With the Atlantic provinces of Canada opening up again after COVID-19 border closures, we figured it was a great time to embark on a major bucket list vacation with 7 days in Newfoundland. With our vaccine certificates in hand, we’d be sleeping in our van the entire time and following all local health guidelines for a very safe and responsible Newfoundland roadtrip.
Keep reading to see how we planned our trip, our favourite spots, the best places to overnight your RV and where to find the best fish and chips in Newfoundland.
Newfoundland roadtrip map
Day 1 – Ferry to Port aux Basques
Newfoundland is an island, so all Newfoundland road trips start with the ferry. There are two ferry routes offered by Maritime Atlantic and both leave from North Sydney, Nova Scotia. The shorter route is a 7 hour sail offered daily year-round and arrives in Port aux Basques, on the southwest tip of Newfoundland. The other option, available from mid-June through late September, is a 16.5 hour sail offered 3x/week to Argentia on the eastern side of Newfoundland, about a 1.5 hour drive from St. John’s.
Both routes offer regular lounge seating (not allowed to stay in vehicle), or cabin accommodations with private bathrooms including a shower. Cabins are limited, so if you want a cabin, it’s best to reserve well in advance (they do sell out!). If your ferry offers a deluxe cabin (and has some available), go for it! It includes a queen size bed, it’s guaranteed to be an outside cabin, and is roomier and nicer than some hotels we’ve stayed in. (We had to get a standard cabin on the return trip, and it was an inside room with 2 single beds… totally fine, but not as enjoyable as the deluxe cabin.)
We originally wanted to sail into Port aux Basques, meander our way to St. John’s, and return on the Argentia ferry. But the cabins on the Argentia ferry were entirely sold out for all crossings that our schedule could have accommodated , and there was no way we’d spend 16.5 hours in regular ferry seating. So we re-arranged our itinerary to do a return trip via Port aux Basques. (On the plus side, the Port aux Basques ferry is significantly cheaper, so that made up for the extra driving.)
Beware of moose (and caribou and bears)
Our ferry arrived in Port aux Basques in the early hours of the morning, and it’s pitch black in Port aux Basques. Luckily, there is a 24hr Tim Hortons for coffee and food (which is a luxury in much of Newfoundland). After hitting up Timmy’s, the first thing we saw on the road was moose roadkill.
Moose are real (and numerous) in Newfoundland, and especially dangerous at night when they’re hard to see. Other dangers along the road include caribou and bears (we saw both crossing the road).
So avoid driving at night, and if you must, drive slowly. Nobody on the road will begrudge you if you’re driving well below the speed limit.
After arriving in Port aux Basques, make your way towards Gros Morne National Park.
Days 2-3 – Gros Morne National Park
Gros Morne National Park is a bit like a Newfoundland sampler… or even a world geology sampler. It’s a large park that features diverse landscapes. Try to spend at least two days in Gros Morne to do it justice.
Make sure you visit the Tablelands, on the southern end of Gros Morne, for one of the most unique landscapes you’ll find anywhere. It’s a desert-like area where the Earth’s upper mantle has emerged through the crust, and its lack of nutrient makes it inhospitable to most plants. You will, however, find several pitcher plants in the wetter areas. It’s a 4km return hike that’s relatively flat (just wear sunscreen).
The Gros Morne Lookout Trail leaves from the Discovery Centre not far from the Tablelands. It’s a 5km return hike with an elevation gain of 335 meters, so it’s a challenging hike that takes 2-3 hours, but the 360º views from the summit are breathtaking and worth the effort. The first half of the ascent is the steepest with a few wet areas, but closer to the top you get some easy boardwalk sections.
Green Point Geological Site
Green Point in central Gros Morne gets very little writeup, but it’s a beautiful spot with significant geological importance. Very little walking is required, so it’s a perfect evening activity after a hard morning hike. Visit at low tide so you can really explore the cliffs which reveal layers of geological history.
If you’re a camper, there’s some great camping at the nearby Green Point campground.
Off the beaten path
If you have more time around Gros Morne (and want a break from hiking), some worthwhile spots to check out include:
- SS Ethie shipwreck site on the northern end of Gros Morne
- Arches Provincial Park, a bit past the northern boundary of Gros Morne, featuring an impressive natural triple arch structure at the water’s edge, just off the highway (look for signs along the highway)
Fish and chips at the Snack Shack
For the best fish and chips near Gros Morne (and one of the best in all of Newfoundland), head to the Snack Shack near Sally’s Cove and Western Brook Pond. There’s a takeout window and a couple of picnic tables, so it’s the perfect meal straight from a long hike. The cod is fresh and the fries are homemade. The Snack Shack is open 8:30am – 8pm, June through September.
Day 4 – Port au Choix, Flower’s Cove and L’Anse aux Meadows
After a few days in Gros Morne, we continue our Newfoundland roadtrip upwards through the Great Northern Peninsula. As you drive along the highway, you’ll notice the landscape shifts from lush forest to low-lying tuckamore to barren rocky landscapes.
Port au Choix
Port au Choix is home to an important archeologic site that is now a national historic site.
It’s also geologically very interesting, since the land is essentially exposed limestone bedrock, forming what’s known as a limestone barren. This unusual landscape creates a very harsh environment that’s home to a number of rare plants, some endemic only to Newfoundland. You’ll also spot a number of fossils embedded in the limestone. It’s very hard to do this justice in photos… you really need to explore it in person.
