I was sunbathing on Bella Hodge's deck, looking out at her spectacular view over Gunner's Cove, when a sudden whoosh of air announced the arrival of about a dozen humpback whales. For the rest of the morning, they frolicked in the foamy waves below, entertaining us with impressive blows and breaches.
Every morning, as I awoke at Valhalla Lodge, Hodge's bed and breakfast at the top of the Great Northern Peninsula in western Newfoundland, I couldn't wait to get outside to see if any whales -- or icebergs -- had arrived overnight. I had come here at the end of a three-day road trip up the Viking Trail, a drive that began in Gros Morne National Park and took me north along the Strait of Belle Isle, past dozens of fishing villages and long arcs of silvery beach lined with tuckamore and driftwood.
Blessed with such magnificent scenery, it's no wonder that the Viking Trail attracts visitors from every corner of the world. Travellers have spread the word on the Internet about Hodge's unmatchable partridgeberry pancakes and spectacular view. But her best plug came with the publication of The Shipping News,the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by E. Annie Proulx. Proulx was a frequent guest of Hodge's while she researched the book, and the two became fast and enduring friends. While Hodge taught the author all about the finer points of Newfoundland cuisine, Proulx adjusted to life on the Rock, and once took over operation of the lodge for a while.
"One time, I had to make an emergency trip to Goose Bay while Annie was staying with me," Hodge recalled. "I told her to send any tourists to other accommodations, and off I went to Labrador. But when I returned a few weeks later, Annie had the whole house full, making pancakes and carrying on with the guests as though she'd always done it."
In fact, Proulx enjoyed the area around Gunner's Cove so much that she bought a house there, just up the road from Hodge's. I had read The Shipping News before I arrived, but didn't want to admit to Hodge that I'd been expecting Newfoundlanders to be a seriously strange lot. In the opening pages of the book, Proulx describes Quoyle -- the novel's main character, who is Brooklyn-born but of Newfoundland descent -- as "a great damp loaf of a body. At six he weighed eighty pounds. At sixteen he was buried under a casement of flesh. Head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the color of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face." Yikes.
Like many Newfoundlanders, Hodge didn't necessarily see eye-to-eye with Proulx's characterizations of islanders as superstitious eccentrics with a taste for hard drink and strange sex. But it's Proulx's version of Newfoundland in the screen adaptation that's currently giving movie audiences their first taste of the region. Critics have widely praised the film, and even Proulx was impressed. Only time will tell whether it will inspire a new wave of tourists to explore the region's savage beauty.
Meanwhile, after a few days at Hodge's, my companions and I had fallen deeply in love with partridgeberries. Beyond the usual jam, we had tasted all manner of sweets, sauces and even wine made from the tart berries. When we asked where we might find some to take home with us, Hodge sent us off on a mad berry hunt around Gunner's Cove: "You never know, you might get lucky and find a patch of your own," she teased.
Visitors to Newfoundland soon discover that islanders are passionate about their berries. There probably isn't a Newfoundlander who doesn't know of a decent berry patch, but just try to find out where they are. Berry pickers are a secretive bunch, especially when it comes to the bakeapple, whose single salmon-coloured berry sits like a jewel amid a bouquet of greenery.
Always up for a challenge, we went for a hike along the cliffs, hoping to find a few elusive berries. The lichen- and moss-covered cliff tops were as soft as pillows underfoot, and to our surprise, we found blue flag irises, ivory mushrooms, bakeapple blossoms and Labrador tea plants growing like weeds. In the distance, a procession of icebergs were making their way down Iceberg Alley toward St. John's. Beneath us, a replica Viking boat was gallantly sailing toward an iceberg, with a full cargo of tourists training their cameras on the mountain of ice.
It reminded us of why we had come this far: A visit to L'Anse aux Meadows was our next stop.
