Two tabletop icebergs in the tickle at Twillingate, June 2016.
Newfoundland, Travel

On The Rock: Newfoundland is home to big ‘bergs, great beer and so much more

Our first iceberg was a big tabletop floating in Trinity Bay, glimpsed for a moment through the rented Tahoe’s front window as we crested yet another hill on Route 230.

Our second was spotted later that evening. It came courtesy of the Newfoundland brewer Quidi Vidi and arrived in a frosty blue bottle, delivered by a cheery waitress at Skipper’s in the town of Bonavista.

If you’ve booked an early summer vacation to Newfoundland, you should easily get your fill of both.

It was almost exactly a year ago that Dan and I first started contemplating a trip to Newfoundland. I was running in the Ottawa half-marathon in May and it seemed like a good jumping off point to explore a part of Maritime Canada. The timing was such that we could arrive in St. John’s at the start of its two important seasons — tourist and iceberg.

Tip of the iceberg and other basics

Newfoundland’s icebergs are pieces of freshwater ice that break off from Greenland glaciers each spring. Some stand several storeys above water and can be more than a kilometre or more across.

With about 90 per cent of an iceberg’s mass under water, its journey takes a fairly predictable path determined by ocean currents. As they travel in an orderly fashion past Labrador and Newfoundland, their surfaces are carved by the elements — waves, wind and sun.

Bottles of Iceberg Beer made by Quidi Vidi
Newfoundland’s Iceberg Beer.

When the current pulls an iceberg into a bay or cove, it will ground, halting its travels. Once there, it will eventually disappear  — melting, eroding or calving, the spectacular event in which parts of an iceberg break off. Small icebergs — those rising three to 13 feet out of the water — are called “bergy bits” while very small chunks of floating ice are called “growlers.”

Enterprising Newfoundlanders have found ways to harvest the ice, melt it, bottle it and sell it in a variety of forms: pedigreed water, vodka, the aforementioned Iceberg beer. (This good story was published in June 2016 by Vice.com about the Quidi Vidi brewery and iceberg harvesting.)

Want to know more? I found this basic primer on icebergs on the Government of Canada website. It is somewhat out of date (the chart on number of icebergs annually only goes up to 1984) but still an interesting read. 

Timing and planning

Icebergs aren’t a year-round tourist attraction. One would think this is obvious, but a cashier at Rockets Bakery and Fresh Food cafe in St. John’s assured us that they hear complaints every August from disappointed tourists.

Iceberg season in Newfoundland is technically April through August, but viewing is best in late May and June when icebergs close to land are most plentiful. For tourists, there’s not really a science to finding them but there are some good tools to help you plan your trip, such as the Iceberg Finder on Twitter or the Iceberg Map web page.

Timing is everything. Also, location is everything.

If you haven’t been to Newfoundland before, heed this advice. The province is very big. The roads are winding, potholed and full of wandering moose and it will always take you longer than you expect to get where you are going. To glean the most from your trip, spend some time in advance with maps and math — destinations, driving distances and number of days on the island.

Our nine-day trip had us flying in and out of St. John’s. Icebergs were a top priority so our itinerary took us from St. John’s to Bonavista for a few days, then up to Twillingate, 450 kilometres north, before we made our way back to the capital. The famed Gros Morne National Park, on the province’s west coast, will have to wait for our next trip.

We saw a couple of icebergs in Bonavista, but our time there was mostly devoted to finding puffins, checking out the root cellars of Elliston, visiting Trinity and hiking the fabulous Skerwink Trail.

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In Twillingate we hit the iceberg motherlode, so to speak, with views from land and sea.

The area is full of stunning coastline hikes. On the Jonas (or Jones) cove trail, we had fantastic close-up views of icebergs, while the lofty heights of Lower Head trail let us see why the area is dubbed Iceberg Alley. In the distance, we could easily see 20 or more drifting along the horizon.

To really get the full impact of icebergs, however, you need to get on the water with one of the many tour operators in the area.

Captain Dave Boyd
Captain Dave Boyd of Prime Berth

We got up close and personal with the ‘bergs in Twillingate’s main tickle (a strait) on a boat tour with Captain Dave Boyd — fisherman, character and owner of the madcap museum Prime Berth, which is the first thing you will see when you cross the causeway onto South Twillingate Island.

Before you board his boat, which can handle about 10 tourists, Dave might add a hat or jacket to your outerwear if he doesn’t deem you warmly enough dressed. Once out on the water, he regales his audience with stories about ‘bergs, the Newfoundland cod fishery, his roots in the area and occasional political thoughts. Word to the wise: if you work for the Department of Fisheries, you might want to leave that detail out.

