Anyone on this island will tell you: Newfoundland’s best stories can be found in its tiniest little towns. Starting in the provincial capital, proceed west on the Trans-Canada Highway, turning off frequently on a series of peninsulas jutting into the sea, most of them traced by a byway that leads through a series of “outports,” traditional Newfoundland fishing villages. There, you never know what you’ll encounter: boat builders, artisans, car collectors, chefs. And maybe a kitchen party, if you’re lucky.
The provincial capital and by far its largest city, St John’s is one of the oldest cities in North America, appeared on maps as early as 1519. Today, its labyrinthine streets are a perfect place to get lost for the day. Climb to the top of the iconic Signal Hill, visible from almost anywhere in town, where Marconi received the world’s first trans-Atlantic wireless transmission in 1901. Head to Quidi Vidi Village for some postcard-perfect photos, and a beer at their microbrewery. And make sure you stay for dinner (usually “supper” in Newfoundland)—St. John’s is home to some of the country’s best restaurants, including The Merchant Tavern, where Chef Jeremy Charles cooks up a menu that’s fresh, sustainable, wild, and very local.
Cupids (and Brigus)
Site of the oldest English colony in Canada (and the second-oldest in North America), the first settlers came to Cupids in 1610. They established a plantation, fishing, farming and fur-trading with the local indigenous population until around 1700. The town is now home to a provincial historical site, where an archaeological dig is revealing more and more about 17th century life here. It’s worth the drive up Provincial Highway 70, and nearby Brigus is also worth a stop. With stone walls and lovely little lanes and a meandering brook, it all feels like a village on the British Isles, appropriate enough since its name is a take on “Brickhouse,” an old term for an English town.
The drive up here can feel a little like a trip to the end of the world, the views to the east stretching out over islands, cliffs and Conception Bay, the land narrowing at the end, water on both sides. Set on the northernmost tip of the Avalon Peninsula, this tiny community is home to a national historic site, preserving 150 acres of rock walls, and an art studio that doubles as a restaurant. The latter, a partnership between a local artist and a Louisiana chef, offers workshops in relief printmaking, as well as a whole menu of Cajun and Southern dishes, fused with local ingredients.
Wooden Boat Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador
In so many ways, the history of this province is linked to the sea. For centuries, towns and villages here were accessed only from the water, with galleons and schooners and dories and long-liners providing both the primary form of transportation and the lifeblood of these communities, hauling in cod (and squid and lobster and crab) to feed their families and sell to the world. In the small village of Winterton, on the west side of the Bay de Verde Peninsula, this museum brings together all of that history, in part through spoken word delivered by staff folklorists. And you can even get your hands dirty—they offer workshops in boat-building, which range from one hour to a whole week.
Nobody’s quite sure where the name came from. Some think it’s a related to an oarlock on a boat, others, to an old French label for a nearby island. Either way, this little town gained a lot of fame a few years back, when Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show featured it on a number of episodes. He built a Hollywood-style sign in the hills and, along the way, residents elected him honourary mayor. But there’s more here than a punchline, including one of the best microbreweries in the province (with upscale pub grub to accompany your pint of lager), as well as heritage boat tours and a lovely waterfront.
Vernon’s Antique Car Museum
A short trip south of the Trans-Canada on the Burin Peninsula Highway, the tiny village of Swift Current (population 207) is home to a big car museum. The private collection of a local man named Vernon Smith, it includes 56 automobiles, built between 1908 and 1970, all of them fully restored and absolutely gleaming. Smith is often on-site and happy to give visitors a tour, where he showcases original items included with the purchase of the cars (a bottle of perfume, a Remington razor) and will share fascinating stories about each of the cars.
One of the most photographed (and painted) towns in Newfoundland, Trinity was once a cod-fishing powerhouse, attracting anglers from around the world all the way back in the 16th century. The English even built a fort at nearby Admiralty Point to defend it (the French attacked, three times in the 1700s), and it remained a major merchant town into the late 18th century. While it no longer rivals St. John’s—it’s home to fewer than 200 people—now it’s mostly tourists who make the trip here, up Provincial Highway 230. And if you’re a movie buff, Trinity will look familiar, as it was the shooting location for the film The Shipping News, starring Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore and Judi Dench.
When Giovanni Caboto—aka, John Cabot—first spotted North America back in 1497, it was right here. “O buono vista!,” he exclaimed—“Oh happy sight!” Bonavista remains an excellent place to explore, right at the end of the Discovery Trail, Route 230. Walk to the red-and-white striped lighthouse, which keeps watch over icebergs in the spring. Learn more about the salt cod trade at Ryan Premises National Historic Site, and see the dramatic arches at Dungeon Provincial Park. Then stroll through town, which is home to plenty of unique boutiques and good restaurants.
Terra Nova National Park
The easternmost national park in Canada, Terra Nova encompasses 400 square kilometres, the park bisected by the Trans-Canada Highway. You can paddle one of its sheltered coves in a kayak, hike along eleven separate trails, or take a little time to swim or sunbathe at the beach along Sandy Pond. But it’s even better at night. The first designated Dark Sky Preserve in Newfoundland and Labrador, you can grab a kit that includes a star map and binoculars at the visitor’s centre. Then head to the viewing platform at Ochre Hill to marvel at the profound beauty of the cosmos.