There were two important reasons why I needed to head out to the Great Northern Peninsula at the end of July: 1) I’m an Iceberg Ambassador for Newfoundland and Labrador tourism (cool job title, right?), and most of the province’s icebergs this year were concentrated around the GNP; and 2) I really, really needed some guidebook fodder. As I’ve gotten back into writing my guidebook, the Great Northern Peninsula remained one area I hadn’t fully explored. It would be shameful to write a guidebook about Newfoundland without ever having been to L’Anse Aux Meadows.
So I put out the call to Facebook, and ye gods, it delivered. A few days later I was hopping aboard an old Saab convertible with my friend, Emily. (We were more like acquaintances at this point. But four days in a car together pretty well made us BFFs.)
For four days we toured the West Coast and the GNP — which is not nearly enough time driving from St. John’s, let me tell you (it took us 10 hours to drive back from Bear Cove). But everything went so according to plan, so smoothly, it ended up being one of the highlights of my summer.
This blog post doesn’t discuss Gros Morne National Park, as the park requires its own space. You can read some of that content here.
I’m writing these highlights in the order in which you’d visit, driving North on the Viking Trail from Gros Morne National Park to the St. Anthony area.
Shallow Bay Beach
Shallow Bay Beach in Cow Head is about a 40-minute drive from Rocky Harbour (and is still a part of the park — but you can easily visit it from the highway). Me and Emily arrived here early in the morning, when not another soul was around. It’s a huge stretch of sandy, pristine beach giving way to shallow water that warms easily in the hot summer months. There’s a nearby campground with facilities as well, including two oTENTis if you feel like glamming it up a bit.
Arches Provincial Park
This park is home to the Arches, a gorgeous natural archway created from tidal action. They’re super easy to reach from the highway, and make for a nice 30-minute stop on your drive. If you come early enough in the morning you’ll have the arches almost to yourself. Get dat Instagram shot.
Entente Cordiale Inn, Portland Creek
So, this isn’t really an attraction. But Emily had to check out Entente Cordiale for her guidebook, so I came along for the ride (lol obviously), and we were delighted by this place. It’s a secluded beachfront heritage inn, located right on the water. You can enjoy the beach day or night (beach fire!), and the sunset from the dining room is reputably spectacular.
I think what sealed the deal for me was impromptu banter we had with the owner and the staff. Quintessential Newfoundland, in an amazing setting. It’d make for a nice weekend retreat, and rooms start as low as $89/night.
The Viking Trail
The drive from Rocky Harbour to St. Anthony along the Viking Trail is worth the trip itself. To the left: the sparkling blue waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence; to the right: lush rolling hills and mountains. The route mostly hugs the gulf, until you turn inland to reach St. Anthony. But it’s pure beauty the entire way, taking you through small fishing villages and quiet towns, and so many worthwhile stops are right off the highway (including hiking trails — none of which we had time to explore).
If you have binoculars, I suggest bringing them along. On a clear day, you can see right across the Straits to the Big Land (Labrador). The Point Amour Lighthouse is an unbelievably beautiful sight even from across the way.
The Thrombolites, Flower’s Cove
The Thrombolites are 650 million-year-old critically endangered fossil structures, resembling the earliest forms of life on earth. They were the only known forms of life on earth 3.5 billion to 650 million years ago. They’re often referred to as “living rocks,” and the only other place in the world where you can see them is Australia. I don’t even know geology, but I know that’s pretty freaking cool.
There’s a small walking path that goes down to the thrombolites in Flower’s Cove. (You can’t miss it — there’s a red covered bridge with an enormous sign.) You can walk right up to them! (And on them. It’s best to see them at low tide.)
Skin Boot Church, Flower’s Cove
Its official name is St. Barnabas Anglican Church, but it’s more commonly referred to as the Skin Boot Church because of the many pairs of sealskin boots that were sold to aid in building the church. It was started in 1920. It’s not the most beautiful of churches on the island, but the history makes it worth visiting.
Northland Discovery Boat Tours, St. Anthony
And the main event! Seeking icebergs in St. Anthony, I reached out to Northland Discovery Boat Tours to see if there were any bergs around. We just so happened to show up at the same time as a mountain of a berg.
The tour was about 2.5 hours, with Captain Terry Simms at the helm and Steve Shepherd guiding us along. Someone had radioed the captain to say there were orcas in the area, but alas, we didn’t see any. We did see some feeding humpbacks though (generally a telltale sign that there are no orcas around). The humpbacks flipped us the tail a few times, but then they did something I had never seen before: they used their enormous mouths to corral fish into the cliffside to swallow them by the mouthfuls. It was incredible.
Our final stop: the iceberg. We circled it several times; it changed shapes and hues and size as we went. It was the most beautiful iceberg I have ever seen in my life, up close. It’s $60.90 for the tour; I recommend reserving in advance
The Great Viking Feast Experience, St. Anthony
Riding on the high of a perfect boating experience, Emily and I opted for the cheesiest, most delightful way to end our day: viking dinner theatre. The whole thing takes place inside a reconstructed viking hall, and a court of law takes place while you feast. Basically, you can drag your family before the Lawspeaker, air your grievances, and have the audience decide the punishment. (One person was punished for trying to book a car rental with an expired drivers license.)
It was cheesy to the extreme, but we loved every second of it. The food was nothing spectacular, but I’d do it again. It was $56, along with the half litre of wine I chugged in true viking style.
Norstead Viking Village, L’Anse Aux Meadows
It makes sense to pair Norstead with your visit to L’Anse Aux Meadows (it’s not the actual UNESCO site). It’s a recreation of a viking village and port of trade, with costumed interpreters and plenty of interactive things to do along the way. The most impressive part might be the full-scale replica of the viking ship Snorri, which was actually used to sail across the North Atlantic. There’s a Chieftain’s Hall, a church, and a blacksmith’s shop.
