Close encounters - Newfoundland
The Atlantic rollers crashed into the base of the cliffs far below us, throwing up bluewhite spume to contrast the slate-grey ocean. Thankfully, the mist and drizzle which had cloaked Quirpon Island the previous night had been chased away by the brisk August wind, against which my fellow explorers and I were protected by several layers of warm clothing.
We had clambered across lichen-covered rocks to reach the high promontory from where we now scanned the waves with binoculars. Looking back, the green lamp of the white and red lighthouse on the island's northern tip glowed brightly in the still-gloomy morning light. The leaden sky also made it hard to spot our quarry as we gazed out to sea.
Then in the distance, my eye was caught by a telltale spout. I focused my camera's zoom lens on the spot and, sure enough, moments later a jet of spray erupted from the water, followed in quick succession by another.
"Thar she blows!" I yelled, excitedly. At least, I meant to. I think it came out as just a strangulated: "Tha..." And in fact, it wasn't one whale - but two, side by side.
Quirpon is a windswept dot off the far north of Canada's most easterly landmass, the island of Newfoundland. This is where the world's largest population of humpback whales, 5,000 of them, pass on their annual migration.
Just weeks earlier, these same waters had witnessed another amazing spectacle. During late spring and early summer, huge icebergs shed by Arctic glaciers are carried past the Newfoundland coast along what is called "Iceberg Alley", coming so close to Quirpon at times they get stranded in its bays. As they drift south, they meet the whales heading north.
As our two whales approached us one began breaching - spectacularly leaping out of the sea with its flippers outstretched and its belly uppermost - to land in a massive splash alongside its partner, the noise reverberating off the cliff. "That's got to be a male showing off to his girlfriend," one of my companions - a lady wryly noted, adding: "Typical!"
We watched the whales continue their journey past us and on towards the lighthouse and headland, with one breaching and the other gracefully breaking the surface every so often. I raced back through the rock gullies, past the beacon and one-time lighthouse keepers' cottage, now an inn and where we were staying, to reach a rocky ledge just above the shoreline. The whales had already swum by but were so close I felt I could almost touch them.
Converted into accommodation in the 1990s when the lighthouse was automated, the inn is a cosy refuge from the elements in one of the most amazing settings imaginable.You can watch for whales and icebergs from your bedroom window, or sit in the special viewing hut set on the cliff edge with its floor-toceiling
windows. Above it, the helipad is great for viewing in good weather.
Eight of us had arrived the previous afternoon after a precarious trip, our boat climbing watery mountain peaks before plunging into deep valleys. It had to dock some distance away in Pigeon Cove, leaving us a half-hour hike across the boggy island interior. Along the way, our captain and guide, Jerry, pointed out small orange berries growing by the track. Called bakeapples up here in Newfoundland, but cloudberries everywhere else, they were wonderfully sweet and juicy.
At the inn our friendly co-hostess, Madonna, served up a traditional Jiggs' dinner of salt beef, boiled potatoes and cabbage and then regaled us with tales of the island. I could have listened to her talk for hours, for her wonderful local accent and the idiosyncratic Newfoundland dialect. So unique is its language that there is even a Dictionary of Newfoundland English with words found nowhere else. For example, tickle is a narrow saltwater strait: hence the Dark Tickle Company, which harvests the local berries as jams and jellies. Even pronunciation
is a world apart, as in Quirpon being pronounced
Having bade a sad farewell and trudged back to the boat, the return journey was just as memorableas the one out. Not just for the rollercoaster waves, but also for bow-waving dolphins, a humpback alongside us and another which breached right behind the boat.
That whale experience was not my only notable close encounter on the trip. The inn's owner, local tour operator Ed English, was waiting as we docked. He was heading there to help prepare it for the arrival of comedian Billy Connolly and a TV crew, who were visiting as part of filming a series tracing the Northwest Passage route.
I had a strange feeling I would bump into him that day, and I did - almost literally.
The only authenticated Viking settlement in North America, L'Anse aux Meadows is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Whereas Quirpon is striking for its cliffs, crashing waves and spectacular visitors, this is a bleak yet hauntingly-beautiful coastal spot of undulating grassland and stunted fir trees.
The Vikings didn't stay long before returning to Greenland. Today, the recreated Norse settlement features a longhouse with costumed interpreters. It was here that I came across Billy Connolly, interviewing one of the "Vikings" on camera. With their matching bushy beards, the pair could have been brothers.
Having gone inside the longhouse to take pictures, I saw Billy standing just beyond the door as I walked back out - distracting me so that I didn't notice the low doorway. The cracking sound when my head made contact must have been loud, as he came over to see if I was OK. I felt a real silly billy! But hearing my Essex accent, he guessed I wasn't a Newfie and we got chatting. I told him I knew he was going to Quirpon and whetted his appetite about the whales, and the hairy boat trip.
Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula is awash with reminders of its Nordic settlers. Close to L'Anse aux Meadows, the Norstead living history site has demonstrations of Norse lifestyle and a mid-summer Viking Festival in late July. The Norseman Restaurant is worth a stop for its tasty fare, which includes Caribou.
I had driven almost 500km up the west coast of Newfoundland, travelling on Route 430, known as the Viking Trail. It is the only way there, save for a cross-island stretch of road to the east coast which I took for an overnight stay at the gloriously-situated Tuckamore Lodge, near Main Brook. It was only the day before Quirpon, but I had watched the sun setting over the adjoining lake, beer in hand, in shirtsleeves. Such is the fickle nature of the weather up here.
Talking of nature, I also encountered my first Newfoundland moose that day.You are almost bound to see them as you travel around. With more than 110,000, the island has more moose per square mile than anywhere else in the world. I would see another five during my visit.
The Viking Trail is a route to savour, dotted by picture-perfect fishing villages, harbours and drop-dead gorgeous views of the Gulf of St Lawrence. In the distance, off the coast of Labrador, I even spotted an iceberg - a flattopped monster resembling a white supertanker.
But the west coast's crowning glory is Gros Morne National Park, another UNESCO site. It is a natural wonderland, with awe-inspiring geological features such as the stark Tablelands, Gros Morne Mountain and Western Brook Pond, a glacier-carved fjord with 2,000-foot-high walls where you can take a sightseeing cruise, and wildlife such as moose, caribou and bears.
The park envelops communities including the coastal village of Trout River, with its quaint timber houses, lines of brightlycoloured, knitted socks and gloves, and wooden boardwalk lining the crescent-shaped beach. Three youngsters were braving the freezing water to go swimming with bodyboards, making me shiver. They obviously breed them tough in these parts.
Taking in the view from my room at the hillside Red Mantle Inn, in Shoal Brook, I watched clouds spill over the top of Gros Morne Mountain across Bonne Bay inlet while the dawn sun lit up a three-masted schooner moored at Woody Point. I drove into the town and got chatting to a visiting Harley- Davidson biker and his family as we admired the vista, before photographing the wooden lighthouse on a ridge above town.
Across the inlet, I visited pretty Neddy Harbour and Norris Point, and tucked into fish and chips at Rocky Harbour after a beautiful dusk - preceded by a truly romantic sunset at nearby Sally's Cove. Hugged by a treecovered bluff and flanked by some fishermen's huts with boats hauled up alongside, this deserted strip of boulder-edged beach is to die for. And it nearly was for some.
Ed English's grandfather famously ran the SS Ethie ashore here in a hurricane in 1919, saving all 92 aboard. Rusting remnants of the vessel were being washed over by gentle waves on the rocky shoreline in the setting sun on my visit, in a tranquil scene far removed from the horrors of that day.
I ended my trip where I had started it, at Deer Lake airport, just half an hour from Gros Morne park. My first few days had been spent in a luxury villa complete with outdoor hot tub at Humber Valley Resort, a lovely leisure complex with a superb golf course, spa and a beach on which I sat and drank beer in front of a log fire with a Swiss mother and daughter from a neighbouring villa.
Sadly, Humber Valley's parent company went into administration soon after and the resort closed, ending direct charter flights from the UK. With the Humber River being one of the world's finest salmon fishing rivers and Gros Morne's glories on its doorstep, it can only be amatter of time before the resort rises again.
In any event, I will cherish the memories of this very special island. If anywhere could claim to be a slice of heaven on earth, Newfoundland is surely it.
When to go
May to September is the island's tourist season. In summer, daytime temperatures can reach 20ºC but the weather is very changeable, so be prepared and take layers of warm clothing as well as waterproofs. Also take sunscreen and mosquito repellent. In winter, you can go skiing at Marble mountain Resort, near Deer Lake, as well as snowmobiling and ice fishing.
Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) serves Deer Lake and St John's airports via transatlantic gateways including Toronto.
Renting a car is the best way to see Newfoundland. But you need to book well in advance to guarantee a car, especially in high season. Rental companies include Avis (www.avis.co.uk). Watch out for moose while driving.
Hotels are smaller than in other areas of Canada, but are good quality and often family-run.Western Newfoundland options include Quirpon Lighthouse Inn (www.linkumtours.com/site/inns_quirpon.htm), Tuckamore Lodge in Main Brook (www.tuckamorelodge.com) and Red Mantle Lodge in Shoal Brook (www.redmantlelodge.ca).
Frontier Canada (www.frontier-canada.co.uk/newfoundland) offers several packages to western Newfoundland and a wide range of product throughout the island.
Other operators include 1st Class Holidays (www.1stclassholidays.com), Audley Travel (www.audleytravel.com), Canadian Affair (www.canadianaffair.com),Titan HiTours (www.titantravel.co.uk),Tailor Made Travel (www.tailor-made.co.uk) and Windows on the Wild (www.windowsonthewild.com).
All prices and details were correct when published, please check before you visit Canada's Newfoundland.