Despite being an easy drive from St. John’s, I hadn’t spent a good deal of time on the Irish Loop until recently. It helps when you actually have a car and/or a driver. (I do drive, believe it or not. I just don’t wanna.)
The Irish Loop is literally a loop around the Avalon Peninsula, aptly named because of its Irish history stretching back some 400 years.Irish settlers started arriving back in the early 17th century, and a purely Gaelic settlement was set up in Renews. This population grew until the Loop was dominated by Irish Catholics, unlike the rest of the province which was largely English Protestant.
A lot of surnames in this area are Irish. But it’s not just the history — the landscape similarities between Ireland and this part of Newfoundland are striking. What must those Irish folks have thought when they first came ashore here? They were greeted by treeless green barrens, beaches shrouded in fog, and dramatic coastline. And if weather shapes the people, it’s no wonder Newfoundlanders and Irishmen are hardy people. One minute you’re standing in fog as thick as pea soup; the next you’re being burned alive by the sun.
(I can testify to that. My sunburn was unreal.)
The route: Start from St. John’s, head to Bay Bulls -> Witless Bay -> Cape Broyle -> Ferryland -> Aquaforte -> Renews -> Trepassey -> Portugal Cove South -> Return (or wander)
Don’t be afraid to get off the loop, though. There are a lot of gorgeous coves and communities to pop into it.
Whale and bird watching at Witless Bay Ecological Reserve
Newfoundland’s bird is the puffin. They’re those goofy little seabirds that flitter across the surface of the ocean, intermittently diving in deep to feed on fish. They come to the shores of Newfoundland every summer to make adorable babies.
Did you know that puffins mate for life, and they return to the same burrows every year? Most romantic bird ever.
The Witless Bay Ecological Reserve is where you can see the birds’ homes up close. They reserve is dubbed the “bird islands,” because when you approach them (by boat), you’ll be just a little overwhelmed by their numbers.
Don’t look up with your mouth open. (Popular skipper joke — groan.)
You’ll need to hop on a boat tour out of Bay Bulls. I personally prefer the Molly Bawn Boat Tours because their boats are much smaller than the other big players (meaning you won’t have to compete for the same views as 50 other people).
Come at the end of July for the best whale watching opportunities. When the capelin starts rolling in, the humpbacks go into a feeding frenzy, and the puffins gorge themselves so much on fish that they can’t fly away.
Kayak with Stan Cook in Cape Broyle
*UPDATE: STAN COOK HAS ENDED THEIR KAYAKING TOURS. :( I still think kayaking in this area is one of the best things you can do, though. So give The Outfitters a shot.
I’ve done this kayak trip twice now, but most recently I hopped on the longer 4+ hour tour with Stan Cook himself. He’s your classic Newfoundlander, full of jokes and attitude, and he knows the area around Cape Broyle like the back of his hand.
Stan led us deep out into the bay, through sea arches and inside caves. I nearly fainted inside the Dragon’s Throat — the swell of the waves creates an eerie roar. We paddled through throngs of gulls and puffins, and I briefly held a starfish in my hand.
It was a long slog; not having done any sort of strength training in a year, my arms nearly fell off. But I’d do it again, in a heartbeat.
See some of the Earth’s oldest fossils at Mistaken Point
Newfoundland’s latest UNESCO World Heritage site is the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve. I’ve written about the 565-million-year-old fossils in-depth, including how to book your guide.
Even if you’re not much of a fossil fanatic, walking down around this unique coastal landscape is pretty awesome. There aren’t too many places in the world where you can walk on the floor of an ancient ocean and literally see the wave ripples in the rock.
You HAVE to do a guided tour, though. Book in advance.
Watch for whales at St. Vincent’s Beach
Alas, I did not see any whales at St. Vincent’s Beach. But I could hear their spouts somewhere through the thick fog, even as a child and her mother made loud whale calls from the beach and the waves crashed loudly all around me.
There’s a huge cliff drop-off not far from the beachfront, meaning whales can get in incredibly close to shore. If it’s a clear day, it’s the closest you’ll get to a humpback without riding on its back.
Have a picnic at the Ferryland Lighthouse
The first time I did this experience, I was too hungover to enjoy it much. I did it again two weeks ago, and despite the fog hampering my views, it was pretty damned amazing.
You need to reserve a spot at the Ferryland lighthouse way in advance. Like, possibly months. Park your car in Ferryland and walk a quick 20-minutes to the lighthouse — a monumental red-and-white renovated building oozing those simple dreams of living as a lighthouse keeper all alone on a peninsula.
I’d make an excellent hermit.
Meals are $27 each, and you have three different options (including vegetarian). You’ll be given a sweet picnic basket filled with goodies, and a waterproof blanket that you can spread somewhere in the grass. On a clear day, you may have whale visitors or even some other unusual characters. We’re convinced we saw walruses.
See the Colony of Avalon archaeological site
Growing up in Newfoundland, I never cared much for the history. I don’t know why I didn’t care — perhaps European history seemed so much more exciting than a bunch of ‘ol farts catching fish. Anyway.
Now that I’m old and wise, I can appreciate those little historical tidbits more. At the Colony of Avalon (located just at the path entrance to the Ferryland lighthouse), there’s a little museum showcasing artifacts dug up from the fishing colony settled in the 1600s. It’s actually pretty darn neat. There are vessels and pieces of glassware from all over Europe — even the Netherlands.
But the coolest part: you can visit a reconstructed kitchen from that time, and there’s something called a Colonial Cook Off. Every week, the Colonial Cook Off website features bizarre recipes from the 17th century, inviting people to try them out for themselves at home. AND if you’re visiting the kitchen, you can even watch the magic happen.
Hike in La Manche Provincial Park
There are a number of hikes around La Manche, including memorable trails to Doctor’s Cove as well as the suspension bridge. On my last visit, I came across a happy little seal playing in the water beneath the bridge.
There are a few good swimming holes around, and if you come across any stone foundations, that just means you’re treading in ghost town territory. These trails are part of the East Coast Trail network.
Visit an old-school print shop in Tors Cove
I hadn’t heard of Running the Goat until very recently. The Legendary Coasts folks introduced me to this amazing little print shop in scenic Tors Cove, run by an artist named Marnie. She’s the owner of several vintage printing presses, including an iron hand press from England (dated in the 1830s), and a Heidelberg windmill press.
Marnie took the time to show me around her shop, and explained how the presses work. It’s THE place to buy Newfoundland souvenirs — original prints, cards, handmade books, and fine trade books. I pocketed an incredibly hilarious children’s book by former CODCO alumnus Andy Jones and hightailed it out of there before I could buy everything. Paper porn.
Give yourself a few days to complete this drive.
It’s a long one, and you’ll wanna take your time. Believe me.
Stay: On my last visit, I stayed at the Edge of the Avalon Inn — a really great, casual spot with a fine kitchen. If you have a special request, the chef will likely take you up on it (if you ask nicely).