Leg; 520 miles / 837 km
Total; 14,402 miles / 23,178 km
We never intended to visit Newfoundland but it turned out to be the favourite part of our trip. A fitting end to a remarkable yearlong adventure. Newfoundland really does have it all, and we only scratched the surface.
We decided to fly to St. John’s and cycle the coastline of the Avalon peninsula. Everyone we spoke to warned us about the wind and hills, so we planned a modest 40-mile daily average. We were lucky not to have any bad headwinds but the elevation warnings were accurate and we were pleased we took it easy!
Our first day took us through the lovely coastal towns of Flatland, Pouch Cove and Portugal Cove. The sun is searing hot and we had a great introduction to the Newfoundland coastline. We arrived at Topsail Beach late afternoon and waited for all the families to leave before we put up our tent in the small elevated park. We waited and we waited and we waited… By 9pm most of the families had left and were replaced with hoards of teenagers. It was getting dark and too late for us to find another spot so we decided to camp there anyway. By the time we crawled into our tent, there were over 150 partying teenagers brazenly ignoring the ‘no open fires’ sign and doing what teenagers do.
It was a restless night. We woke up to fresh graffiti on the toilet block, but thankfully a fully intact tent. We swore never to camp at a beach again and set off happy in the knowledge we were staying with a Warm Showers host. A few miles in, at Foxtrap we decided to brave the Trans Canada Trail. We’d had mixed experiences with the trail all through the trip but it looked hard packed so thought ‘what the hell’. The views were what we’d hoped for but as we approached Seal Cove it became increasingly rough. We left the trail but the road was closed and had no choice but to rejoin it and push our bikes over boulders, and through mud and sand. For about 10 miles. We kicked ourselves. After all the miles we’d cycled, and bad experiences we’d had of the Trans Canada Trail, our curiosity still got the better of us!
The rest of the day was glorious. Picture perfect views over Conception Harbour, Holyrood and Colliers made our day. We rolled into Clarke’s Beach exhausted but in awe of the Newfoundland landscape. And then we realised we didn’t have our host Harold’s address! Luckily, Newfoundland is a small place. We found Harold’s street name from the Yellow Pages and then asked the first person we saw on that street, if he knew where Harold lived. Of course he did! Harold and his partner Wit were wonderful hosts and did the honour of screechin’ us in; a tradition were visitors become honouring Newfoundlanders by drinking screech (Jamaican rum), kissing a cod and reciting some pirate-like text.
After a relaxing rest day with Harold and Wit we headed north for Iceberg alley. Rumour had it that there was a ‘good size’ iceberg near Broad Cove. Our route took us inland slightly through Carbonear and as soon as we rejoined the coast we spotted a pure white triangle in the distance. It was so white, and so perfectly triangular, that we thought it was a church spire. As we pedalled on it disappeared from view, until we reached Spout Cove and we were rewarded with the single best experience of the whole trip. The snow white triangle we spotted was indeed the tip of an enormous iceberg. We set up a picnic for lunch and just stared at the magnificent natural wonder for two hours. Towards the end of our lunchbreak there was an almighty noise that sounded like thunder; the iceberg had split. This magnificent 20,000 year old beast had given us a splendid finale, as the two parts slowly drifted away from each other. Gobsmacked!
The next day we saw two more icebergs south of Grates Cove. Neither came close to the size of the first giant, but both were spectacular with intriguing angular sides and polar hues. After the icebergs came the inventive place names. In just 30 miles we pedalled through Heart’s Consent, Heart’s Desire, Heart’s Delight, Dildo and South Dildo! All tiny harbour towns with strong fishing heritage and, presumably, a disproportionate number of photos taken every day.
We left the coast and headed southwest for Placentia. The weather was grim and we’d been warned about how hilly the next day would be, so we retired into a budget hotel. We soon realised the warnings were not exaggerated! The hills were brutal. We climbed over 3,000ft of elevation in just 29 miles. We were told it would be worth it because the views are incredible and wed get to visit one of the best bird sanctuaries in the world, Cape St. Mary’s. Sadly there were no views as it was one of the foggiest days of the whole trip. We didn’t visit Cape St. Mary’s either as the fog made the 20 mile round trip a rather redundant trip.
We spent a dreary night camped in the grounds of a school – the caretaker went out of his way to get permission from the headteacher – and fuelled up at a small petrol station in Branch. The long climb out of the small harbour town was rewarded by the highest speed of our trip. In general, we hadn’t hit many high speeds. While North American roads are generally good, they’re rarely steep. And when they are, they’re not very good quality! We had scraped above 40mph once or twice, and then a few miles after Branch we freewheeled to 50.8mph! A great start to the day, which turned out to be our longest of our time on the Avalon.
We struggled to find anywhere to camp and eventually decided to head for Mount Carmel, where Google was at least promising a grocery store. Sadly the grocery store was no more, but in its place was a huge, perfectly flat concrete platform surrounded by bushes. Home for the night!