Five minutes down the road from Hodge's is l'Anse aux Meadows, the grassy shore where a group of Vikings, possibly led by Leif Ericson, spent the winter a thousand years ago. It's thought that no more than 75 people lived in the three large houses and workshops that were found here, covered by layers of dirt and grass. Hodge recalls playing on the lumpy "Indian mounds" as a child. It was only in the 1960s that anthropologists began excavating what would prove to have been a base camp for Viking explorations as far south as the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Hodge's cousin, Clayton Colbourne, is a Parks Canada interpreter at L'Anse aux Meadows. He worked on the site when digging began in the 1960s. "Back then, we didn't know much about the outside world and we couldn't have cared less. Today, it's a whole different story."
When UNESCO declared L'Anse aux Meadows a World Heritage Site in 1978, the world took notice and tourism has grown steadily ever since. In the tiny village next door to the site, Hodge's daughter and son-in-law operate a little restaurant and gallery called the Norseman. Here, in a cottage once used as an artist's studio, they turn out lobster and fish dinners, chocolate and berry confections, and cold drinks chilled with 2,000-year-old iceberg ice, gathered at some risk by local boys from the village. In late June, lobster was on the menu, and while the sun set over the Strait of Belle Isle and distant Labrador, we ceremoniously dismantled our main course. We finished off with a slice of partridgeberry cheesecake and a pot of steaming tea, lingering for a while in front of a crackling fire.
The next day, we departed Hodge's for St. Anthony, the largest town on the peninsula, in search of a whalebone. My husband had spied an impressive set of bleached bones on Hodge's deck and thought that this would be the finest souvenir he could possibly bring back. Folks up and down the peninsula were sympathetic to his plight, but said whalebones were as rare as hen's teeth. Hodge, meanwhile, had mentioned a carver in town who might have a bone or two to spare. So while my husband conducted a door-to-door search for the carver, I visited the amazing Grenfell House Museum.
A legendary doctor and missionary, Dr. (later Sir) Wilfred Thomason Grenfell was known throughout the Commonwealth as a good samaritan of the highest order. For decades after arriving in Newfoundland in 1892, the English doctor and his staff tended to the health of the Labrador native people and settlers from his famous "floating clinics" -- medical ships that plied the coasts.
To this day, the mission operates a shop where delightful embroidered and appliquéd parkas, mitts and hand-knits are sold to finance its operations. There's no better place to get a taste of the area's history, and to stock up on some of Canada's finest crafts. With a trunk full of hand-knit souvenirs and one giant whalebone, we headed south to where our trip had begun.
We spent our last few days exploring the area around Gros Morne Park, recalling geology and botany lessons forgotten since high school. According to a series of helpful signs strung along one of Gros Morne's many hiking paths, Newfoundland was at the centre of two great continents that broke apart, came together again and finally broke apart permanently to become North America and Eurasia. The Rock, as Newfoundland is affectionately known, was like the pit of a peach -- drifting close to Labrador and the mainland of North America, but remaining steadfastly an island.
Part of all this geological movement is a series of flat-topped hills called the Tablelands, which form a strange Martian landscape of coppery red rock. The Tablelands were pushed out onto Earth's surface from deep within the crust when the churning and twisting of tectonic plates were rearranging the planet's landscape millions of years ago.
Forming a ridge overlooking the highway, the iron-rich ochre slopes have interpretive trails winding along their base. Because of the high concentrations of iron, magnesium and other heavy metals, only carnivorous plants such as pitcher plants (the provincial flower) and butterworts can survive. If you have a full day to do it, a hike up Gros Morne Mountain provides an unforgettable view of this utterly unique landscape.
Pressed for time, we opted to take one of the celebrated cruises that operate within the park, up an inland fiord called Western Brook Pond. To raucous island fiddle music and the captain's salty commentary, we cruised through the narrow inlet, stopping at waterfalls and bidding adieu to a couple of hikers who set off into the park from a rickety pier.
A few kilometres from Western Brook Pond is Broom Point Fishing Station, where visitors get a close-up look at a traditional family inshore fishing operation. Restored in 1990 with equipment and personal items donated by the Mudge families, Broom Point is an excellent place to learn about the fishermen who have worked the western shore of Newfoundland for 400 years.
