The Irish Loop

By Nancy Griffin, Contributor
December / January 2004

A few years ago, Newfoundland tourism officials decided to give names to roads around some peninsulas to help travelers plan trips by calling attention to a region’s most significant feature. Along the Southern Shore (as it was always, and still is, known to residents) of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, there was no question what it would be called: Irish Loop Drive.

The Southern Shore — emerald in summer — is geographically and culturally the closest thing to Ireland in North America. Undeveloped, unspoiled, possessed of rare scenic beauty, it lies in the southeastern corner of the island of Newfoundland, facing the Atlantic Ocean partway between Canada’s East Coast and Ireland, just below the spot where the sun first hits North America.

Shamrock road signs dot the scenic drive where tall, rocky cliffs plunge to the wild ocean’s edge. Crooked stick fences ramble around the edges of summer-green fields. Friendly residents with names like Patrick and Kathleen speak to visitors in a lilting brogue.

Travelers who love the coast of Ireland should feel right at home. And why wouldn’t they? Geologists say Newfoundland broke away from the European landmass, probably Ireland, 400 million years ago.

Most of the people who settled here — usually fishermen — came from Ireland starting in the 1600s and continued arriving through famine times. The isolation of the bays kept their accents, culture and music intact through the generations.

The rugged, windswept coastline won’t be every tourist’s cup of tea, especially those who favor fancy resorts or tennis courts. But those who prefer the road less traveled, the names familiar and the residents more friendly to visitors than jaded by them will discover another kind of luxury.

The shore’s natural delights include half a million puffins, pods of summering whales, Precambrian fossils, the ubiquitous moose and the island’s largest caribou herd. But the biggest attraction is the people — their easy conversation, hospitality and music.

When hundreds of planes were side-tracked to Newfoundland after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, islanders streamed to the airports, surprising thousands of marooned travelers by bringing them home, feeding them, giving them beds and showing them around. People who barely knew that the island existed now return regularly to visit their new friends.

Like Ireland in the past, Newfoundland’s poor economy meant the island traditionally exported its youth. Before the 1949 confederation with Canada, Newfoundlanders usually left to seek their fortunes in the U.S., often to fish out of New York, Boston, New Bedford and Gloucester. Many Irish families stayed a few generations in Newfoundland before moving to the States to swell the ranks of Irish Americans.

Visitors to the Avalon Peninsula will arrive at one end of the Loop or the other, either by flying into the capital city of St. John’s and renting a car, or by driving to the car ferry that departs North Sydney, Nova Scotia, and taking the thrice-weekly summer ferry that lands in Argentia.

A nonstop, full-tilt, full-circle drive of 187 miles from St. John’s and back could be done in less than four hours, barring fog or rain. But driving quickly past scene after scene of breath-catching beauty would be criminal.

For the true Southern Shore experience, a traveler should take days, not hours, to make the trip.

At the eastern end, the Loop starts 25 miles below St. John’s, the oldest city in North America and an international seaport where fishing trawlers, cargo ships, tankers and sailboats vie for dock space in The Narrows between two long hills. Take the short side trip to Cape Spear, a historic lighthouse site where the sun first rises on the continent.

Miles of narrow but paved roads twist between tiny outports, mostly without roadside conveniences, but also without traffic jams or signs of urban creep. The beauty of the Southern Shore is served up in a jagged geography of glacier-scraped fields, fiord-like inlets framed by rocky cliffs, tidal rivers draining to the sea and the occasional iceberg.

Distances from one small settlement to another are not alarmingly long — no worries about filling the tank. Some towns offer no tourist attraction but the town itself — a scattering of small homes hunkered down against the wind, a spectacular view, a few local stores and a gas station. But travelers will find plenty of places to stay — guest homes, bed-and-breakfasts, inns and motels.

Bay Bulls, the first town on the Loop, displays the Irish flag below the Canadian, next to the U.S. and Newfoundland flags. At least three tour boats ferry visitors along the cliffs of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve daily from May to October.

Many thousands of seabirds screech, nest, hatch their eggs and feed their nestlings on the rocks of the Reserve. Among the many species, the most humorous are the tiny round puffins, the provincial bird, with their distinctive striped beaks. Hundreds of them are always in flight, madly flapping their almost-too-short wings in pursuit of their favorite fish.

