Irish Loop Drive

Home to Puffins, Whales, Caribou - and Irish

Distance - 312 km

This scenic and historic drive starts at St. John's and heads south on Route 10 into the heart of Irish Newfoundland and the magical world of whales, seabirds and caribou, then loops back to St. John’s.

Take Route 10 to Kilbride and its neighbour, Goulds, both now part of St. John's. This is some of the most fertile land in the province where you will see herds of dairy cattle and fields of vegetables as you drive by. The rolling green hills of the area are still being farmed by the descendants of the Irish families who settled there in the 19th century.

Continue on to Bay Bulls, another old settlement and one of several communities where you can hop a tour boat to see the marine delights of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. The town, 30 kilometres south of St. John's, derives its name from the French "Baie Boules," a reference to the bull bird or dovekie, which winters in Newfoundland. The town was first fortified in 1638, when Sir David Kirke governed the colony of Newfoundland from Ferryland. Despite its fortifications, the community was captured and burned by the French on several occasions, the last in 1796.

In the deep waters of Bay Bulls lies the wreck of HMS Sapphire which was sunk in action against the French in 1696. The site was excavated during the 1970s by the Newfoundland Marine Archaeology Society. Bay Bulls played an important role in the Second World War as a strategic port for the relief and repair of Allied warships and merchantmen. The German submarine U-190 surrendered here during the last days of World War II. Today, Bay Bulls along with Witless Bay and other Southern Shore communities are embarkation points for the tour boats that bring thousands of visitors every year to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve.

The reserve, four islands and the waters around them between Witless Bay and Bauline, is home to phenomenal numbers of seabirds that nest here to raise their young. When you see them, you'll swear someone missed a few hundred thousand. About 530,000 Leach's Storm Petrels nest of Gull Island, with another 250,000 on Great Island. Green Island has 74,000 Murres. And there are tens of thousands of Atlantic Puffins, the provincial bird.

As your tour boat cruises near Witless Bay Ecological Reserve - they are protected areas off limits to people - you'll see puffins running and skipping along the top of the water trying to get airborne. Like many seabirds, they spend most of the year on the open ocean hundreds of kilometres southeast of Newfoundland and come to shore to breed and raise their young. They are so well adapted to their marine environment that flying becomes a chore, especially with a belly full of capelin for the squawking chicks.

The chicks are in thousands of burrows on the steep sides of the islands. Below, hoping for a meal, sit greedy grey gulls while other scavengers keep watch from aloft. The burrows provide protection against marauding gulls. Safety in numbers is the watchword for survival for the puffins and other nesting birds. Here you'll also find Razorbills, Great Black-Backed Gulls, Northern Fulmars, Black Guillemots and Black-Legged Kittiwakes. There's a blizzard of birds in the air throughout the day, and they are all looking for something to eat.

That something is the capelin. And it's not only the birds that eat them. Whales come near shore in late spring and summer on their annual migration from wintering grounds in the south to summer havens in the Arctic. More than a dozen species of whales frequent the waters of Newfoundland and Labrador, but the humpback and the minke are the two most commonly seen in this reserve. In fact, you’ll find the world’s greatest concentration of feeding humpbacks along Newfoundland’s east coast, numbering in the thousands each year.

Weighing in about 30 tonnes for an adult, the humpbacks are nevertheless extremely graceful. Quite often a tour boat skipper will discretely follow a pair or a pod of whales as they cruise the water looking for food. They'll dip below the waves for minutes at a time and then surface with a whoosh from the blowhole. Sometimes a whale, especially a younger one, will come close to a tour boat and cock an eye at all on board. Or one will breach - jump completely out of the water and land with a mighty splash.

When the capelin are running, whales will execute amazingly deft maneuvers while chasing their favourite snack. They actually herd the caplin into tight schools with sound and movement, surround them with streams of bubbles, and then force them to the surface with sounds where the tiny, silvery fish quickly become dinner.

While all this is going on, there might be icebergs off in the distance. Some bergs weigh hundreds of thousands of tonnes and can be thousands of years old. They break off from the leading edge of glaciers on islands in the Arctic and drift slowly south, eventually melting in the warmer Gulf Stream waters southeast of Newfoundland.

