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Canada's magical moose island

Visit Newfoundland for its quaint villages, pristine wilderness and elusive animals

A surfacing minke whale in Bay Bulls
Image Credit: Supplied
A surfacing minke whale in Bay Bulls

It must have been the sound of the accordion that attracted the whale. Cyril had just started playing an Irish jig when a minke surfaced a few yards away, sending waves crashing against our bow. Maybe it had mistaken the music for the call of a mate.

It was high summer in Canada's Newfoundland, the time when whales arrive en masse to gorge themselves in the rich feeding grounds just offshore, so we knew we stood a good chance of seeing one. But it added an extra thrill to our excursion along the Bonaventure coast.

Derelict villages

Bruce was taking us on a boat trip to visit the old fishing villages that now lie derelict. The "outports", as they are known, are situated in remote coves and sheltered bays and are inaccessible by land. Bald eagles soared overhead as we cruised past rugged cliffs, the surf pounding the rocks below.

Sailing into one, Ireland's Eye, Bruce produced photos taken in the Fifties of simple wooden cabins and long, rickety platforms, where the salt cod was laid out to dry. Now all that remained were a few bleached planks strewn across the bare rock.

"My Uncle Joe lived here," he said. "He was heartbroken when he was relocated in the Sixties. They floated his house across the water on oil drums as part of the resettlement programme."

Pretty communities of white clapboard houses are dotted along the coastline with rust-red shacks built on stilts over the water but the fishing vessels are long gone.

Look at a map and Newfoundland resembles a gigantic iceberg nudging Canada's eastern seaboard. Our ten-day itinerary took us across the island from the west coast to the Avalon Peninsula in the east. Distances were vast and we often found it was a five- or six-hour journey to our next destination.

Much of it is pristine wilderness and we drove for miles through endless spruce forests without seeing another car. But there were other hazards. "You know what we call speed bumps here?" one local joked. "Moose."

I was hoping to see one in the Gros Morne National Park. They far outnumber the human population but they turned out to be surprisingly elusive. The nearest I got was when our guide, Sue, pointed out hoofprints in the mud on a trek to Big Look Out. The park is an ideal location for serious hikers and there are many well-marked paths and tracks but she led us off-trail to one of its highest peaks.

We scrambled up steep slopes through dense scrubland and across boggy marshland where rare orchids and pink, insect-eating plants blossomed beneath our feet. After a strenuous four-hour hike, we finally reached the summit.

If the climb hadn't taken our breath away, the view certainly did. We gazed out over hazy blue mountains, deep green fjords and the barren Martian landscape of the tablelands, where you can walk on what was once the ocean floor. Far below, a silver streak snaked away into the distance. It was the Trans-Canada Highway and the start of our road trip.

We stopped en route at quaint old-fashioned B&Bs and luxury inns, such as the Fisher's Loft in Port Rexton, a collection of clapboard houses scattered on the hillside.

My bedroom had stunning views over the bay below and I was even able to keep an eye out for moose in the surrounding woodland.

From here it was a short drive to the little port of Bonavista. On the rocky, windswept headland, John Cabot made landfall in 1497, thereby becoming the first modern-day European explorer to set foot in Canada. His bronze statue stares out to the sea and a full-scale replica of his sailing ship, The Matthew, is on display in the harbour, looking alarmingly small for such a gruelling voyage.

Off the northerly tip of Newfoundland is the island of Quirpon, uninhabited except for the lighthouse-keepers' cottages that have been converted into a small hotel.

I was one of only five guests and a more idyllic spot would be difficult to find. There was no television or radio and cell phones didn't work.

We went on long rambles across the cliffs, stopping to watch massive chunks of ice drift slowly across the Strait of Belle Isle from Labrador. In the evenings we would sit on the veranda, eyes glued to binoculars looking for whales.

At Bay Bulls on the Avalon Peninsula on the east of the island, we headed out to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve in our search for them aboard a catamaran. Within minutes Captain Al had caught sight of a humpback. "Can you see its footprint?" he asked, pointing out what looked like a circular oil slick on the surface.

For a really close encounter with whales you can join Stan Cook on a sea-kayaking trip at Cape Broyle. As we set out, he dipped his fingers in the crystal-clear water to prise tiny pink starfish and spiky sea urchins from the rocks to give us a closer view.

We paddled into narrow openings in the cliff face and so close to waterfalls that I felt the spray on my face but there was no sign of whale.

"In a couple of weeks there'll be about 70 humpbacks around the kayaks," he said.

I will just have to time things better on my next visit.