On the Viking Trail

September 25, 2012

Words by // Photography by Nita Breibish

The MV Atlantic Vision is, by far, the largest ferry we’ve seen. Of course the 7 hour journey from North Sydney, NS to Port aux Basques in Newfoundland isn’t a walk in the park either. The trip takes us through the Cabot Straight, which can certainly churn up some large waves during a storm. However, today we’re met with a blue sky and a calm ocean.

Our plan to slowly meander across Newfoundland has been thwarted by an inoperable ferry on the eastern side of the island. The 17 hour return route from Argentia has been cancelled indefinitely due to a mechanical issue and, in fact, won’t return to service before it’s mid-September seasonal closure. Besides, at $400 for a bike and cabin, plus and additional $200 for the second bike is simply too expensive for us.

Instead our trip now has us running the full-length of the island twice in each direction. There’s really only a single road that can take you across “The Rock” so we’ll be seeing some things twice though we always say that a road is never the same when you’re coming from the other direction.

As I’ve said, Nita doesn’t do well on boats but her frequent use of ferrys in the past few weeks has seen her feeling pretty confident. Rather than using the normal coma-inducing Gravol we opt for some herbal remedies instead. We both pop a couple and wait for the loading to begin. To be honest the loading of the ferry seems completely disorganized – we’re called to board and wait while cars and semi’s are moved around.

Finally, after about an hour, we’re moved to a ramp then stopped just shy of it. Not entirely clear as to why, we suddenly notice all the loaded cars coming back off of the ship! Their Tetris game hasn’t gone as planned. Eventually we’re on and tying down the bikes – we’re pretty excited about heading out on the longest ship voyage yet. Rather than lugging our gear around, we leave the majority of it on the bike. Since no one is allowed on the vehicle decks during transit we figure it’s all safe.

The ship quickly leaves port and we find a decent place to sit. The ferry is sold out so good seats are hard to find but we just keep filling empties until we get to a place we like. We spend the voyage looking into the water and catching up on some writing. Marine-Atlantic advertises wifi on their ships but connecting is problematic – there are too many devices connected by the time we start trying. I ask a crewman at reception if there’s a trick and he mumbles something about “Good luck” as he walks away mid-sentence. Hrm. Still, we’re on a giant boat in the water so that’s pretty awesome!

Rather than the expected 7 hour trip, we pull into Port aux Basques in just under 5. On the ferry we meet a couple who are riding up from New Hampshire – Mike and Sue – who end up staying at the same hotel as us, St. Christophers. Parking mid-lot, all of us somehow manage to miss the motorcycle parking by the hotel lobby – an oversight Mike and Sue quickly remedy. We follow suit and chat a little longer before heading in to get some much needed laundry done. Set on top of a hill overlooking the bay, the hotel is a great place to relax after the ferry. We enjoy a great dinner in the restaurant where I discover the best homestyle burger I’ve ever eaten, then walk the town and it’s small boardwalk. The evening is finished with us sitting on the hill watching the ships leave port.

Our plan the next day is to head north, through Gros Morne National Park, up through L’Anse aux Meadows and on to St. Anthonys. We wake early and notice our friends GS is already gone.  The sun is shining and, after a quick fill, we head out towards our first nights stop in Cow Head.

Right from the get-go Newfoundland is different – the landscape certainly feels more like some Scottish highland than Canada. The road is quiet and we’re flanked to the right by mountains that seem somehow out of place. Perhaps it’s this fact that makes them so magical. It’s like they’ve been placed there, then forgotten and left behind.

Past Corner Brook, we stop for lunch in Deer Lake where we begin our journey north. Any sun that had joined us is now gone and ominous-looking clouds are settling in. We spend some time chatting with folks in the local Tim Hortons and then notice the rain. Lots of rain. Loading up with coffee, we try to wait until it dies down. After about 40 minutes it seems to calm a little and we make a break for it!

The break in the weather lasts about 5 minutes. It’s belting down as we turn off of the Trans-Canada and head north in to Gros Morne. All I can say about this park is that it’s one of the most stunning places in Canada. The road winds up and into the mountains and soon we’re in the clouds. The rain eases slightly and, as we wind our way down, we move along the water that makes up the East Arm as if floating above this pristine piece of road. Eventually we’re met by our familiar friend, the St. Lawrence and she joins us along the way to Cow Head. Stopped at a pull-out we see our friends from the ferry again, this time taking in the view while the rain pelts them from every angle. We’re surprised to see them and a quick wave marks another brief hello, then goodbye.