Witless Bay was originally named for the Whittle family. This is just one of the photogenic small communities scattered along the southern part of the Avalon Peninsula. You can also get a tour boat to the reserve from here. Tors Cove, which is 47 kilometres from St. John's, is a good place to see whales from shore.

Further along the shore, you will come to La Manche Provincial Park. The park is in a beautiful river valley that teems with wildlife and attracts many nature enthusiasts and artists. One focus of their interest is a beautiful marsh with a selection of delicate wildflowers. La Manche River, which runs through the area, offers good canoeing and wonderful sightseeing along a hiking trail that takes you to a spectacular waterfall. Another trail takes you to the abandoned townsite of La Manche. It's a breathtaking trip by foot from the highroad to the tip of the ravine which housed the settlement, and where a new suspended footbridge enables hikers to cross the ravine and continue a hike along the East Coast Trail. While little remains of the houses, the river cascades into a beautiful pocket sized harbour with grassy fields surrounding it - a perfect place for a picnic.

Another option for those touring the Avalon Peninsula is the Avalon Wilderness Reserve. You can obtain a permit to visit the 868 square kilometre reserve at the La Manche park office, or at other provincial park offices. For those interested in canoeing, fishing or hiking this is a worthwhile excursion. The reserve is also home to the world’s southernmost herd of woodland caribou.

Continue along Route 10 through Cape Broyle and visit the Devil's Stairway, an interesting rock formation where Satan is supposed to have left his footprints in the face of the cliff. You can also take a boat tour to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve from Cape Broyle.

Follow the highway to Ferryland and literally step right into the past at the archaeological dig. Sir George Calvert, who later became Lord Baltimore, established a colony in Ferryland in 1621. It was successful for a number of years until a series of cold winters and other hardships prompted him to seek a warmer climate in Maryland. Sir David Kirke took over the colony later in that century. During his time Ferryland's high rocky cliffs were fortified with cannon to protect the settlement from attack. After the town was stripped of its guns and fortifications it was unable to resist the Dutch, who landed in 1763 and destroyed it.

But they didn't destroy everything, and archaeologists have uncovered a large number of artifacts. Excavation with brush and trowel continues, and if you've ever wanted to see history being uncovered just stand 10 feet from the dig and watch. The items recovered are cleaned and catalogued and the most impressive finds are on display in the visitor centre nearby. Beothuk artifacts have also been found in the area, proving these aboriginal people inhabited this part of the coast.

One display on the site is an old-fashioned wattle fence that surrounds a garden where the vegetables being grown are the same sort as those grown over 300 years ago. Another attraction is an old lighthouse. There's a rough road to it across the Downs, but it's best to walk out and see why Newfoundland painter Gerry Squires was so inspired by this area. There's still some farming on the Downs.

For an introduction to the famous Irish hospitality of the Southern Shore, visit the Historic Ferryland Museum in the old court house. The Southern Shore Folk Festival is celebrated here in July each year, and there’s a dinner theatre based on local stories and songs. Keep an ear tuned for stories of faeries. There's a very strong Irish streak along this part of the Newfoundland coast that's reflected in the music. The pride in their heritage and their warm hospitality are just two of the natural strengths you'll discover in the people. Sit down and have a chat and a cup of tea and you'll wonder where the time has flown. Like many other visitors, you'll give in to the urge to linger just a little while longer.

A short drive down the coast will bring you to Aquaforte, whose harbour resembles a Norwegian fjord. Long ago a squadron of the French fleet ran aground to avoid bombardment by the English who waited at the mouth of the harbour. Some say they buried a treasure here and made their way on foot across the peninsula to Placentia.

From Aquaforte, continue on to Renews-Cappahayden. As the nearest harbour on the southern Avalon to the fishing banks offshore, Renews was already well known when in the fall of 1620, the English ship Mayflower stopped here for supplies during her epic 66-day voyage from Plymouth to the New World. Renews and nearby Fermeuse were unsuccessfully settled by Welsh colonists in the early 1600s, under a scheme promoted by Sir William Vaughan. A point of interest in the area is the grotto where Mass was celebrated secretly at night in the late 1500s when Roman Catholicism was suppressed by the Protestant English.