Back in his museum, be sure to watch the video of him floating his father’s fishing stage to its present location. Or check out the five-gallon plastic pails of cod liver and shark oil that he has collected. (What are you going to do with the shark oil? we asked. Came the reply: “I don’t know. I might drink it.”) He is an entertaining presence on Twitter, too, posting his photo pick of the day under the handle @primeberth. Say what you will about teaching new tricks to old cods.

The Prime Berth Museum, as see from the water, is an eclectic mix of items from the sea.
You really can’t miss the Prime Berth Museum as you cross the bridge onto Twillingate Island. The establishment, run by Captain Dave Boyd and his wife Christine, offers iceberg tours and cod fishing expeditions. Ask him about the skeleton, it’s a whale of a good story.

But I digress: getting close to an iceberg by boat is an enchanting experience. Circling gives you multiple vantage points, which means you’ll see more carving, more shapes, more colour on the ice above and below the water, more sparkle of the sunlight on the ice and waves.

A good skipper knows how close you can get, safely. Icebergs can calve or roll without warning. They’ve been known to capsize boats. Consider the Titanic, which hit a big ‘berg southeast of Newfoundland in 1912 with catastrophic consequences.

The calving of an iceberg is a tremendous sight, and lucky us, we happened to be in the right spot at the right time to see it happen. We were hiking to Jonas Cove on the main tickle. (It may also be called Jones Cove or possibly Jone’s Cove, as signs and maps provided all those variations.) As we passed an iceberg close to shore, we heard a few sharp cracks, so we stopped, got the camera ready, and sure enough, a piece of the ‘berg broke off.

It felt a bit like an “if a tree falls in the woods” scenario — just a normal act of nature, but amazing to see.

Travel tips and tidbits

St. John’s area

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When you are in St. John’s, there are a few must-sees: Signal Hill, Canada’s easternmost point at Cape Spear, a wander through the village of Quidi Vidi, a stroll along Waterfront Drive and all opportunities to check out the cheerful “jelly bean” houses. We also recommend The Rooms museum. If you are walking from downtown, you can wander past some of the city’s historic buildings on any of three well-marked, self-guided tours: the Loyalist Trail, Prince William Walk and Victorian Stroll.

St. John’s gave us the chance to cash in travel points for accommodations, so we ended up with a night at the Holiday Inn Express at the airport after a late arrival, and one night each at the Sheraton and Delta, which are on opposite sides of downtown. The Delta is closer to George Street, with all its bars and live music.

Where we ate

  • The Bagel Cafe for breakfast. Oh my stars, eggs and lobster. Life is good.
  • The Duke of Duckworth pub. On our last night in Newfoundland, we went for a disappointing dinner at a trendy waterfront restaurant — then went for a second dinner of fish and chips at the Duke of Duckworth. My one regret of our trip is that we didn’t find the Duke earlier. Best fish and chips of our holiday.
  • Kelly’s Pub. On George Street, decent food, good music, friendly, good vibe.
  • Yellowbelly Brewery and Pub. Big, busy, fun, good food. Definitely try one of their beer samplers.

Twillingate

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Twillingate is, by Newfoundland standards, a large fishing community of 6,000 people located 450 kilometres — about a five-hour drive — north of St. John’s. Two nights gave us lots of time to hike and explore, and there are plenty of accommodation possibilities: at least one inn, some vacation cottages and numerous B&Bs. We stayed at Hillside B&B, hosted by the delightful Wavey and Winston Cutler. Rooms were comfortable, the breakfasts were awesome. Best of all, when all the guests gathered for an impromptu kitchen party, our hosts even drove us to the liquor store so we could safely restock.

It also has a vibrant social scene in summer. There is a dinner theatre that runs six nights per week all summer. The cast, described as “mature” locals, cooks and serves the meal and puts on a show. Over at the pub, we enjoyed an evening with the Beyond the Overpass theatre company and its Newfoundland 101 show. This is also, by the way, where we were “screeched in,” a Newfoundland tradition you really shouldn’t miss.

Where we ate

  • Doyle Sansome and Sons Lobster Pool. The most fun you can have while wearing a plastic bib. Cash only.
  • Georgie’s Restaurant at the Anchor Inn. Lovely restaurant with great food, followed by a fun night in the downstairs pub.
  • Crow’s Nest Cafe. Soups, chili, awesome coffee and baked goods. Local art on the walls. Friendly dog on site.

