Gros Morne National Park , Newfoundland
Gros Morne National Park , Newfoundland

Newfoundland: A Must-see Big Island and a Magical Small One

Canada’s easternmost province is loaded with places worth visiting, including Fogo, which offers a blissful escape from the modern world.

You’ll find plenty to see and do in Newfoundland, which was once an independent country but united with Labrador in 1949 to become Canada’s easternmost province. Fondly known as “The Rock,” it is the world’s 16th-largest island, with a population of just over 500,000. Here, you can roam among green-forested landscapes, rocky coastlines, and small towns often separated by large expanses.

St. Johns, the vibrant capital, is in the province’s southeastern region. Intimate in scale, it is by far the largest city and home to 40 percent of Newfoundlanders, many of whom are of Irish or British heritage. Must-see sights here include the colorful Jelly Bean Row houses downtown and a small harbor busily servicing oil rigs. Above the town lies the 17th-century Signal Hill citadel, the site of Marconi’s first transatlantic wireless communication. During late May through June, it’s an excellent spot for iceberg viewing.

UNESCO has designated two World Heritage Sites in central Newfoundland: Gros Morne National Park and L’Anse aux Meadows. Gros Morne, which lies slightly west on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is worth visiting to experience its otherworldly landscapes, including towering Scandinavian-like fjords, ancient mountains, and fascinating geological formations. L’Anse aux Meadows Archeological site on the island’s northern tip was home to the first Norse settlers in North America over a thousand years ago. Immerse yourself in history and marvel at the Viking ruins and reconstructed sod houses.

Take a spin around the Kittiwake Coast, a stunning rocky coastline similar to Maine’s but with steroid-injected boulders. This sparsely populated region remains home to fishermen and loggers. When planning an outing, be aware of the low speed limits enforced by both troopers and the occasional caribou darting across the highway.  

Consider a scenic boat outing to Hare Bay. You can go whale watching; birdwatching for bald eagles, puffins, and ospreys; and fishing for species such as trout, cod, and Arctic char. You can spend a night on remote Bragg’s Island in a glamping dome. Or, climb up the Dover Fault Overlook to gaze down on a major break in the earth’s crust.

Farther along, you’ll come to the Barbour Living Heritage Village in Newtown. The site highlights life from the perspective of 19th-century merchant traders. Fishermen brought their catch to the merchants, who paid them with a barter system. The workers had to buy their goods from merchant-owned stores. 

Nearby, central Newfoundland’s long sandy beach in Lumsden gets pounded by thunderous crashing waves. Why not rent an ATV and explore the seaside, or rent a trailer and stay along the beach? 

Twillingate offers a quintessential small town with what many consider the best iceberg viewing. The Long Point Lighthouse and Lookout at Crow Head, photography landmarks, were built in 1876 and remain operational. 

Fogo Island Inn
Fogo Island Inn

Fogo: The Ultimate Retreat from City Life 

An hour's drive from Gander gets you to the aptly named Farewell Ferry dock. Take your car and enjoy the 45-minute crossing to sleepy, isolated Fogo Island. Here, clustered in 10 tiny fishing communities, you’ll find brightly painted houses standing on stilts at the water's edge, and fishing boats bobbing gently in the harbor. Don’t worry about getting lost: only a few main roads traverse the ancient stone-strewn terrain. 

The town of Tilting, founded by Irish settlers, still looks much as it did 200 years ago. Many residents, now fourth- and fifth-generation descendants, offer captivating history with an Irish accent. Fishing co-ops developed in 1967 helped raise the once-immense but recently struggling cod-fishing trade and kept Fogo from the threat of government resettlement. The resilient residents quickly developed a system of collaboration that allowed them to work through the loss of the traditional fisheries and hold on to their homes.

A meandering drive will lead you to a sign denoting a town called Joe Batt's Arm. Joe was a former pirate who stayed on Fogo and gave up his life at sea. Don't blink or you'll bypass the little community, but keep your eyes peeled for the Fogo Island Inn. You can't miss it, even without signage. In a world of the charmingly small, it commands the scene. 

The inn was the brainchild of Zita Cobb, a Fogo Island native who left to work her way through the tech world and returned a self-made millionaire. She came back with the commitment to bring new life to the island without disturbing its traditions or the environment. The energy-efficient structure features solar thermal roof panels, uses no fossil fuels, avoids single-use plastic, and collects rainwater to filter and reuse in toilets and laundry. 

Fogo Island activities

The stunning 29-room lodge, winner of numerous architectural awards, transports the isle into the future. It was designed by architect Todd Saunders, a resident of Norway who was born in Newfoundland. The structure showcases a harmonious blend of modern design and traditional craftsmanship. At first sight, the building seems out of place, but it takes its shape from the traditional cod-fishing sheds and family saltbox houses scattered over the island. Saunders has said, "You make great architecture when you know a place."   

Shorefest, a charitable foundation benefiting the residents, opened the inn 10 years ago, to help preserve the island's cultural heritage and natural assets, including local foodways. All the inn’s operating surpluses return to the island.

Fogo Islanders have historically hunted, grown, foraged, and caught their food out of necessity. At the inn, local fresh fish dominates the gourmet menu, and the hotel hires foragers to source the island's herbs, seaweed, berries, and greens. The culinary team also utilizes products reminiscent of the colonial triangular trade routes: molasses, rum, and spices from the Caribbean. 

Art plays a significant role in the lives of Fogo Islanders: pottery making, quilting, wood crafting, and boat building. At the inn, handmade and signed quilts top the guest room beds, and artisans craft the furniture locally. Shorefest has also built four contemporary studios for resident artists. 

