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The Essential Guide to Newfoundland and Labrador

By Michael Kaminer

Feb 19, 2020

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Gros Morne National Park is one of four UNESCO World Heritage sites in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Courtesy of Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism

Gros Morne National Park is one of four UNESCO World Heritage sites in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

With everything from UNESCO World Heritage sites and a Dark Sky Preserve to abandoned islands and modern cities, Canada’s most easterly province is ripe for adventure.

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Touring Newfoundland and Labrador can feel a bit like surveying the history of the world. In this eastern Canadian province, you can find 500-million-year-old nature, traces of early human migration, settlements from hundreds of years ago, and remnants of pioneering agriculture and industry, all alongside thriving modern cities. 

From the majestic coastline to eerie, ancient landscapes to the brightly colored houses in the capital of St. John’s, here are some of the best things to see and do in Newfoundland and Labrador.  

Marvel at four UNESCO World Heritage sites

In most places, you’d be lucky to find one UNESCO World Heritage site. Newfoundland and Labrador has four, including the 700-square-mile Gros Morne National Park. Shaped by glaciers and continents colliding over the course of a half-billion years, the otherworldly landscape offers fjords, mountains, beaches, bogs, forests, cliffs, and the rust-colored plateaus of the Tablelands—massive remnants of an ancient ocean floor. 

At Newfoundland’s northern tip, the L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site houses the remains of an 11th-century Viking encampment—the first known European presence in the Americas. While watching the costumed Viking interpreters may feel cheesy, the site features a picturesque backdrop of rugged cliffs, bogs, and coastline. To the west, on the mainland of Labrador, the Red Bay National Historic Site commemorates the 16th-century hamlet where Basque and French whalers established the world’s first commercial oil business. After checking out the original Basque artifacts, walk the harborside Boney Shore Trail, which is strewn with old whale bones.  

Newfoundland’s newest World Heritage site, Mistaken Point showcases the oldest fossils on the planet, preserved in craggy mudstone. Start your visit at the Edge of Avalon Interpretive Centre, where you can pick up a guided tour of this endlessly fascinating natural museum.

Whale-watch from Quirpon Island

Spot orcas, humpbacks, and other whales off of Quirpon Island.

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A speck off Newfoundland’s northeastern coast, Quirpon Island features unique underwater topography and a distinctive food supply that scientists believe make it especially attractive to whales. For humans visiting the island, that means a constant aquatic parade of orcas, humpbacks, and 27 other marine species throughout the summer months. A kayak or ferry excursion with local operator Limkum Tours will get you—almost—within spitting distance of the gargantuan cetaceans, but if you’re not ready for a Moby Dick moment, just watch for whales from the window of the heated, indoor station at the circa-1922 Quirpon Lighthouse Inn. Quirpon Island’s location in Iceberg Alley also promises you’ll see magnificent frozen monoliths as late as August. 

Go off the grid on Fogo Island

The Fogo Island Inn is a favorite of design hounds for its modern architecture.

Located off the eastern edge of Newfoundland, Fogo Island is a place of surreal beauty and sincere hospitality. At its center sits the Fogo Island Inn, a modernist masterpiece that rises on stilts from the craggy coast. It’s a splurge, but well worth the money for its stylish rooms, five-star spa, and dinner menu full of locally farmed and foraged ingredients. If you can pull yourself away from the inn’s environs, Fogo Island itself offers breathtaking scenery as well as quirky attractions like the circa-1816 Bleak House Museum in a beautifully preserved merchant house. 

Stargaze in a Dark Sky Preserve

Newfoundland’s only Dark Sky Preserve, Terra Nova National Park offers unparalleled stargazing.

In 2018, Terra Nova National Park was designated Newfoundland’s first and only Dark Sky Preserve for its efforts to minimize artificial light and improve nocturnal ecology—all of which translates to a stargazing experience of astonishing clarity and intensity. Sandy Pond, at the park’s eastern edge, is reported to have the darkest skies, while Blue Hill, the highest point in the area, provides a panoramic perch. Overnight at one of the park’s various campgrounds to fully experience the night sky, and be sure to swing by the visitor center to see the stars reflected in the waters of still and pristine Newman Sound. 

Check out the capital city

Stroll past brightly colored row houses in the quirky capital city of St. John’s.

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Compact and cool, St. John’s feels like no other city in Canada—or anywhere, for that matter. The candy-colored row houses and sparkling harbor might evoke San Francisco, but North America’s oldest city has a unique personality—an English, French, Irish, and indigenous culture mosaic at the edge of the continent. Though St. John’s population is just 114,000, the city is home to interesting arts and history, memorable food, and local characters galore. Check into the sleek Jag boutique hotel, which overlooks the harbor, then join the lines that form daily at tiny Bad Bones Ramen, where chef Adam Gollops serves “authentic, not traditional” noodle soups like the soul-warming Dirty Shrimp. Also be sure to visit the Rooms, a strikingly designed museum with a 7,000-work-strong collection focused on local artists. 

Hike the rugged south coast

Situated at the end of a fjord, the town of Francois is accessible only by water.

For years, only a boat could get you to Newfoundland’s remote south coast, home to the indigenous Mi’kmaq, the island’s oldest inhabitants. While you can drive there now, the beautifully isolated community of Francois, at the end of a spectacular fjord, remains accessible solely by water. To tour the town, book a seven-day hiking adventure with local outfitter Gros Morne Outdoor Company, which offers both fully guided and partially guided options. Along the way, you’ll stop in Francois as well as Burgeo, which occupies a peninsula extending out into the Atlantic, its white-sand beaches framed by imposing granite cliffs. Either before or after your hike, make time for the Mi’kmaq Discovery Centre, where you can learn more about First Nations culture through exhibits, talks, and classes. 

Visit France for the day

Travel to France without crossing the ocean on a visit to Saint-Pierre.

No, you didn’t read that wrong. The French-controlled islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon sit just 12.5 miles off Newfoundland’s southern coast and are worth a day on your itinerary. Catch the ferry from Fortune, Newfoundland—it runs year-round to Saint-Pierre and from May to September to Miquelon—and in 60 to 90 minutes, you’ll feel as if you’ve crossed the ocean, with French signs, architecture, and even cars in every direction. After exploring the main islands, take the 15-minute ferry from Saint-Pierre to Ile aux Marins (Sailor’s Island), where traditional fishermen lived during the 18th and 19th centuries before losing their jobs to modern technology and abandoning the island. There, you’ll find homes, a schoolhouse, and an attractive church, plus the Archipélitude Museum, which showcases artifacts from across the islands.  

Back on Saint-Pierre, make time for a meal at Hippocampe, a local hangout with Asian-inspired fare, including terrific sushi. If you want to spend the night, drop your bags at Nuits Saint-Pierre, where owners Patricia and Bertrand Detcheverry offer country-chic rooms and a charming café in a restored heritage home. 

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Travel Guide to Atlantic Canada

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