Is it worth the drive? That is the decisive question when contemplating a visit to L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site.
At first blush, L’Anse Aux Meadows sounds like the most awesome historical place in North America. I mean, come on, Vikings! From one thousand years ago! Muscular fighting men dressed in furs and metal, horn-adorned helmets plundering their way across the Arctic’s southern edge in long, wooden warships leaving evidence of a settlement in Newfoundland half a millennium before Columbus “discovered” the New World and I can go see this? Sign me the hell up!
If you’re enthusiasm parallels mine, this is when you first search L’Anse Aux Meadows online and discover, thanks to twenty-first century mapping technology, that L’Anse Aux Meadows is way, way, WAY up on the tippy top tip of Great Northern Peninsula on the island of Newfoundland. You zoom in and you zoom out. Pan left, then pan right. Type in an urban centre or airport and click ‘directions’ to get distance and driving time info. Pretty soon your mind is wondering if it might actually be a shorter commute from bloody Scandinavia itself.
To put this into perspective, the nearest notable tourist attraction to L’Anse Aux Meadows is the alluring Gros Morne National Park. If you go all the way to visit that amazing park, you still have a four hour drive north to get to the Vikings. One way! That’s a long day trip for anybody. Toss two kids in a vehicle for eight hours of driving and even the best of modern entertainment conveniences will fail to keep them happy. Suffice it to say, the destination had better kick ass.
And that’s when you’ll ask the decisive question. Is it worth the drive?
I have to be honest with you, much as it pains me. It isn’t. The L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historical Site is an interpretive centre and gift shop, a handful of replica sod buildings, and a dozen mounds of grass-covered soil with plaques indicating what original Viking settlement structure once stood at that spot. That’s it. The aftermath of a Minnesota Vikings tailgate party would be more stimulating.
Thankfully, the drive to L’Anse Aux Meadows is more than worth the drive. Toss in a couple roadside stops along the way plus an overnight stay in the nearby town of St. Anthony, including whale watching and iceberg hunting, and you can turn this demanding trek into a fantastic excursion well worth your time. Dine at Pizza Delight twice and you’ve got yourself a serious contender for quick side trip of a lifetime, constipation notwithstanding.
The Drive to L’Anse Aux Meadows
Living on Banff National Park’s front lawn, I’ve seen a few scenic highways in my day; Icefields Parkway being the crown jewel. I believe Newfoundland Route 430, also called The Viking Trail, offers up a drive that easily merits inclusion in the prettiest drives in Canada club.
Beginning at the intersection of the TransCanada Highway in Deer Lake, Route 430 first takes you west into Gros Morne National Park before heading north, hugging the western shore of the Great Northern Peninsula for most of the three hundred kilometers between Rocky Harbour and Eddies Cove, before turning east and cutting clear across the northern nipple of the peninsula, finishing up in St. Anthony. It’s quite the highway.
I had no idea what to expect from this road. Heading straight into the hinterlands of northwestern Newfoundland, with only our mainland stereotypes to guide us, I feared a slow, winding, poorly maintained nightmare of a drive. I was not looking forward to it.
We were, after all, on a very tight schedule. At one point, we even contemplated making our L’Anse Aux Meadows visit a day trip, an idea nearly as preposterous as crossing the icy north Atlantic in open boats. Eventually, we settled on a one night layover in St. Anthony. It was still a busy excursion, tacked onto our more leisurely vacation in Coffee Cove and Rocky Harbour (Gros Morne NP), and a treacherous drive would have made this side trip exhausting. And believe me, the road from Springdale to Coffee Cove didn’t boost my confidence. To think we almost brought our rickety trailer across on the ferry.
My fears were soon proven unfounded, my pre-and-ill-conceived judgments soundly put in their place, as Route 430 turned out to be a great driving highway. Which was great since it enabled me, as driver, to better enjoy the wonderful scenery through which it took us. As nothing more than a road trip, Highway 430 is a treat. Bikers would love it.
