Did you know half a millennium before Columbus sailed into the Caribbean and John Cabot cruised into Canada, other explorers recorded landfalls on the North American continent? Yep, the Vikings came and went, but not before establishing a base in Northwestern Newfoundland a good 500-years before the Italians. And you can follow their footsteps along the Viking Trail.
If you think your kids will get a kick out of playing Viking, hiking a toxic mountain and beach combing along a craggy coast, you’ve come to the right place. The Viking Trail, situated in Newfoundland’s wild western region, is riddled with historic sites, hiking trails, and one jaw dropping natural wonder after the next. Here are the most interesting spots you won’t want to miss along the Viking Trail.
Gros Morne National Park
Your most likely starting point for the Viking Trail is flying into Deer Lake. From there, it’s a quick 30-minute drive to Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yes, it’s a geological and visual wonder, but beyond the ancient mountains, craggy coastline and dramatic fjords, it’s filled with loads of cool outdoor adventures for active (and even not so active) families.
The coolest and closest thing to do as soon as you enter Gros Morne (if coming from Deer Lake) is walk upon the earth’s mantle. Oh, and trek around a toxic mountain. You can experience both while hiking the Tablelands trail.
Now the earth’s mantle is typically found far below the crust (where we live). How did this middle part of the earth end up sitting on the crust? A plate collision several hundred million years ago forced part of the earth’s mantle to be thrust over the crust, just so we (and a few thousand moose) can traipse around on it.
Tablelands Gros Morne
It’s an easy 4 km (1.5 mile) return hike around the base of the Tablelands. If you have a stroller with robust wheels, it could totally make the trek. The cool, interesting for kids factor is that it feels like you’re hiking on Mars. The orange rock littering the trail is all from the earth’s mantle, and is full of iron, magnesium, nickel, chrome and copper – so much metal it’s toxic to most plants. Fret not! It’s perfectly safe to hike upon, but you’ll notice that few plants grow here.
Anyway, it’s hard to find these really neat plants anywhere else in North America. A lot of what’s interesting to kids is tiny, so don’t be afraid to examine on your belly. Because it’s hard for these plants (like the provincial flower the pitcher plant) to find the nutrients they need in order to grow, they’ve had to adapt, some by eating insects.
Tip: It’s best to do this hike with an interpreter as there’s so much that’s rare here, it’s hard to fully appreciate it on your own.
Bonne Bay Marine Station
Peel off the Viking Trail at Norris Point to touch and marvel at the wide variety of marine mammals local to the area. Admire the skeleton of a sperm whale beached in the area in 2014 before hitting up to the touch tank. Plunge your hand into the icy cold North Atlantic water as you gingerly pick up sticklebacks, sea urchin, starfish, snails and scallops. You won’t want to miss walking through the aquarium with a marine biologist, and every day there’s a kayaking tour where you can catch jellyfish or other creatures for the scientists to study.
This is a real honest to goodness research center, which means your tour (included with the price of admission) takes you behind the scenes to examine the holding tanks housing research specimens. This is the spot to come fact to face with the rare blue lobster, plus yellow and green ones!
Western Brook Pond Fjord
One of the prettiest spots in Gros Morne National Park is the Western Brook Pond Fjord. OK, technically it’s no longer a fjord because it has been filled with fresh water for the past 8,000 years. Still, it’s an impressive sight.
The best way for families to explore the fjord is by boat tour. To get to the boat, you’ve got to walk a 3 km (2 mile) interpretive trail. It’s an easy 45-minute stroll flanked by irises and yellow buttercups, with frequent sightings of moose and even the occasional caribou.
Once on the boat, you won’t want to put your camera down. Towering granite cliffs shoot straight up from the pond. It’s so very remote, this land-locked 600 m (1,968 feet) tall fjord makes you feel like you’re headed to the end of the earth. Gaze upon the rock formations, watch hidden waterfalls melt into mist and admire the lush hanging valleys that frame this postcard pretty fjord. Toes will tap to the Newfoundland music that accompanies the 16 km (10 mile) journey, and you’ll get a good chuckle out of the fish tales from the guides.
