Escape to the edge of the world

By John Lewis

When it comes to getting away from it all, one Shepparton couple reckon they've found the perfect place. Brian and Sharon Davis talked to John Lewis about their trip to remote Newfoundland - a place of icebergs, forests and "screech-ins".

Newfoundland sits at the north-eastern edge of Canada surrounded by freezing seas, fog, and pine forests. There's no decent wineries, the roads are terrible and fine dining means fish and chips with extra salt.

So why travel for 36 hours and more than 18 000km to get there?

For retired Shepparton school music teachers Sharon and Brian Davis it all started with a quirky Netflix crime series called The Republic of Doyle.

"It's set in St John's in Newfoundland and we became addicted to the place — the jelly-bean houses, the mountains and lakes and the people — they seemed so warm and friendly," Sharon said.

Colourful jellybean houses were a hallmark of Newfoundland streetscapes.

"We were looking at Canada, but everyone goes to the west of the country — not a lot of tourists, particularly Australians, go to Newfoundland," Brian said.

After six months of planning, they had their route worked out, with places to stay, flights booked and a car hired.

On August 1 they set out on their big trip, starting with a 15.5-hour flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles. From there, they flew to Toronto where they spent four days, and of course, visited the iconic Niagara Falls.

Then it was on to the mysteries of Newfoundland.

Brian and Sharon Davis - rugged up for a Newfoundland summer at Battle Harbor.

They arrived at St John's, largest city on the main island, with a population equal to Geelong.

From there, they began a 5 1/2-week 6000km trip across Newfoundland and Labrador in a hired car, taking in tiny islands, remote settlements, an abandoned fishing village, a Viking museum and a hotel that costs $3000 a night.

They'd planned their trip meticulously, so the most time they spent in one spot was two nights.

Before they left St John's, they became honorary "Newfies" by taking part in a traditional "screech-in" ceremony at one of the city's many packed Irish pubs.

Sharon explained "screeching" involved downing a tot of rough rum, chewing on a fried Bologne sausage while reciting a Newfoundland poem and kissing a frozen cod.

"It was fun, but it tasted pretty disgusting," Sharon said.

Brian said daytime summer temperatures ranged from about 5°C to 22°C — accompanied by a windy chill factor.

They were intrigued and amused by a passing parade of quirky place names from Tickle Cove and Blow Me Down to Seldom Come by and Tilting, and the most photographed place name sign in Canada: Dildo.

Spectacular rocks and seascapes were a regular feature - this one's the view of Port Rexton.

On Fogo Island they came across a high-rise piece of modernist architecture which stood out starkly against a backdrop of wooden houses in a treeless grey landscape.

When they found out it was a hotel which attracted celebrity guests such as Paul McCartney and Oprah Winfrey, they considered spending a night.

"We thought maybe if it's $1000 a night we'd go for it — but $3000 was a bit steep," Brian said.

They even visited France — the tiny islands of St Pierre and Miquelon are still French territories which hark back to Canada's colonial past.

Brian said notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone was known to have run illegal liquor from St Pierre into the United States during the prohibition era of the 1920s.

Sharon said one of the most memorable places for her was the remote Battle Harbor, a small island settlement off the northern coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

"The place was abandoned in the 1960s, and the houses were left to rot. But then they were restored and now they are heritage cottages which accommodate tourists. 

"Because of its remoteness, it's so different to anywhere else — and the warmth and generosity of the people just enfold you," she said.

Sharon said it was off Battle Harbor that she saw her first iceberg.

"We got up really close to one by boat — we could touch it and taste it. They taste like the purest water ever, and they use it in Iceberg Beer and Rum on the Rocks," she said.

Sharon and Brian said everyone they met during their Newfoundland tour was friendly and warm.

"They were very friendly people — there's no sense of stranger danger at all. Everywhere we went, people were intrigued by our accents and were happy to stop and talk," Brian said.

The mountainous and freshwater interior of Newfoundland - Gros Morne.

After a 36-hour flight back to Melbourne, the couple was able to relive the Newfoundland experience at a performance of the musical Come From Away at Melborune's Comedy Theatre.

The show tells the heartwarming true story of how the small Newfoundland town of Gander hosted 7000 airline passengers for four days when 38 passenger planes were ordered to land there after the 911 attacks in the United States.

"We relived it all. We recognised the people we had met, it was so funny and poignant," Sharon said.