Distance - 349km
From Cabot to Cormack to Coaker, from Trinity to Bonavista to Brooklyn, and from the fertile farmland of Lethbridge to the windswept plain around The Dungeon, the Discovery Trail takes you through time, myth and legend into a reality that will leave you wondering if seeing really is believing.
There are three gateways to the Bonavista Peninsula. You can take the west entrance from the Trans-Canada Highway onto Route 233 at Port Blandford; the central entrance near Thorburn Lake at Route 230; or the eastern entrance onto Route 230A at Clarenville. On this trip we'll take the eastern route through Clarenville, loop up through Trinity and Port Union to Bonavista, and then cruise down the western shore to Port Blandford.
Mention "Bonavista" and people here think of John Cabot, a Genoese adventurer known in his hometown as Giovanni Caboto. History can do strange things, like change your name. Christofo Columbo suffered the same fate. In 1497, just five years after Columbus landed in the Carribean, the good burghers of Bristol, England, sent Cabot west to investigate what lay in the northern section of the western Atlantic. He found fish, lots and lots of fish, and the race was on to scoop it up, dry it and ship it to Europe. Uncounted fortunes have risen and fallen on the fish trade.
But was Cabot the first European to reach Bonavista? Legend says so, but what of the Vikings? Could they have explored this area from their base at L'Anse aux Meadows at Newfoundland's northern tip nearly 500 years earlier? And what of Saint Brendan? He supposedly sailed west even before the Vikings ventured here. Claims could also be made for the Spanish, Basques and Portuguese, especially the latter. Were the businessmen of Bristol risking their money or betting on a sure thing when they sent Cabot here? Cabot's importance lies not so much is what he did - a sailing feat though it was - but rather as a symbol for the opening up of this part of the New World to European trade and culture during the Age of Discovery.
You'll find a more recent Italian connection with the Bonavista Peninsula in Clarenville, where after turning off onto the Discovery Trail you will probably find yourself on Balbo Drive. It's named for General Italo Balbo, the Italian Fascist who left enough of an impression on the townsfolk they named a street after him. In 1933, on his way back to Rome from the Chicago Exhibition, Balbo led a squadron of flying boats into nearby Shoal Harbour, was paraded and welcomed in Clarenville and flew off with a load of specially stamped mail. He came to an unhappy end, however, as did many of his political ilk: after becoming governor of Libya, he was shot down over Tobruk by Italian guns in 1940.
Clarenville is a friendly town, and a modern one. Now basically a service centre for the Bonavista Peninsula, you can still see traces of its days as a major shipbuilding centre. Take some time to explore this town. Originally known as Clarenceville in honour of the Duke of Clarence, it dates from the 1890s, which is relatively new by Newfoundland standards.
On past Shoal Harbour, now part of Clarenville, there's a piece of land in Milton where shallow waters of Northwest Arm lap a shore that is deep in history. It was from this area that in 1822 William Epps Cormack and his Micmac guide Joseph Sylvester left on their now-famous jaunt through the Newfoundland interior. They didn't find any Beothuks, as Cormack had hoped, but he became the first European to walk across the island and write about it. A plaque on the left just before the causeway marks the event. Just a few hundred feet further on is the now abandoned Bonavista Branch Line of the Newfoundland Railway. Alder and scrub are already encroaching on the line, but it's a pleasant walk through the woods and along the shoreline in either direction. There is also a Canada goose refuge here. Summer and early fall are the best times to see these birds.
As you cross the causeway and take a look around Random Island, two things are obvious: a few hundred yards of water spelled isolation for the people of this largish island until the causeway was constructed in the 1960s; and, two centuries of logging have not come near to exhausting the potential of the island's robust and well-managed forest. Hickman's Harbour has long been the island's logging centre, but everywhere you go there is evidence of logging: there's wood stuffed into barns and sheds, wrapped with tarpaulins against the rain and otherwise protected from the elements.
