You don’t need to leave North America to find one of the world’s remote four corners. Canada’s Newfoundland is rich in culture, scenery and adventure, catering to thrill seekers and luxury travelers alike, as we discovered in our week-long summer vacation.
JESSICA: Let’s start with the most basic question. Why Newfoundland?
TREVOR: I want to hear your answer first.
J: Well, I would say that we were looking for someplace remote and uncharted. Not only by us, but among people we know. For instance, we know a ton of friends who have visited Iceland, so we wanted to try something different.
T: Yeah. Newfoundland is like hipster Iceland. If hipster Iceland had an Irish accent and Canadian manners.
J: We also heard Newfoundland called “Mini Alaska” while we were there. (Note: pronounced Noof-n-land for all you folks that are prone to Google it like I did.)
T: Seriously though, the “why Newfoundland?” is a fair question. The answer lies somewhere between watching Anthony Bourdain’s Newfoundland Parts Unknown episode, Google Image surfing, my curiosity with random places I find on Delta’s Flight Tracker, and you, a super cool wife willing to take a chance on my wild idea to vacation there. Plus, it’s the furthest east you can go in North America. One and a half hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Where did that extra 30 minutes come from? I was just intrigued.
And it’s not that far from Michigan, so I assumed the summer weather would be comparable.
J: But it was NOT nearly as nice as Michigan in the summer.
T: It was a little cooler. I mean, it’s the last stop before Greenland.
J: Once we started talking seriously about Newfoundland, we looked into airline tickets and opted to fly out of Windsor (not DTW). We flew through Windsor to Toronto (one hour), then onto to Deer Lake, Newfoundland (gateway to Gros Morne National Park and Western Newfoundland). That last leg was about a three-and-a-half hour flight. The descent in is rugged and dramatic, so book a window seat if you’re like me and want a ‘preview.’
T: Detroiters! Don’t sleep on the Windsor Airport! Departing out of Windsor was cheaper and easier, even with a border crossing in the mix.
T: Like most of our travel, we started planning this vacation with me choosing destinations in Newfoundland based on cool culture and scenery, and then you (Jess) taking over to find cool accommodations that ultimately anchored the trip.
J: Newfoundland definitely wasn’t the easiest place to find accommodations, although we were cutting it pretty close. Rather than booking months out, we were booking just weeks out in peak season (June-August).
Trevor, you wanted to spend time in Gros Morne National Park and St. John’s (a coastal city on the opposite side of the island). And then I stumbled upon the Fogo Island Inn, which I recognized from one of my old travel magazines, and agreed that if we could squeeze in a night or two there, I was game. I mean, it’s all a negotiation, right?
Typically when I plan a trip, I fall back on a couple travel truths that apply to almost any place in the world. One truth is that national parks are worth seeing. They’re national for a reason. I knew that if I wanted to experience the best scenery Newfoundland has to offer, Gros Morne National Park would provide that. And then St. John’s had this really artistic, gritty vibe, so it seemed like spending one night there would give us at least a good bar crawl, decent food and excellent people-watching. And then Fogo Island, that was all you, Jess, and based on an incredible accommodation.
GROS MORNE NATIONAL PARK
The Fish Shed owners, Chris (from Canada) and Analia (from Bolivia) met in South Korea as English professors, but shared an aspiration of doing today what they dreamed of as their retirement ‘passion’ project … so they bit the bullet and build this lovely property where they host guests for five months out of the year, and travel the remaining seven months. I essentially want to be them when I grow up, which is depressing because we’re the same age.
So this lodging served as our welcome into Newfoundland; five or six cottages built on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Gorgeous views. The night we arrived, whales were breaching. Wait, is that what you call it?
T: I don’t know. I just say ‘Whales blowing water out of their holes’.
J: That works.
J: Anyway, that night had the most magical sunset I’d ever seen. Those first two hours were perfect.
The interior of the cottages were beautifully done and brand new. We were actually the first people to stay in our cottage.
T: I loved the Fish Sheds. My love for them was as much about the owner’s story as it was about the interiors. Although really, for being in such a remote part of the world with little access to stylish furniture and accents, they were really well done. What is it, farmhouse chic? Insert Chip and Joanna fanboy quote here.
Each cottage had a front porch where you could crack open an Iceberg Beer (made from 20,000-year-old icebergs), and eat mini-blocks of cheese.
J: Lots of mini cheese blocks. And also, plenty of PB&J sandwiches while we were in Gros Morne National Park. People don’t come here for the food. We were lucky we found a spot with fresh bread, jam and peanut butter and that we had a small kitchen in our cottage.
T: I should add that if you go to Newfoundland, it’s a non-negotiable right of passage to get “Screeched In”. You recite an oath, take a shot of rum, recite another oath, sing and then kiss a dead, frozen cod on the lips. We were screeched in at the Anchor Pub, the center of Rocky Harbour’s nightlife. The Fish Sheds owner’s dad plays in a band at the pub. Between Irish folks songs, we did the deed. If you don’t get screeched in, you haven’t really been to Newfoundland.
