I had ridden 1,000 miles to catch the 11:30 a.m. ferry to Newfoundland. But I was late and lost and boarding closed in 10 minutes. I had made the classic GPS mistake—punched in a destination without checking a map. I was in Sydney, Nova Scotia, but the ferry was boarding in North Sydney, 12 miles away. After a desperate dash and stops for “Which way to the ferry?!” I pulled up to the entrance booth. When I heard the attendant say on his radio “OK, the motorcycle’s here” I knew I had made it.
Newfoundland is a long way from the United States. It gets lots of rain, fog, big bugs, and has 110,000 moose that tangle with vehicles more than 600 times a year. But this big, spectacular island also has 6,000 miles of impressive coast and roads to match. It’s kind of a mix of the Maine coast, Vermont and the Arctic on steroids. The Vikings landed here 1,000 years ago. They were tough people but even they were gone after 10 years. If they rode motorcycles they never would have left.
I got my first dose of Newfoundland weather on day one, after the ferry left me in Port aux Basques. It was June 1 and 41 degrees, raining and windy. They say if you don’t like the weather at your front door here, just check the back door. I rode 30 miles north and the temperature rose to 64 degrees and the sun came out. This was on Route 430, the Viking Trail, a wonderful two-lane highway that strings together a thousand sweepers as it hugs the coast along its 225 miles north to L’Anse aux Meadows, the Viking settlement.
The roads are in good shape and the traffic was light. Tourist season wouldn’t get into full swing for another few weeks, but even then this is not a place of crowds. I made no reservations and always had a few places to choose from each day. The economy is tough here and many people offer B&Bs in their homes.
I arrived in Rocky Harbor and quickly found a nice B&B. I was in the middle of Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This dramatic area includes the Western Brook Pond fjord with its 2,000-foot-high cliffs, and the Tablelands, one of the few places where the earth’s mantle has been pushed to the surface to create a moonlike landscape. I enjoyed a hike and boat ride to see these places—well worth some time out of the saddle.
One of my main goals for this trip was to ride the T’Railway, the abandoned railroad bed that runs 500 miles across the whole island and through the most remote interior. I had new Continental TKC80 tires on my Suzuki DL1000 V-Strom, camping gear and assurances from a local rider’s group that my heavy bike would be fine on the railroad bed. “We don’t even consider it offroad.” I’m not a great dirt rider but I have ridden the Rue du Nord, the TransLabrador, Top of the World Highway and the Dalton to Prudhoe. How hard could this be?
After an hour I found out. The surface is loose, 1- and 2-inch stones with deep potholes. The V-Strom’s front end was wagging back and forth and pounding in the potholes. One mistake and the bike would go down the bank into 3 feet of mud. After 10 miles of progress, with 490 miles to go, my arms were finished and so were my hopes for riding the T’Railway. I should have known not to take advice from a group of guys known as the “Dirtbagz”!
Back to the pavement.
The advantage of being a solo traveler is that you can make quick plan changes without much discussion, and I decided to forget my failure and head to Twillingate, the “Iceberg Capital” of Newfoundland. I hopped on the TransCanada Highway, which is much maligned as the dull interior road. Anywhere else this road would be considered a scenic highway. After five quick highway hours I hopped off onto a sweet secondary road, Route 340, and meandered up to Twillingate. I camped at Dildo Run Provincial Park. And yes, many snickering tourists have their picture taken under the sign for it. The name refers to the peg that was used on dories before modern oarlocks. The Newfoundland provincial campgrounds offer private ocean-view tent sites in gorgeous locations and almost all have at least showers.
The best way to see icebergs is to take a boat trip with one of the Twillingate operators. The trips last two hours and get you up close to these amazing things. Most icebergs come from Greenland, are about 15,000 years old and the size of a 15-story building! It was one of these icebergs that sank the Titanic not too far from here a hundred years ago.
A conversation on the boat leads to my next day plan, a 375-mile ride to the Bonavista Peninsula on the east coast. I followed a small coast road for half the day that snakes through little fishing villages and took me to Port Rexton. This place just gets more spectacular each day and there hasn’t been any rain. Bonavista is all ocean vistas and massive headlands and islands. After my night on the ground I treated myself to Fisher’s Loft. I have splurged many times in the past but this place was memorable for its simplicity and elegance and million-dollar views in every direction. After a five-course lobster dinner I considered my 1,890 miles on the odometer and decided the next day would be my rest day, which still included a short ride to visit the Bonavista Lighthouse where John Cabot “discovered” North America in 1497.
Most people would stop next in St. John’s, the wonderful capital of Newfoundland, and based on what I know I would highly recommend it. But on this ride the land, the ocean and the solitude were what I wanted, so I left St. John’s for another visit. I headed south for the Avalon Peninsula without a particular destination, just enjoying the bike and the open road. I was on Route 10, the “Irish Loop,” considered one of the island’s best motorcycle destinations. In the late afternoon I headed down a long dirt road toward the ocean that ended in a little parking lot, with one ratty camper and two old guys.
“Is it OK to camp here?” I asked.
“Drink this and we’ll talk about it,” they told me.
Sam and Jimmy, friends for 46 years, were hand liners before the 1992 Cod moratorium ended generations of the traditional fishing life. For the next seven hours I heard stories about the life of the fishermen in Newfoundland—many of them true. At midnight I crawled into my tent on the beach with a starry sky, pounding waves and vivid memories of Newfoundland and the friendliness of its people.
I continued south the next day, following the coast road around the Avalon Peninsula. As I rounded the Burin Peninsula I hit the fiercest winds in which I had ever ridden. My 875-pound load was blowing completely out of my lane if I rode over 45 mph. Some gusts knocked me back to 30 mph. The Burin is moonlike and when the wind blows there is nothing to stop it. In Grand Banks I was the only guest in a beautiful B&B with a “For Sale” sign out front. If it’s hard where you live, it’s twice as hard in Grand Banks.
I was at the point in the trip when I needed to start back, and that always feels different. A quick day on the TransCanada covered the 500 miles back to the west coast. My rear TKC was showing serious wear and I eyeballed the tread at every gas stop. But soon I was on the return ferry, with my bike lashed down and me settled in a private cabin. Sleep in a chair once and you’ll pay the extra! The cafeteria food was even pretty good and inexpensive, too. We docked and I was on the road at 7:30 a.m. It was 1,000 miles home, so I put the hammer down, praying for my V-Strom’s rear tire to last. It did, and when I reached the hills of western Massachusetts and climbed the last one before home it was a starry, hot June night, with 4,600 more miles on the V-Strom’s odometer.
Last year an old man in Alaska said to me that the thing about traveling is, “You never want it to end and you can’t wait to get home.” I know what he meant.