An island that held firm in the face of French aggression and was later used by fishermen to process and store fish is being promoted as a potential main attraction for the Baccalieu Trail.
Carbonear Island looks desolate and foreboding from shore, but the rocky outcrop in Carbonear Bay is rich in history. It's this history that the Town of Carbonear and its partners are hoping to capitalize on in a bid to boost tourism.
"Anytime you have something with such a rich history right in your backyard, you have to grab hold of it," Carbonear Mayor Sam Slade said this week, before the start of an information session about the island at the community centre. The session attracted about 100 people, including representatives of various government departments and agencies and a host of community groups and businesses.
Groups such as the Mariner Res-ource Opportunities Network (M-RON) and the Carbonear Island Development Resource Committee have dusted off a five-year-old report that outlined a tourism development strategy for Carbonear Island. The report describes the island as an anchor tourism project for the Baccalieu Trail that would preserve the island's cultural and natural integrity and provide sustainable economic benefits for the area.
Priorities include building interpretive kiosks at entry points to the town, boat tours, birdwatching, kayaking, walking trails, whale watching, recreational fishing and genealogy. There could also be re-enactments based on local history and an emphasis on developing downtown Carbonear in order to accommodate more tourists.
Today, the only obvious evidence of human occupation on the island, which is roughly 4.4 kilometres from the public wharf, is a solar-powered lighthouse. But its recorded history reads like an adventure novel.
During the Colonial Wars between France and England, there were brutal battles in Newfoundland involving mainly small raiding parties. On at least three occasions, residents of Carbonear and surrounding areas sought refuge from the French on Carbonear Island.
The most famous incident was in the winter of 1697, when forces under the command of Pierre Le Moyne D'Iberville, a ruthless and daring French Canadian, set out to destroy the English fishery in Newfoundland. After conquering St. John's in late November, D'Iberville's forces systematically overran English settlements along the eastern shore.
But D'Iberville's forces were repeatedly repelled by the defenders on Carbonear Island, who were armed with only the crudest of weapons.
For a brief period the island was virtually the only holdout against French domination of Newfoundland.
The island was again successfully defended in 1705 by local inhabitants led by William Pynne against a French force from Placentia which had pillaged the coastal fisheries. French forces eventually captured the island in 1762, but it's believed the defenders had abandoned it by then.
Local history buffs now jokingly refer to it as the Gibraltar of Newfoundland, a reference to the famous British bastion on the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, which has survived countless sieges throughout the centuries.
Carbonear Island was designated a National Historic Site in 1981 and is a registered archeological site. Many believe aboriginals once occupied the island, and requests have been made to carry out an archeological survey there. A healthy bird population limits access to the island during the nesting season and whales are commonly seen off its shores.
While Cupids and Brigus are high-profile tourism destinations on the Baccalieu Trail, supporters of the Carbonear Island project say an action plan promoting the Carbonear area would strengthen the tourism industry and bring benefits to the entire region.
But the partners say they can't do it themselves and they're aggressively lobbying two levels of government for financial assistance.
"Like any project of this nature, it can't really move forward unless it has the support of the provincial and federal governments," Slade said, adding that the private sector, especially those in the accommodation business, will also have to play a role.
At the moment, the area is hard-pressed to handle bus tours, noted Clyde D. Wells, chairman of the M-RON board of directors.
"Carbonear, being a hub of the region, it's a great place to centre a key tourism attraction," he said.
Wells describes tourism in the region as a "mixed bag."
Brigus is well-established as the home of Capt. Bob Bartlett, and major planning is underway for the 400th anniversary of the English settlement at Cupids. But while both those sites draw large numbers of tourists, the full potential of the region remains untapped, Wells contends.
"What we haven't been able to do so far is co-ordinate them. Accommodations are a challenge, even though we have probably the second-largest demographic in the province. ... We're divided into so many communities, there's no centralized approach," he said.
"If Newfoundland and Labrador is a tourism destination, then we need - in this region - to develop a destination within the main destination."