During our visit, some interpreters sat outside roasting bread on an open fire. Other women were inside using a weaving loom (one girl had sneakers beneath her period costume — it threw me off). Later, one of the men invited us to throw axes. I would have liked a little more interaction from the interpreters, but it was fun overall. It’s $10 to enter.
L’Anse Aux Meadows UNESCO World Heritage Site
I can’t believe it took me 32 years to reach L’Anse Aux Meadows. I came close so many times.
About 1,000 years ago, a Norse expedition from Greenland arrived on the GNP. Leif Eiriksson was the leader, and with him came 60-90 people who set up a large settlement of turf buildings used as a base for exploring the coast. They spent maybe 20 years around the area, in search of hardwood and wine (they called the area Vinland, and went as far as New Brunswick to collect wild grapes).
The operation was too costly to keep running though, and eventually the vikings burned the settlement and headed back home. But Leif Eiriksson’s explorations lived on in oral traditions and sagas, and researchers believed there might be a settlement somewhere between Labrador and North Carolina (pretty broad, right?). In 1960, a Norwegian writer and explorer Helge Ingstad came to visit and a local led him to an “old Indian camp”…which turned out to be the remains of the Norse camp, confirmed with some artefacts left behind. It’s a pretty amazing story.
Start your visit at the Visitor Centre (you kinda have to anyway), and then walk the boardwalk to the site. There are plaques on the ground to let you know where the original buildings were found — but the main attraction is the recreated village (much like Norstead). Eiriksson could not have picked a better spot: the Straits before him, the mountains behind him, and wide open plains all around him. It’s stark and beautiful, and surely must have reminded the vikings of home. It’s $11.70 to visit.
New in 2018: Escape Quest has launched a viking-themed escape room right on the historic site! It is SO MUCH FUN. You can read about my experience here.
Dinner at The Norsemen
Dining at The Norsemen Restaurant is the best way to end your explorations around L’Anse Aux Meadows and Norstead. This restaurant serves some fresh and tasty seafood, and lobster is their specialty. I went with the scallops and seared cod paired with fried capers and pork scrunchions (of course). There’s a decent wine list, and they sell West Coast Brewing beer here. If you can, request a window table. There’s a sweet sunset view, and we picked up the table’s binoculars and had fun spying on people in their rowboats.
Some Things to Keep in Mind
Road tripping around the GNP is a unique experience, due to its isolated nature and wildness. It really is a place where you want to slow down and enjoy the ride. (There is a lot of driving. It’s four hours of driving just from Rocky Harbour to L’Anse Aux Meadows.)
Go with the flow
Emily and I were often confused about the instructions and directions offered from locals. For example, we were due to crash at Emily’s friend’s mother’s house for two nights, and all we knew was that she lived in Bear Cove and it was near Flower’s Cove. Every time Emily asked for clarity, the response generally was, “You’ll find it.”
All was quiet as we were driving into Bear Cove — the only sign of life was a woman hanging laundry on the line. Emily pulled over to call her friend’s mother, and I joked that she was probably the one hanging out clothes. Upon answering the phone, Mrs. Coles said, “Oh, I just saw you drive past!” It was the woman hanging out clothes on the line.
At another point in our trip, Emily mentioned befriending a man named Terry on her first visit to Gros Morne National Park many years ago. She had stayed in his accommodations (now sold to someone else), and he had treated her to moose roast and beer. He had a sweet little dog named Scrubs. I said, “Let’s go see if he’s still around!” We had no idea if he was still alive, but hey, we could try!
We drove around Norris Point until Emily found his place. As we drove down the driveway, a white-haired man and a little dog appeared in the doorway of a shed. “It’s him!” she said. After a quick reintroduction, Terry remembered who she was and invited us in for some cider. We ended up spending a few hours in his shed, along with Scrubs, trading stories and having a laugh. Terry once temporarily adopted a baby seal that made his way up onto Terry’s fishing stage (there are photos on the wall to prove it). In the same breath, Terry will tell you about how he can make the best seal roast ever.
We were reluctant to leave, but it was kismet. We stopped for food and I overheard a young solo woman telling the woman at the front cash that she was going to sleep in her car because she didn’t want to keep driving in the dark (a wise call — the moose are lethal on the roads). I mentioned this to Emily, and before we knew it, we had a new friend named Olivia who crashed on our hotel floor that night. We even had the extra camping gear to lend her.
All this is just a really, really long-winded way of saying go with the flow. One of the most beautiful things about travelling in rural Newfoundland — especially on the west coast — is the opportunity to meet characters at every turn. Ditch your fancy dinner plans, and get to know them.
Put your moose eyes on!
Amazingly, Emily and I did not see a single moose the entire time we were on the GNP. But they are everywhere, and they pose a real threat to traffic. For the love of pete, keep your eyes open, and make sure your travel buddy is on keen alert too. Moose accidents are common, and sometimes lethal.
If I Were Doing This Trip Again…
I’d give myself the bare minimum of a week, if I intend on spending time in Gros Morne as well. (10 days or more is most ideal!)
Other than Gros Morne, I’d spend a night or two somewhere halfway up the Peninsula, perhaps in Flower’s Cove, and then a few nights around St. Anthony and Raleigh. The Burnt Cape Cabins in Raleigh were impressive, and if you befriend the owner, he’ll likely take you on adventures. He also leads food foraging tours, and runs a pretty popular restaurant specializing in local grub.
We met several people on this trip who told us it was actually cheaper to fly into the Deer Lake airport than into St. John’s. So if you’re planning your trip to Newfoundland, take alternative airports into consideration.