The way most Americans pronounce Newfoundland, it might have been settled by colonists from Helsinki instead of fishermen from Bristol. Natives say Newf'n'LAND, with a flourish at the end. In fact, they pronounce any number of words their own way and draw freely on a storehouse of piquant expressions.
One rainy morning during a recent visit, our landlady summed up our reluctance to go out by observing, "The weather's got you all funnied, eh?" And Newfoundland's pioneers favored shamelessly expressive place names: We spent time in Squid Tickle and drove through Clowns Cove, Blow Me Down, Cupids, Heart's Desire, Heart's Content and Heart's Delight.
We found the plainspoken English, seasoned with regional quirks and Anglo-Saxon dash, refreshing. But like almost everyone who gravitates to the island, my friends Scott and John and I had come for the sea.
Most outsiders think of "Newfoundland" as solely an island. But Canada's easternmost province also includes the Labrador peninsula on the Canadian mainland. The island that is bounded by the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east constitutes the smaller but far more populous section of the province. Here, the sea permeates the culture.
We weren't after the usual seaside diversions. In fact, the cooling Labrador Current, which encircles the island like an oceanic moat, ensures that on Newfoundland, life is not a beach. Yet most of the island's people live along the coast (the island's interior is mostly given over to forest), and the region still exists on intimate terms with the sea, much as the New England and Gulf coasts of this country once did.
Our itinerary emphasized two national parks that frame the island: Gros Morne (French for great butte) on the west coast, Terra Nova (Latin for new land) on the east. During our 10 days' stay, we took boat rides, hiked above inlets and ate seafood nonstop. On our last day, a binge of whale-watching left us grasping for superlatives.
Gros Morne National Park is a designated World Heritage Site, which puts it in the company of Yellowstone, Machu Picchu and the Pyramids of Giza. Its claim to global importance rests largely on its geology, especially a barren plateau called the Tablelands, which we hiked on our first full day in the province.
"A piece of the earth's interior," the park brochure calls it, a pithy way of saying that the plateau's rusty-red rocks are scraps of the earth's mantle, which, against all odds, have come to rest on the surface. How they got there has to do with the likelihood that Newfoundland is an amalgam of the North American and African continental plates, which collided 500 million years ago. During the ensuing vulcanism and uplift of the Long Range Mountains, a mineral from the earth's mantle called peridotite was extruded. Originally green, the rock contains iron, which has oxidized over the millenia -- hence today's reddish hue.
Though peridotite is inhospitable to life, on the lower slopes we found a few clumps of moss campion with its soft pink blossoms and some pitcher plants with their red, veiny bulbs, alongside silver-green patches of ground-clutching fir. Otherwise, the experience was something like hiking through a North Atlantic version of the Mojave badlands.
Our base for exploring Gros Morne was the Parsonses' -- a Rocky Harbour establishment that lies somewhere between a motel and a bed-and-breakfast on the innkeeping spectrum. We were lodged in a cabin and opted to pay extra to eat our meals in the Parsonses' dining room. We soon learned that Mrs. Parsons likes to cook, Mr. Parsons likes to talk, and our meals with them unfolded at the leisurely, multi-course pace of banquets.
Each morning, before we went hiking, Mr. Parsons would check his barometer, forecast the weather and warn us against "the floys" (Newfoundland's notorious, biting black flies). Mrs. Parsons would ask what we wanted for dinner -- lobster, cod, salmon, mariner's platter -- so she would know what to buy fresh: Our choice became the catch of the day.
One morning we spied a bunch of rhubarb lying on her kitchen counter, and the merest hint prompted her to serve rhubarb pie for the evening's dessert. But then her desserts were always memorable, especially partridgeberry pie (something like a cross between a cherry and a cranberry) and Naimo bars (little layer cakes of fudge, coconut, margarine and graham-cracker crumbs).
We decided to spend one night in the back country, and soon rued giving up the comforts chez Parsons.