We woke up sprightly, excited about the potential to see whales at St. Vincent’s. Several people had said ‘you may see whales from the beach at St. Vincent’s’. Not wanting to be disappointed we thought, ‘wow, that would be cool to get a glimpse of a whale fin from the clifftop’. Luckily for us, it turned out people were underplaying the opportunity of whale watching. As soon as we stepped foot on the beach we were speechless; there were at least 10 giant humpback whales frolicking in the water, just metres from the shore. Some locals told us to come back at 7pm, as that’s whale feeding time! We bit the bullet and splashed out on a nearby B&B; we reasoned that we’d spent the two previous nights sleeping in a school field and a dilapidated supermarket car park, and the B&B fee was less than we’d pay to see these magnificent creatures so close! And we weren’t disappointed. There were lots of humpbacks, and they weren’t shy about coming close to the shore. The locals explained that the whales eat a small fish called capelin. The beach at St. Vincent’s is perfectly shaped to suck the capelin in, and its 40ft deep within 6ft of the shore. An amazing natural phenomenon that we were privileged to witness.
Our next ride brought a completely different scenery; a barren landscape more akin to Dartmoor or west Texas, than the near tropical seashore of the past 10 days. We cycled along with eyes on stalks looking for caribou; a huge deer-like animal with unruly antlers. We’d seen information boards claiming that thousands of the animals lived in and around the coastal village of St. Shott’s. We took the detour but didn’t see any caribou, and later discovered that a parasite had almost wiped out the entire caribou population and there are only dozens left in the southern Avalon. We trundled on and eventually arrived at Portugal Cove South; a tiny town that found fame in 2016 when the nearby Mistaken Point was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Mistaken Point’s claim is it has the world’s oldest and largest collection of fossils from the Ediacara biota era (580 to 560 million years old). It is also home to the Rookery; a cliff where you can spot puffins.
We found a picnic bench just off the only road that passes through the village, and set up camp. Portugal Cove South is a very small place, and it wasn’t long before word has spread about the new hobos in town. Some locals told us that the capelin were in and the next morning we got up early to watch the seagulls pluck them from the sea. Capelin have it tough! Theyre mission is to get to shore, jump out the sea and burrow into the sand to lay their eggs. The problem is that seagulls love capelin, as to whales and humans, for both eating and garden fertiliser! Poor fellas.
After watching the ruthless seagulls, we decided to cycle to the Rookery to look for puffins. A local assured us that the dirt road was actually ‘better than most asphalt in Newfoundland’. This was a huge fib. The road was terrible. Huge potholes, boulders, very steep and treacherous drops. And we didn’t see any puffins. We just made it back to join the 1pm Mistaken Point fossil tour. Amazingly, the provincial government provide this tour for free. The fossils are a remarkable sight, and the clifftop walk to get there is arguably better. Highly recommended.
The weather forecast for the next day was ‘light rain’. We got on the road by 7.30am and by the time we got to Renews at 9.30am the sky was getting wet. We stopped outside a wooden building that turned out to be an art gallery, Merrymeeting. The owner invited us in for coffee and just as we stepped in the heavens opened. Within 2 hours we’d been invited to a concert the owners were hosting at their gallery, and were manning the gallery, as the owners attended a wake. An incredible chance encounter that gave us a truly Newfoundland experience. We met the owner’s 5 sisters, their children and grandchildren, and stayed at one of their sister’s homes. The concert was wonderful; two local guys who travel the world playing their Celtic music strum from an acoustic guitar and an accordion. There was an after party at Merrymeeting, followed by an after after party at the owners’ house, where the music, drinking and storytelling continued. We had a great time.
The next day was a late start! We were fuzzy headed but glad that it was a short 27 miles to La Manche Provincial Park. What we didn’t know is we’d be climbing over 2,500ft in that distance. Not what you want on a hangover… La Manche is famous for its mosquitos. Fortunately we had our trusty net and rigged it up for the first time in at least 6 months, feeling very pleased we didn’t leave it with our host in St. John’s!
The very last day of our trip was another test of our climbing ability. It was a short ride back to St. John’s so we decided to detour to Cape Spear; the most easterly point of North America. The views were breathtaking, but so were the hills. We chalked up another 3,000ft of climbing and rolled into St. John’s with a strange mix of exhaustion and euphoria. Before we flew home we spent a day exploring the provincial capital with Marie and Doug – sister and brother-in-law of the art gallery owner in Renews. We visited the picturesque brewery at Quidi Vidi and took in the view at Signal Hill, where Marconi made the first transatlantic radio transmission. While marvelling in the view we had the fortunate of meeting a giant Newfoundland dog and watching another giant humpback just scrape passed a brave lone seafarer in a row boat. Newfoundland, the best place on earth.