From smutty to saintly on the Trans Canadian Highway

Tuesday was a big driving day, covering about 400 km and stretching from St John’s to Trinity and a bunch of places in between. I left St John’s at about 8am, stopping to get petrol at a nearby petrol station. I experienced a bit of a language barrier here. The petrol station said it wasn’t selling gas because of construction. Fine, I thought. I don’t need gas I need petrol. I rock up and a guy walking out of the open petrol station says they don’t have any gas. I say, yeah, I know. I need petrol. He looks at me a little blankly and then finally the penny drops. I thank him and drive away to get gas from somewhere that can sell it. Well played, Canada. Well played.

First stop: Dildo

Yes, there is a place in Newfoundland called Dildo. There’s also Conception Bay South, Come By Chance, Placentia and Blow Me Down. Dildo is a bit out of the way and it’s small so it was almost worth not going, but I went. I drove through it but couldn’t find a good place to take a representative photo so I took one at the sign that pointed towards it. Yes, it’s embarrassing but something you just have to do.


Puffins Alive!

I drove up the Bonavista peninsular to Elliston, a tiny coastal town renowned for its puffin colony. Unlike yesterday’s boat tour, this time you get a little bit closer to them, but not too close as they’re situated on an isolated rock. But first, I saw the sealing memorial. There’ve been lots of deaths of sealers and fishermen in Newfoundland so there’s this rather poignant memorial in Elliston on the coast of a father holding his dying son. Both had gone sealing and only the father returned alive. The boy was 15.

A much cheerier sight was beheld further down the road. After a little bit of a walk, you come to the edge of a cliff and look across to the opposite rock where there are hundreds of puffins. I took plenty of photos of the little birds as they hopped around or plunged off the edge of the cliff to go fishing. I then just sat and watched them for a while, one flying quite close to me. It was a wonderful way to spend some time, and of course, get to see more puffins.

Bonavista to Trinity

I hadn’t planned on going to Bonavista but it was only ten minutes away so I took the detour. I didn’t stop there at all, just drove through. There’s a replica boat but I wasn’t in the mood for it so I drove to Trinity East to the youth hostel I’m staying at. It’s small but comfortable enough. I’d completely forgotten that there’d be other people just lounging around like it’s some sort of share house. I locked myself in my room shortly after arriving. However, I didn’t stay put for long. The Skerwink Trail beckoned.

Skerwink Trail

When I’d booked the youth hostel I think it was in Trinity. Turns out, it’s in Trinity East which is across the water from Trinity, and a much smaller town. The upshot of this has been that it’s close to the Skerwink Trail, where I declared my love for Newfoundland.

Skerwink Trail is a 5.3km loop that goes around the coast. It starts about 500 m from the youth hostel door. The time it takes to walk to trail varies depending on how many times you stop and exclaim, “Oh my god! How beautiful is this!” If you run it, it takes 45 minutes. For me it took just over two hours. I stopped and took a lot of photos.

The trail goes through some peat and boggy woodland, and it hugs the coast so every now and then you get a bit of a view to the water below and down the coast. It’s stunning. Every time you get to another window it takes your breath away. You also see a bit of the forest, from the giant fungi that have sprung up around the place and the red berries on the forest floor, to the big trees that just cover this cliff face.

There are also some pretty hair-raising drops. I stood close-ish to the edge at a couple of points, had some photos taken (which I think turned out really well), and then continued around to the other side of the trail. From there you get a view of Trinity with its lighthouse. There’s also a lookout where you can get a 360° view of the whole area.

Sadly there were no whales off the coast, but that didn’t really matter considering how goddamn beautiful the place is. And not just here but just about everywhere I’ve been to in Newfoundland so far has been staggeringly beautiful. Newfoundland is my new favourite Canadian province (even when it’s cloudy).

Dinner in Trinity

Iceberg beerAfter the trek, I lounged around for a little while and then drove the 15 minutes around to Trinity in search of food. I eventually found the Trinity Mercantile. For such a small town, you’d think everything would be right there and easily to locate but it took a little driving around to find it. I ordered fish cakes, rhubarb butter tart and an Iceberg beer. It was a welcome treat at the end of a treat-filled day.

