Newfoundland and Labrador: Where Cosmopolitan Meets Ancient History

Explore the 565-million-year-old mysteries of Newfoundland and Labrador.

By Hannah Lott-Schwartz
Published 18 Feb 2020, 10:49 GMT

The sun’s first beams of the day spread warmth over the cool north in Newfoundland and Labrador before they cast their glow anywhere else in North America. Here, the rays touch down on the earth while the rest of the continent remains in darkness—even if for just a few moments. And as the province awakens, so too do its bits of historical magic: the colourful houses along Jellybean Row that line steep hills and rugged coastlines, the mysteries of early life that for centuries—millennia even—laid hidden below the sea.

"It's a fascinating microcosm of a province that is in transition from its traditional fisheries to now an expanding urban population," says National Geographic videographer Spencer Millsap, who set off for Newfoundland and Labrador to explore its enchanting capital and discover its most recently awakened giants at Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve. "But Newfoundlanders are their own breed and will find a way to adapt as they always have in such a place." With more than 18,000 miles of coastline, Newfoundland and Labrador has a special connection to the sea.

Home to Many

Vikings, Maritime Archaic Indians, and Palaeo-Eskimo, and the English, French, and Irish have each claimed Newfoundland and Labrador as hunting ground or home at some point. Today the province’s capital, St. John’s, lives on as North America’s oldest English-founded settlement, with some five hundred years of history informing its character. Though small and on Newfoundland Island, separated from most of the province, the city has a youthful, cosmopolitan feel, particularly in contrast to the peaceful isolation found throughout Newfoundland and Labrador.

With more than 18,000 miles of coastline, there's a special connection to the sea in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Photograph by Spencer Millsap

Spotlight on History

Start your day before daylight breaks at Cape Spear Lighthouse, the most easterly point on the entire continent, where you’ll be the first to see the sun peek over the horizon. The lighthouse is Newfoundland and Labrador’s oldest, standing for nearly two centuries and preserving not only maritime history but also family history. Over a span of some 150 years, generations of Cantwells kept the light on, and their door remains open during visiting hours, inviting you to step inside and experience how 19th-century lighthouse keepers lived. While at the historic site, wander the WWII-era citadel and underground passages, remnants of coastal defence battery Fort Cape Spear.

Walk to Remember

Walk forward in time just a bit on your way up to Signal Hill, where famed Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic signal. Cabot Tower stands at the historic site today—which, overlooking the harbour, served as a key location for defence for three centuries—but really, Signal Hill is all about the journey. There are myriad trails connecting parking lots at the hill’s base and top. Tour the most popular, historic, and challenging one by parking at the summit and following signs for North Head Trail. The 16th-century path descends steeply at times across picturesque boardwalk stairs that lead to a footpath, hugging the coastal cliffs some 20 stories above the sea and winding into the harbour along a rocky passage dubbed the Narrows and through the famed Battery, where those sweet-looking, colourful wooden homes dot the way. While enjoying the epic views, look for icebergs and humpback whales, both of which are known to take up residency just offshore in the summer months.

Where Land was Once Sea

The rugged landscape of Newfoundland and Labrador just begs to be explored.
Photograph by Spencer Millsap

It took 565 million years for Mistaken Point to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site—but in 2016, it did just that. More than four miles of jagged, narrow coastal cliffs comprise Mistaken Point, where magnificently preserved fossils—10,000 of them!—are tucked into high-hanging ledges that were once part of a sea floor that would have been found much closer to areas of South America and North Africa had the continental plates never shifted. The ecological reserve can be accessed only by guided tour, starting with a 45-minute walk to the site. Once there, you’ll don special booties to help preserve the surfaces but are otherwise free to admire the important discoveries, tracing your fingertips across multicellular fossils that range in length from barely a few inches to nearly six feet and are the oldest found anywhere on Earth. Age aside, they mark a significant turning point in our planet’s history: the moment when life—which was dominated by microbe evolution for three billion years—got complex.

It's a unique experience, says Millsap, and a must for anyone looking to understand an important puzzle piece in the great story of life on Earth. "Rubbing your fingers along the rigid edges of the first large complex lifeforms known, you immediately shift into what poet Don McKay describes as 'deep time encounters,'" he says. "It's almost a trance-like state that puts you in a limbo between your current surroundings and what it must have been like 565 million years ago, the time that has elapsed, and all that time that led up to their creation."

Where to Stay

Among the many hotels boasting brand recognition and familiarity, Murray Premises Hotel stands out for its home in a National Historic Site of 19th-century buildings. Rendell-Shea Manor boasts a unique elegance and location—not to mention the bright, full breakfasts served daily. The historic heritage home has been carefully restored to its 19th-century stateliness and is reportedly the only home in the area to have survived the Great Fire of 1892. Situated in the heart of St. John’s historic district, two Victorian houses built in 1902 comprise The Roses Heritage Inn, where decks offer views of both the city and the harbour.

Where to Eat and Drink

The 10,000-year-old icebergs floating off the coast of St. John’s and down what’s been dubbed Iceberg Alley have more than a passive aesthetic role at Quidi Vidi Brewing—in fact, they’re one of the beer’s main ingredients. The brewery, which sits just outside of downtown St. John’s and is open for tours, harvests water from the glacial breakoff giants for its Iceberg Beer, a light, crisp lager packaged in a crystal blue bottle.

Don’t mistake St. John’s for a sleepy little town. It’s cute, yes, but carries a wild nightlife scene (with some spots staying open until 3 a.m.) concentrated on George Street, which boasts some two dozen bars and lounges, loads of live music like Celtic fiddles and blues, and an energy that may just carry you through to sunrise the next day.

Hidden Gem

Canada’s east coast is known for its seafood, and Newfoundland and Labrador for its fusion of food and culture. Join an excursion with Cod Sounds to forage in woods and on beaches before preparing heritage foods around an open fire for a traditional boil-up, learning the history of the land and people through their cuisine. If the hour drive to the foraging location is outside of your limits, you can still join the Cod Sounds Cookery School in St. John’s to prep a meal.

Know Before You Go

A number of major airlines service St. John’s with destinations throughout Canada (Toronto and Montreal, 3.5 hours) and Europe (Dublin, London, and Gatwick, 5 hours). You can take the Labrador Marine ferry at St. Barbe on the Northern Peninsula, connecting to Blanc Sablon in Québec, just minutes from the Labrador border. Temperatures never get too hot here, with summer averages hovering around 61°F and winters dropping to exactly freezing point.

Hannah-Lott Schwartz is a California based travel writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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