A well-traveled friend once told me, “If you haven’t eaten with locals in their home, you haven’t fully experienced a place.” I used to think all that was required to check a country off your list was to exit the airport for more than 24 hours or step off the boat onto land. But my friend had a point. Could one really claim to have been somewhere after simply sightseeing and eating in restaurants? I started ticking off the places I’d visited, and was shocked to realize that by my friend’s standard, I’d hardly been anywhere.
But one can’t just cruise into a new port, knock on someone’s door and declare, “I’m here for dinner!” In most towns, you’d have to spend considerable time and make yourself available to folks for such an opportunity to arise. However, there is one spot my husband, Ken, and I have cruised where practically all you have to do is show up: Newfoundland (accent on the “land”). It is Canada’s most eastern province and the world’s 16th largest island. It is a mere day’s sail away from the northern tip of Nova Scotia. We cruised Newfoundland twice over five years, and fully enjoyed really getting to know the people and the place.
From the sea, at a distance, Newfoundland appears to be an impenetrable rock. Approaching closer, one can perceive the odd settlement at the base of cliffs, or a great fissure leading to a fjord. It is immense, foreboding, lonely and breathtaking. Sailing up the fjords and then hiking to their tops to take in the view is heavenly. Although Newfoundlanders are often shy at first, they are curious and extremely generous. It doesn’t take long for them to reach out.
During our initial visit, we’d barely stepped off the boat in Channel-Port aux Basques on the southwest corner of the island when Ken and I were offered a giant bagful of mackerel. When we sailed into little outports—the term used for small coastal communities throughout the province, with most of them accessible only by boat—folks would come down to the wharf just to stare at our vessel. This was a little disconcerting at first, but we quickly got used to it. I’d poke my head out of the companionway and greet whomever was coming to have a look at our “yacht,” Mary T. She’s an old Morgan 38, but we soaked up the moniker. After answering a few questions, mostly related to where we came from and where we were headed, the curious onlookers would launch into soliloquies about their own lives. Nothing inspires storytelling like a new set of ears! One man told us about the open-heart surgery he’d just undergone and even lifted up his shirt to reveal the scar.
our first invitation transpired in the town of Francois, pronounced “Fransway.” Sailing into this outport on the southwest coast is truly magical. Brightly painted homes are nestled in a semicircle at the base of towering red cliffs. We had arrived in time for their five-year “come-home” celebration. A party was to be held in the community center that night for all those returning home. The exodus to work in the Alberta tar sands, on merchant ships in the Great Lakes, and in larger towns in Newfoundland emptied these small villages. But no one ever forgot where home was. And here we were, two complete strangers invited to join in the celebration. There was live music, dancing and plenty to drink. The parties don’t really get started until midnight, and we had shown up way too early, but it definitely gave us a taste of local color.
RELATED: Newfoundland Has it All
Another encounter of note on that visit occurred in the town of Isle aux Morts (Island of the Dead), just 6 miles to the east of Channel-Port aux Basques. We tucked ourselves behind a sturdy government-constructed wharf and set out a spiderweb of lines. Hurricane Bill was coming, and it seemed the best place to hide. It was only a Category 1 and weakening, so the locals weren’t terribly concerned; they are frequently battered by 60-knot winds in the winter. A man named Tom Harvey pulled his large power cruiser up to the wharf in front of Mary T. He was the descendant of a local family who, in the 1800s, rescued many shipwrecked souls clinging to the jagged rocks littering the waters just offshore.
We gratefully accepted when Tom offered us hot showers at his house. Then we were provided with drinks and snacks. His wife even gave us a jar of pickled herring to go. Although we didn’t share a full-blown meal, I think that counts. Another local, the dockmaster, drove us to Channel-Port aux Basque for diesel, and shared the town gossip. We were sworn to secrecy, so I can’t tell what he said, but there was more controversy in that little port than we’d imagined. He presented us with a jar of stewed moose meat before we parted ways. We felt embraced.
on our return to Newfoundland five years later, we sailed along the southwest coast to the town of Grey River. It is up a narrow fjord, the opening of which is invisible until you’re practically on top of it. We spotted a wooden dock at the edge of town and pulled Mary T alongside. At some outports, a dockmaster will appear and collect a small fee ($5 to $10 per night), and sometimes it’s free. It’s all very casual. Eager to explore, we ventured up a path, which led us past the dump and through the cemetery to a platform overlooking the fjord. It was a beautiful sunny day, but eventually the flies won out, and we hightailed it back down.