Legend has it the eastern part of Random Island was the last stronghold of the Beothuks in eastern Newfoundland. Driving through this hilly, wooded section the legend is easy to believe. The spirits of the land, air and water that drew the Beothuks to this place still seem to inhabit it. Deep in the forests the Beothuks would have been hard to find, but they would have had access to the sea at a time when their traditional summer places were taken over by Europeans. It's no wonder, really, that Cormack set out from this neck of the woods on his ultimately futile quest to make contact with a people who were teetering on the brink of extinction at the time.
John Cabot's Landing
Heading north again on Route 230, the next stop is a very special part of not only the Bonavista Peninsula or of Newfoundland, but of Canada. Turn onto Route 239 and head for Trinity. This little town is a gem, a national treasure, and a place where visitors can feel for just a few hours or days the special Trinity enchantment. Trinity is a must-see on anyone's calendar. Most of the old town is a national heritage community, and there are several provincial historic sites, as well. People interested in Newfoundland history will find plenty of it here.
Four years after Cabot's voyage, Gaspar Corte Real explored Newfoundland's coastal waters and, according to legend, named Trinity because he came across this section of the coast on Trinity Sunday in 1501. Much later Trinity became an important fishing and mercantile community. The English considered it so valuable and prized a harbour they built a fort here, one of the few communities in Newfoundland deemed worthy enough to have the Crown incur the expense of a fort. The fort's remains are accessible along the road to the lighthouse. In 1615 Trinity played host to the first court of justice in North America when Richard Whitbourne, under the auspices of the British admiralty, tried to bring order to the constant raids and thieving that were a blight on the fishery for many years.
What strikes you right away about Trinity is how solid the houses are. The nineteenth century styles of architecture that are preserved seem derived from an earlier era. This was a prosperous town, and a progressive one, too. In 1798, Dr. John Clinch, a doctor and minister, administered the first smallpox vaccine in North America. Get out and wander around Trinity. Narrow lanes wander in and out between the houses. Stop at the community museum, which is chock-a-block with exhibits, and has community records dating to the 1600s. Or drop in at the forge, once an important part of the town's commercial life.
Mountain Ash Manor is where, around the turn of this century, widow Emma Hiscock and her daughters lived. The style and grace of the period have been perfectly captured in this Provincial Historic Site. In the old business section you'll find the Garland House. Now reconstructed, this brick house must have been the talk of the town when Francis Lester built it after arriving in the 1770s, and from where he ran a fishing empire before returning to England. Nearby is the Ryan Property, a restoration project undertaken by the provincial government, which re-creates a nineteenth century merchant store. Take time to visit the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, and the Society of United Fishermen (S.U.F.) Hall which was built 150 years ago.
In addition to its history, Trinity has the good fortune to have other attractions that appeal to a wide variety of visitors. One is whale-watching, and several boat tours ply coastal waters in search of humpbacks and other species of whales. However, the main attraction here is not the architecture. It's the theatre festival run each summer by Rising Tide Theatre. There's a popular comedic walking tour of the town several times a week, and theatrical productions in the new theatre and other locations in Trinity Bight.
(By the way, there is another community named Trinity on Route 320 in Bonavista Bay. This other Trinity is a small village not to be confused with Trinity, Trinity Bay.)
When you head north again, take some time to drive around Trinity East and Port Rexton because the scenery here is wonderful. It's also a good area to see icebergs in early summer. Lockston Path Provincial Park on unpaved Route 236 is a good place to camp, and keep an eye out for moose! The woods grow close to this road, and as you drive along you might spot the faint trails the moose use as their "highways" through the forest.
The next stop up the coast is Port Union. Built in the early 20th century - it's next to Catalina - as a model town by William Coaker and the members of his Fishermen's Union Trading Company and the Fishermen's Protective Union, Port Union is a bit odd: it has row houses built for fish plant workers, and you usually don't find row houses in rural Newfoundland. The old railway station houses a display on Coaker and his time. His house is open to the public. The word "graveyard" just doesn't do justice to the grandiose little meadow atop which he is buried. His body rests in a white marble sarcophagus which is topped by a half-statue of the man himself which has, depending on your point of view, either its back turned to the sea or its gaze directed to the coast where lived the fishermen he served. This memorial cemetery must certainly be the grandest to any individual in the province, and a lasting monument to a man who was, according to how you view history, either a giant of a man or a master propagandist. Coaker left Newfoundland in the early 1930s - at the height of the Great Depression - and passed his later years in Jamaica and Boston, where he died in 1938.
