Run your own (cape) race

In 1949, Newfoundland (“New-fen-LAND”) became the 10th and final province to join the nation of Canada. But if you ask the locals, they will tell you that Canada joined them. Things like this tell you a lot about Newfoundland.

The island of Newfoundland sits on the edge of what was once the most fertile fishing ground in the world, the Grand Banks, which teemed with a seemingly endless supply of cod. However years of relentless overfishing caused the industry to collapse, and in 1992 a moratorium was placed on fishing that still stands today. In one day, more than 30,000 people lost their jobs and Newfoundland lost its identity.

However, Newfoundlanders are a tough breed and tourism is one of the ways the province is recovering. Fishermen who spent their life on the water are now at the helms of whale-watching boats and old oceanfront cottages have become gourmet restaurants or plush B&Bs. CapeRace Cultural Adventures is at the forefront of this rebirth. This self-guided tour is one of a kind. Racers are supplied with a car, the entry code to three impeccably restored heritage houses around the east coast of the island and a customised guidebook put together by owner Ken Sooley, based on where he rates you on the ‘eco-culture’ scale. There’s no set itinerary beyond which town you need to be in and the book is filled with general information, tips, local insights and funny stories. The rest is up to you.

Our trip is divided into three stages with three nights at each town – St John’s, Heart’s Delight and Bonavista. St John’s is a compact, bustling seaport that feels more like Dublin than Vancouver. In Jellybean Row, steep streets run down towards the harbour, lined with brightly coloured Victorian terrace houses. It’s a show of defiance to the cold, grey weather that envelops the city much of the year. The province has strong ties to Ireland (the accent sounds noticeably Gallic) and the George Street area, which allegedly has more bars per square foot than anywhere in North America, buzzes with live music every night.

Our home here is Hipditch House in The Battery, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in St John’s. It’s a wood-panelled, Pinterest board dream, chock-full of maritime kitsch, squishy pillows and numerous clocks (none of which tell the right time). Windows wrap around half of the kitchen and living area, giving fantastic views over the harbour and making the house feel a bit like a ship. There’s even a resident cat sunning himself on the steps.

We potter around downtown, venture out to Cape Spear Lighthouse (the most easterly point of North America), walk the trails around Signal Hill and marvel at the vast Gothic cathedral on aptly named Church Hill. Newfoundlanders love a church and every town has at least one large house of worship surrounded by rambling graveyards. We drive down to Bay Bulls for a whale-watching cruise with O’Brien’s Tours. There aren’t any whales, but thousands of seabirds dot the rocky islands including puffins, easily the cutest bird in the world. Puffins are actually better swimmers than flyers and have trouble getting out of the water. I enjoy watching them flap earnestly across the surface trying to take off. We even spot one of Newfoundland’s 120,000 moose (one for every five people), loping across the road one afternoon, entirely unperturbed by our presence.

In the charmingly named Heart’s Delight (just down the road from Heart’s Content and Heart’s Desire) racers stay in the EJ Sooley House, where members of Ken’s family grew up. It’s like stepping into the 1930s, complete with portraits of the royal family on every wall. Ken’s cousin, Elizabeth and husband Jerry live a couple of houses down, and Jerry cheerfully welcomes us at the door our first afternoon to explain how things work and invite us to a party the next night. The party turns out to be a thoroughly raucous affair with a live band playing traditional songs and a ceremonial ‘screeching in’ for the Australians. Those not lucky enough to be born in Newfoundland are welcomed into the fold by kissing a cod, drinking a shot of local rum and eating a capelin, a small dried fish that is a much-loved local snack. It tastes like cat food.

Newfoundland is possibly the iceberg capital of the world and in Bonavista we hit the jackpot. We’d spotted a small one a few days earlier off the coast of Harbour Grace, where Amelia Earhart took off for her solo trans-Atlantic flight. But it wasn’t quite as ‘icebergy’ as I’d imagined and we spent half an hour puzzling over it (a boat? a pontoon?). In Bonavista I’m ecstatic to see three icebergs bobbing in the harbour, visible from our kitchen window at the Thomas Mouland House. And on the drive up to Bonavista Lighthouse we come upon a monster berg with a huge wave-shaped break carved out of the middle. If any drift close enough to shore the CapeRace Cultural Adventures team can hack off a chunk and pop it in the freezer, so you can chill your cocktails with ice that’s been around for thousands of years.

Then there’s the food. In Heart’s Delight, Jerry catches and cooks the largest lobsters I’ve ever seen, right in our own kitchen. At Fisher’s Loft in Trinity (where The Shipping News was filmed) the chef is so concerned about flavor, you’re asked not to wear perfume in the dining room. Mallard Cottage in the village of Quidi Vidi (“Kitty Vitty”) just outside St John’s serves local produce on an ever-changing menu, including some surprisingly delicious dandelion fritters. Neil’s Yard in Bonavista seems to be the only place in Newfoundland doing espresso coffee. We lunch at the Bonavista Social Club, a self-sufficient farm and café, on the final day and eat a brownie so good I can still taste it months later.

The journey is not without its difficulties. We get lost – a lot. At one point, a road Google Maps identified as a highway turns out to be a gravel logging road. On one long and hungry day we can’t find anywhere to eat so are reduced to a service station hot dog (the guide book does warn you to bring snacks). It’s bitterly cold. But that is part of the fun. The CapeRace Cultural Adventures tour is what you make it and the experiences we enjoy the most aren’t the ones you’d expect. The unexpectedly beautiful drives, the conversations with people in local stores, waking up each day to the crackling of icebergs offshore – it’s an endlessly entertaining adventure through one of the most beautiful parts of the world. Just bring a warm coat.

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