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Timeless Beauty of Newfoundland

September 14, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

ST. JOHN'S, Canada — The whale surfaces off the port bow of our schooner Shenandoah II, then dives and reappears on our starboard side as if welcoming us into the waters of Conception Bay in southeast Newfoundland.

A moment later he dives toward his mate off Chapel's Cove and Gallow's Cove, both named for their contrasting footnotes of the history recorded around this bay.

I'd been jigging for cod as we drifted along on this day cruise that begins near St. John's, capital of Canada's easternmost province.

Suddenly the line felt as if a small whale had been jigged. I hauled away, and my wife Elfriede got her camera ready. The fish broke water and skipper David Murphy shouted: "Don't bring it any closer!"

He grabbed a long pole and explained, "You've hooked yourself a wolffish! See all those teeth? They could take off an arm!"

While Elfriede's camera clicked away, he released the fish and we drifted on past deep fiords and awesome headlands.

This was a new-found land for the Vikings a thousand years ago. Today's travelers will discover the contrasts of its scenery and an array of cultural events, in a setting where North America's closest point to Europe means many historical firsts.

Own Time Zone

The entire province includes Labrador on the mainland as well as the island of Newfoundland. The province has its own time zone, 4 1/2 hours ahead of Los Angeles. We decided to explore at a leisurely pace the new-found land in and around St. John's.

This is a setting that has drawn writers and artists from around the world, ever since the poet Stephen Parmenius Pais came here from Budapest in 1583.

Just up the coast from where we have been day-cruising, the village of Brigus rises like a bit of old England above Bishop's Beach on Conception Bay. Here the famed American artist Rockwell Kent established his home and studio early in this century.

Settled in the mid-1600s, Brigus is the birthplace of Capt. Robert A. Bartlett, early Arctic explorer whose memorial on the beach is shaped like three stylized sails.

Nearby is Cupids, where colonial couples tried to establish the first officially chartered British colony in 1610.

Soon after that comes Spaniard's Bay, under the influence of Spain until the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588; Sir Francis Drake helped to weaken Armada preparations by raiding Spanish ships from his St. John's base.

Takeoff Point

And shortly Harbor Grace will show up on your port bow, first a French settlement, then a 17th-Century pirate fort, and in 1932 the outpost from which Amelia Earhart took off to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. In 1919 Alcock and Brown had taken off from St. John's on the first nonstop flight from North America to Europe.

After a fish chowder and lobster luncheon, we visited Kissing Rock at Galecliff Hospitality Home in Upper Island Cove.

The Kissing Rock is a giant boulder beside this historic home that has bed-and-breakfast accommodations as well as a dining room for luncheon and dinner.

Our hostess, Barbara Louise Mercer, told us of the legends about the joy that will befall a couple who embrace on the kissing rock. Centuries ago, couples would say farewell at this rock as fishermen went to sea. Bed and breakfast at Galecliff is $35 (Canadian), about $26 U.S., per couple.

A few more coves up the bay, there's the story of Sheila Na Geira, the Irish princess who was captured by the British pirate Gilbert Pike in the era of William Shakespeare. They fell in love and settled at Carbonear on Conception Bay.

Historic Messages

Across the narrow peninsula, at Heart's Content, right up the coast from Heart's Desire and Heart's Delight, the first successful transatlantic cable hookup in 1866 began the linking of an uncounted number of heartbeats across the ocean.

On Signal Hill in St. John's, Marconi in 1901 received the first wireless message transmitted across the Atlantic.

Below Memorial Park and just above St. John's Harbor is a plaque with an inscription by Rudyard Kipling: "Close to this commanding and historic spot Sir Humphrey Gilbert landed on the fifth day of August, 1583, and in taking possession of the new found land in the name of his Sovereign Queen Elizabeth thereby founded Britain's overseas empire."

When Sir Humphrey arrived, the busy seaport of St. John's wasn't exactly new-found. John Cabot had sailed into the harbor in 1497. Half a millenium earlier, Newfoundland had been the Viking's Markland. About AD 1000 a Viking boy became the first white child born in North America.

About 9,000 years ago, Indians at a site now known as L'Anse Amour held a burial ritual for a young man. His grave has recently been authenticated by archeologists.

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they were greeted by an Indian named Squantum who had learned to speak English in Newfoundland.

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