On our way back to the boat, we encountered some townspeople, and a few minutes into chatting, we were invited to Nate’s 60th birthday party at the lodge that evening. “Of course we’ll come,” I said. Nate didn’t know us from Adam, but that was of no concern to anyone. We cleaned up as best we could and arrived at the lodge earlier than most.
Before the party really got started, one of the lodge members took us upstairs to see the inner sanctum. It was a large, barren, wood-paneled room with a sort of altar at one end containing photographs of important members. “Have you ever seen anything like this before?” he asked. We didn’t know quite what we were looking at nor what to say. With his thick Newfoundland accent, we found it difficult to understand his explanation of the lodge’s history.
Then Ken said brightly, “Well, we have been to an Elks lodge in Maryland.”
The man laughed and asked, “You mean like the Flintstones?”
Downstairs at the party, there were chairs around the periphery and a table at one end for the potluck dishes. John at the general store had told us to be sure to try the pork buns, which are biscuits with salt pork and raisins. I tried one of those and a pork rib, some ham, a chicken wing and whatever else I could fit on my plate. In addition to the cornucopia of pork treats, there was a large sheet cake boasting a Photoshopped image of Nate with two scantily clad Brazilian women in carnival garb. I think we were more surprised by it than Nate. As soon as the band struck up, the dancing began. One man played the accordion, and another was on guitar and vocals. Their repertoire ran the gamut from country to polka to zydeco to rock, and it was impressively loud.
Because it was five years since our last visit to Newfoundland, Francois was having its come-home celebration again (timing!). When we pulled up to the wharf, the whole town was down by the water for dory races. I tried to sign up, but I was a little too late and couldn’t find a partner because Ken wasn’t interested. A lot of the folks were not accustomed to rowing, so it was a great source of amusement to all.
That afternoon, we attended a talent show in the community center. People sang and read poetry. One man sang a song about how everyone was moving away from the little Newfoundland outports in the wake of the declining fisheries so the towns were closing down. I looked around and saw most of the audience wiping away tears. One woman near me who couldn’t stop crying nodded at me and said, “That’s how it is.”
I was in the small grocery store a little later, scouring the aisles and pushing one of the tiny carts that no one ever seemed to use. Most people just shopped for a few items at a time. A young couple looked at me with the cart and laughed. I smiled. They asked where I was from. “We used to live in Washington, D.C., but we’ve been living on our boat for several years.”
“That’s cool,” the man said. “I’m from Halifax, but my girlfriend is from Francois. I bought a house here with another friend. The purple one down by the water.” He made a gesture in the general direction. “We’re having a party tonight, before the big one at the community center. C’mon over.”
“Thanks! We will.”
I couldn’t wait to tell Ken. We were invited to a pre-party with all the cool people! It was being held in the fishing shack behind the purple house, which had been transformed into party central with festive lights and a bar. Wow! We learned from our host, Greg, that he’d paid only $7,000 for the house and fishing shack. I couldn’t believe it. Now I wanted to buy a house in Newfoundland!
Everyone was having such a good time catching up with old friends and relatives that it took a lot to get us all motivated to go to the big party at the community center. It was bustling when we arrived. We drank and danced with many partners until 2 a.m., which is way past our bedtime. Finally we dragged ourselves out, wended our way back to Mary T, and climbed into the V-berth. We did not want to get up in the morning, which is how everyone else in Francois felt that day. We knew because we were really there.
Thank you, Newfoundlanders, for giving so much of yourselves and allowing us to know you. Now it’s no longer enough to sail into a new port and just provision, sightsee, and meet other cruisers. A new bar has been set. We mustn’t leave until we’ve dined with the locals. So set your tables, folks. Ready or not, here we come!
Amy Flannery and Ken Kurlychek are currently sticking close to home in Bradenton, Florida, and cruising the Gulf coast as they await an end to the pandemic. They hope to return to Newfoundland in summer 2022.