“You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you — or unmaking you.”
— Nicolas Bouvier, (1929-98),
Swiss writer and photographer
I’m always fascinated by what brings people to this place. Talk to out-of-province tourists and you usually get one of three answers. Either Newfoundland and Labrador was recommended to them by a friend or relative; it’s the last on their bucket list of all Canadian provinces to visit; or — by far the most popular answer — they were lured by the vibrant siren song of our provincial tourism ads.
The ads are spectacular, but are they an accurate representation of what visitors will find when they arrive?
Well, yes and no. Everyone — myself included — makes much of how vividly colourized the ads are, but then one day I found myself hiking a trail where fields of purple flowers met boulders draped in orange lichen as a whale breached so close offshore I felt I could reach out and touch its wet skin.
Of course, there are aspects of this province the ads don’t portray, and why would they? Rusting car wrecks in the woods, take-out food containers in roadside ditches and raw sewage flowing into the sea are hardly selling points.
As anyone who lives on the Northeast Avalon can attest, the truth is rarely black and white, and far more often grey (as in rain, drizzle and fog).
Of course this province has drawbacks (including the sheer cost of getting here), the same as any other place. But there is plenty to recommend it as a tourist destination, as you discover when you vacation at home.
A recent “stay-cation” delivered a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly.
A brilliantly sunny day in August, waking to the sound of gulls shrieking and keening outside the window. An irksome sound to some, but to me it’s a reminder of how closely tied we are to the sea.
The smell of the Atlantic — the fresh scent of brine, of iodine, of kelp — is an elemental tonic for the soul, whether you are walking the beaches of Brigus or strolling the quay in Petty Harbour.
The sound of the waves crashing onto the beach in Cupids is hypnotic and a relaxing anecdote to the usual daily din of screeching brakes, sirens and blasting car stereos.
A friendly server at a bar in Princeton, Bonavista Bay, makes a phone call and in minutes you are buying last-of-the-season local lobster straight off the wharf for $5 a pound. It is sweet and rich and cries out for melted butter.
Thanks to a friend’s connection, you get a personal tour of the Cupids archeological dig, where two decades of hard work have unearthed thousands of artifacts that reveal much about the comforts and the harsh realities of 17th-century life: clay pipes, delicate glass wine bottles and pieces of window pane, vessels for olive oil, German mugs, decorative buttons, belt buckles. Oh, and graves — the resting places of the first English settlers in Canada, some of the burial mounds heart-breakingly small. It boggles the mind that all this history was hidden beneath the soil of someone’s backyard for hundreds of years.
The huge Union Jack that Cupids flies on special occasions dances in the wind. Graceful and undulating, it is a majestic sight.
Warmth and kindness — from Clarenville to St. John’s to Princeton, Trinity and Brigus, there are lovely people who make you feel welcome. Kind neighbours in Gin Cove offered to bring a load of stuff to the dump for us. In Cupids, the staff at a bustling B&B provided a bucket of water for our dog’s muddy feet, despite the fact that we weren’t even their guests.
Sometimes encounters leave you cold, and sometimes those encounters are with ill-mannered fellow travellers.
A motoring tourist who stopped to ask about a restaurant in Cupids, only to learn that we were not locals, told us we had been of very little help. A Belgian couple icily rebuffed my husband’s offer to take their photo on a spectacular hiking trail, likely afraid we would make off with their expensive camera gear.
And an urban waitress interrupted our conversation about one of the many specials she was describing, snapping impatiently, “Guys, I have to get through these!” She was also perturbed that we insisted on pouring our own wine rather than having her top up our glasses every 30 seconds.
At a popular eatery in the metro area, we were seated at a dirty table by a deck railing splattered with bird droppings. The tables were rusting and some of the chairs had jagged, broken rungs.
This is not the face we want to show tourists, and if we are to live up to the promise of those glossy tourism ads, we need to offer consistency of service and product.
Trouting at a beaver pond in Trinity Bay, I was enjoying the sight of sparkling water, lily pads and small frogs when I spotted something bobbing partially above the surface. “What’s that?” I asked.
My husband retrieved it. The answer: a piece of dark cloth tied into a makeshift sack. A rock at one end, a kitten at the other. How fleeting and cruel life can be.
Vacationing at home can be magical and wonderful, terrible and beautiful, surprising and sometimes disturbing.
Regrettably, here, as in other places, most of the flaws in the experience are the fault of people, not the place.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.