Originally published in The Vancouver Province and Windsor Star, August 9, 2009. 

The fog rolls thick and slow over the hills, whiting out the wooden buildings of town and even the road on a chilly, rainy stretch of coast along Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula.

Given the conditions, we miss the turn for the Ferryland lighthouse, where we’re due to share a romantic picnic for two — ideally outside with whales and 10,000-year-old icebergs floating by.

But today’s weather doesn’t look anything like the brochures. There’s no lighthouse in sight against the grey sky. A sign points up a gravel road. It advises we park and prepare for a 20-minute walk. We cinch our rain hoods. This better be good.

Half an hour later, we trudge pass a second parking lot, and realize we’re in trouble. The real walk starts now — a long uphill gravel stretch disappearing into a ridge of trees.

We’re hungry and wet, cold and miserable, and by now barely speaking. We don’t say it, but we both think it: What on earth made us think this drizzly, sea-thrashed province would be the perfect place for a romantic holiday?

Soaked and defeated, we finally see a white tower in the mist. We despair they’re closed, figuring no sensible tourist would venture out in such a squall. We’re braced to go back — at this point, even all the way home. Then we open the door.

A warm puff of fresh baked bread greets us. It’s toasty from the ovens. The honey-coloured wood floors and walls gleam. There’s a beautiful basket of lemons on the counter, and crusty loaves cooling on racks. Women in floured aprons come out to greet us.

We exchange glances, overcome with relief. We’re not just out of the rain, we’re home. We relax into the comfort of Newfoundland hospitality as they prepare our gourmet picnic — rustic brie and ham and vegetarian sandwiches on thick homemade bread, lemony pasta salad and chocolate ganache cake. To complete the serene scene, a two-week-old baby sleeps in the arms of one woman, while the others gather and coo. A lone iceberg bobs outside in the mist.

Owner Jill Curran commiserates about the weather as she fixes us steaming mugs and jokes about life here (“Fort McMurray is the second-largest city in Newfoundland,” she quips). This native Newfoundlander felt the pull to return after living abroad. She started the business in 2003 and has been restoring the circa-1870 lighthouse to its former glory after it sat empty for 20 years.

“This was not what I thought I would be doing, but the building was empty for so long and I always thought, what a shame,” she recalls.

Curran comes from a long line of lighthouse keepers: Her great-grandfather, John William Costello, was one of Ferryland’s last keepers. Today, the building also hosts readings, art classes and music. We linger as long as we can, full and warm. On the way back, the rain pounds harder. We’re soaked, but this time, glowing.

Our trek to the lighthouse seems an apt metaphor for an outsider’s experience of Newfoundland itself. It takes effort to get under the province’s hard crust — it’s often stereotyped as a rugged and windswept rock — but the rewards are rich. There are many hidden jewels and the people are warm, inviting and full of life. In fact, we slowly discover, St. John’s and the surrounding towns of the Avalon Peninsula are the ideal setting for a little romance on the Rock.

Cheered by our picnic, we set out to explore St. John’s, which we discover has come a long way from its reputation as a gritty port city, said to be home to the most bars per capita. It’s still an authentic Atlantic harbour town, but there’s a new gloss of sophistication that makes it an enchanting retreat.

St. John’s is Canada’s oldest city — named Sao Joao by the Portuguese in 1519 and annexed by the British in 1583 — and Newfoundland its youngest province. Those contrasts play out throughout our visit.

Tucked into some of the weather-worn storefronts along Water and Duckworth Streets are a string of hot new shops. Browse through Tval’s soap store, duck into Posie Row for sweet frocks, Living Planet for edgy Ts or August and Lotta for cutting-edge Icelandic couture.

Uptown, the city’s oft fogged-in streets are brightened by wooden paintbox houses that line the roads in a jellybean row. St. John’s houses, the tourism board notes, are as colourful as the people who live in them.

Dining in St. John’s today is far removed from jiggs dinners — traditional hearty meals built around a pickled salt beef and vegetable stew. Several sophisticated restaurants thrive in and around the city, some earning national acclaim.

Among them is Atlantica, a 20-minute drive away in Portugal Cove, where the sunsets stream through the large portrait windows and each white-linen table has a view. Atlantica was named Canada’s best new restaurant by EnRoute magazine in 2007. Jeremy Charles, its St. John’s-raised chef, offers “refined rustic” dishes that lean local with Newfoundland salt cod brandade and Atlantic salmon tartare.

Downtown, you can catch another harbour sunset from the windows of Portobello’s, a classic Italian bistro. Or break into the Vault Restaurant and Champagne Bar set in a former bank (Vault’s sommelier now keeps fine vintages in the safes), which plates lobster and braised caribou. Blue On Water offers seafood and organic vegetables with a twist, like scallop crepes. After dinner, sip an Iceberg Vodka martini — made with melted iceberg water — at The Martini Bar.

