In Newfoundland and Labrador, the main attraction in a region awash with whales, icebergs, untamed landscapes, unique history and cuisine, is the Newfoundlanders.
On the most eastern edge of North America, the people are warm and funny, profusely proud of their homeland and love nothing better than a get together, a chat and a singsong. Little wonder, then, that almost a quarter of the population claims Irish ancestry. And remarkably many of them still hold the Irish accents of their never-forgotten relations, who deserted the British fishing boats as far back as the 1600s.
I was there for five days, and I was as taken aback to hear Wexford and Waterford accents by the end of the trip as I was the very first time I thought I was being imitated.
Despite the accents, it is a Canadian province – at least according to 51 per cent of the voters in a 1948 referendum – and it retains the Canadian stereotypes you’d expect to find on your travels. Think moose, beavers and vast woodland.
This, however, is a place like no other, and it’s only four and a half hours from Dublin. My flight set off from Dublin at 8.30am. Shortly after 10am I was on my way to pick up my car rental in another continent.
I started my trip with a walk up Signal Hill, overlooking the province’s capital, St John’s. The views were amazing, only briefly interrupted by a spell of thick fog and wind - really putting our own variable climate into perspective.
The Ales and Tales tour begins at the top of Signal Hill and retraces the final battle of the Seven Years’ War, along the Ladies’ Lookout Trail. Legend has it the women of the city came here, to the city’s highest point, to look out for ships carrying their sons, husbands and lovers.
I was looking out for a glimpse of a bald eagle’s nest below. And down further, the Quidi Vidi Brewery where the trail wound up. The Iceberg beer is a must here – made using water from icebergs, they say it is 20,000 years in the making and it’s as crisp as you’d imagine.
I spent my first night in The Inn by Mallard Cottage, in Quidi Vidi, an inviting little fishing village, 20 minutes’ drive from St John’s international airport. Dinner in the Mallard Cottage that evening was special. An 18th Century Irish-Newfoundland vernacular style cottage, it’s one of the oldest wooden buildings in North America, with its original fittings still intact or recreated with great imagination. This extended to the food - particularly the halibut.
The next morning brought an early start with Joseph O’Brien taking me on one of his whale and bird boat tours. These tours depart from Bay Bulls – situated along “the Irish loop”. The O’Briens have been fishermen for generations, but with the industry struggling Joseph decided to try something new. Thirty years later, he’s still going strong. “They said I was mad, but who’s laughing now?” he says.
He employs 30 staff and takes up to 750 people a day out to see the largest Atlantic Puffin colony in North America and an array of different whales and rock types. They get icebergs too.
O’Brien is a brilliant storyteller who cares dearly about the area and its wildlife. We easily saw 10 humpback whales that morning with one even breaching in front of us. It was worth the flight alone.
For lunch I continued along the Irish loop to "Lighthouse Picnics" in Ferryland. Local woman Jill Curran transformed the neglected lighthouse where her great-grandfather was once keeper into a unique lunchtime location. Her lunch basket included freshly squeezed lemonade, a chutney-glazed ham and brie sandwich – on bread baked in the lighthouse – and a strawberry rhubarb fool.
There’s an endless choice of stunning views on the cliff’s edge to lay down your picnic mat, breathe in the salty fresh of the Atlantic and watch the whales blow.
Sullivan's Song House in nearby Calvert is on the way back from Ferryland and it's basically an open invite from Sean Sullivan for a cup of tea and a sing-song in his kitchen. It is hard to believe Sullivan, with his thick accent, has never been to Ireland.
At this end of the Irish loop – which for centuries had been cut off from the mainland – customs that came from Irish ancestors have been maintained in isolation through simple things, such as these intimate get-togethers.
"I'm proud to be an Islander and here's the reason why," Sean and his good friend Sheldon sing with a twinkle in their eyes. "I'm free as the wind and the waves that wash the sand. There's no place I would rather be than here in Newfoundland." You cannot but leave this kitchen with a smile on your face and an appreciation of the simple things done well.
That afternoon I make my way back to St John’s, a charming place which a slight hipster vibe. The city’s unique layout is largely the result of quick rebuilding in the aftermath of two great fires in 1877 and 1892. The oldest streets in the new world run into each other rather aimlessly here, there's what must be the longest crosswalk in any world, while little jelly bean houses line the hilly streets. Here I checked in to the alt Hotel.
In an ideal central location with a harbour view from the room, the touchpad controls and flat screen TVs provided an ultra modern, ultra relaxing vibe. Very different to the night before.
I spent much of the next day wandering around "The Rooms" with archivist Larry Dohey, where provincial archives, art gallery and museum are all combined. The Talamh an Éisc (The Fishing Ground) exhibit answered a lot of my lingering questions about the region's early Irish settlers.
Tell anybody in St John's that you're going out for dinner and they'll light up and ask, "to Raymond's?" It's been named the top restaurant in Canada, with world renowned head chef Jeremy Charles in the kitchen, that night's meal was the best I have ever eaten. It's fine dining using local, wild and organic ingredients and my tasting menu included moose and cod's tongue and cheek. Each dish was paired with a glass of wine, and after a magnificent seven I was ready to explore the city's nightlife.
George’s Street in St John’s is a bit like a great night out in Galway during summer – bars running into bars and live music in each of them. O’Reilly’s is a huge venue and the heartbeat of “the craic”. Yes, they say it here too. Brenda O’Reilly became the first female bar owner on the street in 1996, and along with Craig Flynn they now seem to own half of it. You'll do well to meet a more friendly and hardworking couple.
The following day I had an early dinner in Mussels on the Corner, which is also owned by O’Reilly, and serves traditional Newfoundland food. The region’s most traditional dish of all is called “Jiggs dinner” which is not that dissimilar to our bacon and cabbage - and so I tried one of their specials, Jiggs dinner mussels. It hit the spot.
That evening, my last in Newfoundland, there was one thing I wouldn’t be allowed leave without doing. The “screech-in” is a ceremony performed on outsiders who “come from away”. It involves a shot of screech (Newfoundland rum), a short recitation of some local lingo, the kissing of a cod, and the wearing of a mad hat. At least that’s the way mine went in the Inne of Olde.
Newfoundlanders so effortlessly put in, and take out, every ounce of fun and energy from the simplest of things. Linda the bar owner is a three-time cancer survivor. She is a remarkable woman, and she lived up to her reputation as the master of screeching-in.
I headed back to George Street to enjoy my last night – disappointed I wasn’t staying for longer but glad I’d discovered this new, nearby world. The masterless men they called the first Irish settlers. Well, in 2018, Newfoundland and Labrador remains the perfect escape.
HOW TO . . .
Get there WestJet fly direct and daily from Dublin to St John's from May to the end of October.
Where to stay
Alt Hotel: Queen bed room with harbour view from €101 per night
The Inn by Mallard Cottage: King Suite ranges from €170 per night.
Where to eat The Merchant Tavern: Starters from €5/mains from €15
Mallard Cottage: Dishes from €5-€21
Mussels on the Corner: 1lb of selected mussels dish €10
Raymond's: Seven-course tasting menu is €88pp
What to do
O'Brien's Whale and Bird Tours: Daily tours May through September from €39
Lighthouse Picnics: Lunch and entry from €17pp
Sullivans Songhouse: Wednesday and Saturday 3-5pm, €16pp
Mobile Goat Excursions: St John's to Salmonier Nature Park and Cape St Mary's Ecological Reserve, €118pp
The Rooms: €6 adult entry