An excursion boat carried us across Western Brook Pond, a body of deep-blue water that would qualify as a fiord except for lack of an outlet to the sea. Curving inland, the pond slices into an amphitheatrical gorge that culminates at one of Newfoundland's most photographed-from vantage points. Most of our fellow passengers were day-trippers, but one other party -- a pair of Canadian men -- disembarked at the end-of-the-line dock, as we did, with backpacks. They were heading overland for a week of hiking, but we reminded the boatmen that we were counting on being picked up the next day.
We pitched our tents in sight of a ridge-top waterfall, then headed up into the Long Range on an indistinct trail. Near the top we had to plunge into a tangle of matted shrubs and trees, from which the two Canadians popped up like rearing bears -- then vanished just as suddenly into the wild maze. We arrived at our turnaround point in time to watch a pair of caribou browse their way across a high meadow. The male was limping badly.
The next day dawned overcast and gusty. As we ate breakfast, the wind whipped our waterfall away from the cliff, into radiator coils of spray that held their shape for a while before dispersing into gray mist. Bundling up and installing ourselves at the dock, we read and waited for our rendezvous. Because of the lay of the gorge, we wouldn't be able to see the boat until it rounded the last bend -- and we weren't seeing it. The time came ... and went. No boat.
The wind was blowing unabated and the clouds were hanging lower, but it was our lack of food that concerned us. We wondered idly about how to stalk a limping caribou.
Then a bass roar sounded across the water, and the boat appeared. The wind was blowing so hard it took two tries for it to dock. Later the captain calmly told us, "There's a southeasterly blowing today; they're really tricky, and it was a very close call as to whether we'd come out." "You mean you actually leave people out here?" Scott asked. "Oh yes," he said. "It happens all the time."
Other Canadians tend to put Newfoundland down. For one thing, its timing is unconventionally off: Newfoundland huddles alone in a time zone half-an-hour behind the mainland. We met an Ontarian who cited this very peculiarity as one reason he'd always wanted to visit the place: "When I was growing up, it fascinated me to hear CBC announcers say, 'It's time for news on the hour, the half-hour in Newfoundland.' "
Newfoundlanders are famous for their alleged thickheadedness. But as far as we could tell, Newfies are as smart as anybody else but so laid-back that a smug outsider might mistake their placidity for slow wits.
A good example of the provincial sang-froid came to us over the radio while we were touring Gros Morne by car. A 14-year-old boy had smuggled a sawed-off shotgun into school that morning and taken his classmates and teacher hostage for several hours. Eventually he surrendered, and nobody was hurt. A radio reporter was interviewing Trina, a girl who had been held hostage. After posing the usual what-was-going-through-your-mind questions, to which the girl gave the inevitable answers ("I was terrified," etc.), the reporter asked, "And what are you going to do this evening?"
"I'm going shopping," said Trina.
A typical summer day in Newfoundland sees a high of 70 and a low in the upper 40s. Our only bad weather blew in on the two days we took to cross the island along the north coast, where an occasional passing iceberg accentuated the bleakness. We consoled ourselves with a feast of lobster, bought from a fish market in Traytown and cooked in a pot supplied by our landlady at a housekeeping cabin.
Traytown is on the outskirts of Terra Nova National Park, a rocky seaside remnant of the Appalachian Mountains, where we spent two delectably sunny days. For orientation we cruised Newman Sound on the MV Northern Fulmar, skippered by Mark Carpenter out of Squid Tickle (a tickle is a narrow). We "jigged" for cod, the foundation of Newfoundland's rich fishery, but caught only sculpin, a trash fish that looks like a hybrid of starfish and toad. Though capelin were running that day -- sardinelike fish that whales slurp up by the millions -- and Carpenter had spotted a minke whale that morning, we looked in vain for telltale spume on the horizon.
The bird-watching, on the other hand, was rewarding: loons, guillemots, terns and above an island a bald eagle that provoked a raven by wandering into its territory. Despite being about a quarter of the eagle's size, the raven succeeded in driving it away.
We had arranged for Carpenter to drop us off at Minchin Cove, where we fell asleep to a loon lullaby. The next morning, we hiked the eight miles back to Squid Tickle.
