For centuries, the Rock has been blessed with quaint seaside villages that beg to be discovered by motorcycle
Story and Photos by Jeff Davison
“Look what the storm just blew in!” The pub waitress smirked as I stumbled in out of a torrential rain in Placentia, Newfoundland. Water was still running down my neck and dripping off the end of my nose. “We don’t open for an hour, but I can’t turn away a drowning man.” She brought me in and offered me hot chowder to warm my bones and several dining room chairs to hang my dripping gear.
Bad weather. Great people. That would characterize my time on the eastern shores of Newfoundland. Not that the weather is always thus. One friendly fellow commiserated, “You’ve arrived just at the end of two months of sunshine every day.” I hoped the town’s name, from the French for “a pleasant place,” might yet be a sign of things to come.
“Do you have a place to stay?” asked Jean. (She was now Jean and I was Jeff, not just a waitress and a drowning man.) “There’s a wonderful bed and breakfast just steps up the road. I can call for you.” And so it came to pass that I settled in for the night at Rosedale Manor, a Southcott-style home built in 1893, and recently beautifully restored. After sleeping on turnoffs and old logging roads, I certainly enjoyed the upgrade, with porcelain basin, refinished antique furniture and a welcome to restore all faith in humanity. Breakfast included, it was still less expensive than most hotels. And what a breakfast! Linda, the owner, had partnered with a born and bred Placentia boy to run Philip’s Café. Philip made all his own jams and breads. And Linda kept the coffee and toast coming. Along with the potato cakes, eggs and ham, it was enough to keep me going all day long as I explored the Avalon Peninsula.
Discovering the Colonies
The route south to St. Bride’s was a terrific, twisty road, cresting over ridges and dropping into tiny villages along the shore – Barasway Cove, Patrick’s Cove, Gooseberry Cove – one after another, all picture-perfect. This road, all the way to Salmonier, was shown on the map as “The Cape Shore Drive.” However, I detoured south to Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, where I then hiked a trail through grasslands atop sheer cliffs. I passed by grazing cattle and bleating sheep on my way to “Bird Rock.” Still some distance away, I began to hear what sounded like the rattle of an old tractor engine. Coming over a knoll, suddenly I was face to face with the ocean 100 metres below, and on the cliffs, the largest (and possibly noisiest) gannet colony in the province. Eleven thousand pairs of nesting gannets, kept company by common murre, black-legged kittiwake, razorbills and a small number of black guillemot. Bird Rock and the adjacent cliffs are like an avian high-rise. Only a few metres away, I sat on tufts of tall grass, watching families caring for their young, safe from both land and sea predators.
From here I rode out to the main highway, then turned south once more to follow a winding route where the tall brush crowded the shoulder. Were a moose to step out, I wouldn’t stand a chance, so I slowed to a more cautious pace. I arrived at Point Lance, one of the most remote outports on the entire peninsula. Until 1950, the only way in or out was by boat.
My journey led me north through Branch and North Harbour, where I made a short dodge west to visit Cataracts Provincial Park. The road was potholed and rugged, but the pounding twin waterfalls were impressive. Returning to the pavement, I continued east on Highway 91, then south around St. Mary’s Harbour. Called the “Irish Loop” on the map, the red line ran all the way around the Avalon Peninsula to St. John’s. I followed it along the shore to St. Joseph’s before cutting inland and emerging at Riverhead, where again I enjoyed the meandering road as it hugged the shore virtually all the way to St. Vincent’s and Peter’s River. From there, Hwy 10 led me through a long stretch of the Eastern Hyper-Oceanic Barrens where a herd of over 3000 caribou grazed for mushrooms, greens and caribou lichen. I felt as though I had been whisked to Canada’s Far North. In fact, this is the home of the world’s most southerly herd of caribou.
The Absolute Lord of Avalon
On the eastern shore, Ferryland, like so many of these coastal villages, offered a storied past. The name is an Anglicized version of possible French, Spanish or Portuguese origins. Since the early 1500s, “The Pool” was well known to – and contested by – fishermen of all four nationalities, including English. However, by the end of the century, the English had gained control, and in 1621, permanent settlement began. Two years later, Lord Baltimore was granted a Royal Charter for the “Colony of Avalon.” And it is to this that the peninsula owes its name. Baltimore himself came to Avalon with his family and 40 Catholic colonists. Attacks by the French, a particularly harsh winter and illness among the colonists, however, diminished his enthusiasm. In the spring, Baltimore packed up his colony and moved south to an area he named Maryland. Even today, the Great Seal of the State of Maryland attests to Lord Baltimore’s claim as “Absolute Lord of Maryland and Avalon.”
I arrived at dusk in St. John’s where, unbeknownst to me, the George Street Festival was in full swing. George Street is said to have the most bars and pubs per square foot of any street in North America, and each year, up to 100,000 people party on the “biggest little street” for six straight days, leading into the annual Regatta Day civic holiday. Failing to find accommodations thanks to the crowds, I decided to try my luck vagabonding on Cape Spear. This National Historic Site is the most easterly point of land in North America, and it’s the first place on the continent where the sun shines each day. To my surprise, I was not alone on the benighted cape. Several cars filled with college kids in sleeping bags were parked in the lot. Clearly, being first to see the sun was not an original idea. Nevertheless, it was a great way to start a new day.
Cape Spear is the site of the oldest surviving lighthouse in Newfoundland and Labrador. In service from 1936 to 1955, the building is now a museum, while a modern beacon stands just down the hill. The remains of a World War II military bunker also stand on this point, along with a battery of two massive “disappearing” guns that were built to protect ships using St. John’s harbour. These guns could be raised to fire, then lowered behind a protective concrete wall. Although the military buildings are gone, the bunker remains. I wandered into the dark depths with a flashlight. Cold and damp even when they were inhabited, the tunnels are now dank and dilapidated.
I rode back into the heart of old St. John’s for breakfast. Here, a passerby noticed my…