‘Where you longs to, luv?’ asks the rental car lady as she hands over the keys. The peculiar brogue sounds part Irish, part Canadian, and the question is indecipherable. It’s the first of many odd encounters you’ll have on the island of Newfoundland.

Canada’s remote, eastern-most province ticks in its own time zone (a half-hour ahead of the mainland) and speaks its own dialect (the Dictionary of Newfoundland English provides translation). But spend a few days traveling the Avalon Peninsula – the village-freckled area around the capital St John’s, with shore-clasping hikes, spouting whales and rollicking pubs – and you’ll get in the local groove soon enough.

Avalon Peninsula with light mist off Atlantic Ocean in Newfoundland
Picturesque Avalon Peninsula is covered in small rural communities © Orchidpoet / Getty Images

Hikes and history in Cupids

Start in the town of Cupids, which is what the English did 400 years ago. Merchant John Guy sailed into Conception Bay on Newfoundland in 1610 and fished the cod-rich waters, fought pirates and staked out England’s first colony in Canada (the second in the New World, after Jamestown).

On an overcast and foggy day, an old cannon mounted on wheels is pointed out into Conception Bay with the town and church in the background in the early 1610 settlement of Cupids, Newfoundland.
The tiny Newfoundland town of Cupids was settled in 1610 © milehightraveler / Getty Images

You can tour the remains of Guy’s plantation, part of an active archaeological dig. Silver coins, bottle shards and some of the other 150,000 artifacts unearthed fill Cupids Legacy Centre (Seaforest Dr). Better yet, head to the town’s northern edge and hike the Burnt Head Trail. Climb to the rocky headlands, past blueberry thickets and stone walls that once fenced settlers’ gardens, and look out over the same sea-buffeted coast that drew Guy.

He’d be impressed if he knew all the hoopla that went on in his honour. Fiddlin’ concerts, Elizabethan theatre, tea parties, massive anniversary shindigs. Even Prince Charles dropped by to pay his respects to this wee town of 790 citizens, 80km east of St John’s.

Wave rolling in to the beach, Witless Bay, Newfoundland. View from almost ground level looking across the beach to the water. Part of the town of Witless Bay can be seen in the background.
Witless Bay is a prime area for whale, iceberg and puffin watching © Stephen Barnes / Getty Images

Whales in Witless Bay

It’s nearly impossible to be in Newfoundland for a few days without seeing a whale. But if so, a trip to Witless Bay Ecological Reserve can remedy the situation.

The 35-foot Molly Bawn (Rte 10) sails to the four-island sanctuary from Mobile, 40km south of St John’s, and it doesn’t take long before someone shouts, ‘There’s one!’ Sure enough a big, barnacled humpback steams through the water. Its tail flukes arch up, water cascades from the scalloped edges, and then it disappears.

With a black and white body and a large orange and yellow beak, the puffin seen on a Newfoundland sea cliff is one of the strangest looking birds
Atlantic puffin, also known as common puffin, are found in their millions along the Newfoundland coast © NanoStockk / Getty Images

Here’s the thing about Witless Bay: whales are just a bonus on the ride. The reserve itself is for breeding seabirds – millions of them. The boat pulls up beneath the islands’ sheer cliffs, and a shrieking earful and flapping, black-and-white eyeful flies by. There are kittiwakes, murres, Leach’s storm petrels and puffins, the goofy-looking love child of the penguin and parrot, and the reserve’s undisputed rock stars.

If you hit the jackpot, an iceberg might drift by during the trip, too.

A huge iceberg floats in the harbor of St.John's , Newfoundland
It's not unheard of for giant icebergs to float into the bays on the coast of Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula © NancyAZeglin / Getty Images

Pints in St John’s

Back in St John’s, it’s happy hour. Cobblestoned George Street supposedly has more bars and pubs per square foot than anywhere in North America, and they pour most hours of the day and night.

Begin the party at Trapper John’s Pub (3 George St), with a ‘screech-in’ ceremony to become an Honorary Newfoundlander. The bartender clangs the bar bell, pours a shot of dark rum (there’s actually a local brand called Screech) and watches – along with the rest of the patrons – as you gulp it.

‘Are you ready to become a Newfoundlander?’ he asks.

To which you reply in the local lingo, ‘Indeed I is, me old cock, and long may your big jib draw’ (meaning ‘yes, my friend, and good luck back at ya’).

Colorful buildings mark the shore of St. John's Harbour in Newfoundland, Canada on a sunny day.
St. John's, Newfoundland, is known for its architecture and the colorful houses known as Jellybean Row, visible on the left © ImagineGolf / Getty Images

Then you kiss the derriere of Stubby the toy puffin, everyone claps, and presto, you receive a certificate declaring you an islander.

By the way, it turns out ‘where you longs to’ – the rental car lady’s initial question – means ‘where are you from.’ Now you have two answers.

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This article was refreshed in June 2012 and again in July 2019.

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