We had planned to spend our last weekend wholly on Terra Firma -- in St. John's, the province's capital and only metropolis. A city of stone government buildings, frame houses and an old-fashioned waterfront district awash in sailors on shore leave, it had several attractions to visit, including Signal Hill, the blustery site where Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic radio signal in 1901; and nearby Cape Spear National Historic Park, the easternmost point in North America. (It's closer from Cape Spear to Ireland, we were told, than to Montreal.) And there was shopping to indulge in -- especially for hand-knitted woolen sweaters, caps and gloves -- and the Newfoundlanders to watch: When the temperature went up to all of 75 on Saturday, boys doffed their shirts and the parks filled with sun worshippers.
Fortunately, a brochure stocked by our bread-and-breakfast lured us out to sea one last time. We drove south along the coast to the hamlet of Bay Bulls, embarkation point for tours of the Sea Bird Sanctuary. The sanctuary's three islands play host to some 9 million sea birds, primarily murres, kittiwakes, herring gulls and common puffins. Capt. Joe O'Brien of Bird Island Charters brought us so close in to Gull Island that we could not only see thousands of puffins, lined up in their cliff niches like beaky dominoes, but could smell the acid odor of their guano.
Yet the thrill of bird-watching was almost forgotten in the exultation of whale-chasing. There were three of them -- humpbacks, two adults and a juvenile, spouting, leaping, showing head and fin and tail, disappearing underwater, challenging O'Brien's young helmsman to guess where they might surface next. Most of the time he was near the mark, and the surging pleasure of keeping up with whales lasted for a half hour.
Then, on the way back into port, there was a lagniappe. Alerted by an onshore friend with a shortwave radio, O'Brien steered us within 20 feet of another humpback, which surfaced periodically in sea-serpent arches on its way out to sea. In "Peterson First Guide to Mammals," author Peter Alden writes of the humpback: "Lucky whalewatchers have seen the spectacular leaps it makes when breaching and slamming the surface." We count ourselves among the luckiest.
Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer. WAYS & MEANS GETTING THERE: Canadian Airlines International flies between Boston and Deer Lake, the airport nearest Gros Morne National Park, for $214 round trip, with restrictions. The cheapest round-trip fare between Washington and Boston this summer is $198, with restrictions. Air Canada also flies from Boston to St. John's for $297 round trip for midweek travel, with restrictions. Both airlines fill up in the high season, and reservations should be booked as early as possible. WHEN TO GO: We visited Newfoundland in mid-June, just ahead of the peak tourist season but in time for normally good weather and a dearth of the black flies that can plague visitors to the back country. WHERE TO STAY: Small-scale innkeeping is a way of life on Newfoundland, and we found most such accommodations pleasant and reasonably priced. In Rocky Harbour, the jumping-off point for exploring Gros Morne National Park, the Parsonses charge $40 to $42 per day for a housekeeping unit, and about $12 per person for dinner. For reservations, which are advisable, write P.O. Box 12, Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland, A0K 4NO or call 709-458-2544.
In St. John's, a bed-and-breakfast double in Jim Connelly and Kathy Manser's restored townhouse two blocks from the heart of the waterfront district costs $52 a night (30 Prescott St., St. John's, Newfoundland, A1C 3S4, 709-753-1975). WHAT TO DO: The visitors' fee for Canadian national parks is $2.65 a day per vehicle. An annual pass can be obtained for $18. Ocean Watch Tours operates a daily excursion out of Squid Tickle in Terra Nova National Park; the cost is about $14 for adults, $7 for children under 12.
At least two companies operate excursions from Bay Bulls to the seabird sanctuary: Gatherall's Sanctuary Boat Charters and Bird Island Charters. We patronized Bird Island Charters (150 Old Topsail Rd., St. John's, Newfoundland A1E 2B1, 709-753-4850), which charges $22 for adults, $11 for ages 6 to 15 for a 2 1/2-hour trip. -- Dennis Drabelle