To the west, you’ll see the blue expanse of the Gulf of St. Lawrence for much of your first three hours of driving. To the east, you begin with the gorgeous views of Gros Morne National Park including the Long Range Mountains, home to namesake Gros Morne Mountain, and the inimitable Western Brook Pond.
Upon leaving the National Park, be sure to keep an eye out for the diminutive Arches Provincial Park. This modest seaside park contains a lovely natural arch standing watch where the gulf waters lap onto the rocky shore. We stopped here on our return drive hoping to capture a once in a lifetime sunset. Unfortunately, our timing wasn’t quite perfect and needing to get to our rental place in the park, we had to leave before the full sunset took hold over the arch. Still, it is a wonderful little spot and worth a half hour of your time to stop and clamber up the arch or have a picnic lunch.
And we did catch that sunset a bit further along our way. Wow!
Within, between, and beyond these two parks, most of the drive alternates between long stretches of ocean to the left and ragged forest to the right, with numerous postcard fishing villages breaking up the glorious monotony. Some of these towns are relatively thriving, offering up the odd service like gasoline or a restaurant. They aren’t tourist Meccas nor are they bastions of modern suburbia (thankfully), but they’re all gorgeous in a humble, timeworn way.
Oh, and lighthouses too.
If you have more time available than we did, there are several additional stops of interest all along The Viking Trail. Even just stopping for a look around in one or two of the towns would be enjoyable. Maybe head right to the shore and take some awesome pictures.
Or, there are advertised attractions, such as the rare thrombolite fossils, ancient fragments of algae and bacteria found in Flower’s Cove and the National Historic archeological site in Port Aux Choix, the location of an archeologically rich and significant burial site of the first indigenous peoples in Newfoundland some 5000 years ago.
St. Anthony, Newfoundland
Eventually Route 430 makes a hard right and heads cross-country to the east side of the peninsula and St. Anthony, home to our one night accommodations. This stretch of highway is admittedly dull by comparison and only as you near the town do things fancy up again.
St. Anthony is the heart of the northern peninsula, it even has a mall, and it was the best location for us as a family to spend the night. There are some unique spots closer to L’Anse Aux Meadows, ones the wife and I would have quite enjoyed spending a night at alone in, but with picky eaters in tow it was best to stay in a population centre.
This is where we discovered the gastronomic wonders of Pizza Delight, a Maritime pizza chain that once had a foothold into central Canada when I was young, but has since retreated back to its east coast roots. We ordered our meals which were quite tasty by all accounts. As an eastern version of Boston Pizza, this family restaurant served up decent fair. The kids were happy, so, success.
Unfortunately, we also order their version of cheese bread which is the only thing my son eats at pizza joints. This order turned out to be basically a large pizza crust. Like the entire base of a large pizza with no toppings on it, save for the cheese and oil. It was HUGE. And with a couple of our orders already having small sides of this very same dough concoction included, we ended up with WAY too much naked pizza to eat.
We did eat it, or more accurately, I ate it. I’m neurotic about throwing away purchased food. It wasn’t tasting so great as I neared the last pieces in our ‘to go’ box. On the convenience side, I was in no need of a bathroom for a couple days thereafter.
With L’Anse Aux Meadows a further forty minutes north and our needing to drive all the way back to Rocky Harbour the next day, we were reluctant to add supplementary activities to our schedule. But damn if supplementary activities weren’t enticing; and highly recommended by my uncle, whom we had just finished visiting. After some fidgeting and indecision, neither of us are spontaneous types, we threw caution to the wind and registered the four of us for a whale watching and iceberg viewing boat excursion the next morning.
Holy sweet mother of all awesomeness, was that the best, almost spontaneous, decision we have ever made. The two hour boat ride, courtesy of Northland Discovery, departed just a short walk from the Grenfill Heritage Hotel where we had spent the night. Taking us out of St. Anthony harbor, around St. Anthony Bite, and into the open Atlantic Ocean and back again, this tour offered plenty of fantastic views from inside, out front, and atop the 48 passenger boat.
