Roughly halfway between St. John's and Port aux Basques, the settlement of Grand Falls is actually quite young. It dates only from 1903, when two British tycoons grew concerned that Germany might disrupt the supply of newsprint for their newspaper business. They searched high and higher until they found Grand Falls, where the Exploits River rushes over cascades in the middle of a seemingly endless supply of timber. A huge paper mill was constructed on the banks of the river in 1909, along with a company town and all the associated services, and the mill continued to expand for decades. The town of Windsor joined Grand Falls at the hip in 1991, resulting in the ungainly name and a total metro population of about 13,000.
However, the town was dealt a serious blow in late 2008, when Abitibi-Bowater, owners of the mill, shuttered it for good in a teetering economy, unable to reach a deal with the millworkers' union. The town's future may be in jeopardy, though tourist-related services (gas stations, restaurants, motels) likely will continue to thrive.
As for practical matters, it's a bit of a pain to get from one town over to the other, because the Trans-Canada Highway cuts them off from each other. There's really little need to venture over to Windsor, though; focus on Grand Falls, which is south of the highway and has all the services you'll need.
The scenic islands of North and South Twillingate are a photographer's dream. Here you'll find a little of everything that you came to Newfoundland for -- historic fishing harbors, gently rolling forested ridges, jagged cliffs washed by surf, and open rocky barrens that roll down to the sea. There's also a pretty good chance of spotting whales and icebergs -- quite a few of Greenland's icebergs seem to drift into Notre Dame Bay just west of here, where they can be spotted in late spring and early summer. It's worth the 4- to 5-hour round-trip detour if you've got a free day in Newfoundland.
The cute name comes via early French fishermen, who noted a striking resemblance between the rocky cliffs of this region and the stony shores of their hometown of Toulinguet (in Brittany). The spelling was later Anglicized.
On an archipelago linked by a series of causeways, the drive northward on Route 340 from Boyd's Cove follows inlets and harbors cropping up between the low, green, forested hills. The archipelago's central market town of Twillingate is a surprisingly active commercial center, with a population around 2,500 and a number of bustling stores lining the road down to the old harbor. It's been connected to the mainland by causeway since 1972.
And the communities surrounding Twillingate have shown some entrepreneurial drive, offering more services to travelers than you usually find in these tiny Newfoundland fishing villages. A number of local homes have been converted into serviceable B&Bs, and the route on to the two Twillingates is also lined with homemade billboards advertising boat tours, inns, restaurants, and the like.
Getting There -- Twillingate is 145km (90 miles) northeast of Grand Falls-Windsor. There are two turnoff points from the Trans-Canada Highway, depending on where you're coming from. From the west (Grand Falls, Port aux Basques, Gros Morne, or L'Anse aux Meadows), turn north on Route 340 about 48km (30 miles) east of Grand Falls-Windsor at Notre Dame Junction. It's about 96km (60 miles, or 2 hours) from the turnoff. Coming from the east (St. John's), you turn north on Route 330 at Gander, then take Route 331 to connect up with Route 340 at Boyd's Cove; it's about 112km (70 miles -- but up to 2 1/2 hours' driving) from Gander to Twillingate.
Visitor Information -- There's a provincial visitor information center (tel. 709/535-8547) open seasonally (mid-May through the end of September) in Notre Dame Junction, one of the two turning-off points for Twillingate. There's also a smaller regional VIC (tel. 709/628-7454) on Route 340 in Newville, about 13km (8 miles) before you reach Twillingate; it's usually open daily from May until early October.
The name Gander (pop. 10,000) will be familiar to history buffs. In the 1930s -- when this island was still a British colony, believe it or not -- the British Air Ministry built an airfield here. As the closest fog-free spot to England, it was envisioned as a future key link in transcontinental air traffic. And when World War II broke out less than a decade later, the base suddenly took on importance of a different kind: as the staging area and refueling depot for North American troops and supplies heading overseas. After the war, the airstrip became a familiar sight to a generation of groggy tourists headed for Europe, as planes stopped here for refueling before or after making the leap across the Atlantic.
But aircraft technology was changing too quickly, and the Boeing 707 -- which could cross the Atlantic from New York to Europe in a single bound -- diminished Gander's importance in a single stroke. Today the airfield is a shadow of its former self, except during emergencies: During the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., Gander suddenly found itself home to 39 airliners carrying 6,000 passengers and crew, who stayed 3 days in locals' homes while the planes were grounded, depending completely on the generosity of residents.
Today Gander's airport still sees a fair amount of commercial traffic (especially when St. John's is fogged in), but its Trans-Canada Highway gas stations are now usually the only thing travelers see of the place before resuming their journeys east or west across the island. There's some nice coastline in the area; a decent aviation museum; and friendly locals. Plus, the town's streets are named for famous flyers, and an annual Festival of Flight brings planes and aviation buffs to town. Whether that's reason enough to veer off your itinerary, well, you decide.
A visitor information center (tel. 709/256-7110), open from 9am to 9pm in summer and 9am to 5pm the rest of the year, is well marked on the south side of the Trans-Canada Highway (next to the Aviation Museum and across from the Albatross Motel) as you drive through town.
Also be sure to check out the local weekly newspaper, The Beacon. The print edition's look is faithfully preserved in the online version of the paper (www.ganderbeacon.ca); it's a fascinating glimpse into small-town life on The Rock.