemon, burnt sienna, dove grey and white. Still around the waterfront, the downtown bar scene is booming.

The Rooms

9 Bonaventure Avenue

The Rooms, in St John's, house the provincial museum, art gallery and archives in a striking building based on the buildings and shoreline structures found in outport Newfoundland and Labrador. The museum recounts the human history of the island, exploring the changes and connections, and how nature interwove with the lives of the peoples who lived here from 9,000 years ago to 1730, as well as exhibiting the clothing, furniture and implements of the first European fishermen.

The Avon Peninsula

The drive south down the peninsula from St John’s takes you first out to Cape Spear, the most easterly point of both Newfoundland and the continent (longitude 52°37’24’). This strategic position prompted the Americans to install two gun emplacements on the tip of the cape in World War II. The 1835 white clapboard lighthouse here has been restored with a jolly red-and-white striped dome, while a less-attractive modern concrete tower does all the work.

Down at the seabird sanctuary on Witless Bay, you can spot Atlantic puffins, black-legged kittiwake and thick-billed murre. The best time for sightings is from mid-June to mid-July, when you can hire a boat from Bay Bulls out to the four islands – Gull, Green, Pee Pee and Great – of the ecological reserve.

Marine Drive, which follows the craggy coast north of St John’s, passes through the fishing villages of Outer Cove, Middle Cove and Torbay up to pretty Pouch Cove. In summer, whales pass down this coast on their way south. 

Gros Morne National Park

On the west coast of the island’s Northern Peninsula, 30km (19 miles) north of Deer Lake on Highway 430, Gros Morne National Park lies within the Long Range Mountains. The 1,800-sq-km (700-sq-mile) national park has some of the most dramatic scenery in eastern Canada. Its geological features uniquely illustrate movements of the earth’s crust and its mountains were sculpted by Ice-Age glaciers that cut deep fjords (called ponds in Newfoundland) and valleys.

Dominating the landscape is Gros Morne Mountain, a huge rock that emerged molten from between the earth’s surface plates and then toppled over. Elsewhere in the park are bogs, sand dunes and 70km (44 miles) of coastline. The park is a meeting place for three ecological zones – arctic alpine, boreal and temperate – and a wonderful place to hike or fish for salmon and trout. 

L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site

At the tip of the northern peninsula, L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site is the location of the only authenticated Viking settlement in the New World. It is believed to have been the site of Lief Ericson’s colony following his landing around ad1000. The park’s replicated sod and stone houses and workshops give a fair idea of conditions a thousand years ago. An excellent interpretation centre contains archaeological specimens and audio-visual presentations. 

Read more about Canada

Read more about Canada in Insight Guides: Canada

Insight Guides: Canada

Insight Guide Canada is a comprehensive, full-colour guide to getting the most out of one of the world's most beautiful countries. Engaging History and Culture chapters explain the tumultuous histor...

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