Sunrise, Puffins and a Minke Whale

Monday was a great day to be alive. I welcomed the rising sun at Cape Spear, saw puffins and an unexpected Minke Whale in Witless Bay, and then saw some other Canadian wildlife at Salmonier Nature Park.

Sunrise at Cape Spear

To my great surprise, I woke up a little after 5am to head out to Cape Spear and watch the sunrise. The sky was already getting light by the time I arrived but the sun hadn’t yet peaked its head above the horizon. A chilly and strong wind was blowing, making my ears and hands cold, but I pushed through it and waited for the sun to come up. Luckily it was going to be a clear day.

Cape Spear is the most easterly point in North America and so it’s the first place on the continent to see the sun rise. It was a beautiful sight to behold, and no wonder we used to worship the sun. Seeing it come up is a divine experience, and the soft orange glow it cast over the cape and lighthouses was magical. I spent about an hour running around the cape taking pictures…and rolled my ankle going over a squishy bit. It hurt.

I sat in the car for a little while afterwards, thinking about how lucky I was to be there. Then, when tiredness threatened to claim me, I drove back into St John’s and went back to bed for a couple of hours. Waking up at 9:30 was hard but I was going on a boat tour in Witless Bay and so had to get a wriggle on.

Puffins and a Minke in Witless Bay

Having already been there the day before, I found O’Brien’s Boat Tours in Bay Bulls much easier than I did yesterday. I paid for my ticket, joined the queue to board the big boat, and then, at 11:30, we set off into the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. It was a beautiful clear sunny day and sitting up on the top deck with the sun shining down was wonderful (though I should have worn sunscreen as I think I got a little bit burnt).

The tour was mostly to go around Gull Island, one of four in Witless Bay, which is home to a large variety of seabirds including puffins. Way back before we came to Canada, I was making lists of things to see and when to see them. Puffins in Newfoundland was on that list but the information I had said July was the best time to see them. I was a little crestfallen thinking I might miss them but it turns out I came at the perfect time. About 300,000 Atlantic Puffins were nesting on Gull Island, but first we had to get there.

The boat tour is billed as a bird watching tour with the added possibility of spotting whales. When I asked the day before, the lady said that there hadn’t been any sightings for weeks so it’s likely we wouldn’t see anyway. Oh well. But then, about halfway to Gull Island someone shouted out they’d seen something. It was a lone Minke Whale breeching the waves. Unlike the humpback which also visits the area, the Minke doesn’t produce a spout so really it’s like looking for a large dolphin.

We all hurried to the side of the boat to catch another glimpse of this sea mammal. Sure enough, it reappeared, not just a second time but many more. I’d say it surfaced about ten or twelve times. How lucky were we! Then we had to hightail it to Gull Island.

There we saw puffins galore. Thousands of them, all perched on the sloping sides of the islands. Apparently they can’t take off from flat land so they pretty much take a flying leap off the edge of the island. Taking off from water isn’t a problem, however. We got a great view of the puffins and other sea birds (including a bald eagle) as we sailed around the island. I was so happy to be able to see these gorgeous little birds. The way they fly, the way they land, and the way they look…it just makes them so adorable.

We returned to the dock after two hours, and I was very happy with what I’d see. Plus, the added bonus of it being a bright clear day (the first since I arrived on Friday) made it all the better.

Salmonier Nature Park

Salmonier Nature Park was a bit of a drive away. I’m using the TomTom app on my phone but not everything is listed within it. Considering Salmonier is a Newfoundland government agency, I would have thought it would be in there. I had to resort to another map of the place, getting a bit anxious that I had gone down the wrong road. Thankfully, it turned out to be the correct one.

Salmonier is a rehabilitation-for-release animal centre. It’s a great reserve as it has forest and lakes and rivers in it, so what they’ve done is built a few enclosures to house the injured animals. There’s a 1.2 km boardwalk that goes around the park, passing by Snowy Owl, Caribou, Moose, Otter (!!!!), Lynx (didn’t see it), Arctic Fox and more (including some that had empty enclosures). Apart from the screaming children thundering along the boardwalk terrifying everything, it was a good visit, and well worth checking out.