We arrive at the Shallow Bay Motel soaked. Well, my feet are soaked – my REV’IT! Defender has held up well to the weather, but in my infinite wisdom I forgot to pull on my Gore-Tex socks. People often refer to my size 13 feet as ski’s but inside my non-waterproof boots they’re just swimming pools. Much like the St. Christopher Hotel, this place is also very motorcycle friendly (they even supply cloths for cleaning your bike – not that we needed them) and the staff quickly sort out our room so we can dry off. Happy to get inside, we pull everything off and catch our breath.

Every year the Gros Morne Theatre Festival is held in a small building next to the motel. We’ve been hearing about how great this theatre is so we pick up some tickets and head to “Cod on a Stick” after dinner. To say that the performance is great would be an understatement. The actors talent easily rivals any live theatre we’ve seen. Anywhere.

“Cod on a Stick” is hilarious but it also covers some pretty interesting topics – from the mainland misconceptions of life in Newfoundland, to the over-fishing of the North Atlantic, to some fun self-deprecating jabs – such as the disappearance of the letter ‘H’ in much of the local conversation. In fact, the road sign to Cow Head had been vandalized to simply read “Cow ‘ead!”

One scene in the play, where a man whose blindness seems to provide an endless litany of unintended insults reminds us of Nita’s experience in the pub the night before. While no malice is intended, a woman continuously talks to Nita about how “her people” are typically managers, and that she “…has that look, like you could work on a cruise line – like Royal Malaysian. You know, you all look the same!” Nita’s smiles incredulously, then makes her exit. The woman’s most certainly harmless – in fact we think she believes it’s all complimentary – but words can carry weight and intention whether it’s conscious or not.

After the play we stop by the pub for a drink. As I walk up to pay, I notice a couple sitting at the bar. “Hi! How are you?” she says.

With that, we strike up a conversation and close the place! Fran and Sean are wonderful, warm folks. From Toronto, they’re travelling around Newfoundland and have spent the past few days hiking through Gros Morne. Their (amazing) pictures quickly make us wish for more days in the park and some great weather for hiking. Sean is hilarious – he has an energy that’s endless and, as a drummer for Dress Rehearsal he’s a consummate performer who’s always looking for a stage. We know immediately that we’ll be friends well past Cow Head. Since we’ll all end up in St. Johns around the same time, we plan to meet up there.

We’re met the next morning by the sun. The clouds are gone and we can clearly see into the St. Lawrence. At breakfast, Sean and Fran stop by our table to say goodbye – they’ve grabbed a breakfast to go and are out to picnic in Gros Morne before heading to Deer Lake. We pack up our bikes and head north along HWY 430 which has been designated the Viking Trail for it’s connection to the Viking Village at L’Anse aux Meadows which also happens to be one of our stops today.

The driving here is interesting. There are plenty of places to pass yet the folks seem to prefer following far too closely and not passing when the opportunity presents itself. Unfortunately it can make for an unpleasant riding experience – miles of empty, passable road while dealing with an impatient, driver right up your chuff for no reason other than an apparent fear of passing. Frequently we have to let them know it’s alright to pass through a series of hand gestures. At one point, two manic drivers vie for position splitting between Nita and I – something most drivers generally wont do. The lead car sits about 2 feet off of my rear and I literally sit side-saddle to tell him to back off. He does by dropping back to 5 feet. I see a sign for Arches Provincial Park and tell Nita to turn off. As I prepare to turn, the lead vehicle tries to squeeze by on the shoulder but runs out of room and now sits inches from my right pannier and I can see the panic in his face. All this stress to get nowhere fast.

Still, the turn-off is a happy accident as Arches is a beautiful stop that can easily be missed from the road. We spend some time taking pictures and shaking off the nasty driver energy.

The road north is lovely and runs along the waterfront almost the entire way. Slowly from the west, the water that fills the St. Lawrence becomes framed by the shoreline that is Labrador and every mile north we take, the closer the land across the water gets. While the rain has gone, it’s been replaced by a fierce wind. It pushes us to some steep angles while riding and frequently snaps our heads in the opposite direction. The occasional move inland is a welcome break from the exertion. Still, the views and the landscape are exceptionally beautiful here.

Just before St. Anthony, we head north on route 436 and ride along one of the most magnificent roads we’ve ever been on. It winds through Saint Lunaire, a picturesque coastal village, and past Northwest and Noddy Bays. It is, in fact, so beautiful we’re left speechless. We crest a small hill and see the North Atlantic ahead, and a turn-off to the Viking Village at L’Anse aux Meadows. Down a short gravel road and we can see the grass-covered Viking buildings by the ocean.