An unpaved road from Portugal Cove South takes you to two very different attractions. Unique fossils at Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve date to 620 million years ago. Radio operators at Cape Race were the first to pick up the distress signal from RMS Titanic, which struck an iceberg 400 km to the south and sank with a huge loss of life in 1912.

Back on Route 10, head west to Trepassey, a name that means ‘the dead’ or ‘the dead souls’ or a corruption of an old Basque word. Basque fishermen were prominent all along the Newfoundland coast in the 16th century. Trepassey was the seat of the unsuccessful Welsh colony. More recently it was the starting point for several transatlantic flights including the one, in 1928, when Amelia Earhart, as a passenger with William S. Stultz and Lou Gordon, became the first woman to fly the Atlantic. The caribou from the Avalon Wilderness Reserve cross the highway on the southern Avalon around Trepassey during their annual migrations.

This region is a popular base for the hunting of upland game birds such as the willow ptarmigan and for salmon and trout fishing expeditions. There are three excellent rivers in this area - North East Brook, North West Brook and Biscay Bay River. They offer a good run of fishing during July and August. Barren ground and isolated heath characterizes this area.

Beyond Trepassey, a short diversion off Route 10 will take you to St. Shotts, best known today for its huge deposits of peat. Hiking trails along the coast provide dramatic view of a coast that has claimed many vessels over the centuries, and the remains of a few are still visible.

A few kilometres away are the communities of Peter's River, St. Stephens and St. Vincent's where sheep-raising has a long history. At St. Vincent's, a long stretch of sandy beach runs parallel to the highway. This is a marvelous place for beach combing and bird watching. Deep water near the shore enables whales to swim very close to the shoreline.

Follow Route 90 to Holyrood Pond, a vast salt water lake that opens to the sea at St. Vincent's. In the 1890s the Newfoundland government pioneered fish hatching in this spectacular ocean inlet.

In the community of St. Mary's and throughout this region you will hear a dialect of Newfoundland Irish and see a lifestyle similar to Ireland's. All along the way you meet the descendants of the original settlers who came from that country to fish and farm in the New World and you will see them going about their business in much the same way as they have for a hundred years.

From the communities of Coot's Pond and Riverhead on Route 90, you can take a scenic detour to O'Donnels and Admiral's Beach on Route 94. Then travel up Salmonier Arm toward St. Joseph's, near the mouth of one of best spots for salmon in eastern Newfoundland, Salmonier River. There are a number of good fishing pools in the 15-km stretch between the mouth of the river and Murphy Falls, accessible from the highway. The best pools are Back River, Pinsent's Falls, Butler's and Murphy Falls proper.

Another favourite stop along this route is the Salmonier Nature Park, a 1,214-hectare wilderness reserve area with a large exhibit area where visitors can see some 30 species of animals and birds indigenous to Newfoundland and Labrador. The park provides the opportunity to see at close range flora and fauna which you might miss in the course of normal travel within the province. Kids love this park. You can see moose, beaver, caribou, owls, otters, lynx, foxes and others. There's a boardwalk over much of the trail.

The last piece of the Irish Loop is Route 1 between Route 90 and St. John’s. Near the Witless Bay Line (Route 13 which takes you to Route 10) you will see evidence of the great ice sheets that once covered North America. Large boulders, known as glacial erratics, sit where they were dropped by the retreating glaciers thousands of years ago. In fact, this is probably the most southerly arctic/alpine region in the world, and a variety of plant life reaches its southernmost limit here.

On the small ponds in the vicinity you may catch a glimpse of Canada geese, which share this habitat with ptarmigan and horned larks. You may wish to relax and investigate this wonderful part of nature during a stopover at Butter Pot Provincial Park The park, within easy access from all communities on the Avalon Peninsula, is a popular weekend rendezvous for campers. Butter Pot has a sandy freshwater beach, spacious campgrounds and an interpretation display. Guided nature walks are conducted by a park naturalist on the hiking trails within the park boundaries. Ask at the park office for directions to the Hawke Hills Ecological Reserve which is on the south side of Route 1 between Routes 90 and 62.

Just east of the park is the ‘City Limits’ sign that means you're near St. John's. You can continue on Route 1 into the northwest section of the city, or you can go downtown on Route 2, which ends at Water Street, one of the oldest European thoroughfares on the continent.

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