A weird (and a little annoying) thing happened when I first rocked up. A woman from the public health authority was in the reception area asking about the new visitor centre they’re building and whether any food was going to be served there. She wanted to know because she hadn’t been informed. The poor guy behind the counter had to find someone to talk to her. Now, honestly, why drive all the way out there? Why not call ahead? Why not talk to the people in the Department of Environment and Conservation who run the place, as they probably share a building with you, or have one nearby? She came across as a little too pleased with her power. I was tempted to tell her she was being ridiculous.

Last night in St John’s

I got back into St John’s at about five pm, and soon went for a bit of a walk to find something to nibble on. I headed down towards the harbour front and the war memorial, stopping into a cafe and getting a takeaway green tea and a delicious scone. I then went and sat down at the harbour front precinct. It’s a really nice spot, has some seats, a pretty garden, and two giant statues of a Newfoundland dog and a Labrador dog. Quite fitting I think.

I had dinner at home with Krista and Andrew, and I decided against going to get screeched in as it wouldn’t happen until 11:15pm. I planned to be in bed before then. Looks like Glen and I will have to do it somewhere out west when he arrives. And for those who don’t know, screeching is something they do to non-Newfoundlanders to make them honorary Newfoundlanders (and make them look like fools). They drink a shot of ‘screech’ then kiss a codfish on the lips (or a puffin on the arse depending on whether cod is available. You’d think puffins would be harder to come by.) and then say something. Ta-dah, you’re a Newfie!

Ziplining in Avalon and ghosts in St. John’s

Sunday was a day of toing and froing in the area south of St. John’s, known as Avalon. It lives up to its name with lots of beautiful  green scenery and glimpses of islands off the coast that take your breath away.

First up on my list on Sunday was to check out Witless Bay ecological reserve. I drove into Witless Bay but as I had a vague idea of going on a whale watching tour, I had picked the wrong spot. I needed either Bay Bulls or Blaune East. Rather than go back, I went to Blaune East to check out one of their boat operators. They’d closed down despite all the signs.

I drove back to Bay Bulls and to O’Brien’s. I’d missed the tour by fifteen minutes. It was a dreary day again so it wasn’t such a bad thing. But what to do next?

I headed to La Manche provincial park, and did a bit of a drive through it. It’s full of families camping and I couldn’t see a very good spot to park and go for a bit of a hike. Oh well. I continued south further to Ferryland, founded in 1621.

This was another picturesque spot with beautiful coastline and islands. A quick look around and then back up the coast to Petty Harbour. Andrew and I were going ziplining.

We arrived just after three at North Atlantic Ziplines, got suited up with harness, helmets and gloves, then jumped in the van with the 11 other participants to head up the hill. There was a mix of all ages on the tour, ranging from about 11 or 12, up to probably about 70 or so.

After getting out of the van, we hiked up the mountain a bit to the first zipline. We were given our instructions, told how to break (we clamp down on the wire behind the pulley with a piece of leather attached to our glove), and that we had to raise our legs up and point our toes. The test run went fine and then we were off.

We did ten ziplines all up, some crossing great distances or going at fast speeds (about 80 kmh on one of them). Plenty of great views to Petty Harbour and across the heavily wooded hills. A great way to kill a couple of hours. Tell you what though, it’s hard work on the abs. Being heavier than the children, on a number of occasions I really had to work hard to lean back and lift my legs or else I was in danger of not making it to the other end. Was great fun though, especially the really fast ones.

Afterwards I drove out to Cape Spear, the most easterly point in North America. I wanted to check it out as I planned to be there for sunrise the next morning and thought it’d be a good idea to scope it out. I stood at the most easterly point, walked around a bit, looked up at the two lighthouses on the hill, and then headed back to town.

Later that night, Andrew, Krista and I went on a St John’s Haunted Hike, which left from the Anglican cathedral at 9:30. There were a lot of people on the tour, which was a surprise as we thought there’d only be a small group. Normally there’s a second guide but he was on holiday.

We were led to a few sites within easy walking distance and learned about some of the more gruesome elements of St John’s early years. There were a few ghost stories, but otherwise it was about public execution, public torture and the general brutality of one man (or woman) against another. It went for an hour and was well worth the $10 (though I think we collected a few free riders along the way). It runs from Sunday to Thursday so if you’re in St John’s and want something to do in an evening, check it out.

