Monday, September 20, 2010

Blackflies and Buchaneers: a Visit to the "Holy Land"

(Yes, I know it's been a while.  If you've been checking here and not finding anything new, thanks for your patience!  And thanks for continuing to read -- good to know that there's someone out there in cyberspace.)

Hands up if you've ever been to Newfoundland.  Anyone?  Anyone at all? 

Okay, I'm betting there's a couple of Canadian hands in the air (in addition to my relatives), out of all those reading this, but that most of the Canucks have never been.  And of the foreigners, well, most of them are probably saying, "Newfoundland?  Where's that?"

Well, if you are one of those whose hands remain stubbornly down, then you’ve missed out.  I truly, madly, deeply adore Newfoundland, and it may just have to move higher on my “Places I Could Live Someday” list (see earlier post for the complete list).   I spent a while there this summer with my sister and brother-in-law, wandering around the province, and it really is one of the most beautiful spots on earth.  With some of the friendliest people you will meet anywhere – well, except for their tendency to scoff at Ontario.  (As I heard some of them say, in all seriousness:  “Living in Ontario?  Well, that’s not really living.”)

Part of the trip was nostalgia – my sisters and I spent our summers travelling the continent with our parents, and made it to Newfoundland many times.  (My father, in case you don`t know, is a genuine Newfy born-and-bred, hailing from the little town of Buchans in the middle of nowhere.  Literally – it`s at the end of a highway that doesn`t really go anywhere else, except to a couple of even smaller towns.)

But, although I’ve been there many times, the last time was probably 25 years ago.  And we travelled a little differently this time – still camping, as we did in childhood, but in tents instead of a trailer.  And safely ensconced in a comfy rental car, instead of riding un-seatbelted in the back of a station wagon.  (Hey, it was the 1970’s – no one worried about things like that.)

Some of it was all about family history: the lovely Codroy Valley in the southwest corner of the province, where my MacLellan grandfather was born, right near the ferry port of Port-aux-Basques; the former mining town of Buchans, where my dad was born in the days before Newfoundland was Canadian (the "Buchaneers" in the title isn't a typo -- that's what Buchans people call themselves); and the tiny Bellevue Beach, where my paternal grandmother’s family (the Hefferans, formerly Heffords) hail from.   Oh, and a stop in New Victoria, which isn’t in Newfoundland at all but on Cape Breton Island (yes, I’m part Newfy AND part Caper, possibly the two most-mocked breeds of Canadians – completely undeserved mockery, I hasten to add).

Some of the trip was exploring new territory – such as the gorgeous and otherworldly Gros Morne National Park, replete with moose and mountains and fjords to rival Scandinavia, and some of the oldest rock in the world.  (They don’t call Newfoundland “The Rock” for nothing.)  And, of course, visiting the oldest European settlement – the Vikings made it here 500 years before Columbus hit the West Indies, and you can still see the remains of their settlement at L’Anse-aux-Meadows in the far northwestern tip – and the oldest known burial site in the Americas, which, from about 7000 BC, predates the Incas and the Mayans further south by thousands of years.  The countless appealing little outpost villages are also worth a visit (although you may occasionally need a translator to understand the locals -- Newfy English is a different language altogther, once you get outside St. John`s).

Some of it was enjoying Newfy culture – the Cow Head Theatre Festival in Gros Morne (where we saw “Ed and Ed’s B&B” a locally-written comedy that could only come from Newfoundland); the gorgeous Norseman restaurant up near L’Anse-aux-Meadows, where you can enjoy gourmet cuisine with fresh local ingredients (the partridgeberry pie was to die for, as was the Newfoundland martini); or sampling local wines along the way (forget grapes – wines get much more creative here, being made from every variety of local berry you can imagine, and even rhubarb).  And the place names alone provide hours of entertainment – anyone up for a visit to Goobies, or Heart’s Content, or Dildo?

Oh, and I can’t forget the music – our personal soundtrack as we drove involved a lot of Great Big Sea and other Celtic music (I think Steve – my brother-in-law -- was very tired of fiddle music by the end of the trip, but he mostly got overruled).  And we heard some astonishingly talented musicians in St. John’s (yes, more fiddles) at some of the pubs on George Street – and if Patrick Moran, fiddler and singer extraordinaire (not to mention oh, so cute and with an adorable accent), ever makes it to Toronto, he’d better look me up.

We even had a little bit of Europe thrown into the mix, as we took a day trip to St. Pierre just off the south coast of the Burin Peninsula.  It’s the last remaining outpost of the once-mighty French empire in North America, and remains stubbornly French to this day.  My only problem visiting there was language – oh, I can speak enough French to get by, but every time I went to speak, I kept saying things in Spanish instead.  (Apparently that’s now become my default foreign language – my brain knew it wasn’t supposed to be using English, but it now goes to Spanish next instead of French.)

I went for many reasons, and I think I loved it all.  Even the two foggy, rainy days we had – yes, only two, which is remarkable for Newfoundland and Labrador – as the province just as hauntingly lovely in that weather (much the same way that Ireland and Scotland are).  Oh, wait, there is one thing I didn't enjoy -- those pesky, nearly-invisible little blackflies that will stealthily bite huge chunks out of your skin and leave you itching for days afterwards.  (Mosquitoes don't even begin to compare.)

I even think I could quite happily move to St. John`s.  It`s attractive and quirky and lively, and although it`s not a big place -- maybe 100,000 people -- it`s the only biggish city in the province (with Corner Brook a distant second at about 20,000) so it has just about everything I think I could want.  (The cute Newfy fiddlers in George Street pubs are a bonus.)

So, even with the blackflies, you need to go:  that’s the bottom line.  If you’ve already been ... well, then you know what I’m talking about.  And any time you want to go back and need a travelling companion, just let me know.  And if you haven’t been already, you’re missing out on somewhere very magical.  So book that plane or train, or hit the road in your car, and get yourself out east already.  You won`t regret it.

Oh ... and if you happen to run into Patrick in St. John`s, tell him I said “Hi”.

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