Getting Real in Newfoundland

JAMES GLAVE from Saturday's Globe and Mail

'If you're extra lucky, you'll get yourselves invited to a kitchen party," Terri told us in the days leading up to our Newfoundland vacation. "Friends and neighbours get together and play instruments and sing and tell stories and drink. That's the real deal out there."

Terri, a close friend who grew up in Gander but now lives down the street in British Columbia, had just "screeched in" my wife and me in her living room. Following tradition, we downed a shot of cheap rum. Then we kissed a frozen salmon - our West Coast stand-in for the cod that's usually pulled out for the ceremony that makes "come from aways" honorary locals.

So we necked with a fish. We had been anointed pseudo-locals. We even had certificates to prove it, downloaded from the Internet. But we knew we were Newfies on paper only. And, like a growing number of travellers, we wanted that real deal.

Along with the 490,000 other visitors that head to Newfoundland every year, we were attracted to a place that seemed largely untouched by the crushing effects of mass tourism. This was a province of genuine outport communities - effectively cut off from one another by fierce winters and a harsh interior of scrubland and ponds known simply as the Barrens, but famous for hospitality and openness.

Or maybe we had seen too many glossy brochures. Because the Newfie dialect can be as impenetrable as the landscape. Then there are the mannerisms: Men greet one another with a quick left-to-right sideways nod that can seem cryptic to outsiders. Which leaves even the most intrepid travellers stranded just on the edge of the authentic - among the locals, but always apart from them.

Until, that is, Ken Sooley came along. His company, CapeRace Cultural Adventures - the only one of its kind in Canada - offers what a gag certificate cannot: Admission to the inner circles of outport communities up and down Newfoundland's eastern shore, and the chance to have an uncanned, unpredictable experience of place.

"We're providing a brand-new concept in experiential travel," the 46-year-old says. "We have designed a way for people to become integrated into three local communities, and each has a different take on the Newfoundland lifestyle."

And, yes, that lifestyle does include kitchen parties. In fact, by the end of our 10-day trip, which kicked off in St. John's before taking us to the villages of Heart's Delight and Bonavista, we had not only tracked one down. We had done one better. We had hosted one - complete with an old guy crooning fishermen's ballads out of a ragged coil-bound notebook.

The cold North Atlantic is just a stone's throw from the front porch of the "Thomas Mouland House."

Like many of the houses Sooley owns, it is as authentic as the community it stands in. It was named for the previous owner, who was involved in the great sealing disaster of 1914 - when 78 sealers were inadvertently abandoned on the ice floes to perish slowly in a blizzard.

The closest we come to those perilous floes is the "bergy bit" that Sooley has stashed in the freezer. He recovered the microwave-oven-sized piece of ice by the beach in Bonavista some months prior, and it has become a routine on my visit here to chip off a few chunks and drop them in my tumbler of screech.

I am joined by Lloyd - our designated contact and the key to Sooley's success. Like the kind of on-the-ground "fixers" reporters hire to get the inside scoop in far-flung places, he connects his clients with locals.

Want to try squid jigging in a working fishing boat? Just call "Jerry" or "Elizabeth." They'll pop over, introduce you to the guy with the right dinghy (here's hoping you'll understand a word he's saying) and help you figure out what to pay him to hop on board. Or call Lloyd. He might take you to a play to cheer on his teenage son or on a tour of the family window-making factory. And he'll get you "in" with other locals.

After a few minutes on the porch in Bonavista, for instance, a neighbour named Dorman, who lives across the street and who owns a nearby convenience store, drops over. As a grey whale blows plumes of salt spray into the sky a quarter-mile offshore, he explains how things used to be in these parts.

"With the winter starms we get these days, you can har the floor of the ocean rumbling and groaning-like," says the 57-year-old, who is wearing dress slacks and a starched shirt the colour of Dijon mustard, his hair carefully Brylcreemed back. "It's like the whole bottom of the sea is roaring and heaving. Mam said you would never used to har that. It's changing."

