No summer is complete without a visit to Bell Island.
Twenty minutes from my driveway in the east end of St. John’s, I’m in the ferry lineup in Portugal Cove. The ferry is cash only. $6.88 for vehicle and driver, $2.48 per extra adult and $1.93 per extra child. You don’t have to pay to take the ferry off the island. Twenty minutes after the ferry sets off I’m ashore on the iron isle.
We went to Bell Island this year two days before the Regatta. Ferries on schedule. Tickle like glass. Temperature hot enough to split a brick of ore. Like my Ottawa mother-in-law said on the phone the next day, “You got our summer and we want it back.” The trip to Bell Island is not always quite so tropical.
And although you can’t control the weather, there are some things you can control in order to ensure a successful visit. One thing is to give yourself enough time to get to the ferry so you don’t have to sit around waiting for the next boat. We usually take a mid-morning ferry to avoid lineups. And we check out the return ferry schedule before we leave home and take written note of at least three potential departure times (because once you get to the island, you’ll end up spending longer at every spot than you think).
If we’re travelling in convoy and one vehicle doesn’t make it on board the ferry, we leave it behind on the Portugal Cove side and its occupants walk on. Once on Bell Island if I don’t have enough seatbelts for the walk-on family and friends, I zip up and down the hill dropping them wherever we plan to visit. It all works out.
On Aug. 4, our first stop was to the lighthouse to check out the newly opened Keeper’s Interpretation Centre and Café with a beautiful veranda overlooking Conception Bay. It’s easy to find. Straight up the hill from the ferry and look for the sign on the right.
Several years back, both the light station and keeper’s house were relocated inland a bit to prevent losing them over the eroding cliffs.
The menu at Keeper’s Café includes soup, sandwiches and salad and a children’s menu has grilled cheese, hot dogs, veggie sticks and ice cream. The tables and red leather chairs were used by members of government in the Colonial Building on Military Road previous to Confederation. Apart from that tidbit, there wasn’t much in terms of interpretation in the former light keeper’s residence, but they did have maps of the island near the cash in the shop.
The map is inside a brown brochure called “All Aboard Bell Island.” This will definitely help you from going astray when navigating, especially to the Grebe’s Nest beach which is a bit tangly to find if you’ve never been there.
So, after a quick trip to the washroom before leaving the Café, we headed west to the Grebe’s Nest (there is no washroom near the beach, so make sure you go before you get off the ferry if you’re heading straight there).
To find it, you take West Mines Road from the Town Square, turn right on Scotia Road and left on Carter Avenue all the way down to a little white wooden outhouse-looking shed. There you park on an outcrop of reddish ore and walk the rest of the way down a tricky trail to one beach. At the end of that beach there’s a tunnel blasted through the cliff to bring you to the Grebe’s Nest Beach on the other side.
In order to enjoy this excursion, you need sensible walking shoes, a bright flashlight for the tunnel and a vehicle that’s not too low to the ground.
The last bit of road before you park is gravel and you don’t want to lose some crucial part off the bottom of your car. You would spend the day sourcing a tow truck rather than basking on a magical beach looking at dozens of exposed layers of shale, siltstone and sandstone.
We usually pack a lunch to bring to the beach. You can pick up bread and pastries at the Co-op Bakery on Compressor Hill near the Town Square. Note: the bakery is closed Sundays and Mondays. There’s also Linda’s Grill on Church Road.
Shallow Bay on the Northern Peninsula is the only place in Newfoundland I have felt ocean water as warm as at the Grebe’s Nest this year. I had a Screech-in to perform on the beach and normally I torture honorary Newfoundlanders by making them stand in the ocean until they can say, “’Deed I is, me old trout, and long may your big jib draw.”
This particular Kingstononian didn’t even flinch from the water temperature.
He was colder down in No. 2 Mine, which we doubled back to after the Grebe’s Nest. Remember to dress warm if you take the tour which lasts more than an hour. It’s really chilly. I mean chilly as in closed-toed shoes, long pants, sweater, jacket, gloves and toque that can fit comfortably under a hard hat. Tours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and cost $12 general admission, $10 per youth or senior and $5 per child.
