Cruise around Newfoundland

With its unique culture and many natural charms, it’s no wonder Newfoundland has become a hot tourist destination.

Much of this interest has been spurred by the popularity of The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, also a major movie, depicting an outsider’s move to this island in the North Atlantic.

But aside from the book, and the whales, icebergs, mountains, shorelines and landscapes we see touted in the province’s tourist ads, Newfoundland also offers a unique excursion for history buffs.

There is the chance to gain firsthand insight into the province’s fascinating and varied past.

History remains alive
“In many ways, the province’s history remains alive in a very authentic form,” says Dave Ferguson of Adventure Canada, a travel outfit that runs a weeklong cruise that circumnavigates Newfoundland.

“It’s a place where you can get beyond the binoculars and touch history—without having to go through a gift shop on your way out.”

During the seven-day cruise around the island, the history of Newfoundland unfolds in a perfect setting of natural beauty.his includes encounters with wildlife (porpoises, orcas and humpbacks play alongside the boat) and the most genuine and charming people you’ll meet anywhere.


Russian ship refitted
The setting for your history lesson is a refitted Russian scientific ship called the Professor Multinovsky.

You don’t expect a Soviet-era vessel to be luxurious. But it has an eccentric charm, with cozy rooms, a well-stocked bar and a kitchen that serves excellent food.

And since this is an adventure tour—with plenty of climbing and hiking—a luxury liner would be out of place.

Photographers, botanists, writers (Farley Mowat), singers (Ian Tamblyn) and native Newfoundlanders join the tour at various points to entertain, instruct and mingle with passengers.

Shore landings daily
At night, the Professor chugs around the island, stopping each morning at a new site. Passengers board zodiacs (rubber rafts with powerful outboard motors) and zip through the rough waves for the ride to shore.

Passengers of all ages and physical condition are able to accomplish the shore landings without undue stress.

Once on land, local guides offer local history. Or you can strike off on your own adventure of discovery.
Next page: Who came first?

Who came first?
The first stop of historical importance is L’Anse aux Meadows in the barren scrubland of the Great Northern Peninsula. This is a place that answers the long-argued question of who discovered Newfoundland.

Of course, the native Beothuk people—now extinct—were here long before anyone else. But it had always been held that John Cabot was the first European to view Newfoundland, when he sailed the Matthew into Bonavista 500 years ago.

We now know that Cabot was actually second—by about 500 years.

At L’Anse aux Meadows, archeologists have uncovered Norse artifacts and the remains of building foundations. These prove a small group of Vikings, led by Leif Ericsson, landed and settled in Newfoundland’s northern peninsula more than 1,000 years ago.

There, they set up a few rough buildings and stayed a few years before giving up and going home. Today, it’s the only authenticated Norse settlement in North America. 

Norse village recreated
The province has since recreated the Norse village and erected a museum detailing the Viking presence.

You get an excellent historical perspective simply by standing on the foundations of the original buildings, gazing out through the cold mist to the sea and trying to imagine why, more than a thousand years ago, a ship full of wild Vikings thought it would be a good idea to set up shop here.

And why, after staying for several years, did they suddenly leave, never to return?

Fish lured settlers
We may never understand the Vikings’ motives, but we do know what brought the next wave of settlers to Newfoundland: fish—and plenty of them.

Our cruise stops at the tiny outport fishing villages that formed the first permanent settlements in Newfoundland: Battle Harbour and Matthews Cove in the north, and François Bay and Parson’s Harbour on the South Coast.

Local guides give compelling accounts of the harsh living conditions: poor shelter, no hospitals, a lack of education and extremely low wages.

Perhaps worst of all was the isolation. Many of the communities were accessible by sea only.

In retrospect, that these tiny towns survived at all is a tribute to the hardy determination (or stubbornness) of the people.

When English fleets first began pulling cod from the sea, they employed fishermen from Ireland and west England who were expected to return home at the end of the summer.

Carved out life
However, many stayed to carve out a life for themselves, fighting the harsh elements with little food and poor shelters until the boats returned the next fishing season. Wives and children soon joined the men in this hostile, uninviting land, far from their homes.

Against all odds, these temporary settlements grew into communities (about 1,200 in all), most with populations of no more than a few hundred.

Houses, schools and churches were built. However, because the fishermen barely earned enough to keep their families clothed, few managed to make more than a meager existence.

Next page: Resettlement plan

Resettlement plan
When Newfoundland voted to join Canada in 1949, premier Joey Smallwood promised to address the substandard living conditions in the outports.

His controversial solution was resettlement. Each household in a village where 80 per cent voted in favour of resettlement was offered $1,000 to move to larger centres that could better provide running water, electricity, roads, health care and education.

Families who’d been living in the outports for centuries were suddenly uprooted and told to make a new life for themselves in town.

Those villages that voted against resettlement struggled to remain alive, a task that grew almost impossible once the cod fisheries collapsed.

As a result, many communities died. They left behind eerie ghost towns that stand as stark reminders of a way of life that is no more.

Sense of loss
Though the elements have taken a toll on the simple homes, those that remain reveal much about the hardworking, valiant people who once lived there.

Many homeowners moved suddenly, leaving behind everything they owned, from furniture to clothes to personal possessions. Through the broken window of one crumbling house, you can see rubber boots still standing by the door, waiting for a fisherman who has never returned.

In another house, framed pictures and curtains still hang on the walls. All that remains of the old church in Parson’s Harbour is its collapsing spire, left to rot by a fleeing congregation. 

The sense of abandonment and loss one feels while poking through these faded communities recalls the vibes experienced at the Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows.

Two societies came to this mysterious island, struggled to survive and eventually vanished.

It’s not often you can forge such an emotional connection to the past while on vacation.

But in Newfoundland, it’s almost inevitable.