Viking attractions in Newfoundland
You don’t need to be told L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site is over 1,000 years old, you feel it. The Vikings didn’t stay long – maybe 5 to 10 years, but they certainly left their mark. Their remains are found at L’Anse aux Meadows, the only known Viking settlement in North America, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
At this carefully preserved 10th century Viking village (the first Viking settlement in North America), kids are taught how to live like those intrepid Norse adventurers. There are costumes to try on, heavy circular shields to carry and even (play) swords for battle.
After sussing out the Visitor Centre, head outside to check out the reconstructed sod huts, and meet the actors who tell tales of Viking exploits as though it was present day. After stepping back in time, let the littles burn off their energy on trails along the shoreline, where you just might spot an iceberg floating by.
Viking fever doesn’t end at L’Anse aux Meadows. Norstead Viking Village is another worthy stop to get a sense of how these warrior-traders lived in the New World. Inside the Chieftain’s Hall, Newfoundland delicacies such as toutons (a fried bread) are waiting for you, as are costumed interpreters keen to trade with you or tell your fortune. You can even step aboard Snorri, a full-scale replica of a Viking ship.
For animal lovers, there’s sheep to feed and the opportunity to spin sheep fleece into yarn using ancient methods. With so many hands on activities, your kids won’t even realize they’re getting a history lesson on the sly.
Iceberg tours Newfoundland
All the Viking Villages are situated an approximate 40-minute drive from St. Anthony, which makes it one of the best towns in the region to base yourself from. St. Anthony has the longest season for icebergs in Newfoundland (typically from spring until August) and boat tours allow you to come within a safe distance of these frozen skyscrapers. Icebergs head downstream from Greenland along an ancient route, drifting by the town of St. Anthony before continuing onto St. John’s.
It feels eerie to float by the icy giants – especially if your boat tour plays the Titanic soundtrack. But what’s really trippy is when you come across icebergs similar in size to what took down that tragic vessel – and they aren’t even as fearsome as the rest within your field of vision!
Since these icebergs are all chunks of Greenland glaciers that are continually breaking apart, those broken pieces are constantly floating by. These mini ones are called ‘bergy bits. Carefully, one of the crew members from our boat tour reaches over the side of the boat and collects a few bergy bits – chunks of ice smaller than a car. Break off a piece and you’ll notice how much slower it melts compared to refrigerator ice cubes. Don’t skip the opportunity to taste this ancient and pure water.
Whale watching Newfoundland
If icebergs are moving too slow for you, try spotting something more elusive. It’s a two for one deal in St. Anthony, as one of the world’s largest populations of humpback whales head here for summer eats. This affords you the opportunity to spot both whales AND icebergs on the same boat tour. There are 22 species of whales and dolphins that migrate off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador each year. Other marine mammals to be on look out for include seals, white beaked dolphin and minke whales. Even leatherback turtles occasionally make an appearance in August.
On our whale watching tour, an orca surfaces within half an hour of sailing. She plays in the boat’s wake – bow riding before leaving to join her friends. Right after, a humpback is spotted, then another and another. A dozen pop up beside our boat before arching back and showing off their tail as they dive deeper to munch on capelin.
Tip: May to August is the best time for whale watching in this region. Prime time for viewing both icebergs and whales is early to mid July.
Gros Morne accommodations
It’s mainly three star accommodation along the Viking Trail. Pools are hard to come by, but there’s a heated outdoor pool along with beachfront cottages at Shallow Bay Motel in Cow Head. Holiday Inn Express in Deer Lake has an indoor pool with waterslide. Ocean View Hotel in Rocky Harbour has been renovated, and Grenfell Heritage Hotel in St. Anthony’s offers kitchenette rooms.
Almost all campgrounds in Gros Morne National Park offer oTENTiks. A tent/rustic cabin hybrid, these roomy glamping accommodations sleep six and allow you experience camping without the hassle. You supply your bedding and food, and they take care of the rest. There are loads of regular camping spots within the Park for tents and trailers. Be sure check prior to booking, as not all are fully serviced.
Have you ever travelled along the Viking Trail? What were your favourite spots?
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