J: Taking rum shots may not have been the best idea the night before our only full-day hike of the trip.
T: I was pretty hungover.
J: We took the James Callaghan Trail to the summit of Grose Morne Mountain, the province’s second tallest peak, and one of the tallest peaks along the northern end of the Appalachian Mountain range. Eight hours, 12 miles, 177 floors up with a two-hour loose rock climb up a melting glacier. But, the view and serenity at the top are worth it. We Brought lunch, lots of water, and a bottle of wine.
T: We also hiked the Tablelands, which is like a tiny desert. A tiny desert in Canada. In Canada, a tiny desert…for real. This is one of the few places on the planet where the Earth’s mantle is exposed. With little nutrients in the ground, plants can’t really grow (creating the desert feel). Great short hike, Not too much of an incline. Many good photo ops, especially near sunset.
We also did the Western Brook Pond boat tour, the most touristy thing we did on the trip. But, worthwhile. The word “pond” is deceiving. It is the largest fjord in North America with 2,000-foot rock walls carved from glaciers.
J: Agree. It was pouring that day. But, even in the rain, it was gorgeous. It helped that we had rain gear because there wasn’t enough room for everyone to sit inside on the boat. We stayed on the outer deck the entire time.
T: Next, we flew east to St. Johns. I think this New York Times article summarizes St. John’s best (so I’m not going to try). Get it, New York Times:
“This quirky city of nearly 100,000 sits at North America’s easternmost edge. Icebergs, whales and puffins pass by in summer. And the typical friendliness of Newfoundland…comes with a decidedly Irish twist — many locals speest with the thickest brogues of Galway…this attractive city where brightly colored row houses cascade down toward the harbor, with its steep streets, devotion to the arts and stirring views of the harbor and surrounding hills…calls to mind a smaller but earthier San Francisco.”
J: We did the most basic hotel. We used points to book a room at the Courtyard Marriott; there weren’t a ton of offerings in St. John’s.
T: The night life in St. John’s was great. George Street is the North Atlantic’s version of Bourbon Street. Live music, clubs and bad decisions 24/7/365. And, the Black Sheep Pub on Water Street is a can’t miss bar if its open and has music. The acoustics are incredible. Thursday nights seem busy.
St. John’s has the vibe that you get in a city like Detroit; gritty, a fierce sense of pride and a strong artistic community. The town is covered in jellybean-colored row houses. One day in the late 1970’s, one city block decided to paint its houses different colors with contrasting trims. Now, with hundreds of streets have thousands of houses painted in jellybean colors.
J: My favorite part of St. John’s was our walk up to Signal Hill.
T: Pretty historic place. The Titanic sunk 350 miles off Signal Hill. Marconi received the first trans-Atlantic wireless message here, and it was one of the few places in North America with anti-aircraft guns during WWII. Newfoundland was our first line of defense.
J: Plenty of places to sit on a rock or bench and take in a mixture of the cityscape and rugged natural coastline. We found a rocky ledge high up on the hill and just sat and soaked in the views for a while. It was pretty beautiful. And there’s a chocolate shop at the top of the hill, so there’s that.
That reminds me, we should note that we didn’t rent a car in St. John’s, which is pretty unusual for us. The town isn’t big, so we just walked around most of it, and grabbed a cab from our dinner at the Mallard Cottage (recommend!) over to George Street.
J: After St. John’s, and waiting two and half hours to catch a 90-minute ferry, we bring you Fogo Island! Located just over halfway between the equator and the North Pole.
T: The UK’s Daily Mail says it best:
“The journey to the end of the earth is daunting. It takes planning, resilience and stamina. Certainly not for the faint-hearted, the trek to Fogo Island, one of the four corners of the world – according to the Flat Earth society – involves three flights, two road trips and a ferry journey through pack ice. You have to really want to visit Fogo, a remote fishing community off the Newfoundland and Labrador coast of Canada. But, when you do finally reach this wilderness lover’s wilderness, you will never want to leave. Ever.”
J: We stayed at The Fogo Island Inn. A total splurge because of the nightly rate, but the trip wouldn’t have been the same without it. It was such a unique and cool experience. After a long day of travel we were greeted upon our arrival – like, as we stepped out of the car they waved us in and called us by name – only to be escorted to our ocean-facing room (all rooms offer water views) with an in-room wood-burning fireplace, coffee and biscuits.
The hotel was totally different than any lodging we’ve stayed in previously, since it’s technically owned by a non-profit organization made up of island residents. All the profits go right back into the community. This inn was built to single handedly save the local economy, and it worked.
One of my favorite anecdotes from the trip was at the locally sourced hotel restaurant, where I overheard one guest request a pineapple juice cocktail, to which the server sweetly and politely replied, ‘I”m sorry, we don’t grow pineapples on Fogo.’