End the day in one of the few downtown historic houses that escaped the city’s great fire in 1892, a blaze that levelled two-thirds of the town. The Rendell-Shea Manor B&B on Cochrane St. was saved because it was near Government House and city officials feared the fire would spread. Today, the antique-filled inn, named for former St. John’s Mayor George Shea, provides an intimate oasis steps from the old city centre. Gourmet breakfasts in the polished wood dining room feature local specialties like partridgeberry pancakes.

Early-bird lovebirds can start the next day with a visit to Cape Spear — the most easterly point in North America. Snuggle up on the boardwalk and be among the first on the continent to see the sunrise.

Then it’s time to join tourists at one of the city’s most-visited sites: Signal Hill. Take in the breathtaking views from the former military lookout and communications base. It served as the site of the final battle of the Seven Years War in 1762 and the first transatlantic wireless transmission reception. Sure-footed hikers will enjoy the steep staircases and rocky outcrops of Signal Hill’s North Head trail, which winds for 1.7 kilometres around the peninsula and through the Battery, and old fishing village.

For a gentler hike in nature, stroll around Quidi Vidi Lake, where scullers skim over the mist. We end our walk in Quidi Vidi Village, a tiny historic fishing community, home to the Quidi Vidi microbrewery, which offers tours and tastes of their unique brews, including an Iceberg Beer made with glacial melt water.

On rainy days (and count on a few) explore the city’s provincial art gallery and museum, The Rooms. It’s so named for the architectural reference the building makes to the community’s early fish-processing buildings. Inside, the modern glass gallery houses traditional and modern takes on Newfoundland life — from exhibits of indigenous peoples’ boats and handicrafts to galleries of local artists. A standout exhibit, REPUBLIC, displays local artists’ take on what it means to carve out a life on The Rock. A highlight is a neon sculpture in pink and green flashing Have/Not, a sly ode to the province’s changing fortunes.

Stop for brunch or lunch in the airy café — try toutons, Newfoundlanders’ fried dough version of pancakes, or mussels steamed in a sauce of the local hooch, Screech. Or spend an afternoon indulging at the Spa at the Monastery and Suites, a renovated monastery and inn just outside the city that offers Aveda facials, hot stone massage and body wraps and other services as well as day passes to its sea mineral soaking pools, plunge pool, jacuzzis and sauna.

Wind up the day with a whirlpool bath in one of the city’s sweetest romantic hideaways. Leaside Manor, a circa-1921 Arts and Crafts heritage home turned B&B, boasts four-poster canopy beds, fireplaces, inlaid wood floors and two-person jacuzzis in rooms decorated with elegant antiques. Take breakfast in bed and unwind — just like the honeymooners who book up the luxe suites.

For a day-trip adventure, head outside the city. One of the region’s real draws — besides its mist- swathed lighthouses — are the whales that arrive to feast on the capelin fish that swarm the shores in summer to spawn. Twenty-two of the 33 species of whales found off Canadian coasts swim these waters and the best way to see them is by boat, cruising the coast amid spectacular views. O’Brien’s Whale and Bird Tours in Bay Bulls, about 45 minutes south of St. John’s, runs two-hour tours around the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. In season, humpbacks, minkes and fin whales breach the choppy waters, while thousands of sea birds circle the cliffs of the island preserve.

The reserve is home to the largest colony of puffins (“potatoes with wings” our skipper dubbed them) in North America, some half a million strong. Watch the comical birds skip off the water like stones as they try to get airborne, hauling big bellies of fish back to their nests (and their partners — these loyal birds mate for life).

We spot a minke whale off the bow of The Puffin and follow it until it dives deep into the ocean. Then we sit back and listen as skipper Justin Hawco belts out a rendition of Stan Rogers’ “Free in the Harbour,” a song lamenting the loss of the province’s fishermen, in a fine brogued baritone.

It’s just the kind of rich, fluid voice that would lure you, like a siren, into a mysterious fog. But now, having uncovered some of the hidden gems of the new Newfoundland, we don’t need luring. We’ll be happy to return for another interlude — even if it means another long trek to the lighthouse — because this time we’ll know what’s awaiting us.

Elaine O’Connor tells travel tales at Whywanderlust.ca and on Twitter @WhyWanderlust.

If you go:

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Further Afield:

Newfoundland also has a lot to offer nature lovers:

  • More than 35 million seabirds soar over Newfoundland’s shores. Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve is home to more than 65,000 birds including Northern gannets, kittiwakes, common mures and great cormorants
  • The East Coast Trail, the most easterly hiking trail in North America, winds 540 kilometres through 30 coastal communities.
  • At the other end of the province, Gros Morne National Park is the place to see rugged landscapes 20 times older than the Rockies.
  • In Newfoundland’s north, L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site is the only authentic Viking settlement in North America.

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