Being Irish in Newfoundland is no big deal, because practically everyone is, descended from Irish fishermen who settled there in the 1700s and 1800s.
But if you are really Irish, born and bred, prepare to be treated like a celebrity.
Locals will hang on your every word, insist you stay longer, hug you tightly when you do leave.
On this craggy Atlantic island – the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador – connections to Celtic roots are so deeply woven into the fabric of life, it’s hard to believe you are in Canada at all.
Newfoundland (pronounced New-fun-land by locals) feels like Ireland 20 years ago, when people left their doors unlocked, hitchhiked without fear, had time to stop and talk to one another. Time moves at its own pace. Newfoundland has it’s own time zone, two and a half hours behind GMT.
Apart from the stunning scenery, lip-smacking seafood and foot-tapping music, it’s the characters that make this a must-visit destination.
Newfies, as the locals are known (though it can be seen as derogatory, not unlike Paddy’s), are so similar to people from rural Ireland, even to this day, that Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan called Newfoundland “the most Irish place in the world outside of Ireland”. The tone of our trip was set upon landing in St John’s, the province’s eastern seaboard capital.
The Cork man and I were picking up a car rental, from what sounded like a true-blue Dub.
“Never set foot in the place,” he laughed. As we left, he told us we’d “made his day,” just for stopping to have a chat.
Then there was the bartender, who gave us a late drink, but only “because we were proper Irish”.
And Thelma O’Brien, the B&B owner in the north of the province who sounded like she was from Donegal, and told the Cork man, “I could listen to you all day, bhoy”. It’s not often he hears that one.
St John’s, the island’s capital is a working port, so not a very pretty one, but it’s got bucket loads of rustic charm. Here they take their live music and drinking just as seriously as their fishing. George Street boasts the most pubs and bars per square foot of any street in North America.
From the outside, the bars look faded and a tad dingy, but inside you’ll find Irish-influenced music hopping ’til all hours.
The best way to blow away the cobwebs after night time adventures is to trek up to Signal Hill.
Towering above the city, Signal Hill was the reception point of the first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901, as well as the site of harbour defenses for St John’s from the 18th century to the Second World War.
Views down to the city and its colourful “jelly bean” houses are spectacular. The Victorian houses in the downtown area, painted in red, blue, green, yellow, were initially constructed as temporary accommodation after the Great Fire of 1892, started, apparently, by a Mrs O’Leary in her cow shed.
About 20 km north of the city, is Cape Spear, home to the oldest surviving lighthouse in the province. This rugged spot is the most easterly point in North America – next stop Ireland.
Dee Jay Charters boat tour can get you closer, and offers regular (weather dependent) boat trips of the harbour in a bid to spot whales or icebergs.
Each year, huge icebergs float down from Greenland, and wherever they land, the tourists follow. Out of luck with whales on that particular day, a massive blue-white ‘berg had to do.
South of St John’s is the “Irish loop,” a coastal area where in the 1800’s there were more Irish concentrated than in any comparable location in Canada.
Today the scenic coast road boasts “whales, trails and Irish tales,” before looping back to the city.
At Cape Broyle, we stopped for yet another aquatic adventure, with Stan Cook Sea Kayaking.
Stan (son of the original Stan), lively and full of stories, takes us out on the water. Alas, there’s not a whale in sight. “We are normally beating them off this time of year,” he says. It’s a common theme around the island, apparently this year’s capelin fish have not arrived, hence the whales, which feed on them, have not either.
Instead we get lobsters, a sea cave, a waterfall and fresh uni sushi, a Japanese delicacy, presented on the paddle of a kayak.
We still needed lunch though, and headed for the unique experience of Ferryland Lighthouse Picnics. After a 1km trail onto a headland, lunch is served in a basket, with a blanket al fresco. You can sit anywhere you like on the headland, and watch for whales while you eat.
From here our road trip veered north to Terra Nova National Park, where, not unlike the whales, we were told we’d be beating off the moose.
The great Canadian beasts are not native to the island, but four were introduced in the 1904. With no natural predators, the island now has the highest concentration of moose in the world, about 120,000. Hunting is big business, but if you want to do it, make sure you are fully licensed. Otherwise, look out for them on the roadside, there’s about 500 to 600 car accidents involving moose every year.
Near Terra Nova, we stayed on the Eastport Peninsula, at the superb Inn at Happy Adventure.
This region is steeped in the history of infamous pirate Peter Easton, and owner of the Inn, Chuck Matchim, is only too happy to share his in-depth knowledge about the region and its fascinating history. The peninsula itself is a treasure trove of coastal seascapes, sandy beaches and picturesque communities.
Next, we headed for the remote islands of Twillingate, reached via a series of causeways and known as the iceberg capital of the world, if you don’t mind.
Having already seen an iceberg, we were looking for some whale action. Our boat captain, Grant Cudmore, of Ocean Quest Close Encounters had spotted Orcas in the bay earlier in the day, and we hunted them for two and half hours to no avail.
The trip was thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless but, says Cudmore, it can be tough to please tourists who come expecting whales and icebergs – sometimes there just aren’t any.
It was here we stayed at the Iceberg Alley B&B with the previously mentioned “Donegal” woman Thelma O’Brien.
She pointed us to the iceberg finder map, www.icebergfinder.com, a government-run site that pinpoints icebergs so tourists can track them to avoid disappointment.
This tiny island of Fogo, a ferry ride from the “mainland”, was the highlight of the trip, if only for its very distinctive Irishness and “Sláinte go Tilting” sign.
Jutting out to the north-east, towards Ireland, Fogo has a population of about 2,500 people, spread out over four communities. In the village of Tilting, you can visit a restored house from the 1830s, built by an Irish immigrant, and nearby, what historians believe to be the oldest Irish Catholic graveyard in North America.
Full of beaches, trails, music, great food and people, we could have stayed forever, but were headed for Gros Morne National Park, right over on the western side of Newfoundland.
With soaring mountains, deep valleys, forests, inlets, fjords, it is the “Galapagos of geology”. A world heritage site, the park provides a rare example of the process of continental drift, where deep ocean crust and the rocks of the earth’s mantle lie exposed.
The unique Tablelands mountains, where nothing grows, stand out, red and barren, against the rest of the green landscape.
There are several boat trips available in the area hosted by BonTours. Don’t miss the Western Brook Pond, a fresh water fjord carved out by glaciers during the most recent ice age.
If you think all of this sounds like a lot, remember it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
: WestJet offers direct flights from Dublin, to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Seasonal service starts May 1, 2015 to October 24, 2015, and the journey is just 4.5 hours.
See go.westjet.com for pricing.
In St. John’s, try the Sheraton for easy access to the city, Signal Hill and free parking.
In Gros Morne National Park, where options are limited, try the Sugar Hill Inn in Norris Point, or the Ocean View Hotel in Rocky Harbour.
The summer season is a short and extremely busy one, accommodation and rental cars get booked months in advance, so make sure you book ahead to avoid disappointment. Though Newfoundland may look small, don’t underestimate distances, we put 1,800km on the clock in ten days.