To Signal Hill and Quidi Vidi 

Saturday I forced myself to go out into the dreary weather and walk to Signal Hill. Though it rained on me a little bit, it wasn’t really heavy rain and my raincoat kept me dry.

Signal Hill overlooks the entry point to St John’s harbour and was a strategic point in the town’s defences for many years. It was also the point where Guglielmo Marconi received the first wireless transmission across the Atlantic.

I took the long way around, going via Battery Road and around the point to get up to Signal Hill from the ‘outside’. There’s a quicker walk from St John’s but isn’t much of a hike. The path I took was pretty good and well maintained, and you get a great view out to the Atlantic. I wondered what it would be like to be in St. John’s in the early years and wait and watch for ships to come in (and see whether they were friend or foe).

Once at the top of Signal Hill, I checked out Cabot Tower, built in 1900 to commemorate John Cabot’s ‘discovery’ of this part of the world in 16-whatever. And, as I said, Marconi use the site for his wireless transmissions. It’s quite the historical point and has a great view too.

From Signal Hill, I walked to Quidi Vidi along another track, and saw some of the most beautiful coastline I’ve ever seen. Truly breathtaking. I was lucky enough to get a moment when the sun came through as well. The contrast between the blue of the water, the green of the trees, and the brown/grey of rocks was just stunning.

Quidi Vidi is a little village on the other side of Signal Hill. The reasons to go here are the brewery and Mallard Cottage, one of the oldest in North America. Mallard Cottage is now a cafe. I stopped in there for a bite to eat but had just missed the brunch window. Luckily, they accommodated me and cooked me up a fish cake sandwich, while I had a ginger beer at the bar.

I then joined the tour of the Quidi Vidi Brewery at 3pm. It’s a small brewery but has some popular brews. We tried six of them including the iceberg beer again. Most of their beers come in short-necked bottles which were designed specifically for Newfoundland. The reason being is that Newfoundland only offers 8c per bottle on rebate, whereas the mainland is more. People were taken the bottles of the island and so the breweries weren’t able to get enough (they recycle them about 15 times). The solution: make an island specific bottle that can only be returned on Newfoundland.

After the tour finished, I tried to find the Battery but couldn’t. Instead I got a nice view of Quidi Vidi, and then walked back to St John’s. With all that walking, my arse was really sore the next day.

In the evening, Andrew dropped me at the airport to pick up my hire car. I’d booked a compact or intermediate as they were the cheapest, but they upgraded me to an SUV (probably because they need it in Deer Lake, which is where I’ll be dropping the car). I’m very happy about the upgrade in size. Means I might survive an impact with a moose now.

Spent the evening in watching a film about ice hockey called Goon. Very violent but pretty funny, all about the team enforcer. The wine I was drinking might have made it funnier than it was, but still it was a good watch. Also watched an episode of Republic of Doyle, which is set in St John’s. Because St. John’s isn’t a bit place, you can spot many of the locations used, and plenty of people have had parts in it. Kind of wish we had something a bit like it in Perth.

I tumbled into bed about midnight, having had a great day in this foggy city.

Drinking icebergs in St. John’s

My flight to St. John’s left at 8am Friday from Toronto. The night before, at dinner with our neighbours, I realised with a groan that I would have to get up some time around five just to make the flight. And then there was the worry about whether public transport would be able to get me there. But then Julian came to the rescue and offered to drive me to the airport. What a superstar!

I still had to get up before six, struggling to rise, shower and dress, and not wake Glen up too much. I still woke him up though, especially when I said goodbye. Who knows? It might be the last time I see him.

Julian got me to the airport in plenty of time, and I got to see a bit of early morning Toronto while I was at it. The traffic was moving quickly but you could see it was already starting to clog up. I’m so grateful that I don’t have to drive to work.

A quick check-in and processing through security. I bought a turkey sandwich to have on the plane (because you have to buy food on these short flights) and then boarded at 7:30.

The flight was full…except for the empty seat between me and the guy on the aisle. Score! The flight was three hours and I actually managed to write some of my next book. The guy in my row asked what I was doing and I had that awkward little conversation where I explain that I’m a writer. He was complimentary so that was all good.

