Spontaneous Compulsion

Keith &
Keith & Heather Nicol
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Unexpected inspiration can give the best-planned holidays a pleasant twist

Sometimes, trips take on a mind of their own. xxIt had been some time since we had ventured east of Gander, and we were perhaps the only people in Corner Brook who had yet to see The Rooms or the new Johnson Geo Centre in St. John's. With reports of "icebergs in every bay," we set off, beginning our trip in Trinity to hike the Skerwink Trail.

Some friends in Corner Brook had done the hike last summer and raved about it, so we wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Port Rexton at dusk. Photo by Keith and Heather Nicol/Special to The Telegram

Sometimes, trips take on a mind of their own. xxIt had been some time since we had ventured east of Gander, and we were perhaps the only people in Corner Brook who had yet to see The Rooms or the new Johnson Geo Centre in St. John's. With reports of "icebergs in every bay," we set off, beginning our trip in Trinity to hike the Skerwink Trail.

Some friends in Corner Brook had done the hike last summer and raved about it, so we wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

We stayed in Port Rexton, at the award-winning Fisher's Loft Inn, which is just around the corner from the Skerwink trail. The trail has recently been named one of the top three hikes in Canada by Travel and Leisure Magazine, and for good reason.

The views of sea stacks and rugged cliffs are impressive. Although we didn't see the famous fox (which, by the way, is on the cover of this year's Newfoundland Travel Guide), we did see several icebergs which had been blown in by the persistent easterly winds. After dinner we chatted to John Fisher (of the Fisher's Loft Inn) and he suggested we visit Bonavista the next day.

That set in motion a titanic change in our itinerary.

First time for everything

We had never been to Bonavista and so took in many of the "must see" attractions like exploring the lighthouse, the Mockbegger Premises and the replica ship the Matthew.

From the Matthew we could see an interesting collection of buildings across the harbour and were told it was the Ryan Premises, so off we went to see what is now a National Historic Site run by Parks Canada.

There we learned about the fishery and James Ryan, who had been born in Bonavista in 1842. He proved to be a successful businessman, and by 1870 had operations not only in Bonavista but also in Elliston, Catalina and other nearby communities. The Parks Canada interpreter also pointed out the elaborate house that Ryan had built in Bonavista, but mentioned that he moved to St. John's just after the turn of the century.

In fact, there was a brochure on the counter indicating that his St. John's house had recently been opened as a five-star inn - The Ryan Mansion. This intrigued us, so we headed off to St. John's in search of the Ryan Mansion.

The house was built between 1909 and 1911 on Rennie's Mill Road, at the time one of St. John's wealthiest areas. There we met co-owner Kevin Nolan who gave us a tour of the house and also pointed out a possible Titanic connection.

"Oral tradition suggests that the elaborate staircase and mantles were supplied by the same craftsmen that built the Titanic. They were both built between 1909 and 1911 and the staircase is built from quarter cut oak which was also used in the Titanic," Kevin said as he pointed to the elaborately carved pineapple moulding on the staircase.

"Ryan had ships going to England and Ireland, so it is very conceivable that he used ships returning to St. John's to bring back these furnishings. People are fascinated by the Titanic, as the display at the Geo Centre points out."

Nolan said the inn will offer Titanic-themed events in the fall, going so far as to duplicate some items from the doomed ocean liner's menu.

History lesson

We headed off to the Geo Centre and were fascinated by their Titanic exhibit. Not having read much previously about the Titanic and having seen the movie over 10 years ago, we had always thought that it was a fluky accident that a ship happened to run into an iceberg. But as the succession of exhibit panels points out, it was a whole series of arrogant mistakes and miscues by captain and crew that caused the ship to sink.

Evidently, neighbouring ships had slowed to a virtual standstill due to the ice, while the Titanic plowed on full steam ahead, oblivious to the danger. The Marconi wireless records show that the Titanic was receiving messages about the ice danger from many ships and yet they were all ignored. And Cape Race, at the southern end of the Avalon Peninsula, played a large role in communicating to the world about the events on April 14, 1912 when the Titanic, perhaps determined to set a speed record for a transatlantic voyage, had her side split open by a collision with an iceberg.

"My God, the Titanic has struck a berg!" said wireless operator Jack Goodwin at Cape Race, after receiving her message at 10:25 p.m. By 12:50 a.m. April 15, the final wireless calls for help were heard from the Titanic at Cape Race. Just over an hour later, at 2:05 a.m., the first newspapers were wiring Cape Race for information about the disaster.

A trip to Cape Race the next day to see the lighthouse and Marconi station concluded our "Titanic" trip. We saw icebergs all the way along the coast and were treated to sunny skies as we drove over the bumpy gravel road to the Cape Race Lighthouse.

A side trip to see the Mistaken Point fossils was an unintended bonus as we hiked over the barrens to the sloping sedimentary rocks, which 575 million years ago were home to some of the world's largest multi-celled creatures of the day. Many of the fossils have not been found anywhere else on Earth and the site has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Our trip ended more successfully than the Titanic's, although we did get a flat tire on the gravelly Cape Race road.

And we learned that sometimes the best travel experiences unfold in a way that you don't quite expect. Planning a trip is good, but flexible and spontaneous travelling can have its rewards.

Contributors Keith and Heather Nicol are travel writers from Corner Brook.

Weblinks

Fisher's Loft Inn - Port Rexton - www.fishersloft.com

Ryan Mansion -St. John's- www.ryanmansion.com

Johnson Geo Centre - St John's - www.geocentre.ca

Mistaken Point Fossils-http://www.env.gov.nl.ca/parks/wer/r_mpe/

Organizations: Geo Centre, Loft Inn, Parks Canada National Historic Site UNESCO

Geographic location: St. John's, Corner Brook, Bonavista Port Rexton Gander Cape Race Canada Newfoundland Elliston Mill Road England Ireland

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