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Newfoundland: A Place Apart : Lost in Time and Space, a Pristine Island Rich in Stark Beauty and Warm Hearts : By Land, B&Bs and Afternoon Tea

February 24, 1991|CAROL McCABE | McCabe is a Washington-based reporter with the Providence Journal-Bulletin who frequently writes travel articles.

ST. JOHN'S, Newfoundland — Bella Hodge's telephone has rung more often than usual since this year of international jitters began. Mrs. Hodge operates Valhalla Lodge, a hospitality home located between Gunner's Cove and Griquet, near the tip of Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula. There, the peninsula faces Labrador on the west side and England on the east. Mrs. Hodge's guest-room windows look toward the south coast of England, to home counties that many Newfoundlanders' ancestors left (along with Ireland) to come to this sea-scoured island.

"Of course you can't see England from here, but it's out there," she says. Easier to see are icebergs gliding past like ghost schooners and silvery schools of herring illuminated by moonlight. The sound of whales breathing their primeval, rainbow-misted sighs can now and then be heard close to shore. What cannot be heard is the sound of the Persian Gulf War, which seems very distant indeed. Gunner's Cove doesn't have cable TV, and the only newspaper, the weekly Northern Pen, gives much of its space to the grocery specials and the state of the Newfoundland fishery.

This is among the most isolated locations in Canada's easternmost, most isolated province. And, Mrs. Hodge and other Newfoundland hosts are learning, isolation is just what many Americans are seeking as they plan their 1991 vacation travels.

"Oh, it's a dangerous world out there today, isn't it?" says Marg Kuta, whose Cape Cod Inn at the mid-island town of Gander is receiving early reservation requests from Europe as well as the United States. "But Newfoundland is as peaceful as ever. Oh, yes, yes, yes, it is."

"Nobody's going to waste a bomb on Newfoundland, now, are they?" says Elizabeth Gibbons with a laugh. Gibbons operates Caribou House, a bed and breakfast at Port-aux-Basques on the south coast. With typically wry humor, she says the only danger tourists face is that of meeting one of Newfoundland's 70,000 moose if they will insist on driving fast after dark.

Newf'n'LAND, they call it. It's the smaller part of the province of Newfoundland--which also encompasses mainland Labrador--where in some areas the human population is spread thinner than the moose population.

Closer to Italy than it is to western Canada, the island is so far from its neighbors that it has its own time zone. Like many things about Newfoundland, island time is a bit quirky, differing from neighboring time zones by 30 minutes instead of the usual 60. Not even Labrador shares Newfoundland time.

For me, going on Newfoundland time means not just setting my watch ahead, but setting my internal clock back about a century. Newfoundland remains a place of profound natural beauty, unspoiled by development. Like characters out of the film "Local Hero," whose locale looked a lot like Newfoundland, people here are tough, independent, kind and quick to make humor out of hardship.

The local weather offers plenty of subject matter for jokers. In summer, the days are generally crisp as early autumn in New England, with light as sharp as a hayfield scythe.

"Glorious weather," I observed to Nelson Ploughman, a fisherman I met on my first visit to Newfoundland.

"Come back in January and pass your opinion," he said. "You might think different then."

Newfies can handle winter's cold, Nelson said. "It's the heat we can't take. It got up to 80 last year at Port au Choix and we all went under the bed looking for shade. When we fellows think it's hot enough for a T-shirt, the tourists come out in their parkas."

Over centuries of isolation, Newfoundlanders developed their own peculiar vocabulary. A combination of antique and modern English, Irish words and phrases, and borrowings from the Innit people, it is delicious fodder for language scholars.

Island English offers a scoff (Newfoundland for feast) of words to describe weather conditions. Mauzy is misty. Lourd is dark and gloomy. Frore is frozen. Sish is ice broken into particles by the surf, and slob is newly frozen ice.

Most weather words apply to the winter months when not only is there sish and slob to contend with, but wind as well. The wind blows so hard across Newfoundland that it can hit 120 m.p.h. and blow tractor-trailer trucks off the highway, as it has this winter.

Offshore, it can whip up dreadful storms. Travelers who step into one of the island's prim village churches are likely to see reminders of that fact in the form of memorials to men lost at sea: "To John Gent, who was lost with all the crew in the boat Dove in a gale of wind on the 6th and 7th of November 1835 on her way from St. John's to Catalina."

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