Rural Travel: The Benefits of Straying From the Beaten Path

Trinity , Newfoundland and Labrador

A large grey house sits on Ash’s Lane, its clapboard – a common design element in the houses of rural Newfoundland – pristine. Strolling past, a chalkboard becomes visible on the side of the house. “Sightings,” it reads, on a surface smudged with chalk residue from a summer’s worth of daily tallies: “6 Blue F in T una, 1 M inke W hale, Puffins, Gannets, Guillemots, Murres, Bald Eagles. Come in to book a trip.” This is the home base of the Sea of Whales Adventures tours in Trinity, Newfoundland and Labrador.

Further down the lane the ocean becomes visible, nearly the same twilight grey as the house. The North Atlantic shimmers in the afternoon light, wisps of fog rolling over the lighthouse on an arm of land known as Fort Point. A few years ago, Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism released an ad touting the province as being “about as far from Disneyland as you can possibly get.” Here, surrounded by jagged sea stacks and graveyards that date back to the 1700’s, it’s easy to understand how the slogan fits.

Situated on the Bonavista Peninsula of Newfoundland, Trinity was settled in the 1600’s as a fishing village. About a three-hour drive from the provincial capital of St. John’s, the region is steeped in history: European presence in the area dates back to 1497, when explorer John Cabot purportedly made the first landing in North America since the Vikings arrived approximately five hundred years earlier. With its churches and houses restored in the spirit of their original (or at least earlier) character, it sometimes can feel as though to walk through Trinity is to walk backwards through time. And so today, nearly twenty-five years after the cod moratorium stripped the area of its primary livelihood, the Bight – a vernacular name assigned to a family of twelve communities in the Trinity Bay area – has adopted a new industry to sustain itself: tourism.

The region offers no malls or buildings by famous architects. The museums are small, preserved heritage homes and historic sites. There are no theme parks, with the exception the Trinity Loop, a small abandoned amusement park where a rusting Ferris Wheel still stands. Perhaps the failure of the park is no better testament to the “far from Disneyland” sentiment; that those who seek out this place aren’t in search of Disney-esque attractions. That instead they’ve come to immerse themselves in its history and natural resources.

And, certainly, there’s no shortage in those areas. The region boasts stunning views of icebergs, whale-watching tours, the award-winning Skerwink Trail (Top 35 Walks in North America and Europe, Travel and Leisure Magazine, 2003), fields of wildflowers, and expeditions to abandoned towns that fell victim to the resettlement program of the 1960’s.

Growing up in Newfoundland, where breathtaking landscapes were a regular fixture of my surroundings – I lived a mere two hours’ drive from Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site – my idea of travel was rooted in urban destinations. Paris, Barcelona, Tokyo; the Tate Modern, the Nobel Peace Centre – these were all on my wish list. Being from a small town, I hated small towns. I disliked camping. Rugged terrain, I thought, wasn’t a thing you sought out; it was something you escaped from in search of bigger and better things. My mother would often talk of visiting Peggy’s Cove in her native Nova Scotia. “Why do we need to go there?” my father, a Newfoundlander, would joke. “Newfoundland has about a thousand Peggy’s Coves.” He wasn’t wrong.

And so, when the time came for me to travel, I sought out cities: Oslo, Belfast, Munich, Stockholm, New York. Cities – especially capitals, I thought – must offer the most all-encompassing taste of a country’s character. And then I moved to Toronto, which, though it isn’t the capital, is Canada’s largest city and certainly one of the most culturally diverse in the world.

Then this past spring, as I approached the five-year anniversary of my move to Toronto, I – like I’m sure many other Torontonians who commute via TTC – became increasingly seduced by the subway ads for IcelandAir. Stunning photographs promised nonstop flights to the Northern Lights, where kayakers navigated the ice floes and steam rose from crystal blue geothermal pools. Now, having adjusted to life in a major centre, with endless restaurants and cultural events at my fingertips, I found myself craving the very opposite of that. Iceland and Newfoundland aren’t vastly different in what they offer tourists, so why was I suddenly compelled?

Maybe it’s a product of increasing centralization, which, combined with population growth, causes cities to seemingly burst at the seems and sprawl ever outward into suburbia, that has produced a generation of adults who shirk the idea of being ‘tourists’ in favor of being ‘travelers.’ If we view advertising as a kind of mirror held to society, attempting to pinpoint our needs and desires, then clever marketers have unearthed a growing desire to explore beyond the beaten path in an age where all our beaten paths have seemingly merged into one beaten super highway.

Newfoundland and Labrador, like Iceland, has gained tourism traction in the past few years; in 2014, Anthony Lanzilote for the New York Times travelled to Newfoundland and wrote about its “Ghost Towns, Puffins, and Unspoiled Views”; this year, National Geographic named St. John’s as one of the top ten waterfront cities in the world.

I’m nearing the end of my summer in Trinity, where I’ve been working as an actor with the Rising Tide Theatre Festival. After years of summers in Toronto, living and working in my home province has often given me mixed feelings; am I a local, returning home? Or am I an outsider, an urbanite, seeking out a rural reprieve?

Regardless of how you’d classify me, working and living in an entertainment industry that here so often blurs with the tourism industry has allowed me a new perspective on rural travel. I crave, as many of us do, a balance between the populous and the barren, the manicured and the wild. Perhaps sometimes we rely too heavily on famous attractions to draw us in or to justify the journey and money spent – a stamp in the passport or the ability to say that, yes, we have seen the Louvre and, yes, the Mona Lisa was smaller than we expected.

But I’m returning home with a different set of souvenirs, ones not available in a gift shop: pieces of broken china collected on the beach, stories and lore that I’ve picked up along the way, and the memory of a foghorn lulling me to sleep each night. Maybe I’ve become a tourist in a land both familiar because I was born here and foreign because it’s no longer my home. But regardless, the next time I visit a country, I’ve learned the value of straying beyond the city limits.