From the museum you can carry on to the bell, or the clapper as I call the rocky outcrop on the west end of the island. Best to have a four-wheel drive for this road (I once had to get towed out of the mud when I ventured in there in the Flanavan. Note: there’s no CAA rep on Bell Island). Continue west on West Mines Road, turn right on Airport Road and go straight until you get to Lance Cove Road where you turn right again until the end. On a day like last week, it’s definitely worth the risk.
If you’re in a normal car, you can head back towards the ferry along Lance Cove Road through Parsonville and Bickfordville until you get to Kennedy’s Hill where you take a right to go to Lance Cove Beach to see the ducks and Harry Hibbs’s big chair. If you have an accordion, this is the place to bring it and play a tune.
You’ll also see the monument to the men who lost their lives in 1942 when four ore carriers were torpedoed by German U-boats. The wrecks sit upright on the ocean floor several hundred metres offshore. Orange buoys mark their locations. If you’re interested in diving down to these wrecks, you can do so with Ocean Quest tours. There are certain restrictions, however. You must be 15 years of age and an advanced diver with 30-plus dives (preferably cold water). The whole tour takes seven days and includes 10 dives and costs roughly $2,000 per person based on double occupancy. Divers come from all over the world to take part, but if you’re not an advanced diver, then maybe a 2 1/2 hour boat tour on Ocean Quest’s Mermaid is better for you. Book ahead. www.oceanquestadventures.com $65/general; $25/6-15 years; five and younger/free; seniors (55+)/$55. Pick-up available from the Ramada, Marriott, and Delta Hotels in St. John’s.
Or if you’re looking to get closer to the waters of Conception Bay but not underneath them, sea kayaking may be what you’re looking for. You can book with Ocean Quest at the above website and choose from either a 2 1/2 hour tour ($59), a tow and go ($149), or a tow and tow ($199). Floatation devices are provided but you need your own sun block, snack and a change of clothes and shoes.
For a complete loop of the island, leave Lance Cove and head east past the grotto where the church used to be and then on to the ferry. If it’s looking like you might miss the boat, park your car in the lineup before you venture to Dick’s or the Coffee Shop for a snack before heading back across the Tickle.
Bell Island Tourism: 488-2411
Ferry Office: 895-3541 (Portugal Cove schedule: 895-6931; Bell Island schedule: 488-2842)
Bell Island Community Museum and Mine Tour: 488-2880
Dick’s Fish and Chips: 488-2874
Keeper’s Café: 488-3319
Home Hardware Ron: 488-2883
Co-op Bakery: 488-2250,
Town Hall: Middleton Avenue: 488-2990
Co-op Bakery: 709-488-2250
Foodland (Quigley’s Line): 488-2832
Linda’s grill: 488-2230
Places to stay
Bell Island Cottages: 488-2120
Heather’s Haven B and B: 488-3363
Hotel Pavla: 488-2346 or 770-0496
Jim George: 769-2889
Susan Flanagan is a poor swimmer
who is forever in awe of people like Don Boyles who has swum across the Tickle. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tely 10 ‘This One’s for John’ feedback
Linda Whalen writes: “So moved by your column today, a lovely tribute to John Furlong and others. As I walked my first Tely 10 on Sunday, it struck me that everyone running, walking and wheeling had a story, as the song says, that would break your heart.”
‘Old Time Rock ’n’ Roll’ feedback
Tom Prim writes: “… I just read your article “Love that Old Time Rock ’n ’Roll” and found it interesting and enjoyable. The late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s were music favourites and I particularly loved the Moody Blues, especially in the early ’70s. I finally saw them last year in Dallas and also this past spring in Clearwater, Fla. Their music was fabulous, although Ray Thomas is no longer with them. … We had third row seats. Also saw Al Stewart (another of my all-time favourites) for the first time at the same venue. If you are not familiar with Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and have the opportunity to be there, you may want to check it out.… I generally agree with your husband in that the music is not as good these days. Finally, your reference to ‘Searching for Sugarman’ was also timely. A small music club that I am part of looked at that documentary a while ago and really enjoyed it.”
Ollie writes: “I very much enjoyed reading your article about Elton John. … My dad attended the same concert.”