The Community Host Program matches a resident with inn guests to help orient them to the island. These passionate, lifelong Fogo Islanders take pleasure in offering insights into their hometown heritage. They have fished the island's shores, picked its berries, climbed its rocks, driven its roads, and walked its trails innumerable times. They are intimately connected to their home and eager to pass on their knowledge about it. 

Hosts often lead guests up a 160-foot rocky outcropping called Brimstone Head for a prime view of Iceberg Alley. The bergs calve from glaciers in Greenland and make a two-year slow journey southward. Everyone marvels at the sight of giant icebergs floating by. 

While hiking is a leading pastime for visitors and residents, you can also opt for art gallery tours, photography outings, boat trips, biking, and stargazing. You can relax in the rooftop hot tubs and sauna, get a massage, or embrace the untamed. Since getting to Fogo is no easy feat, privacy prevails. Don't be surprised if a few incognito celebrities are among the inn’s guests. 

Overall, Fogo Island eases into the ultimate tranquil retreat from frenzied urban life. One of the marketing tag lines sums up the Inn as "a place to disconnect from the busyness of life and reconnect with yourself."

Travel writer Debi Lander is a long-time BJT contributor. Airfare, lodging, and rental car for her trip to Newfoundland were provided by Newfoundland Tourism.

Travelers Fast Facts

What It Is: Newfoundland and Labrador is the easternmost Canadian province bordering the Labrador Sea into the Atlantic Ocean. The island of Newfoundland showcases natural wonders such as massive cliffs, fjords, icebergs, and caribou herds. Isolated Fogo Island is four times Manhattan's size but with fewer than 2,200 residents. 

Climate: The maritime climate brings cool temperatures, ample precipitation, and significant variability. Coastal areas are prone to fog and mist, especially during spring and early summer. The Fogo Island Inn claims there are seven seasons: winter, pack ice, spring, trap berth, summer, berry, and late fall. 

Getting There: Most commercial flights to Newfoundland land in St. Johns (YYT). Other airports operate in Gander (YQX) and Deer Lake (YDF). Fogo Island maintains a 3,000-foot airstrip (Fogo Aerodome CDY3) operated by the government at an elevation of 80 feet. It can accommodate a fixed-wing 12-passenger Beech 1900D aircraft and the 37-seat Dash-8 100.

The Inn can also arrange helicopter services from Gander (about 30 minutes) and St. John's (about 90 minutes) to the Fogo airstrip.

What to Know Before You Go: Newfoundland has its own time zone, a half-hour ahead of Atlantic time and 90 minutes ahead of the Eastern time zone.

Traveler Report Card 

Accommodations: Fogo Island Inn (A) offers a luxury experience in the wilds of a remote island…In Gander, Quality Hotel and Suites (C+), Comfort Inn (C+), and Sinbad's Hotel and Suites (C+) are the best bets…Sugar Hill Inn (B), near Gros Morne National Park, offers 10 lovely rooms, some suites, and fine dining at Chanterelles.

Dining: Fogo Island Inn (A+) serves up gourmet meals and an excellent bar with local products like seaweed gin…BangBelly Bistro (A) offers multi-course dining and a curated cocktail list run by a former Fogo Island Inn chef. The locals' favorite restaurant is open from Mother's Day to Canadian Thanksgiving…In Gander, Newfoundland Tea Company Bistro (B) specializes in seafood…Chanterelles (B), at Gros Morne National Park, offers upscale fine dining. 

A Place in Aviation History

Gander, a town in central Newfoundland, earned a place in aviation history due to its remote location and adaptability. Its airport—the largest in the world when it was constructed in the 1930s—played a huge role in WWII, ferrying 10,000 Allied aircraft to Europe and participating in search-and-rescue, aircraft salvage, and medevac missions.

Postwar, Gander returned to grandeur as a crossroads for airplanes needing to refuel. Its international lounge (opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1959) saw stopovers from celebrities like Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and even Fidel Castro, whom the local kids talked into taking a sledding adventure. Aviation enthusiasts would visit the refurbished lounge, decorated with mid-century modern furniture resembling a 1960s time capsule. 

On Sept. 11, 2001, Gander again took on an essential role when 38 international jumbo jets were forced to land there after air traffic was closed in the U.S. The 7,000 passengers on those airplanes received warm welcomes from the residents who hosted them for the next four to five days. How Gander (with a population of approximately 9,000 at the time) and its neighbors Appleton, Gambo, Lewisporte, Glenwood, and Norris Arm responded became legendary. Despite cultural, linguistic, and religious differences, local schools turned into makeshift shelters, and Newfoundlanders donated clothing, food, and toiletries. Somehow, during those tragic and hectic days, medical supplies and telephones suddenly appeared. The communities rallied together to ensure the well-being of their unexpected guests, creating relationships that continue today. 

An upstairs museum at Gander Airport offers a fascinating timeline of stories and memorabilia. You can watch a video showing what faced a 9/11 air controllers' radar screen: an overwhelming scramble of circling flights.

In 2017, the story of the Newfoundlanders' response and their compassionate interaction with the "plane people" became the story of a hit Broadway musical, Come from Away. The musical skillfully portrays the generosity and resilience of the people and the appreciation and affection of the "come from aways." 

Actors performed a slightly revised version of the show in Gander in 2023. Newfoundlanders in attendance laughed, cheered, and cried. American John Antonuk, who attended a performance and has spent years working in the province, said, "The play captures the nature and character of folks who've always made me feel at home. It gave me a renewed spirit in humanity." 

Reserve tickets early to see the musical's return to Gander in the summer of 2024.