Hikes and walks that we did

  • Lower Head: This hike begins at the Long Point lighthouse in Crow Head. It is about seven kilometres past a small beach and then a long climb to the top. The vista from here is panoramic, and a bit dizzying for those of us with vertigo issues. In iceberg season, you will have a great view of “iceberg alley” and the parade of these gentle giants from Greenland. Also a great place to see gannets. After the hike, make sure you stop at the Crow Head Cafe; great coffee and treats and a small (but delicious!) selection of lunch items. (Pea soup and chili the day we were there).
  • Jonas (or Jones) cove: This hike is about four kilometres, with the trailhead located in Little Harbour. The first kilometre is not particularly inspiring — a gravel road — but don’t lose heart. It will wind its way up a few scrambly rocky sections, then take you out to a gentle meadow in the bluffs over the main tickle. Spectacular views. You can also take a little side jaunt over to a natural arch in the rocks. We got there just as Captain Dave arrived with another tourist group.

Bonavista Peninsula

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We stayed at Captain Blackmore’s Heritage Manor in Port Union, which was a short drive (in Newfoundland terms) from the communities of Trinity and Bonavista. The B&B’s hosts, Garry and Shelly Blackmore, made our visit to this corner of the island absolutely delightful, showing a genuine interest in what we were planning to do and offering great tips on things to see and places to eat. The B&B itself has been lovingly restored, the rooms are comfortable and gorgeous and the breakfasts are made-to-order. Nice touches: morning pre-breakfast coffee left in the foyer between the second floor bedrooms, and the evening tea for guests with snacks and conversation. What a lovely way to meet people.

There is lots to see and do in this region. Elliston is home to a puffin viewing site that you can walk to, a large number of root cellars to check out, and the tiny John C. Crosbie Sealer’s Interpretation Centre. We visited the latter on the spur of the moment — honestly, we were looking for a respite from the howling winds — but we totally recommend it. The human story of the sealing industry is fascinating; the human toll of the sealing disasters of 1914 heartbreaking. It is well worth your time.

Where we ate

  • Bonavista Social Club. Tiny, great food, friendly people. We had pizza and pasta and the best time.
  • Skipper’s Restaurant, Bonavista. Loved this place. I ordered the pan-fried cod and could have licked the plate clean. (Editor’s note: she actually did.)
  • Twine Loft in Trinity. Sadly, we didn’t get a reservation in time for this little gem but we did hang out on the sunny patio and enjoyed a few Quidi Vidi beers while inhaling the aromas coming from the kitchen.

Hikes and walks that we did

Skerwink Trail: This trail is about five kilometres long, with several steep sections, sets of stairs and paths bordering the cliff edge. Spectacular views include sea stacks, sea caves and arches. The last stretch of the trail provides a magical view of the town of Trinity.

Happy Adventure (Eastport peninsula)

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After booking our flights and our B&Bs, we had still one night remaining. Where to stay? What to do? In a province brimming with colourful place names, we drew a line between Twillingate and the St. John’s airport and our pencil landed on Happy Adventure.

So we booked a room.

It was so early in the season that we were literally the only occupants of the Inn at Happy Adventure that night. The Inn has five large rooms, all of which face the water. It has a restaurant, Chucky’s, that was packed despite the fact the hotel was practically empty, a sure sign of good food. The hotel offers a package with wine, dinner, breakfast and a credit toward a piece of artwork painted by one of the owners. It might be one of the best places to go in all of Canada.

Why is it called Happy Adventure? It’s a pirate story, and how great is that? Privateer Peter Easton  was a pirate for the Queen’s navy, sailing a ship named Happy Adventure. The story goes that he once got into a bit of a pickle and found respite in the harbour that now bears the name of his ship.

Where we ate

  • Chucky’s, at the Inn at Happy Adventure. For dinner, we shared a seafood platter and a good bottle of wine (the selection was terrific). This is where we discovered that Newfoundland has a young, vibrant foodie culture who all know of each other by reputation only. When the tourist season is in full swing, our server explained, you just can’t take a night off to go check out what’s happening at the cool restaurant on the other side of the peninsula.

Hikes and wanderings

  • Sandy Cove has a beautiful beach and picnic area. That’s also the trailhead for a hike to the Sandy Cove Head Lookout. This was the exceptionally boggy hike that inspired this blog.
  • Salvage is a teeny, picturesque fishing village on the tip of the peninsula, which boasts that it is one of North America’s longest continually inhabited communities. There are a number of nice hikes and walks starting from this area. There is also, during high tourist season, a restaurant in the village called the Ocean Breeze Pub which is supposed to be enjoyable. It wasn’t yet open when we visited.
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