Walking into the village we’re met by a lone sheep in a pen. She seems happy enough, if a little stuck – all the coaxing in the world won’t get her to come over for some pets. Apparently Viking sheep are stubborn. The sky is a deep blue which contrasts perfectly with the grass-covered roof-tops of the buildings and it doesn’t take long for a couple to approach us. “Can we take your picture? You look like space-men.” We laugh, it’s not the first time we’ve been called space-men! We oblige and, with a smile, the couple quickly head in the other direction. This site, Norstead, is a recreation of a Viking port of trade and is by the only authenticated Viking site in North America.

I make a bee-line for the ship-house and am immediately greeted by a volunteer dressed in period costume. “I’m Lars, the captain of the ship Snorri and the town drunk.” Hrm. I always feel a little weird about history being delivered by period actors. History is interesting enough without the theatrics but we have a good time with, ahem, Lars the drunk.

Regardless of the costume, Lars know’s his stuff and his knowledge of the time and the place is a great resource. The ship, Snorri, has it’s own incredible history. An exact replica of a Viking knarr (a ship built for Atlantic voyages), it successfully sailed from Greenland to Newfoundland in 1998 by 9 men after an initial attempt failed to sail Leif Ericsons original route. After a few ferry rides the idea of a 3 month voyage on the North Atlantic in a knarr seems like something I’d avoid at all costs, but the fact it was done is amazing. It’s also a feat that helps to support the idea that North America was visited by Europeans much earlier than originally thought. We spend some time meandering through the buildings and looking out at the ocean. The day is beautiful and the view is spectacular. Soon, we head back to HWY 430 and on to St. Anthony’s.

The main street is much the same as many Canadian streets – bustling with commerce and people on the go. Our spot for the night is the Grenfell Hotel and we’re met by a receptionist whose cold and disinterested, though just polite enough to mitigate any complaints. In fact, the only time she shows any humor or humility is when we catch her playing guitar in the lobby later that night. We’ve yet to really experience the Newfoundland hospitality we’ve heard so much about, but we’re sure it’s around.

After a dinner in town we run into our friends Mike and Sue. It’s unexpected as their original plan had them adventuring to a remote part of central Newfoundland. “Are you guys following us?” Mike shouts from across the parking lot. We chat for a while, mostly about the moose they’ve seen on the road – and on their plate! With all the warnings we’ve had about them, a moose burger isn’t going to end up on my plate until we’re well clear of any karmic interference. We wonder aloud if we’ll run into each other again – but we won’t. Our adventures are destined to take us to different places.

We say our goodnights and, once back at the hotel, sip some wine before quickly falling asleep with the breeze from Marguerite Bay blowing through an open window.

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I’m a Canadian writer, adventure motorcyclist and world traveller of British and Libyan descent. I’ve spent the past two and a half years travelling the globe by motorcycle as one-half of We Love Motogeo, following a route that makes little sense to anyone else, while supporting our non-profit organization, the Lost for Good Project. I’ve been chased by all manner of animal, detained as a spy in North Africa and waited out a hurricane in the bowels of a ferry. While I’m no spy (honestly), I am a lover of decent coffee and great yarns sewn around a campfire.


  1. Comment by George

    George September 25, 2012 at 10:59 am

    I plan on going up north that way one day, soon I hope. Nice pictures. Viking ship looks amazing.

    • Comment by Issa

      Issa September 25, 2012 at 4:56 pm

      George, the ship was really amazing. They fill the bottom with rocks to stabilize it – I still can’t imagine what a crossing would be like. That northern arm was our favorite part of NL.

  2. Comment by Sean Graham

    Sean Graham September 25, 2012 at 3:20 pm

    Hey guys!
    Great write-up (especially the part about that Sean character) and beautiful photos! What great weather to have for such a lovely drive. I wish we had the time to make it up to the Northern tip!

    • Comment by Issa

      Issa September 25, 2012 at 4:57 pm

      Yeah, that Sean was pretty awesome… we have some dirt on him in an upcoming post :)

  3. Comment by Mike and Sue Hillhouse (NH)

    Mike and Sue Hillhouse (NH) September 26, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    It was great to meet you guys! Looks like your have a good trip, We had a great time in Newfoundland. Where are you guys now?

    • Comment by Issa

      Issa September 27, 2012 at 1:10 pm

      It was great meeting you too! So funny that we kept running into one another :) We’re in NYC right now while the bikes are getting shipped to the UK. How was the rest of your trip?

    • Comment by Mike and Sue Hillhouse (NH)

      Mike and Sue Hillhouse (NH) September 27, 2012 at 4:40 pm

      The rest of our trip was great! Saw 6 moose :-) We meet up with some friends for a few days . Then went to St.John’s for two nights then made our way to the ferry (we did the 14 hr.one)then started our way back to NH. We do want to go back ,there was so much we didn’t see. Hope you guys have a safe but fun trip and keep the pictures coming .

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