Our Great Canadian Road trip brought us all the way across the country to the most eastern province. We were far from home, but we never felt more welcome than in Newfoundland. Avalon Peninsula is on the eastern edge of the province and is the most populated part of Newfoundland. It’s home to the province’s capital, St. John’s.
There is so much to explore on Avalon Peninsula. Within a short drive from the capital are several scenic spots that you shouldn’t miss. Below are some of our favourite day trips from St. John’s.
The first must-see spot on a day trip from St. John’s is Cape Spear. Just 15 km east of downtown St. John’s is the most easterly point in Canada and North America. Other than Greenland, which is technically on the North American continent, Cape Spear is as far east as you can go.
The cape is a classic example of the scenes we’d come to expect in Newfoundland. Sheer cliffs, a wild Atlantic Ocean and not one, but two lighthouses make this a worthwhile trip. Built in 1836, Cape Spear Historic Lighthouse is the oldest surviving lighthouse in Canada. The white two-story lightkeeper’s residence wraps around a small tower topped by a red and white stripped dome. This lighthouse is no longer operational, but a new one was built just a few meters away in 1955. The new Cape Spear Lighthouse is still operational today but is automated, not staffed.
While we were visiting the cape, large storm clouds were forming in the distance making an ominous scene. A large, dark cloud overhead looked as if it would envelope the sea. An eerie light illuminated channels in the ocean. The scene that was forming behind Cape Spear Lighthouse made a phenomenal photo opportunity.
In the rough waves below the cape we saw large, curious, white figures. After a short while we realized they were massive Sunfish, floating in the large waves. These huge fish can measure 2.5 m (8 ft) from fin to fin. They have flat bodies and like to lie on their sides and drift in the current. It was an unexpected thrill.
After visiting Cape Spear, we recommend that you drive a few kilometers south to reach Petty Harbour. This adorable fishing village is tucked away in a tight inlet, guarded by rocky outcrops. When we came around the corner we were delighted at the view. Huddled around the small bay were many of the colourful homes that we’d fallen in love with in Eastern Canada. The small, calm harbour was filled with fishing boats. Green hills in the background provided even more colour to this lovely spot.
Newfoundlanders have many unique sayings, words and even different pronunciations than the rest of Canada. As we walked through the small harbour we met a local fisherman. As with most Newfoundlanders he was very friendly and wanted to teach us local slang. He told us about the shortest conversation in the English language. It goes; “Arn?” “Narn.”
He said that the brief exchange occurs when one fisherman, is heading out of the harbour in his boat and meets a second who is returning from fishing. As their boats pass each other the first yells across the water “Arn?” The returning fisherman replies “Narn”. The translation is “Did you catch any fish today?” The reply is “No, I didn’t catch any fish today.” He laughed as he taught us this bit of Newfoundland ‘vocabulary’.
We were still laughing with him when we saw another funny site. Many beach vacation spots have a coconut swinging from a string with a funny weather forecasting sign. In typical Newfoundland humour, Petty Harbour has the east coast version of that sign.
After having a laugh we walked to the other side of the bay. The views from the other side of the tight inlet provided more idyllic scenes. We decided that Petty Harbour is equally charming from any view point.
A little further south of Petty Harbour, and only 31 km from St. John’s, is a wonderful coastal hike to Bay Bulls Lighthouse. The 3 ½ km trail to reach the lighthouse takes you through a forest of larch, spruce, fir and most importantly, blueberry bushes. We timed it right as the bushes were bursting with ripe blueberries. They were succulent and delicious. Eating handfuls of berries at a time slowed our hiking pace considerably, but didn’t distract us from noticing the interesting rock formations beside the trail.
After emerging from the forest you reach a large grassy meadow. The trail winds through the undulating landscape to reach the white lighthouse surrounded by boulders.
Portugal Cove, Pouch Cove and Flat Rock
There are a few picturesque towns east and north of St. John’s that are worth a visit. These sleepy communities have become suburbs of the capital city. Just 16 km east of the capital we found the cute town of Portugal Cove. Colourful homes climb the rocky hills beside the calm water of Conception Bay.
On the tip of Avalon peninsula, 20 km north of Portugal Cove, Pouch Cove (pronounced Pooch) has a picturesque rocky inlet.
Only 12 km north of downtown St. John’s is the town of Flat Rock. From town you can see a tall, red cliff bordering one side of the bay and a long flat rock on the other. When we were there the sun came out to shine on the red cliffs making them even brighter.
Tips for Visiting Newfoundland
- The TransCanada Highway in Newfoundland is shaped like a horseshoe as it travels along the west, north and eastern edge of the island province. There are smaller highways leading to the various capes, but in order to get from east to west, you have to drive all around the northern edge. There are no shortcuts across the island. It will take a full day to drive from one side to the other. There are quite a few potholes across the province so drive with caution.
- Watch for moose while driving, especially between dusk and dawn. With 125,000 moose on the island there are, on average 700 moose-car collisions per year.
- If you’re planning to rent a car or RV, the best advice is to book early. Even when there isn’t a worldwide pandemic, there are not many available.
- Newfoundland Standard Time is 30 minutes ahead of Atlantic Standard Time so do don’t forget to change your watch.
- Don’t confuse St. John’s, Newfoundland’s capital city with St. John in New Brunswick.
Where to stay and eat on Avalon Peninsula
There are many hotel and B&B options are in St. John’s and surrounding communities. Staying in or near downtown St. John’s allows you to experience the energy of this vibrant city. George Street is a popular pedestrian street in downtown with many restaurants, pubs and shops.
Getting to Newfoundland
Marine Atlantic ferries travel between Sydney, NS and western Newfoundland’s Port aux Basques (7 hrs) twice a day and to the eastern province’s Argentia a few times a week. If traveling to or from Argentia it is a long 16 hour trip, usually overnight. Another ferry travels from Blanc-Sablon, Quebec to St. Barbe on the Great Northern Peninsula. This ferry is much closer to L’Anse aux Meadow, however it is a long and difficult drive to reach the Quebec Port.
Most flights travel to St. John’s, but there are also international airports in Stephenville and Gander. Gander is famous for accepting planes from the US during 9/11.
Coming Next – Colourful Neighbourhoods in St. John’s, Newfoundland
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