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Editor's note: We hope you enjoy this occasional series where journalists explore a destination they can reach on one tank of gas.
While some will fish off Cape St. Mary’s, St Vincent’s in July is all about the whales.
St. Vincent’s is a town of just over 300 people, located on the southwestern edge of the Avalon Peninsula. It’s about as far away from St. John’s as you can get without crossing the isthmus, with about an hour and 45 minutes of driving time.
The beauty of road trips in Newfoundland and Labrador is that, by and large, there are usually only two directions you need to remember: take the Trans-Canada Highway, then take the exit. In the case of St. Vincent’s, it’s just that easy. About 45 minutes outside of St. John’s you’ll find the Salmonier Line. Turning left onto Route 90 begins about an hour’s drive along the winding coastline.
The road to St. Vincent’s is worth the trip on its own. The Salmonier Nature Park is the first sight along the road, where beavers, moose, caribou and other examples of local wildlife can be seen.
About halfway down the Salmonier Line you’ll keep to the left at a fork in the road. Admiral’s Beach is one small fishing community you’ll find on the right side of the fork that’s worth a detour, and you will see Little and Great Colinet Island just offshore.
But staying to the left will bring you through Riverhead, where the long drive along St. Mary’s Harbour offers breathtaking views of barren hills, jagged rocks and peaceful waters. A lookout featuring the local war memorial offers insight into the history of the area.
A number of small convenience stores dot the drive down the coast, with the Stuffed Puffin and Celtic Knot offering a chance to take a break and have an ice cream cone on a hot summer day.
As the road snakes through St. Mary’s, Point La Haye, Gaskiers and Barachois, the massive Holyrood Pond will take you into St. Vincent’s. Follow your nose to the sprawling beach, as the smells of salt water and fish waft over the shore.
Patricia Cumby and Dorothy Tulk brought a picnic to the beach to enjoy while watching the whales, but it was a little cold on the day of the trip. They travelled from Pouch Cove and Torbay on a day trip.
Cumby says they don’t usually make such trips, but felt compelled to enjoy the scenery.
“The whales are the highlight for me. Just to see everything out here like this, we’re so lucky,” she said.
“Our province is beautiful, it’s absolutely beautiful,” said Tulk.
With the caplin already rolling, the whales were less plentiful on the day of the trip, but at least three were feeding in the bay. The water is deceptively deep in the area, with a quick dropoff near the shore allowing whales to get within 50 metres of the beach. Maybe it’s a legend, but the whales seem to react to the beachcombers, breaching more and more as beachgoers cheered them on.
“The whales are the highlight for me. Just to see everything out here like this, we’re so lucky." — Patricia Cumby
Emmanuel and Boleu were visiting from St. John’s with their family, and skipped stones on the ocean.
“After we had been at home and locked down, we feel like we should go out as a family to see scenes of the province,” said Emmanuel.
“We can’t go on holiday, we can’t travel, so we said, let's see what Newfoundland has. We decided to travel down to St. Vincent’s to see the whales. We just wanted to explore what we have here.”
The family is no stranger to the Atlantic Ocean, but Emmanuel says the water is a little warmer at their home in Gambia.
“I think it’s a great place to be, though it’s a little cold,” he said with a laugh.
Locals welcome visitors
Theresa Lewis has been president of the local Lions Club for almost 25 years. She says the history of the town tells the tale of the rise and fall of the fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Most that was here was the fishery, over the years. Then, it went from the fishery to the fish plant. People worked at the fish plant. It was booming here one time, with the fishery. Then it was booming with the fish plant workers. There was a fish plant in St. Mary’s, another in Trepassey,” said Lewis.
“But now, there’s no industry around here. There’s people who go away to work in the city. A lot of people are in Fort McMurray doing the fly-in, fly-out.”
Lewis says the population of the town is aging. She estimates of the 180 or so households, over 100 of them are seniors.
“Our scenery is beautiful. If you can stay long enough, it’ll be foggy in the morning, rain in the afternoon, snow in the evening,” she said.
Lewis says tourism is the next big thing in the town these days.
“There’s a couple of B and Bs, another in St. Mary’s. Oh yes, all summer when the whales are in from June for another month, they draw a crowd. Other than this year, they’ve been here from everywhere. I’ve spoken with people down on the beach from Australia, Germany, everywhere.”
Tourists from afar
Rita Raymond, who co-owns the Whalesong B and B with her husband, Ned, says she wasn’t planning on opening during the COVID-19 pandemic, but she had requests from past guests in the province who wanted to return. Her three-bedroom B and B welcomed two guests during our interview, with her dog, Pepper, acting as the welcome party.
Raymond welcomes any business from people within the province this year, as usually the vast majority of her clients come from away.
“You might have in the run of a summer five people, maybe,” she said.
“Some are ones who have become friends and they come back every year. I’d say 60 or 70 per cent of our guests are from Europe. People come here from Germany, Switzerland, a lot of people from the United States who come here every year or every second year.”
Raymond says people need to be cautious on the beach. She says she’s seen families swimming in the water near the beach, and they need to know the undertow is very strong in the area and there is a great risk of being washed out to sea. The water is deeper than you’d think, as demonstrated by the breaching humpbacks so close to shore.
“Common sense should prevail,” she said.
“It upsets us when we see that. I remember years ago we never saw whales here, in my father’s day. The men fished, so all that out in the ocean was nets that kept them out. Whales were a nuisance. They’d break the nets.”
She says for those who haven’t considered a staycation in rural Newfoundland and Labrador, there can be more benefits to an escape than you’d otherwise think.
“It’s been a tough year, mentally, for your mental health. When all this started, I went to that beach every day. That’s what kept me grounded,” she said.
“Go out, sit on your rock, drink your coffee, walk your dog and sit. You come back and you’re not as stressed about all this that’s happening.”
St. Vincent’s marks nearly the halfway mark of the Irish Loop, a full circle along the eastern Avalon. The full loop will take a full day to travel, with time to stop and explore the inlets and bays that dot the southern Avalon.
Now is the time to get out there, explore Newfoundland and Labrador, and witness firsthand the beauty of this place we call home.