The Cape Shore

Home to Gannets and the French Heritage of Placentia Bay

Distance - 303km

This tour takes you to the Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve seabird sanctuary, one of the most incredible wildlife spectacles in the world, and into an area of Placentia Bay that played an exciting part in the history of North America during its early days when England fought France for control of the colony and the continent.

Start at the intersection of Route 1 and take Route 100 south. An interesting side trip on Route 102 takes you to Ship Harbour. A conference between U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, held at sea off Ship Harbour in 1941, resulted in the Atlantic Charter, which laid out a vision for the postwar world during a very dark period. A monument marking this meeting, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘First Summit,’ has been erected at the end of an unpaved road off Route 102 amid the splendid scenery of Placentia Bay.

The next stop is Placentia. The town has recently expanded its boundaries to take in Dunville, Jerseyside and Southeast Placentia. Past Dunville, a paved highway leads to Argentia the terminus for the Nova Scotia ferry which operates between Argentia and North Sydney, Nova Scotia, during the summer. In 1940, the United States military began construction of a naval base and air station which served the American and other Allied forces during the war years. Argentia's importance lay in its strategic position near the shipping lanes of the northwest Atlantic and ice-free harbour. The base closed about 11 years ago.

Placentia is built on a large beach near a coastal forest area. In the early days of the seventeenth century this was the French capital of Newfoundland. Colonial French land and sea forces, aware of its strategic position, established a fortified base on a summit overlooking the ocean arms of Plaisance, as the French called it, in 1662. On the commanding site of what is now Castle Hill National Historic Site, the French erected a fortification called Le Gaillardin in 1692, a year of intensive English campaigns. The following year Fort Royal was begun as the main defense against the English attacks by sea. The areas adjacent to the park, at the northern point of Placentia Gut and east of the town, were previously defended by Fort Louis and Fort Le Vieux, both of which have long since surrendered to the elements. From their fortified position at Placentia, the French attacked the English capital at St. John's three times. Each time, they were forced to retreat, but only after they had captured the main fort twice and burnt the city down.

The British moved into Placentia after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. During the Seven Years' War its defenses were upgraded to aid in the recapture of St. John's, which just months previously had been taken by the French. With British supremacy assured, Placentia was soon outranked by St. John's which became the capital of the colony. Today, visitors can stroll along the stabilized ruins on Castle Hill and enjoy the spectacular view of Placentia Bay, and take in ongoing archaeological digs around the town. In keeping with the military nature of the site, the Interpretation Centre is built into the hill like a bunker. The displays inside tell the stories of the ordinary soldiers and fishermen who toiled here in times past. The hiking trails at the site pass through stands of evergreen trees that fill the air with a rich scent.

In the town of Placentia, you find the community museum in O'Reilly Heritage House on the waterfront. This grand old house has a fine collection of period furniture and some unusual woodwork. The town also features an old church with a stone presbytery, and a government services building and its fine clock from earlier this century.

South of Placentia is Gooseberry Cove Provincial Park where you can watch the waves roll onto a long, sandy beach or take a walk among the unusual purple rock formations that frame the cove. The grassy backshore is an ideal place for a picnic before you go on to explore Little Barasway and Great Barasway, which take their names from the Newfoundland term for barachois - a sandy isthmus providing shelter for exposed harbours.

Angels Cove has great swimming at Angels Cove Falls. This stretch of the Cape Shore was settled in the early 1800s by Irish settlers working for the Placentia merchant firm of Sweetman's. Angels Cove is unusual in that it is one of the few communities in Newfoundland originally established as a farming venture.

Next up is St. Bride’s. Irish roots are strong here and traditional song, dance and recitation have survived. Exciting traditional performers from the Cape Shore, as this stretch of coast is known, now take their music to folk festivals throughout the province.

St. Bride’s is the nearest community to the Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, the star of the shore and one of the great natural wonders in Newfoundland and Labrador. The 13.4-kilometre paved road from Route 100 leads to a view immortalized in the Newfoundland folk song "Let Me Fish off Cape St. Mary's." The vantage point, a 15-30 minutes walk from the interpretation centre, overlooks Bird Rock, the third largest nesting site for gannets in North America, and offers a spectacular opportunity to photograph these gorgeous, golden-headed birds with the two- metre wing span from only 15 metres away. This is also a nursery for thousands of murres and kittiwakes. During the summer months the cliffs are alive with seabirds. The waters here are a great place to see whales.

The sanctuary at Cape St. Mary's may be visited year-round and no permit is necessary. The Interpretation Centre is open from spring until fall and there are guides to answer your questions and to show you around. You can see Bird Rock through a huge window or through telescopes, and there are displays on the ecology and wildlife of "the Cape." The centre also hosts an annual summer concert series.

Route 100 becomes Route 92 at Branch. This part of the coast was first settled by Irishmen with names like Nash, McGrath, Careen, Coffey, Doyle and Power who settled here to escape the famine and oppression in their land. Those surnames are familiar here today among the descendants of the original settlers. Not much has changed here since then. It's still a wonderland of rivers, lakes and silent hills and, of course, the barrens. Along the Cape Shore you'll find grazing sheep, brightly coloured houses, old churches and winding lanes, and an Irish air.

As the residents say themselves, don't look for glitz here. Life is more personal. Drop in and chat over a cup of tea and learn the history of the area, how Irish settlers were lured here with the promise of a new beginning, or how Solo the pedlar made a fortune from a wrecked cargo of cotton thread. And of course this being Irish country, there's a gold story. Legend has it that a man named Andy Nash stumbled across a vein of gold while crossing the barrens on a very foggy day - and could never find it again! There's also a tale of buried treasure that supposedly lies in some long-forgotten nook, just waiting for an enterprising soul to come along and find it.

The hospitality here is warm and genuine, and keeps visitors coming back. The language here is unique, and the music - oh, the music will break your heart and mend it again in the course of a song.

Get out and roam the countryside. There are hidden secrets that are well worth finding, at the top of a hill or along a sandy shore. Pick partridge berries in late summer, or photograph a moose as it grazes by the roadside.

At the northern end of Route 92, turn left onto a short unpaved section of Route 91 to Cataracts Provincial Park. This picnic park is built around a deep river gorge with two cascading waterfalls which are accessible by a system of walkways. The interesting natural scenic site attracted Newfoundland's first motoring tourist in the 1920s and still holds a fascination for visitors today.

Back on the paved section of Route 91 you’ll shortly come to the man-made salmon ladder on the Rocky River Falls. Learn more about salmon enhancement by taking a guided tour.

The next community, Colinet was probably named for one Andre Colenet, master of the French fishing vessel, Le Montaran in the 1760s. As early as 1723, John Masters and his partner Philip Watson had fishing premises at Colinet in the inner reaches of St. Mary's Bay.

Heading east brings you to Route 90. Whether you drive north or south from here you’re on Irish Loop Drive, but if you want to head back to Route 1, go north past Salmonier Nature Park. (See Irish Loop Drive.)

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