Fantasy Island

Pam Frampton
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“So it is in travelling; a man must carry knowledge with him if he would bring home knowledge.”

— From “The Life of Samuel Johnson,” by James Boswell, 1791

I’ve always been fascinated by photography; by how one person’s vision and imagination frames an image in a way that is unique to that person.

You and I looking at the same scene would capture it differently with our cameras, depending on our vantage point and what our eyes were drawn to.

So, too, with travel writers, who visit places and try to capture their essence and then share the experience with others.

Sometimes, millions of others.

If the message is being delivered through the rosy prism of this province’s polished tourism ads or with the wink-and-saucy-nod portrayal of St. John’s that is “Republic of Doyle,” we’re on pretty safe ground. Both portray a ruggedly beautiful, colourful place populated with interesting, salt-of-the-earth characters.

Nothing wrong with that.

And there are some terrific travel writers out there, too.

But some of the messages circulating in the big, wide world are hokey, hilariously shallow or factually flawed.

Some of the depictions are somewhat distorted, as if they were created by someone who looked at the province through a funhouse mirror — there are elements that are vaguely familiar, but as a whole the image is off-kilter, stretched out of whack.

In a March 21 article published on the website, author Kaleel Sakakeeny describes “the aching loneliness of the surrounding sea where Lilliputian villages snuggle against the craggy faces of mighty cliffs.”

In his Newfoundland, the population has increased to a staggering 530,000; the last official count was 509,239 — must be all those baby bucks.

He writes about a dark-haired beauty calling for a song from the doorway of a Celtic pub in St. John’s.

And, lo and behold, “a song was sung, a melody of lovers who this time triumphed over the unforgiving sea and the starkly beautiful land.”

In a video postcard accompanying the article, Sakakeeny intones: “NEW-fin-lind, Canada’s Atlantic province, gets under your skin, and stays there.”

And no wonder. It’s a place, he says, that “has more art galleries, pubs, festivals and celebrations than would seem reasonable.”

“Mostly they celebrate the summer and the blessed end of winter,” he writes, and then adds, inexplicably, “They celebrate with jigs, dinners and jazz best captured by Newfoundland artist, Christopher Pratt.”

Then again, Sakakeeny also directs travellers to “Portuguese Cove (about 20 minutes from downtown).”

Good luck finding it.

Mixed messages

Now, to be fair, he has lovely things to say about this place, even though his prose tends towards purple and he could spend a little more time checking facts.

But some of the stuff out there is downright facile.

And that’s troubling in a place trying to market itself as a world-class destination.

Stuff like: “The island of Newfoundland … was first sighted by Italian explorer Giovanni Gaboto in 1497 … a.k.a. John Gabot.”

John who?

That’s courtesy of the U.K.-based Telegraph online, on March 1.

As is this gem: “An average day for a Newfoundlander? Try kayaking and hiking around fishing communities and through the famous ‘Iceberg Alley.’”

Yes, just another day in the life.

Careful, though, folks. Don’t paddle your kayak too close to “the huge turquoise flanks of the icy giants,” because they’re “The same kind of icebergs that caused the sinking of the Titanic!”

Go figure.

Sleepy Town

In the Sept. 11, 2010 issue of the U.K.-based Mail Online, the St. John’s that writer Alex Millson finds is decidedly sleepier than the place profiled, with its colourful houses painted to match the fishing boats bobbing contentedly in St. John’s harbour.

Instead, Millson’s destination, with its wan dwelling houses, is inhabited by boob-tube loving couch potatoes.

“On a Sunday morning,” he writes, “the streets of St. John’s in Newfoundland are still and empty, the pastel clap-board houses that cling to the steep streets quiet. And where are the folk of St. John’s? Most of them are at home, behind closed doors, peering at their television screens … watching the weekly ‘Coronation Street’ omnibus.”

Luckily, Millson manages to find a little more life in Witless Bay, where he sees breaching whales but passes on a chance to eat raw sea urchin.

Before long, though, he was back “on the rock,” marvelling at the culinary oddities in the local supermarkets, and “drinking the local beers and Screech rum and chatting with the locals, whose Canadian accents veered with varying degrees towards Irish, and sometimes even Cornish, lilts.”

(For the record, Labrador was barely mentioned in the travel pieces cited here.)

He calls St. John’s a place where, “despite the occasional eyebrow raised at why we were there in the first place, revellers seemed pleased that we had bothered to visit.”

Both Sakakeeny’s and Millson’s junkets here were hosted by the provincial government.

Well, it was nice of them to bother. Next time, I might turn off the TV and venture outside to greet them myself, perhaps by trilling a song in my charming faux-Irish brogue and tossing my flaxen hair.

Until then, we might be wise to keep on top of the messages being circulated about this harsh craggy island in the sea, and consider setting the record straight from time to time.

Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at

Twitter: pam_frampton

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Canada, Coronation Street Witless Bay

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Recent comments

  • corner brookViLLAGE
    March 28, 2011 - 10:12

    yes; gotta love those CFAers; i will always remember commentators who were covering 1999 canada winter games in cbrook; nl; referring to what locals like to call THE CITY OF CORNER BROOK as a "small rural village"; made up of mostly "farmers,fisherpeople, and loggers"; been here close 50 years; dont know any farmers; fishermen/fisherwomen; but do know quite a few loggers; mill workers;..........was funny; but what can do?

  • Mike
    March 27, 2011 - 08:07

    Hate to burst your bubble Pam, but your column is a swing and a miss. Mistakes or embellishments in travel writing are not new. And they certainly are not a monopoly of writers aimed exclusively at Newfoundland and Labrador. (By the way, there’s more to this place and your column than St. John’s.) Just because some writer or as you seem to imply, hack, makes a mistake, so what? I’m sure travel writers - and you suggest there are good ones (quick name five without having to Google) – all make errors. I’m also certain that if you read the tourist propaganda, I mean reviews, of Venice or New Orleans or Timbuktu, you’ll see similar glowing embellishments – mistakes and all - about them as you do about this place…..So there are no dories in St. John’s harbour. Yeah, that would certainly ruin my vacation if I came and discovered that egregious error. The old saying holds true – don’t believe everything you read.

  • Skeptical Cynic
    March 26, 2011 - 08:34

    Embellished publicity is better than no publicity.