The fishing town of Dildo is saddled with what must be history's most unfortunate name. Yet the village -- located about 11 or 12km (7 or 8 miles) north of the Trans-Canada Highway, on Route 80 -- is actually somewhat attractive, consisting of homes clustered along a hilly harbor's edge and a forested prominence rising near the outer point. While fishing has ground to a near halt since cod-protection measures kicked in, cultural tourism has picked up some of the slack, as visitors trek here to view traces of a once-thriving Indian culture. The island in the mouth of this harbor was occupied at various times by Beothuk, Dorset Eskimo, and modern Indians, and you can visit it by boat.
The town's name? The generally accepted theory around here is that it was named by early Spanish sailors for some person or place in Spain, and then the spelling was changed later. Other theories abound, too, though: The name may come from a local Indian word meaning "still waters," or (less historical provenance for this one) taken from the chorus of some old ballad or another. The truth is, nobody really knows. But one thing's for sure: It wasn't named for those. Now let's move on.
Now this is a town with a much better name. Heart's Content was named either after an early ship that docked here or because of its vaguely heart-shaped harbor. Take your pick. Either way, it's a pleasing coastal village that claims a prominent footnote in the annals of communications history.
In 1858, the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable was brought ashore here, connecting England with Newfoundland (and the United States). Queen Victoria and U.S. president James Buchanan quickly exchanged text messages, 19th-century style (no, they didn't cable "THIS IS KEWL LOL"). After just 27 days and 700-odd messages, though, the cable mysteriously failed -- could it have been another giant Dildo squid? -- and a second cable to Heart's Content was installed in 1866.
The second time was the charm. This replacement cable was the one that would prove to be a vital link between the New and Old Worlds. It also provided employment for 300 people in this village, and brought a measure of prosperity and diversity the area had sorely lacked. During the late 1800s, as many as 1,200 people lived here, double the present-day population. You can still see rusted and frayed cables jutting from an embankment near the center of town.
Cliff-encircled Baccalieu Island, about 3km (2 miles) off the peninsula's tip, is only 5km (3 miles) long, but it has a rich history as a fishing center and location of an important lighthouse. (It has also been the site of more than 20 shipwrecks.) Yet the island's best known today for its vast colonies of seabirds, almost a dozen of which breed here: a huge colony of puffins, plus northern fulmar, common murre, black-legged kittiwake, northern gannets, thick-billed murre, and razorbills, as well as a truly staggering three-million-plus colony of Leach's storm petrels. This is said to be the single greatest place of seabird diversity on the continent, though practically nobody knows it. Today the island is an ecological reserve.
The historic town of Harbour Grace (pop. 3,000) sprawls along a waterfront on Conception Bay. It's not a picture-perfect town -- there's plenty of charmless modern architecture mixed in with the historic -- but you get a good sense of the region's rich history here, and there are a number of quirky attractions that will surely have you snapping photos and writing postcards.
You don't usually hear a whole lot about the trim harborside village of Brigus (pop. 800), but this town dates to 1612: It's got both scenery and history to recommend it.
The downtown is clustered with wood-frame homes and narrow lanes that extend out from the harbor while studly, lichen-scraped hills ring the inlet. It looks like the setting for some sadly powerful novel, and it's also blessed with a surprising number of historic little goodies, mostly thanks to its most famous resident -- you'll hear about him in a second. It even has a cool name: a corruption of Brickhouse, which may have been a village in England.
The place is well-known to art historians, however, who recall it as the town that gave the boot to American artist Rockwell Kent, who lived here briefly in 1914 and 1915 with his family -- creating iconoclastic, important post-Armory Show images that mark the beginning of his signature style -- until his expulsion. World War I was raging, and Kent was suspected of "pro-German activities." (The artist's crime? He sang songs in Pennsylvanian Dutch. Tough break.) Kent eventually got back to Newfoundland, more than a half-century later, as a guest of the premier and forgave the province and its people for the snub. Better late than never, I guess.
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