Settled by the Sea

Article excerpt


"A winter burial used to be an arduous affair," explained my driver, Greg Day, as we slowly pulled past a cemetery with neatly white-fenced plots. "After warming the ground by burning boughs and rubber tires, all the young men of the village would be conscripted to help dig the grave, sometimes through three feet of solid-frozen earth. It was an exhausting, whole-day event." He drew in his breath at the end of the last sentence, as Newfoundlanders often do, seeming to emphasize the point.

His simple statement sums up so much about Newfoundland, a giant rock at the easternmost edge of North America. Though now one contiguous landmass, Newfoundland is really the by-product of varying geological forces. Amazingly, fossils on the southern tip of its Avalon peninsula at Mistaken Point link it to northern Africa, while other parts of the island are risen ocean floor or an extension of the Appalachians. Though the island possesses fish-rich rivers and forests, if you lose sight of the sea, you will seldom encounter people or habitation.

Three hours out of Toronto by air, Newfoundland comes into view. At first it seems a gray-green, somewhat duller version of Ireland, another northerly island in the Atlantic. But since it lacks the caress of the Gulf Stream, harsher features prevail. Rocks are more exposed, and vegetation is stunted. And I soon found out why natives don't carry umbrellas: They are easily ripped to shreds by the volatile and unpredictable winds.

But as in most extreme environments, there are surprises. It turns out that the Vikings had good reason for calling the rocky island Vineland, for the whole island is covered with "little grapes." Berries, to be exact. Berries of every persuasion--blueberries, cranberries, partridgeberries, bakeapples, currants, dewberries, and brambleberries. In August and September, the natives reap a rich harvest from this bounty.

The last province (with Labrador) to join Canada, in 1949, Newfoundland is inhabited by an independent and proud bunch. I found them charmingly insistent about the correct pronunciation of their beloved homeland. "Newfoundland, rhymes with understand" is a catchy phrase they employ as a learning tool. Without knowing it, most Americans pronounce the province "newfunlund," with the accent on the middle syllable. Newfoundlanders stress the last syllable and say land the way it should be, not lund. You will be gently corrected until you get it right, which will probably take the better part of your trip.

Other than Corner Brook in western Newfoundland, the capital, St. John's, is the only real city on the island. It claims one of the oldest streets in North America and possesses a sought-after port. When gale winds are raging on the high seas, St. John's harbor is a haven to merchant and cruise ships alike.

Confusing St. John's with St. John, New Brunswick, can be a costly mistake. It's not uncommon that a traveler bound for St. John unknowingly ends up stranded at St. John's airport. I've been told that Memorial University, located in St. John's, has a very high faculty turnover rate, probably related to the lack of upscale malls and amenities on the island. That leaves St. John's and Newfoundland for the hardiest and kindest of souls.

I came here to visit eastern Newfoundland and to learn about the upcoming celebration, the five hundredth anniversary of the landfall of Italian navigator and explorer John Cabot, a.k.a. Giovanni Cabeto. On the first leg of my trip, I stayed at St. John's Hotel Newfoundland. If you are on the right side, the rooms have a spectacular view of the harbor. Air a delightful breakfast, head chef Steve Watson explained about some of the hotel's regional cuisine. "If we took the Jigg's Dinner off the menu, the natives would probably riot," said Watson. …