The Mudge family fishery was a small-boat, labour-intensive fishery that used traditional fixed gear. The cod net was placed in the water and periodically harvested during the fishing season -- not dragged along the ocean bottom, or seined around giant schools of fish, like the industrial, factory-boat fisheries that began to proliferate in the 1970s. According to Carl Rumbolt, one of the interpreters at the Broom Point site, who fished alongside the Mudges for years, the arrival of the factory ships was the beginning of the end of the cod fishery.
Upstairs, in a room heaped with nets and rope, Rumbolt showed me how a lobster trap works. Amazingly complex things, there are several styles of pots, including the aptly described parlour trap, where a lobster is caught in a kind of antechamber. Rumbolt's son still fishes at Broom Point for lobster destined for restaurants and markets in Boston and Maine.
By the end of the trip, the trunk of our rental car was even heavier with rock samples to add to the giant whalebone. Though my carry-on luggage was just a "bag of rocks" to the security guard at the airport, to me it was memories, carefully selected from each place we visited.
I left with the feeling that I had been somewhere exotic and utterly beguiling, something like Annie Proulx must have felt when she decided to write about this part of the world.
To this day, whenever I want to bring back the stark beauty of western Newfoundland, I rearrange that pile of rocks on my window sill. Some are smooth, of a deep grey-blue, veined with white granite that winds around the centre like a piece of sparkling yarn. Others are a mottled granite of shell pink and algae green, or the chalky red ochre of the Tablelands. They're as different from the pebbles I pick up on the shores of Lake Ontario as Newfoundlanders are from the rest of us, with customs and a way of life that only centuries of isolation can preserve and nurture. If you go Getting there:To tour the western part of Newfoundland, fly into Deer Lake and rent a car at the airport. Gros Morne National Park is less than an hour away and the entire drive up the Viking Trail to L'Anse aux Meadows is only five hours. Plan to spend at least four days in the region. Lodging: The Valhalla Lodge is open May to October, and charges $50 for a single, $65 for a double, and has a double room with a Jacuzzi for $85. Reservations can be made by calling (709) 896-5519 in the winter and (709) 623-2018 in the summer or by writing Bella Hodge, Valhalla Bed and Breakfast, P.O. Box 10, Gunner's Cove, Nfld., A0K 2X0; Web site: http://www.valhalla-lodge.com. The Sugar Hill Inn in Rocky Harbour is open Jan. 15 to Oct. 15 and charges $76 and $98 for its rooms, and $136 and $172 for suites. Reservations can be made by calling or faxing (709) 458-2147 or by writing Sugar Hill Inn, P.O. Box 100, Norris Point, Nfld., A0K 3V0. Dining: The Sugar Hill Inn has wonderful food as does the Seaview in Trout River. Don't miss Gina Hodge's restaurant, the Norseman, in L'Anse aux Meadows. In St. Anthony, the Lighthouse Keeper's Café has great chowders and is a wonderful whale-watching place. Binoculars are available. Tours: Maxxim Vacations is offering a 10-day Shipping News Adventure package to Newfoundland and Labrador that includes return air from major cites in Canada, a mid-size rental car with unlimited kilometres, 10 nights accommodation in small hotels, inns and B & Bs and visits to locations where the movie was filmed and where the novel was set. Also included are a complimentary copy of E. Annie Proulx's novel, and two dinner theatre performances. The tour begins in St. John's.
The package costs $1,599 a person, double occupancy from Toronto, $1,609 from Montreal, $1,579 from Ottawa, $1,419 from Halifax, $2,099 from Calgary, and $2,189 from Vancouver.
For reservations and information contact a travel agent, or phone Maxxim Vacations at (709) 754-6666 or (800) 567-6666; e-mail email@example.com; Web site is http://www.maxximvacations.com. Reading: David Macfarlane's The Danger Tree and Bernice Morgan's Random Passage are highly recommended. Both give great insight into how life on the island has changed. E. Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News is an entertaining version of island life. Web:For tourism information on Newfoundland and Labrador, visit the Web site at http://www.gov.nf.ca/tourism. For a primer on Newfoundland plants: http://www.yougrowgirl.com/explore/newfoundland.