And the sea isn't the only thing in flux here. We look out across fields of long swaying grass, past the "flakes" - spindly fish-drying racks that have been making a comeback since the government opened summer "food fisheries," allowing limited cod fishing for personal consumption - and toward the houses scattered along the gravel waterfront road.

"This whole field used to be full of houses," Dorman says, waving his arms at the emptiness.

"What happened to them all?" I ask.

"The people died or moved. They all either fell down or was knocked down."

About 3,700 people call Bonavista home. But like many other towns across the province, the population has been steadily shrinking since 1993. That was the year the federal government placed a moratorium on cod fishing in an effort to protect the few fish that remained.

With the stroke of a pen, a resource and an industry that everyone expected to last forever simply collapsed. Tens of thousands of locals lost their jobs. And many were forced to pack up and leave - a migration that continues to this day.

"It was so different here when I was 9 or 10," Dorman says. "This here main road was jammed with people. All of them takin' in the catch, splittin' it. Houses and stores and sheds all over. This road here back of us was a railroad track. They'd bring in coal on the ships and load it up on rail cars and deliver it around the neighbourhood. See?"

I almost could.

'ASK ABOUT THE BINGO GAMES'

Clearly, CapeRace appeals to a rather niche traveller. You know, the sort of person who doesn't mind venturing outside his comfort zone once in a while.

While my wife and I were effectively "embedded" in remote fishing villages, for instance, we bunked down in accommodations that looked, well, a lot like they did when the salted-cod trade peaked 100 years ago. In Heart's Delight, we stayed at a house once owned by Sooley's grandfather - still equipped with original enamel appliances, a squeaky cast-iron bed and a bare-bulb kitchen light switched on and off by a dangling string.

Our house did have a record player in one of the cabinets and a scratched-up copy of Favourite Reels and Jigs of Newfoundland. But that novelty wears thin after a few cacophonous minutes. And any diversion provided by the locals goes both ways: The folks across the street in Heart's Delight have a habit of setting up lawn chairs to watch new arrivals.

Then again, visitors may get to watch as residents pull needle-thin capelin from the surf in buckets, either to smoke and eat, or dig into their gardens as fertilizer. Or perhaps someone's cousin will drop over a few links (and steaks and burgers) of moose meat. And the quest for such raw encounters - occasionally awkward, but often meaningful - is evidently on the rise.

"Ever since 9/11, people have been searching for something deeper," says Patty Morgan of the Travel and Tourism Research Association, an industry trade group based in Idaho. "They don't want the Holiday Inn with the pool and the continental breakfast."

Peter Yesawich, whose firm Y Partnership tracks emerging travel trends, agrees. "The appeal of this kind of 'deep authenticity' has certainly grown in recent years," he says. And he adds that it's only going to increase - especially among so-called "millennial" travellers in their late 20s and 30s.

For his part, Sooley has certainly picked the right place to try his groundbreaking next-generation travel experiment. I have never felt so much a foreigner inside my own country as I do in Newfoundland. And if locals like Dorman are right, I better experience this "real deal" before it disappears forever.

To help me bone up on insider lore is Sooley's self-published The Traveller's Diary - available only to CapeRace clients. It includes such essentials as the rules for the classic Newfoundland card game 120s.

And then of course there are phone numbers for tried-and-true Newfoundlanders like Lloyd. If they don't already have a line on you.

Near the end of our visit to the outport town of Bonavista, I am sitting on our porch again, watching the light fade and sipping on more screech as I listen to the pop and crack of the ice in my glass - last liquid 11,000 years back - when my cellphone breaks the silence.

"How you getting on over thar this evenin'?" Lloyd asks.

"Very well, thanks."

"Good. Say, a group of us boys was thinking of coming by tamarra night to play a little music thar. D'you think that'd be all right?"

"I think that would be just fine with us, Lloyd," I tell him. "Just fine."