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4 Stunning Canadian UNESCO Sites That Changed History

In Newfoundland and Labrador, geological wonders meet cultural marvels—all surrounded by awe-inspiring scenery.

4 Stunning Canadian UNESCO Sites That Changed History

A rugged landscape where nature is at its most raw, dramatic, and awe-inspiring: That’s exactly what you can discover in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Comprised of the large island of Newfoundland and the Labrador Peninsula, the province boasts a landscape so beautiful and a history so fascinating that UNESCO has designated four World Heritage Sites within its borders—one of only two provinces in Canada with so many spots pinpointed for their educational, scientific, and cultural importance.

Here’s where they are—and what makes them worth a visit.


L’Anse aux Meadows: Viking Sagas Come to Life
One of the original 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites established in 1978, L’Anse aux Meadows not only proved that the Vikings established a settlement in North America over a millennium ago, but that they beat Columbus to the discovery of the New World by several centuries. Sitting on a vast coastal expanse at the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, the excavated site dates to the 11th century and features accurate recreations of the original wood-framed, peat-turf buildings. Out in the fresh air, you can explore this scenic milestone of human migration and discovery. Inside these sod buildings in summer, you can gather around a kitchen fire for a unique storytelling experience—a Viking will regale you with sagas, myths, and folktales. You can also enjoy the fun game of trying to find grapes hidden by Tykir, the family servant of Leif Eriksson; discovering them is proof that you’re a true Viking.

Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

Wayne Barrett/Wayne Barrett, Barrett and MacKay Photography Inc. www.barrettmackay.com

Mistaken Point: Big Moments in Evolution
In the southernmost reaches of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, wild waves crash against the nearly 11-mile-long stretch of sheer cliffs at Mistaken Point—a name that points to the treacherous waters responsible for capsizing more than 50 ships. (Coincidentally—but perhaps not surprisingly—the nearby Cape Race Lighthouse received the first distress signals from the Titanic in 1912.) The cliffs make for a dramatic view, but this area also plays host to an outdoor museum of earth’s oldest fossils of complex multicellular life—in other words, when microbe-size creatures got big. Dating back some 580 million years, these 10,000-plus fossil impressions were preserved by volcanic ash and measure from a few centimeters to more than six feet long. For an archaeological adventure in the refreshing sea breeze, head to the Edge of Avalon Interpretive Centre for a guided hiking tour. Along the way, you’ll see epic cliffs and brooks, as well as native animals and plants.


Red Bay National Historic Site: Whaling in the Wild Seas
Situated on the rocky shore of the Strait of Belle Isle in Labrador, Red Bay Basque Whaling Station was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013 for its diversity of archaeological remains. The station was established by 16th-century Basque whalers who named it Gran Baya; they produced whale oil that illuminated the lamps of Renaissance Europe.

Get an introduction into the tools used by whalers, like a 26-foot “chalupa” boat, and learn about the historic San Juan de Pasajes shipwreck just offshore. Then take a quick boat ride or kayak tour to Saddle Island for a one-hour guided or self-guided tour of the station grounds and mariners’ cemetery. Walk the short Boney Shore Trail to see the spot where whalers discarded whale bones (pieces still remain) and climb the 689 steps of the Tracey Hill Trail for great views of the station and the stunning Labrador coastline.


Gros Morne National Park: Plate Tectonics for Visual Learners
Situated on the west coast of Newfoundland, Gros Morne National Park is a stunning wonderland of landlocked fjords, rushing waterfalls, and glacier-carved fjords. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its exceptional natural beauty, the park has also contributed greatly to the study of plate tectonics and geological evolution. In the Tablelands, you’ll find a landscape of distinctive red rocks that were once found in the Earth’s mantle and were pushed up by the collision of tectonic plates millions of years ago (thus proving the theory of plate tectonics). In fact, this is one of the few places in the world where Earth’s mantle is exposed (along with sites in Oman and on Macquarie Island, Australia). Explore this outdoor classroom with a 1.5-hour guided interpretive walk or hike it on your own with a map that features information about geology and flora. For a more off-the-grid experience, hike the Trout River Pond Trail into a pristine landscape—or book a small-group Zodiac boating adventure to cruise into the saltwater fjord of Bonne Bay. Along the way, you might spot whales, dolphins, caribou, and moose, among other local animals.

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