It’s a rugged remoteness. The glacial-swept highlands conjure up fairy tales, the mighty fjords breed a difficulty of exploration that boasts an incredible sense of accomplishment,” said Andy Nichols, expert outdoor guide and owner of Gros Morne Outdoor Company. “To sum up the community here, it’s simple: It’s a place where no one locks their doors.”
Offering UNESCO World Heritage Sites, sprawling national parks, picturesque seaside villages, a world-class food scene, and quite possibly the country’s friendliest locals, you’d think Newfoundland would be swarming with tourists. However, this Canadian island that sits off the eastern coast of the country, flanking Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, sees a mere fraction of the visitors of British Columbia and Alberta. Newfoundland’s most inspiring national park, Gros Morne, sees a quarter of the visitors of Alberta’s famed Banff National Park and Lake Louise—two parks that are anticipating more than 5 million visitors this year alone. If you’re craving hikes that both challenge and inspire; food that’s as local as you can possibly get (think fish caught off the harbor where you’re eating); and secluded campsites, skip the crowds of Alberta and head to Newfoundland instead.
“Newfoundland has all that western Canada has, from soaring mountain ranges to deep valleys and gorges, yet it is truly untouched. You can go and hike in peak season with a handful of people, not thousands,” said Ian Cloud, owner and operator of Tour Gros Morne. “You can experience a national park that is not bursting at the seams with people but bursting with natural surroundings, moments of peace. I feel this is the type of place that Banff was 100 years ago.”
Here, six reasons to skip Alberta and make the trek to Newfoundland instead:
Gros Morne National Park
Encompassing almost 700-square-miles of land, Gros Morne National Park—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—is arguably one of the highlights of a visit to Newfoundland. Composed of rolling mountains and sprawling forests encapsulated with thick brush and spongy moss–laden bogs and multi-hued limestone cliffs, this 450,000-year-old landscape touts some of North America’s most complex geography. Along with a lush, green atmosphere that rivals that of Scotland and Ireland, the park is also home to the Tablelands—a piece of the Earth’s mantle that’s often hidden well beneath the crust. It’s a place where scientists discovered plate tectonics. More than just outdoor spaces, the park is also encircled by small pockets of villages and towns, home to quirky boutiques and cafes, restaurants rivaling that of Calgary, and a hospitality of a kind collection of locals that truly can’t be found anywhere else. Even though most locals recommend visiting the park during the summer, which spans from May to September, you’ll also find a few who rave about the remote and stunning alpine landscapes of the winter.
“Winter allows you to be the first of your friends to explore places and be the only tracks on the trails. You feel like you have an entire national park to yourself, and that is a feeling unlike anything I had ever experienced anywhere else in Canada,” Cloud said.
The population of the entire island of Newfoundland sits just shy of 550,000—not even 1/8 of Alberta (which is more than 4.3 million). With such a scattered and sparse human footprint, the wildlife sightings are bar none. Trips to and from Deer Lake’s regional yet effective airport in the mornings and evenings will boast ample moose sightings as they toggle to and from the thick forest brush on either side of the highway. Ten thousand black bears call the area home and can sometimes be spotted in the treetops of Gros Morne. Elk, caribou, and a variety of bird species (like the Atlantic puffin, or the ptarmigan) are also common sights along the sloping hills. On the water, the cold Atlantic waves are home to more than 22 species of whales, making it one of the best places to charter a boat, kayak, or canoe and catch a glimpse of a massive humpback breeching or watch one swim alongside you.
The Long Range Traverse
What brings so many people to the awe-inspiring landscapes of Alberta are the trails, which weave and meander all along the famous Canadian Rockies. The same amount of trails can be found in Newfoundland—just with an added degree of difficulty. The Long Range Traverse with Great Canadian Trails, which can take 4–7 days, is one of the country’s most challenging and weaves through Gros Morne National Park’s craggily cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and through miles of squashy bogs. “It’s one of the few true traverses that have no defined trail markings. Only 12 people are allowed to access per day and it features this incredibly inspiring mix of wild pristine wilderness,” Ian said.
Not only is the park strict on the number of hikers and campers allowed, the conditions to complete it are short—think 8–10 weeks a year, making the competition to complete it, high. Beyond that, though, the Long Range offers trekkers a chance to experience Newfoundland in a way typically just reserved for the locals. “It requires a degree of understanding of true backcountry hiking—not something many visitors understand. The views are spectacular as you pass by fjords and glacially carved mountains. And finally, the lack of people provides a unique and intimate experience. It’s a harsh but beautiful landscape,” Steven Wheeler, co-owner of Gros Morne Outdoor Company, said.
Often labeled an 8/10 in difficulty, it’s not for the faint of heart or the completely unfit, as days are filled scrambling up narrow mountain passages, bum-sliding through thick brushes of pine trees, and river crossing through icy river waters. The views, which often span 360 degrees of the bountiful landscape, make every tiring step worth it.