I ate my sandwich, which went really well with the rocky landing coming into St. John’s. We broke through the low hanging clouds and then all of a sudden we were coming into land. The plane rocked from side to side, as did the sandwich in my belly. We landed, a little nauseated, but we landed.

I caught a taxi to Andrew and Krista’s as they’re very kindly having me to stay while in St. John’s. The cab driver gave me a few pointers on places to visit and what drinks to buy. There are some Newfoundlander beers and vodka to sample. I was also told about screeching and where to go to do that (still on the list).

Got to the house, met Andrew and Krista, was given the tour and then they went back to work. I headed out to see St John’s. It was cloudy and drizzly. Welcome to summer in Newfoundland. First stop, the basilica on top of the  hill. The building on the outside is ok but inside it’s just stunning, with its beautiful stain glass windows and roof decorations. I wondered if the place ever got full but considering how much of the population here is of Irish descent, I imagine it’s got a full house more often than not.

Next up was The Rooms. It’s a museum, art gallery and archives all in one. It only costs $7.50 to get in so I checked it out. I zoomed through many of the rooms, getting a smattering of Newfoundlander history (particularly about the Irish migration) and checking out the view. (The Rooms is on top of the hill over looking the harbour so you get quite a picture of the town below.)

The most striking thing about St John’s is the different coloured houses. Most of them are wooden and painted a bright hue, be it red, blue, yellow, or green, or a more sedate but still striking grey, brown or white. It certainly brightens the place up, which is good as they get so much fog.

Next, surprisingly, I went to the gym. I hadn’t been the day before and it felt good to get a bit of exercise. Then of course I was hungry as hadn’t really eaten much during the day. I went to The Works, a burger joint that’s in Toronto too, and gorged on food, before heading back to the house for a nap.

In the evening the three of us went to a restaurant called The Black Sea for a dinner with a lot of Perth people or people who had a connection with Perth. It was a bit bizarre considering we’re just about as far from Perth says you can get. Dinner was good, I had a Newfoundlander beer from Quidi Vidi called Iceberg. They use real iceberg water in its production.

The night then progressed to a bar down the street. We stayed until 1:30 and to my shame, I was probably the most tired out of the lot. What’s happened to my stamina?

Road trip to Fierté, Montreal

Friday 15 August Glen, Nathan and I went on a road trip to Montreal to check out the city’s Pride festivities. Why didn’t we fly you might ask, considering it’s only an hour by plane? Well, sometimes you’ve just got to hit the open road. Plus it’s cheaper to drive than to fly – and because, road trip!

Nathan picked Glen and I up after Glen got back from work. The traffic wasn’t too bad getting out of the city, considering everyone flees Toronto on Friday afternoons to go to their cottages up north. Once we were out of midtown, traffic was fine and we zoomed along for three or so hours until we reached Kingston.

We decided we’d split the journey up and stop somewhere along the way. Apparently it only takes five and a half hours to drive to Montreal from Toronto but that was already starting to look shaky, so a stop in Kingston it was.

Kingston was a real surprise. I was expecting some tiny little town with barely much going for it. Turns out, it’s practically a whole other city. We checked into our hotel by the 401 (I think it was a Marriott) and then drove downtown (yes, they have a downtown) to find food. The main strip in Kingston is pretty long and has everything on it you could imagine. There were also some beautiful houses and old buildings around and us three gushed over what a beautiful place it was.

We went to Chez Piggy, as recommended by Julian, and had a real good meal there, sitting out on the patio. Had some drinks, ate a load of food, and then went back to the hotel, chilled out for a bit and went to bed.

Next morning we were up at a reasonable time and went for breakfast in Kingston. Glen bought five raspberry jam filled donuts for a midmorning snack, we drove past some more pretty buildings, and then hit the 401 heading east to Montreal. We stopped along the way for a coffee break, ate one of those delicious donuts each, and then continued on our way.

We arrived in Montreal at about 1pm. I got annoyed with Glen because he was ignoring my directions to the hotel in favour of his own. Anyway, he was wrong, I was right, neither of us were very happy. Still, we checked in to the hotel (Le Meridien Versailles)…and promptly went to bed. The nap did us a world of good.