We saw lots of seabirds along the beautiful, rocky coastline, but the highlight, by far, was the humpback whales. First a single, then a pair. They entertained us with their blowholes, fins and tails several times but sadly no full breaches. Still, seeing these magnificent creatures, alive, in their natural habitat, was an unforgettable experience.
Nearing the end of the tour, we circumnavigated a small, stranded iceberg in the Bite. Small by Atlantic iceberg standards, that is, having been stuck in this spot melting all spring, but still an incredible sight for this Prairie dweller.
A much larger, worthy of the moniker, iceberg had been nearby for several days prior to our sailing, but it broke free of its grounding overnight and moved too far away for our tourist boat to visit (fuel limitations). Disappointing though this was, we did catch a glimpse of the wayward iceberg as we drove to L’Anse Aux Meadows later that afternoon.
This boat tour gave us some of our most treasured memories from our East Coast adventure. The whales, the icebergs, the seabirds, and the coastline, not to mention the delightful tour guide, enchanted us. It’s not often I find myself simply high on life like that.
Of course, the local folk probably see this stuff daily and roll their eyes or laugh about us tourists after work. I’m okay with that. I do the same thing when tourists stop their cars and run around like idiots trying to get close-ups of deer or selfies with black bears.
L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site
In retrospect, we probably should have gone to L’Anse Aux Meadows first. High expectations are a risk for any attraction, but going to one while still basking in the afterglow of whale watching and iceberg viewing is a recipe for disappointment. In that context, my thoughts on L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site are likely unfair. To some degree, at least. Still, I can’t discount how underwhelmed I felt the entire time we were there.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, to be honest. It’s a one thousand year old anthropological site, after all. And we aren’t talking pyramids or other grand architectural feats of stone. The fact there was anything left to be found at all is remarkable.
The interpretive centre is adequate, but not especially mind-blowing. We walked around looking at the displays for a bit before enjoying a short film presentation in the adjoining theatre room. Altogether we probably spent more time exploring the gift shop, shameful as that is to admit.
The recreated earth buildings, representing what experts believe these Viking dwellings looked like caught me off guard. I guess I was expecting something more, something bigger? Again, viewing these sod and timber structures after three weeks of British and French colonial forts probably coloured my outlook.
Like many Parks Canada historic sites, there are actors working in and around these buildings offering a living allegory to life in Vinland circa 1000 AD. They do a wonderful, often humorous, job of this, giving visitors a richer experience than simply walking through buildings looking at relics.
The fact that the actual historic ruins were merely mounds of grass with basic, descriptive plaques nearby, looking more like an abandoned mini-golf course than the monumental historic site L’Anse Aux Meadows purports to be, left me unimpressed. Sorry.
That all being said, the landscape all around L’Anse Aux Meadows, including the islands off the coast, is stunning. There are trails you can walk within the ruins and around the greater historic site property. One portion takes you along the coast, gaining elevation, up to a lookout point that provides a splendid view of the ruins, recreated structures, neighbouring hamlet, and, of course, the mighty North Atlantic.
I enjoyed the walk around, well enough. And my wife certainly enjoyed the historic site itself more than I did. Nonetheless, had we gone to the trouble of going all that way and only experienced L’Anse Aux Meadows itself, I would have been mightily dissatisfied.
I have no regrets about going to L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site. In fact, I would still recommend doing it and would entertain doing it again myself. The caveat I would lay upon any trip to this World Heritage Site is that you incorporate it into a bigger adventure. Do not view it as a one off destination. And don’t rush it. Take a couple days. Enjoy the drive. Explore the surrounding towns and attractions along the way. Go watch some whales and get up close to an iceberg. As part of a diverse journey, L’Anse Aux Meadows is certainly worth the drive.
But maybe skip the Pizza Delight cheese bread.