How did Fogo Island make you feel?
T: It felt cleansing, maybe in part because we were so far away from everything. Complete with steel gray North Atlantic view and arctic wind sting. It was hard to leave, literally. You knew if you looked out at the water, there was nothing out there. One of the coolest things was being one of the first on the continent to see the sunrise.
It also felt fulfilling. People from Toronto, New York, Italy and Detroit sitting around a long table drinking, eating crab and listening to locals tell stories of fishing during storms and rescuing polar bears trapped on icebergs. No one at the table ever thought they’d be here (even the locals)…but in that moment, there’s nowhere else they’d rather be.
Really, the whole time we were in Newfoundland, the randomness didn’t get old. You know what you’re getting when you go to NYC or Florida. This…we had no idea. Barely any expectations.
J: Where does the trip rank for you among the travels we’ve taken?
T: I think it’s one of the best Canadian trips that we’ve taken.
J: Better than Banff National Park?
T: Yeah. Banff was more scenic. But, I just felt like the memories we made in Newfoundland are a little bit more vivid, I’m not sure why. Maybe the harshness of the environment, the remoteness sticks in your mind and heart a bit more.
J: Well, we do love Canada. And yet again, it didn’t disappoint.
- Fly into Deer Lake Regional Airport from Windsor via Toronto (Air Canada)
- Rent a car and drove roughly an hour to The Fish Sheds, Rocky Harbour
- Western Brook Pond boat tour
- Hike Tableland Trail
- Dinner at Merchant Warehouse Retro Cafe & Wine Bar, Bonne Bay. The staple: fried cod, slaw like there’s no tomorrow, fries and Quidi Vidi beer.
- “Screeching In” at Anchor Pub
- Grose Morne Mountain hike
- Ordered pizza for dinner and chilled on front porch
- Flight to St. John’s
- Check into the Courtyard Marriott, walk down Duckworth and Water Streets.
- Hike up to Signal Hill; enjoy the scenery
- Pre-dinner drink at Quidi Vidi Brewery. Quidi Vidi Harbour is a funky fishing village known locally as “The Gut”.
- Dinner at Mallard Cottage (Bourdain-esque joint, reservations required)
- Cab over to George Street for live music at O’Reillys.
- Breakfast at Fixed Coffee Shop on Duckworth Street. If it’s nice out, enjoy it on a bench in the park next door. Another awesome option is Rocket Bakery.
- Flight to Gander International Airport.Trevor: On 9/11, this regional airport took in 38 US-bound transatlantic flights with 6,700 passengers for five days. Google the story, its remarkable. The town has six traffic lights and ~13,000 people. A piece of the World Trade Center sits next to the security line. You likely haven’t heard of Gander, let alone its airport. But, in the 1940’s, this was the largest airport in the world. If your parents or grandparents ever travelled to Europe from the US, they’ve probably stopped here to refuel. Art deco glory. It also is where war dissidents fled during the Cold War, and was a controversial refueling stop between Moscow and Cuba. Sorry that was a rant, but I just thought it was super interesting.
- Rent car and drive to Fogo Island ferry (get there way early for your ferry ride even if it means sitting in your car for an hour)
- Arrive at Fogo Island Inn; dinner on property.
- Explore Fogo Island; hike the trails and drive around
- Eat a picnic lunch, packed by hotel.
- Lion’s Den Hiking Trail. Six-Mile loop. Remote and exceptional. Windy. Raw. With sheep flocks in the distance and natural infinity pools at the top of brown and green foothills.
- Community Crab Boil dinner with local guests and musical talent at one of the inn’s modern architectural installations.
- Hit up the bar and then take drinks back to room to start a wood stove fire.
- Breakfast at the property restaurant
- Massages on the upper deck of hotel
- Hot tub on upper deck
- Drive back toward Gander
- Dinner at a local restaurant
- Stay in an airport motel to get a few hours sleep
- Hop on the 6 a.m. flight back to Windsor via Toronto
TIPS AND SUGGESTIONS
- Pack snacks! We heavily relied on granola bars and nuts while we were in Gros Morne. Some of which I packed in my suitcase, and the rest we grabbed at rare convenience shops. Food isn’t guaranteed and restaurant hours can be unexpected.
- While you can explore the entire island by car (albeit with some long drives involved) we found it cheaper to fly. Since we departed Newfoundland from a different airport than we arrived at, there would have been significant rental car fees for returning elsewhere (you’re essentially paying to fly an employee out and then drive your car back to its original airport).
- Fogo Island Inn typically requires a three-night stay minimum, but we got lucky and were able to snag a two-night stay. We called and emailed the hotel to check, as the website didn’t show availability, and then built our trip around our Fogo Island Inn reservation dates.
Note: All content and sources accurate as of July 2018, when the travel occurred.