Rock show

Gros Morne National Park on Newfoundland's west coast -- a place like no other on Earth

Sat Mar 13 2004

By Jim Shilliday

Gros Morne National Park

WOODY POINT, Newfoundland and Labrador -- At a table on the restaurant's deck jutting over the water, we chewed moose and were startled when the waitress with the delicious island accent said "Oh!" as a black whale surfaced in the bay below our feet and, as silently, slid beneath the reflective-opaque waters again.

Welcome to Newfoundland's west coast. More precisely, welcome to Gros Morne National Park, a place like no other on Earth. A landscape of fjords, forest, coastline and mountains, with some of the wildest, least-visited terrain on the continent.

The moose we were eating was in a hot meat pie served with salad and baked on the premises. The wild game, so plentiful and happily-hunted in Newfoundland, was ground and exquisitely seasoned -- possibly the best dish we tasted during our visit. But with so many local specialties, it's difficult to pick a favourite.

We were in a former cod fishery building, renovated and renamed The Old Loft Restaurant, at Woody Point, overlooking Bonne Bay, up to 226 metres deep.

Realizing there's so much to see in Newfoundland and Labrador, Beth and I had travelled the eastern side of the island the previous spring, returning in the autumn to tour the western reaches, including Labrador Straits. I'm sure the province is wonderful in any season, but we like to travel close to off-season: late spring, early fall. Last autumn was startlingly pleasant.

Always in sight and sound of water and waves colliding with rock, we travelled the full littoral length of the peninsula, holing up for three days to test the magic of the national park (designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site), visiting fishing villages, Ben Ploughman's studio ("paintings" crafted of wood and pigments, including a gem titled Waiting for the Cod) at Porte aux Choix, museums, the Viking settlement at the northern tip, and enjoying the food, the people and the history of Canada's windfall, the wonderland of Newfoundland and Labrador which we were lucky enough to confederate with in 1949. Eastern Newfoundland presents the island's more sophisticated face; out west, it's frontier land. Yin and yang.

All the island is rugged, but in the west, along the Great Northern Peninsula, nature outdid itself. The Long Range Mountains were squeezed skywards 1.2 billion years ago, scalped and gouged by glacier to form magnificent fjords. The Earth coughed up a deep part of itself -- a former ocean bed -- a "tableland." All this was named by man Gros Morne National Park (pronounced Grawss, not Grow).

Newfoundland must have more walking trails than most places on the planet (the best hiking and scenery in eastern North America), but in the west, outdoor tourism separates travellers into categories: young, intrepid, physically fit; young-in-mind, but losing it; the active retireds (Beth and me). All can have a good time, but must follow their own drummer. We carried binoculars, a Newfoundland wildflowers guide and tramped through meadows, bogs, along shores and up hills to lighthouses.

Until fairly recently, the west coast was isolated. The coastal highway wasn't built until the 1960s. Before Gros Morne park was established in 1973, for a couple of centuries there were fishing families in Rocky Harbour, Woody Point, St. Paul's, Cow Head and Lobster Cove Head. The government wasn't keen on evicting these communities, so they exist as they did before, but are benefiting hugely from the park's road system and expanding tourist industry.

We flew perky WestJet to St. John's, Provincial Airlines to Deer Lake, just northeast of Corner Brook (scenic mill town, hugging the bay and climbing to great heights) that serves as the air portal to the western region. You can also fly in from Halifax. We rented a car.

Less than an hour's drive got us up to our motel in Gros Morne. The park is a mountainous 1,100 square kilometres with exhilarating dips and climbs in the highway, and dominated by Gros Morne Mountain rising a sheer 807 metres above coastal waters. We stayed three days at the Gros Morne Resort, in St. Paul's, a work-in-progress with great potential.

A pleasant accommodation with well-appointed rooms, good service (it even has a beauty parlour and barbershop), nice dining room and esthetically appealing -- its foyer graced with comfortable furniture, two fireplaces, and a giant fused-glass iceberg fountain sculpture.

For sheer natural majesty, Western Brook Pond is captivating. The Pond (what Newfoundlanders call a lake) was once a fjord. But the opening to the Gulf of St. Lawrence was sealed off when the land gradually rebounded after the glacier melted. Boat tours, three times a day in season, last more than two hours, passing between billion-year-old cliffs towering just short of a kilometre, waterfalls here and there lit with rainbows -- at their best the first part of the season. The water is more than 170 metres deep here and so pure it supports little marine life.

Nature comes first for Western Brook Pond boat riders. They park, then must walk three kilometers (40 minutes) each way over gentle terrain and boardwalks crossing coastal bogs, occasionally sighting moose or caribou.

The boats move like ants in the Grand Canyon. Their passengers gawk in awed silence. The tour guide is discreet, speaks only during three or four stops to explain natural features. A rain squall has everyone pulling hoods up or hat brims down, attention undisturbed. Walking back to the car park, everyone is smiling, already reliving a grand experience.

There are more than 100 kilometres of hiking trails in Gros Morne park, ranging from half-hour strolls to strenuous day hikes. Developed trails are clearly marked and have boardwalks, bridges and stairs, where necessary.

Our next "must see" was way up the peninsula at its northern tip, to a former Viking settlement, now a national park, national historic site and world heritage site. It means driving 280 kilometres up and the same back (unless you fly out from St. Anthony), but it's worth it. Desolate may be too strong a word, but sparse applies to the stretch of paved highway, regarding what you can see, besides tortured landscape and attacking waves.

Along the way you'll see a natural rock formation, The Arches, sculpted by waves over the eons. Maybe you'll stop at Porte au Choix (pronounced here Porta Chow, there's no French culture) on a peninsula sticking out into the Gulf.