While Port au Choix is now a peninsula, it was once an island, and an important location for ancient native cultures, including the Maritime Archaic and Paleo-Inuit. The Parks Canada visitor centre explains the history of the area, showcases artefacts discovered on the former island, and explain why it was such an important area.
As you continue exploring the Great Northern Peninsula, stop in Flower’s Cove. This small, unassuming village of 270 people is home to some fascinating wildlife: thrombolites. What look like shattered boulders along the shore are actually structures formed by colonies of microorganisms. Thrombolites are one of the oldest forms of life on Earth. They evolved from stromatolites, the first lifeform on Earth, with fossil records going back 3.5 billion years (the Earth is only 1 billion years older than that). They used the sun to harness energy and produce the oxygen required for other forms of life to evolve. Thombolites evolved to thrive in the changing Earth environment.
Today both are very rare and found only in a few places on Earth, including here in Flower’s Cove. Follow the signs that guide you through the Marjorie Bridge, a small red-roofed bridge dating to the early 20th century.
If you’re in a camper van or RV, Flower’s Cove has free overnight parking along the seafront.
L’Anse aux Meadows
At the very tip of the Great Northern Peninsula is the L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site and UNESCO World Heritage Site. L’Anse aux Meadows is the location of the only confirmed Viking settlement in North America (outside of Greenland), going back 1,000 years (tree-ring analysis dates the settlement to 1021 while carbon dating puts it at 1014). The contact between the Vikings and natives marks the moment humans circumnavigated the Earth.
The site contains the remains of 8 Norse buildings, and evidence of iron production. Parks Canada maintains recreated Norse buildings that visitors can enter and explore, complete with Viking interpreters sharing stories of what life would have been like in the settlement.
Give yourself enough time to explore the visitors centre, walk through the remains of the Norse settlement, visit the recreated buildings, as well as take a walk through the beautiful landscape to appreciate how the Vikings would have used this land.
Day 5 – Bonavista and Elliston
As you head east towards St. Johns, take detours off the main highway to explore the scenic peninsulas along the northern shore.
Our favourite was the Bonavista Peninsula, with the towns of Bonavista and Elliston at the tip. They featured some of the most stunning landscapes we’ve seen on this Newfoundland roadtrip.
Bonavista itself is a picturesque harbour town, home to the Ryan Premises National Historic site, a collection of 19th and early 20th century fishery buildings. It was the headquarters of prominent fishing merchant James Ryan. The building exhibits are open during the summer season, but it’s worth a stop to see the grounds even during shoulder season when the buildings are closed.
From the town centre, continue to the very tip of Cape Bonavista for stunning rocky landscapes and views of the crystal clear sea.
Continue to the nearby town of Elliston, home to the puffin lookout during the summer season. The puffin lookout is also worth visiting during the off-season when the puffins are gone, since the landscape is stunning.
Elliston is also known as the root cellar capital of the world, with more than 130 documented root cellars in the area, half of which are still in use today. They’re built directly into small hills to preserve root vegetables, keeping them cool through the summer and prevents freezing during the harsh Newfoundland winters.
Home-cooked meal in Elliston
For the best food in Bonavista Peninsula, visit Nanny’s Root Cellar Kitchen. The proceeds of the restaurant go to a cancer charity. We had the cod tongue meal, which was generous, tender and delicious. I’m sure the fish and chips would have been outstanding too. The vegetable sides are from Elliston root cellars. Indoor and outdoor seating is available. When we visited, they also had some delicious local jams for sale featuring local berries including bakeapple (cloudberry), marshberry (small cranberry) and partridgeberry (lingonberry)… we picked up 4 jars as a lovely souvenir.
Days 6-7 – St. John’s and Cape Spear
Downtown St. John’s and Signal Hill
Our Newfoundland roadtrip brings us to St. John’s. As you arrive in St. Johns, head to the city centre and harbour. It’s a lovely area with picturesque townhouses painted in bright colours. Take a stroll along the lively Water Street and the famous George Street pub area. For lunch, we’d recommend the nearby Duke of Duckworth, a cozy St. John’s institution making one of Newfoundland’s best fish and chips. Order it like the locals with dressing and gravy. (The Duke of Duckworth was used as the pub in the Republic of Doyle.)
Then make the short drive to Signal Hill. This national historic site is St. John’s most popular landmark with panoramic views of the Atlantic ocean and St. John’s harbour. The site was important to the defence of the harbour from the 17th century to WWII. It was also where Guglielmo Marconi received the world’s first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901.
Cape Spear Lighthouse
We may have saved the best for last. No visit to Newfoundland is complete without going to Cape Spear, the easternmost point of Canada and North America (excluding Greenland). Cape Spear features more sweeping landscape views and impressive Atlantic ocean waves crashing on the rocky shore.
The site feature the historic Cape Spear Lighthouse, the oldest surviving lighthouse in Newfoundland. Today, the tip is protected by a modern lighthouse. Parks Canada operates facilities during the summer season, but the grounds are open year-round.
While beautiful any time of the day, the most magical moment at Cape Spear is sunrise, since you’re seeing the first glimpse of sun hit North America. You’ll be in good company, with both locals and tourists arriving with their coffees just before sunrise.
As the sun sets in St. John’s, our Newfoundland roadtrip is coming to an end. The silver lining to not getting a cabin on the Argentia ferry means we get a few extra days as we drive back to Port aux Basques.
Our 7 days in Newfoundland were nothing short of memorable. Ask us anything… or share your personal tips and favourite spots in the comments below.