3 Epic Coastal Road Trips in Newfoundland and Labrador
There are many hiking trails in Twillingate where you're in full view of the Atlantic | Courtesy of Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism
Newfoundland and Labrador is one of North America’s last great adventures – a land of vast forests, caribou herds, jagged mountains, and preserved fishing villages overlooking fjords teeming with marine life.
Traversing the rugged coast of Newfoundland and Labrador you’ll encounter puffin colonies, 18th-century outports, pristine beaches and blissfully empty roads. There’s a lot to cover, with a shoreline that runs well over 17,000km (11,000mi), so choosing where to start can be tricky. These road trips offer a taste of three different regions in the province, exploring the historic Avalon Peninsula near St. John’s, the whale-rich waters off the north coast and the raw beauty of southern Labrador.
Named after the Irish settlers who began arriving here in the 17th century, this route sets out from St. John’s and snakes across the southeastern arm of the Avalon Peninsula. St. John’s is the gateway to Newfoundland and Labrador for most visitors, and it’s worth spending a few days here to enjoy the museums, restaurants, pubs and a dynamic live music scene, featuring some of the best folk bands, fiddlers and shanty singers in North America. Stay at the central JAG Hotel and get your bearings on the Historical St. John’s and Cape Spear Tour, which takes in all the main sights in the city as well as the panoramic Cape Spear, home to the oldest lighthouse in Canada and a great place to spot frolicking whales.
Lighthouse at Cape Spear, the easternmost point on the North American mainland | © imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo
The Irish Loop properly begins south of Cape Spear, where tour boats depart Bay Bulls to explore the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. In the summer, this offshore island preserve is a haven for puffins, kittiwakes and guillemots, as well as the largest population of humpback whales in the world. Before leaving the area, don’t miss the whimsical River of Boats, a collection of handmade miniature boats set up on a roadside pond.
Further south, the museum at Ferryland holds the remains of an early English colony established in 1621, though the main event here is Lighthouse Picnics. Reserve these fabulous picnic lunches at the lighthouse on Ferryland Head, where you can munch sandwiches and cranberry scones high above the Atlantic waves.
At the southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula you will find Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, a Unesco World Heritage site that is home to more than 6,000 stunningly well-preserved Precambrian fossils – mostly leaf-like imprints of ancient creatures called rangeomorphs. Accessible by guided tour, the wave-battered site is completely unspoiled and is one of the few remaining places where you can examine ancient fossils in situ.
The loop back to St. John’s takes in sandy Saint Vincent’s Beach, a narrow isthmus between the ocean and Holyrood Pond that’s a top whale-watching spot. From here, the road winds across wild moorland to Salmonier Nature Park, where injured native animals such as moose, caribou, owls and otters are rehabilitated.
Keep your eyes peeled for humpback whales at Witless Bay Ecological Reserve © All Canada Photos / Alamy Stock PhotoFeast on a picnic at Ferryland Lighthouse with the Atlantic ocean as your backdrop © George Ostertag / Alamy Stock PhotoTake to a kayak and bob alongside the coastal cliffs at Witless Bay Ecological Reserve © All Canada Photos / Alamy Stock Photo
The Kittiwake Coast encompasses the wild, north-central segment of Newfoundland and Labrador, peppered with empty beaches, weathered outports and pristine waters full of frolicking whales, dolphins and seabirds. Beginning at Gambo on the Trans-Canada Highway, aka Road to the Shore (also known as Route 320), runs northeast to Barbour Living Heritage Village, a collection of clapboard houses and wharves harking back to the cod fishery heyday. Locals dressed in period costume perform skits and run craft workshops. Nearby, Lumsden Beach is one of several wide swathes of sand up here that are often completely deserted.
Explore the wild reaches of northern-central Newfoundland via the Road to the Shore | Courtesy of Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism
Further northwest, the Road to the Isles, Route 340, leads to Fogo Island, which is accessible by car ferry. Fogo is a magical place, with fishing villages and multicolored cottages, saltboxes, creaky piers and boathouses clinging to the rocks. Thanks to Zita Cobb’s Shorefast Foundation, the wild terrain also features contemporary art installations like the Great Auk, a series of artists’ studios and galleries, and the luxurious Fogo Island Inn.
Back on the main island, the Beothuk Site Interpretive Centre provides a rare insight into the Beothuk people, one group of Newfoundland and Labrador’s original Indigenous inhabitants. From here the Road to the Isles continues north to Twillingate, where the cozy Hillside B&B awaits. Get acquainted with the charms of this old fishing port on the two-hour Whale Watching and Wildlife Viewing Tour – this also cruises Iceberg Alley, the feeding ground of humpback whales in the summer. You can also spot whales from the bright red and white Long Point Lighthouse at the tip of Twillingate North Island.
The pretty fishing village of Tilting has a long maritime history and is known for its multicolored cottages and boathouses © FedevPhoto / Alamy Stock PhotoHike along rugged cliff trails in Crow Head, Twillingate © Bill Gozansky / Alamy Stock PhotoGet up close with gigantic icebergs at Iceberg Alley in Twillingate © Scott Heaney / Getty Images
Labrador really feels like the edge of the world; the Trans-Labrador Highway slices through a wild country of vast pine and spruce forests, raging rivers and a string of hardy seafaring communities founded in the 18th Century.
From the ferry dock and airport at tiny Blanc-Sablon in Québec, the first section of the highway, Route 510, runs east into Newfoundland and Labrador and through a coastal region known as the Labrador Straits. The first community you’ll encounter is tiny L’Anse-au-Clair, where the Gateway to Labrador Visitor Centre is housed in a former church. Further east is Point Amour Lighthouse, which will reward you with sweeping ocean views from the top of its 132-step tower.
The road continues northeast to tiny Red Bay, once the world’s largest whaling port. Incredibly, given its remote location, seasonal Basque fishermen from France and Spain pitched up here in the 1500s. Today, the Red Bay National Historic Site preserves the remains of seven 16th-century ships found in the frigid waters, as well as some of the relics and whale bones left behind.
Take a trip to the Unesco World Heritage town of Red Bay and retrace the footsteps of a Basque whaler | © Rolf Hicker Photography / Alamy Stock Photo
Route 510 continues on to Mary’s Harbour, where boats depart for Battle Harbour. Established in the 1770s, this island community was one of the world’s busiest fishing ports in the 1800s, but virtually abandoned by the 1970s. Today its weathered wood buildings have been preserved and converted into hotel accommodation. Stay the night and you can soak up the traffic-free, rustic ambience, walk the moorland trails and spot orca whales off the wharf.
From here the adventure continues as the Trans-Labrador Highway runs north to the former logging town of Port Hope Simpson, then across the densely forested Mealy Mountains to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, set between the Churchill River and the westernmost tip of Lake Melville.
Mary’s Harbour, on St Mary’s River, was home in the 1800s to a busy fishing port | © INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo
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Just steps from historic Water Street and the bars of George Street, JAG Hotel is the ideal place to stay for a fun getaway in St. John’s. The rock’n’roll- and pop-themed artwork, plus classic rock tunes playing in the lobby on JAG Radio, set the scene, while rooms are quiet and contemporary. After a night on the town enjoy a breakfast of local fish cakes and moose sausages at the Exile Restaurant.
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For a taste of Newfoundland outport life and hospitality stay at the Hillside B&B, a gorgeous saltbox home built in 1860. The antique furnishings are redolent of Twillingate’s maritime heyday, and you’ll be able to view the harbor and ocean beyond from your room. Friendly hosts Winston and Wavey Cutler are full of local knowledge and knock out a sumptuous breakfast.