Here shrimp is king. At The Anchor we "yummed" our way through fresh shrimp salad sandwiches on home-made bread, with shrimp and cod chowder. All of our dinners were gratifying if we started with the local seafood chowder and finished with freshly-baked partridgeberry pie featuring shortbread-like pastry, the result of using both butter and lard, we learned. These wild, tart berries -- known as lingonberries in Europe -- grow everywhere and are used in jams, sauces, desserts and cocktails.

We were intrigued by the isolated ditch gardens, vegetables planted by fisherfolk many kilometres down the road from their tiny villages. And by "tackamore," shoreline evergreens stunted by fierce winds, salt air and poor soil. We saw lobster pots stacked just inland by the thousands near Squid Cove and Barr'd Harbour along the coast edging the Strait of Belle Isle.

Around the year 1,000, a Viking expedition from Greenland landed on the shores of what's now called L'Anse aux Meadows. They set up a base camp for exploring south throughout the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In the late 1950s, a local fisherman met Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne, who were seeking a legendary site mentioned in Norse sagas. The grassy mounds pointed out by the fisherman were the remains of eight 11th Century Norse buildings. Evidence of a smelter was found for producing iron from ore, and an emergency supply of nails and rivets to repair their boats.

Today, the grass-covered mounds near a brook running into the bay stir the imagination, conjuring up primitive people struggling for subsistence from nature, rinsing fresh-killed meat and fish in the flowing fresh water, and clustering in their sod buildings for protection from gales outside. Close by, Parks Canada has constructed authentic and detailed replica sod buildings. Interpreters, dressed in period costume, re-enact what life may have been like. There's a fine visitors' centre and museum.

There are lots of rugged coastline paths and rocks to clamber over, so we worked up a good appetite for our evening meal. In the nearby village of L'Anse aux Meadows, we found a treat. The Norseman Restaurant overlooks the harbour and ocean.We relished salmon and cod chowder, asparagus soup, large ocean scallops in creamy parsley sauce, and fried cod with pork scrunchions. Then partridgeberry pie and drinks served with iceberg bits, the purest ice on the planet.

If only we had left room for the grilled Labrador caribou tenderloin marinated in fine herbs, with a red wine glaze. Her lean caribou, said Gina, the operator and waitress, beat out moose anytime. because caribou eat lichens, not spruce, making them less gamy tasting.

Where to stay after visiting the Viking settlement? There are several motels, campgrounds and B & Bs in the area and in nearby St. Anthony. We stayed at, and recommend, the Valhalla Lodge at Gunner's Cove about five kilometres from L'Anse aux Meadows.

Located on a hilltop, at the side of the highway, it has four rooms with bathrooms. A cosy sitting room with overflowing bookshelves, a fireplace and sliding doors leading to a balcony overlooking a descending tree-covered slope, a beautiful, pristine bay and the ocean beyond. In this idyllic setting, E. Annie Proulx wrote The Shipping News.

One of the main attractions at Valhalla Lodge is its owner, Bella Hodge, a spirited raconteur with an accent as good as a passport, features reminiscent of Margaret Trudeau. Owner of the Norseman Restaurant (operated by her daughter, Gina, and chef husband), she stays next to the bed and breakfast, is there first thing in the morning with a welcoming smile and juice and coffee while preparing a breakfast featuring oat pancakes with warmed partridgeberry syrup. Bella tells a story of novelist Proulx. Bella, who had to be away for a few days, asked Proulx to tell prospective guests that the place was closed and to give them a list of other B & Bs. She returned to find the place full and Proulx making breakfasts and cleaning up after guests had left. And, said Bella admiringly, "she's a hunter," an accolade in Newfoundland.

Jim Shilliday writes in Stonewall,

where he lives with his wife Beth.


Visiting Newfoundland

Getting there

* By air -- Both Air Canada and Westjet have daily flights from Winnipeg to Newfoundland. Air Canada's website ( has a mid-April advance fare of $735.18, taxes included, from Winnipeg to Deer Lake, connecting in Montreal. Westjet's ( fare for the same dates is $693.18, taxes included, from Winnipeg to St. John's. A Provincial Airlines ( connection from St. John's to Deer Lake is an additional $417.54, taxes included. Car rentals are available at the Deer Lake airport.

* By car -- There is year-round ferry service from North Sydney, N.S. to Port aux Basques, Nfld., a six-hour crossing. Seasonal service (mid-June to mid-September) operates from North Sydney to Argentia, Nfld., a 12-14 hour crossing. There is also summer service across the Straits of Belle Isle from Blanc Sablon on the Quebec-Labrador border to St. Barbe on Newfoundland's Viking Trail. Crossing time is 80 minutes. Getting by

* Time - Newfoundland Time is 2 1/2 ahead of Central Time

* Climate - Newfoundland has a temperate marine climate. Winters are usually mild with a normal temperature of 0 C. Summer days range from cool to hot with a normal temperature of 16 C. Good swimming weather begins at the end of June. The normal annual rainfall is 1,050 millimetres and the normal snowfall is 300 centimetres.

More information

* Newfound Tourism

* Western Region Tourism Industry Associations

* Gateway Tourism Association -- 709-695-3688;

* Cormack Trail Tourism Association -- 709-645-2583; e-mail [email protected] * Festival Coast Tourism Association -- 709-643-1232;

* Viking Trail Tourism Association -- 1-877-778-4546 (toll free); e-mail [email protected];

* Humber Community Development Association -- 709-639-7755; e-mail [email protected]

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