A good place to start is at the Dildo & Area Interpretation Centre (tel. 709/582-3339), on the harbor (Front Rd.) as you come into town. (Look for the giant squid made of fiberglass in the parking lot, an actual-size model of one actually caught near here in 1933.) The center opened in 1997 and displays some of the thousands of Eskimo artifacts recovered by archaeologists on the island, including harpoon end blades, knives, soapstone bowls and lamps, and scrapers. The center also features a touch tank with crabs and starfish for kids, plus a set of exhibits on the local fishing industry including a landing wharf and fish-drying exhibits. The center is open daily, June through September, from 10am to 6pm; admission costs C$2 for adults, C$1 for children, and C$5 for families.
In Heart's Content
The brick cable station, with its distinctive gingerbread trim, still stands just across the road at the Heart's Content Cable Station Historic Site (tel. 709/583-2160). Here you can view the bulky antique equipment that got the job done, and learn more about how involved this historic enterprise really was to put together. (You'll be surprised.) There's also a 20-minute film. It's open daily from mid-May through early October, 10am to 5:30pm; admission is C$3 adults, free for children 12 and under.
There's one more attraction at the rocky point on the north side of Heart's Content's harbor: A simple but cute barber pole-striped lighthouse stands amid impressive, rounded rocks that seem to heave up from inside the heart of the earth. Wonderful views of Trinity Bay can be had from here, and it's a good spot for a picnic or a "me and the lighthouse" shot to post to your Flickr account.
Near Baccalieu Island
The village of Bay de Verde at the northern tip of the peninsula is worth an excursion even if you're going to visit the island. The name comes from the Portuguese who plied these waters long ago; native peoples once hunted caribou in the area. A road reaches this remote fishing village today, but for years it didn't, and this still mostly has the feel of a place untouched by time. The village is dominated by trim, old-fashioned homes on stark rocky terraces overlooking a scenic little harbor; from a certain angle, it first reminds me of one of the hill towns of the Luberon or Umbria. Except that the "hill," in this case, is a bluff right beside a raging sea.
In Harbour Grace
The octagonal, pine-paneled Kearney Tourist Chalet (tel. 709/596-3042) at the south end of town by the harbor is an attraction all by itself. Built in 1995, it closely resembles a local lighthouse. It's open from June through September, and contains a special room with information about the Kyle, a steamer anchored just offshore.
Right beside the visitor center (sorry, tourist chalet) is the Spirit of Harbour Grace, a 1943 cargo transport plane that did time as a mail plane and also flew in North Africa before being modified into a DC-3 commuter aircraft. A gift to the town, it's mounted in a graceful banked turn, like a trout rising to take a fly. Impressive, but it's just one of three sites in town that testify to the golden (pre-automobile) age of transportation.
There's another one just offshore in the bay: the SS Kyle, a handsome coastal steamer lying aground and listing to port. This was one of the last of the wood-and-coal-burning coastal steamers. Built in Newcastle, England and launched in 1913, she was the first regular ferry to Labrador and plied Newfoundland waters until 1967, when a Nor'easter blew her from her moorings and she came to rest on a mussel bed. It cost the province just C$4,000 (okay, in 1972 dollars) to buy the ship from its former owners. A paint job in 1997 restored her brightly to her original color scheme: black-and-white around the hill, canary yellow at the smokestack.
The village also occupies a prominent niche in the history of aviation. The earliest pilots used this town's airfield as a jumping-off point for crossings of the Atlantic. In 1932, when she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic solo, Amelia Earhart took off from Harbour Grace. (There's a fuller, if slightly overblown, description of many of the flying firsts here on the town website at www.hrgrace.ca/air.html.)
You can revisit this rich history at Harbour Grace Airstrip, built in 1927. It's a stunningly beautiful and pristine spot on a hillside overlooking the harbor and the town, and it appears not to have changed much since Earhart took off for Europe more than a half-century ago, though the strip is growing over and planes very rarely land here anymore. You can scramble atop the monolith at the north end of the airfield to get a sweeping view out to Conception Bay, with the lush, grassy airstrip stretching out below.
Find the airfield by driving almost 2km (a mile) north of the tourist chalet on Route 70, then turning left. The paved road soon ends; keep at it along the dirt road, continuing another couple of kilometers (a mile) past Route 70, then turn right on still another dirt road. Continue a couple more kilometers (1 more mile), passing the end of the airstrip, then turn right and drive to the top of the low hill. There's a small plaque here commemorating the early fliers.
More local history is on view at the fire engine-red Conception Bay Museum (tel. 709/596-5465) at 1 Water St. Located on a low bluff overlooking the harbor and distant sea stacks, the museum occupies a three-story brick-and-granite building that was originally a customs station when it was built in the 1860s. Inside you'll find artifacts, including an exhibit about Earhart; mocked-up rooms (an aviation room with a model of the town's airstrip, a sewing room with period furniture) and a ship (of early local pirate Peter Easton); and costumed guides. Some of these guides offer walking tours of the town's Heritage District by appointment.
The museum is open daily from June through September (though sometimes closed at lunch), closed the rest of the year. Admission is about C$2 per adult, C$1 for seniors and children ages 10 to 18.
Near the harbor, look for the 24m (80-ft.-long) Brigus Tunnel, built in a single summer under the watch of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett, the famed mariner and Arctic explorer from Brigus. His deepwater dock sat on one side of a low, rocky ridge. . . while his warehouses languished on the other side. He fixed that problem by hiring a Cornish miner to blast a pathway right through the rock. Although Bartlett's dock and warehouses are long gone, and local teens have defaced the tunnel with graffiti, you can still stroll right through the tunnel; it's about 2.5m by 2.5m (8 feet wide and 8 feet high). You're rewarded with a fine view of the harbor when you exit. (For much more on Bartlett, visit Hawthorne Cottage.)
More tunnel trivia: The town's Ye Olde Stone Barn Museum showcases two of the actual hollowed-out spikes used during the blasting of the tunnel. (They were filled with gunpowder, then lit.)
Also in the downtown, the whitewashed, Gothic Revival St. George's Anglican Church hosts local musicians year-round; tickets are generally C$10 to C$15 per performance. There's an art gallery at the church, and local writers sometimes read from their work (small donations are requested).
The town also has a stylized steel sculpture of a ship (at Bishop's Beach), gardens, parks, and churches to hold your interest, and in mid-August there's the annual three-day Brigus Blueberry Festival, when concessions, crafts, fireworks, and blueberry-spiked foods come to town; count me in.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.