Refreshed we went in search of food, a vague plan to walk towards the gay area on Rue St Catherine. Unfortunately, it was raining in Montreal so the city wasn’t bursting with the joys of SUMMER, but we did walk past the Musee des Beaux Arts, which Glen and I hadn’t seen before. There were some beautiful sculptures out the front so we stopped and took some photos.

Late lunch next at Les Trois Brasseures. Ok food, nothing fancy, and then continued on our trek to Rue St Catherine. The stalls setup for the Pride festival were all a bit water logged, and most had packed up by the time we got there. At first I thought it was because of the rain but really it was because they were due to finish. We had some more drinks, went walking, and then headed back the way we came to go to dinner.

We went to Bouillon Bilk, a recommendation from a friend of Nathan’s. We walked past it the first time as its name isn’t that prominent, though the layout and decor should have given it away. We went in, took our place at the bar, and prepared for a great dining experience.

The waitress we had was excellent, going through the menu with detail, and the rest of the night she was attentive and friendly. I think it helped that Nathan was with us as he’s tall, good looking and very personable. We had three courses each. I had food envy of Glen starter which was a lobster dish. It was a work of art. I had a shrimp risotto with passionfruit, followed by probably the most delicious scallops I’ve ever eaten. For dessert I had a fig dish. There were cocktails and wine too. Just before we left, the waitress gave us recommendations for brunch in Montreal and for the Atlantic in Toronto. Excellent!

We then went back to the hotel for a little while, taking a taxi back. It was a long drive and we realised we’d walked a hell of a long way. No wonder Nathan was complaining about his feet (He’d brought inappropriate shoes along). My contacts were killing me so I swapped them for some new ones and felt much better. Then we were ready to hit the parties.

It was still raining over Montreal so we skipped the outdoor dance party and went to a bar for a drink, then to Stock Bar, and finally Unity to dance the night away. There were lots of people out, prices and quality of drinks varied from place to place, but all in all we had an excellent time and a lot of fun. Shame about the weather but in the end it didn’t stop us staying out until the wee hours of the morning.

Check-out wasn’t until midday and we made full use of it, lounging in bed until about 11 (though Glen and I were awake before that, trying to squeeze out some more sleep). Surprisingly we only felt tired, not hungover. We made the decision to skip the parade at 1pm, go for brunch/lunch and then get going.

We went to H4C, the restaurant the waitress recommended. We couldn’t sit inside as they were busy but luckily the rain had stopped and it was looking like a nice day outside. We ordered a plate of donuts and brioche to share, which came with various jams and spreads. Divine! And then we had something else each, Glen and I having an omelette each while Nathan had salmon. We were stuffed by the end of it. Excellent place to go to though.

It then took us 45 minutes to get out of the city due to road closures for the parade. I didn’t offer any assistance, as I was sitting in the back and Glen seemed to have it in hand. Hours passed as we zoomed out of Quebec and into Ontario. I tried to sleep a number of times, only once successfully when I put Nathan’s jumper over my head. Glen took a photo.

We stopped in Belleville at a surprisingly good sushi restaurant for a late lunch. We ordered a bunch of stuff, not realising when we went to pay that it was all you can eat. We were stuffed anyway, but it might have changed our choices. Still, no need to be greedy. I then drove the rest of the way to Toronto, getting stuck in god awful Sunday afternoon traffic as people return from the north to the city. We made it home safely though, and all of us were really happy with how the weekend turned out. 

(Oh, and you might be wondering what happened to the remaining two donuts. When we woke up on Sunday morning, the paper bag they were in was just about see-through because of all the oil in them. They were delicious but after seeing that, we threw the last two out.)

Postcards from Churchill: videos of Beluga whales, polar bears and splashing about

I’ve finally gotten around to compiling the videos from our trip to Churchill, Manitoba, in July/August this year. We went snorkelling with Beluga whales (I went twice), kayaking in the Churchill River (with Beluga whales), and helping to herd a swimming polar bear.

The second video of the Beluga whales is about 10 minutes but it’s worth it. This was one of the best wildlife experiences I’ve had with wild animals, and the video goes a little way to showing what that was like.

(And please excuse the funny noises I make)

Snorkelling, first go

Polar bear swimming in the river

Snorkelling, second go

Kayaking with seals and Beluga whales