Lonely and beautiful

When the fishing collapsed, whales became the flavour of the moment. Liam Creedon reports.

The noise was shocking – an industrial blast, hinting at great pressure, size and force. I span round to catch the sound's source but all that remained was a boat-sized patch of calm in the lolling swell – the whale's watery footprint.

We wouldn't have long to wait for a sighting. Newfoundland's Witless Bay is one of the world's key whale sites.

The humpback was feeding, scooping up vast gulps of silvery capelin fish just below the surface. Another five minutes and it would return with another deafening exhalation of air.

Whale watching is by its very nature, a trying experience. You spend a lot of time not actually seeing very much. I felt ashamed to admit it, but my thoughts were drifting towards lunch. Then, just feet away from our inflatable boat, the spout emerged – a javelin of air and mucus, shooting four metres up into the air, the spray cascading onto our faces.

The surface parted to reveal a giant. Its skin, darker than seawater and gleaming like polished obsidian, all gnarled and barnacle-scarred. The exhalation again, so near this time I could smell the humpback's fishy breath.

With balletic grace the massive cetacean gently sank below the waves, momentarily fluking its vast lobed tail skyward before heading into the deep. Remembering to breathe again, I discovered I was now dangling perilously over the side of the boat, all thoughts of lunch banished.

I regained my composure and watched a chain of five huge whale spouts rupture sporadically through the sea fog, arching back like a guide line to the spruce-fringed headland in the distance.

Many come to the unruly, sea-blasted rock that is Newfoundland for its wilderness and empty space. But this is only a part of Newfie's charm, for this ancient land lying like a ravaged and discarded triangle off the eastern coast of North America, is a treasure trove of history, culinary delights and eccentricity.

Take its capital St John's for a start. Where else can the mournful sighing of a fog horn be reliably used as a wake-up call? Where else can you dislodge your sleepiness by strolling down the high street to watch icebergs lumbering past the harbour.

And where else can you banish your early morning hunger by feasting on seal flipper pie and a plate of cod tongues?

Newfoundland, pronounced like "understand", has a long and proud history. It's all to do with cod or "codfish" as its known almost religiously in these parts.

Named after its harbour, St John's lies within spitting distance of the Grand Banks, a raised platform in the sea bed where nutrient-rich, freezing waters from the Labrador Current mix with the warmer Gulf Stream.

The resulting plankton blooms attract the fish, whales and now the tourists. The first European to discover the province was Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) in the late 15th century, but it was the lure of the codfish that first attracted settlers in greater numbers 50 or so years later.

The harshness of the environment meant isolation. Getting around the interior was virtually impossible and many lived in tiny "outports" or fishing villages only accessible by boat.

It is this isolation that has shaped the Newfoundland character of rugged independence (it only became Canadian in 1949), friendliness and eccentricity.

This sense of oddness manifests itself everywhere, starting on arrival as you switch your watch forward or back half an hour to Newfoundland's own time zone.

The next shock are the accents. You can't help feeling you've accidentally stumbled upon West Cork rather than the other side of the Atlantic, as the strong Irish and Scottish lineage mixed with isolation has meant many islanders still speak with a strong Celtic burr.

Our guide, the venerable Jim McCarthy, knows everything there is to know about the province. He tells us that in a land where television arrived late, islanders made their own entertainment, hence the proliferation of live music. And one unexpected side effect of TV's belated arrival is that Newfoundlanders hold a deep and confounding love of Coronation Street. St John's is the beating heart of Newfoundland and to get to grips with the place – an oddly enchanting mix of pretty clapboard houses and ungainly modern structures – head for Signal Hill.

This outpost overlooks the harbour on one side and the freezing emptiness of the North Atlantic on the other. It was here that Marconi received the first wireless message from England in 1901.

I stayed in the elegant Banberry House, a Victorian bed and breakfast boasting sumptuous blueberry muffins. The clapboard house sits just a stone's throw from St John's infamous party area – George Street.

With the feeling of a bawdy frontier town, George St is where the capital's drinking holes are annexed together. It's worthy of a trip if only to become "screeched in", an elaborate ceremony in which you down a shot of the lethal local liqueur, screech, and then celebrate by kissing a frozen cod.

St John's has an unusual dining scene which focuses on the raw products of the sea and the boreal forests lurking beyond the city limits. Caribou streak, moose livers, halibut cheeks and, of course, seal pie make it on to most menus. Lobster is also a staple, with every supermarket boasting tanks brimming with the live, giant crustaceans. And a weird and wonderful array of "grog snacks" lie in wait for the unwary drinker. Pickled pig tongue is a favourite, looming from jars like botched Damien Hirst projects.

Newfoundland also produces fantastic beer. The wonderful Quidi Vidi micro, in a former fish processing plant on the edge of St John's is an institution. Just don't ask about a notorious ad campaign featuring a semi-clad pensioner on whom the beer bestowed unexpected and alarming results.

But the province's soul burns in the wilderness; from the endless carpets of lupins to the eerie sunken bogs, fringed by mist-wreathed skeletons of pine. Newfoundland boasts a magnetic beauty.

Its coastline is harshly rugged, held hostage by the churning sea. The tang of mauled seaweed hangs heavy in the air, the otherworldly moan of calling loons quivers from every forest lake.

The sea dominates. Ferocious storms and impenetrable fog banks emerge in seconds, seemingly from nowhere. And icebergs drift by in the spring, calved from ice sheets in Greenland. It was one such berg that put paid to the Titanic.

The collapse of the province's cod stocks, however, was catastrophic. As the jobs disappeared so did the youngsters. But help is at hand with the burgeoning oil industry and the resource that Newfoundland has in abundance – its wilderness. Ecotourism is increasingly popular. And at only four hours or so by plane from London, the province is suddenly catching on as a viable holiday destination.

GETTING THERE...

Liam Creedon was a guest of Atlantic Canada and Air Canada which offers return flights from Heathrow to St John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, in Summer 2011 from 430 incl tax. Thomas Cook Signature (0844 879 8014) offers seven nights' room-only at the four star Delta St John's from 1,159 from Manchester .

See www.AtlanticCanadaHoliday.ca. Air Canada reservations: 0871 220 1111 and www.aircanada.com.

Useful websites include Banberry House (www.banberryhouse.com, prices from $139), O'Brien's Boat Tours (www.obriensboattours.com), Sea Kayaking with Stan Cook (www.wildnfld.ca).

YP MAG 29/1/11

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