Next, the whales. Tour-boat operators guarantee that summer visitors will see some part of some kind of whale, usually humpbacks and minkes. Sometimes the whales put on the whole show — breaching and leaping as they feed and play. The O’Brien’s tour boat operation, started by a musical family, began the tradition of having tour guides sing to passengers on the trip out. Tour boats also depart Bauline East and Witless Bay.

Queasy about boats? Two-thirds of the way along the Loop, check the cobble beaches of St. Vincent’s, where whales often swim right up to the shore.

Adventurers who prefer to sneak up on the birds or poke into rocky caves may rent kayaks. Hikers may choose to wend their way along a twisting 136-mile trail from headland to headland. The trail so far links the Southern Shore communities as far as Cappahayden, but will eventually round the Loop.

“Mostly people hike from one town to another, maybe 6 or 7 miles in a day, and usually choose to stay in the communities,” said tourism officer Aidan Costello. However, provincial parks and private facilities offer camping along the route.

Shoppers will find local crafts such as hooked rugs; jams made from the island’s partridgeberries, bakeapples and blueberries; and the handknit sweaters, socks, hats and mittens common to fishing cultures in cold climates.

Ferryland marks the spot where the Avalon Peninsula got its name. Irish fishermen, mostly from Waterford or Wexford, were conscripted by England’s Sir George Calvert, later known as Lord Baltimore. Crews sailed there each spring; caught, salted and dried boatloads of cod; then returned home each fall, since settling at the fishing station was strictly forbidden.

With no hope of owning property in their native land, the Irish could not resist the vast, nearly uninhabited shore of Newfoundland for long. Despite Calvert’s injunctions, many slipped away from the fishing vessels, hid in the woods and illegally settled the Southern Shore.

When Lord Baltimore decided to take up residence there himself, he named his colony Avalon for the magical, misty island in the King Arthur legend. A Catholic convert, Baltimore hoped to establish a Catholic colony, but he lasted less than a year. In 1691, after a killer winter, he left for the milder climate of Chesapeake Bay and the rest is U.S. history. With settlement now legal, more Irish came to Newfoundland.

A decade-old archaeological dig has yielded millions of artifacts tracing North America’s oldest European fishing station in Ferryland back to the French in 1504. Tools, pots, shards, cannonballs, gold rings, clay pipes and other early implements of everyday life are displayed in the Colony of Avalon Museum.

The museum, with 17th-century reproduction gardens, overlooks the dig, the colony’s resurrected forge and the lighthouse on The Downs. The hike to the lighthouse is long, uphill, gorgeous and worth it.

Murals depicting the invasion of Ferryland by the French in 1694 adorn the walls of the Colony Cafe by The Pool. The fried Cod and fish chowder are delicious.

Dinner theater is offered each summer in Ferryland’s restored Kavanaugh Premises. Last summer’s offering was “Too Many Masters,” a history of the Southern Shore directed by Greg Malone of Newfoundland’s long-running satirical revue, Codco. The Shamrock Music Festival is held every year on the weekend of the fourth Sunday in July where island bands with names such as The Irish Descendants, Killkenny Krew or Dungarvan perform Irish and Newfoundland music outdoors.

Overlooking the harbor, the eight-room Downs Inn is a converted Victorian-style convent once owned by the Presentation Sisters, now owned by Aidan Costello’s family. Larger-than-life-size statues of St. Joseph and Mary still watch over upstairs rooms, while a smaller St. Theresa guards the landing on the staircase.

The Loop’s spectacular scenery continues past several more communities before rounding Cape Race, where the Marconi wireless center that received the Titanic’s distress signal was recently rebuilt as a national historic site.

Farther along, a Trepassey museum displays photographs of Amelia Earhart, the first woman passenger to cross the Atlantic by air fom there. Where the road dips inland a bit, caribou roam the St. Shott’s Barrens. Mistaken Point, whatever else its name implies, is home to some of the world’s oldest and rarest Precambrian marine fossils.

When the Loop reaches the western shore of St. Mary’s Bay, Route 10 meets Route 90, takes travelers along the Salmonier Line, meets the Trans-Canada Highway again, and takes travelers back to St. John’s, where they may enjoy Irish music at several pubs before the plane leaves. ♦

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