Alberta is, without a doubt, one of Canada’s most inspiring food cultures. However, despite being far less populated, Newfoundland’s unique food scene undoubtedly rivals Alberta’s. Despite the long, cold winters, fresh produce (like tomatoes, squash, herbs, potatoes, turnips, broccoli, and more) has found a way to thrive during the shorter growing season. Paired with the fishing culture, which has fueled the economy of villages around the island (Trout River, Port de Grave, St. John’s, and Dildo), the fare found on restaurant menus is as local as you can get. You’d be remiss not to order lobster, which is caught off the coast of Newfoundland starting in April and served a myriad of ways, from buttered in rolls to served as a dumpling in high-end eateries like the Blue Ocean Dining Room in Gros Morne.
For a taste of true Newfie cuisine, order a fried cod plate with mashed potatoes, pork scrunchins’, and buttery vegetables. It’s a hearty dish, but one that’s as unique to the area as the landscape. If you’re feeling adventurous, the cod tongue—which is often served deep-fried with tartar sauce—is another delicacy, along with dried moose jerky. Beyond simple fare, though, the island has a large variety of upscale eateries that rival that of those found in Banff, like the Black Spruce, a contemporary bistro serving dishes like curry soaked mussels and homemade ravioli; or Saltwater Restaurant in St. John’s, where you can order fresh-caught oysters paired with vanilla beet salad.
Food tours are also a great way to sample the different dishes of the area. Taste of Gros Morne, for example, offers a few different tours around western Newfoundland’s national park. Each tour takes you around to the area’s best restaurants to sample the gastronomy, as well as gives you local insight into the community from owner Rebecca Cloud, who also brings a sample of her homemade cuisine for you to savor. In St. John’s, you can opt to fill your belly with something a little more lively, like craft brews, on the St. John’s Beer Tour. The Townie Brew Tour will take you to owner and guide Kayla’s favorite pubs, while the Axes & Ales Tour gives you a beer sample and the chance to toss an axe (safely).
Undeniable Outdoor Adventure
For outdoor enthusiasts, there isn’t any better place to hike, bike, trek, fish, mountain climb, swim, kayak, run, or forage than Newfoundland’s vast landscapes. Like Gros Morne’s Long Range Traverse, the island is riddled with hundreds of hiking trails spanning thousands of meters and dozens of different climates and geography. Another just as popular—although more developed—trek is the East Coast Trail with Great Canadian Trails, which connects more than 30 seaside trails and over 270 kilometers of trail in St. John’s. With hikes ranging from a few hours to multiple days, you’ll get a chance to walk through the pastel-colored villages that are most often associated with Newfoundland.
Beyond the standard adventure, you’ll also find other unique outdoor sports to satisfy any level of adrenaline junkie, from ziplining off Marble Mountain or over Petty Harbor, to rafting through the rapids of Exploits River, to flight-seeing over the boreal forests and icy bays of the island, and everything in between. In winter, you can also dog sled (thanks to the more than 16 feet of snow the island typically sees), backcountry ski (especially in and around Gros Morne National Park), snowmobile, snowshoe, and sled.
Summer’s activities are more plentiful, with the chance to mountain bike, participate in trail runs, fish, and go boating.
Canadians have a reputation for being kind and welcoming. They’re the type of people who will say “I’m sorry” even if you bumped into them; a kind group of strangers who will invite you into their home for a meal, even if they just met you. Locals from Newfoundland, or Newfies, as many call themselves, are no exception.
A unique blend of French, Irish, English and aboriginal, the languages of the island range from French Canadian (spoken mostly on the western side) to a blend of Irish and English, which can be heard scattered throughout the peninsula. “Though being one of the oldest colonies in North America, the eastern portion of the province was the focus of development, with western portion not seeing any real development until the 1900s. It’s made our population [those in western Newfoundland] more rugged, outdoorsy and kind, I think,” Wheeler said with a smile.
Since the population of the island is so sparse, with a majority of locals living in and around the bigger cities like Deer Lake, St. John’s, and Conception Bay, the smaller towns, seaside villages, and remote communities offer a sense of community that’s been extinct in so many other parts of North America. Not only are the locals nice, they’re resilient—mostly because they have to be in the island’s harsher climates. Instead of hibernating during winter, most residents can be found enjoying the peninsula’s jaw-dropping beauty 365 days out of the year, regardless of the temperatures.
Picturesque Seaside Towns
You’ll find beautiful towns all across Canada, especially in Alberta, but the charming pastel hues of St. John’s fishing homes; the sock-lined front yards of Trout River; and the historic churches turned live music venues of Bonne Bay are especially picturesque. St. John’s, for example, is a living postcard, thanks to the crisscross streets that were developed for horse-drawn carriages; colorful row homes wedged along hidden alleyways; along with tiny wooden homes speckled atop Signal Hill. The western side offers more remote towns, like Trout River, which vaunt no cell-phone service, pastel-colored houseboats, and a way of life that’s been since forgotten (like the local matriarchs who sell handwoven socks on lines in front of their homes). Even Bonavista, which is one of the province’s most popular landmarks, has a quiet ruggedness to it. Named after a saying Italian explorer Giovanni Caboto exclaimed upon landing (“O buono vista”), a look around to the area’s rugged cliffsides, pebbled beaches, historical lighthouses, and cobblestoned streets make it not hard to see why he was so enamored with the view.
(Recently published in Vogue, Magazine)