You're getting closer to Bonavista, but first a side trip to Maberly is in order. Just offshore is a group of islands where seabirds nest each summer to raise their young, so bring your binoculars for a good view. Kittiwakes, murres and puffins are some of the birds that nest here.
Up to now, the Bonavista Peninsula has been thickly wooded, except for the more frequent spots where peat bogs dominate. Now, as you reach the top of the hill overlooking Bonavista, the traditional barren Newfoundland coastline is in view, this time thickly covered by the houses and other buildings that comprise one of our most famous towns.
If you can't find your way around Bonavista, don't panic. Get lost. That's the best way to see the town. Street signs are rarer than hen's teeth. And keep an eye out for one-way streets. Lanes and narrow streets wander willy-nilly over gentle hills. Just drive, walk or bicycle all over town.
The newest attractions are a reconstruction of John Cabot's ship Matthew, and the Ryan Premises National Historic Site which tells the 500-year history of the east coast fishery in several buildings of displays and artifacts. The Bonavista Museum, with its extensive genealogy records, is also housed here.
Another must-see spot in the town is the Mockbeggar Property, a provincial historic site, that gives visitors a taste of life in the old days.
In the Methodist Cemetery you'll find some of the oldest gravestones in the province. In front of the Court House is a recreation of the old Whipping Post, where rough justice was administered to lawbreakers in centuries past.
After all this there's still Cape Bonavista and the lighthouse. First built in 1843, it has now been restored as an historic site where visitors can step back a hundred years to experience the isolated lifestyle of a nineteenth century lighthouse keeper. Nearby in the municipal park is a statue of Cabot. This is a windswept, moody area, but in 1997 it was the focus of a giant celebration of our history and culture - the 500th anniversary of Cabot's landing.
Back through Bonavista, you head down the peninsula's west side. This is a very pretty area. The road weaves through timeless coastal fishing villages and near several pebble beaches where beachcombers will spend time just looking, and maybe even finding.
This section of the peninsula just begs for side trips. Drive out the south side of Blackhead Bay to Keels. One of the local traditions has it that Cabot left a keel-mark here while stopping for water. Others have speculated it might be Kialarness mentioned in the Viking sagas. There are families here with the surname Keel, but the community pre-dates their arrival. It was a fishing station in 1675 and appeared on maps almost a century before that.
Returning from this side-trip, have a look around King's Cove. While most communities here are English to the core, King's Cove has a few Irish people in its early history, although many English people from Bonavista and Trinity also settled here. The first Catholic church north of Harbour Grace was established here in 1815, but the community was first settled in the 1700s. Check out the churches here and in other small fishing communities along this part of the coast and you'll find some very fine architecture.
This is a wonderful area to visit in fall. Because of the long history of logging in the area, there are large stands of deciduous trees. Hills painted all the colours of autumn lend a romantic tinge to a visit. Later in the year when snow blankets the landscape the benefits of thick woods become apparent to skiers, while snowmobilers have enormous areas to explore and enjoy. And, of course, there are ponds where those hearty souls who enjoy ice-fishing can enjoy their peculiar form of winter recreation.
The base of the peninsula is farming country around Lethbridge and Musgravetown. In season, you can get lots of fresh vegetables here, or visit farmer's field day. It's a lovely, relaxing area. A good place for a panoramic view of this area is Brooklyn. Farmers here gather dead seaweed that has washed onto the narrow, sandy beaches and truck it off to their fields to help replenish the soil.
From here, you can continue on to Port Blandford. There's good salmon and trout fishing in this area. And there's also a championship 18-hole golf course at Port Blandford, so bring along your clubs.