Travel Writer Falls for Bonavista

"Fresh and wild, beautiful, friendly, and completely offbeat. Why Newfoundland is North America's best kept secret...." Joanne O'Connor

If you've been to Newfoundland, the chances are that it was by mistake. This vast lump of rock just off the east coast of Canada is the closest bit of North America to Europe, so transatlantic flights which need to make an emergency landing are often diverted here. When US airspace was closed on 11 September 2001, 39 planes carrying some 6,000 passengers were forced to land at Gander Airport in the east of the island. Residents from the local area took the stranded passengers into their homes and fed and clothed them, and stories of the kindnesses offered and friendships formed, quickly started to emerge.

This level of hospitality will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time in Newfoundland. No sooner have we arrived at our little wooden cottage in the village of Heart's Delight than there's a knock at the door. It's our neighbour, Elizabeth. She introduces herself as the cousin of the cottage's owner. 'My brother caught a couple of lobster today. I could cook them for you and bring them over later, if you like,' she says. Then she asks if we have plans for the following evening. 'We've got a few people coming over. There's going to be some music. Drop by at 7pm.' We've not even unpacked our suitcases and our dinner is being cooked and we've been invited to a party.

The following evening my friend Carole and I turn up at the cottage next door to find a band setting up in the corner of the kitchen and a handful of neighbours standing around the sink drinking beer. Kitchen parties are a Newfoundland tradition, an occasion for people to come together, sing, dance and tell stories. We are slightly horrified to discover that this one is being held in our honour, but as the wine starts to flow, the band begins to play, and more neighbours and friends show up, things quickly warm up. Elizabeth's husband Jerry starts to play the spoons and Dorothy, wife of Stan the bandleader, springs onto the floor for a lively jig.

As midnight approaches we all head out to the beach where one of the neighbours has lit a driftwood bonfire. Under a clear starry sky we talk and drink beer and roast marshmallows until the early hours. As we say our farewells, Ernie, who lives in the next village along, tells us he'll bring over some of his prized moose sausages and Elizabeth asks if we'd like to come for Sunday lunch the next day.

It's to make encounters such as these possible that CapeRace Cultural Adventures was set up. Started by Ken Sooley four years ago, the company aims to offer 'meaningful' travel experiences that get tourists off the beaten track and into the heart of the communities they visit. Raised in Toronto, Ken spent childhood holidays in Newfoundland, visiting his grandparents in Heart's Delight. After they died he didn't return to the island for 18 years. When he eventually did go back, he saw the place through different eyes, and decided to restore his grandparents' dilapidated cottage to its original condition and rent it out to tourists wanting to experience life in a traditional 'outport', as Newfoundlanders call their coastal villages.

The result is a lovingly renovated outport house decorated as it would have been in the middle of the last century. In keeping with tradition, the kitchen is the largest room in the house and has a large old-fashioned stove and a daybed in the corner, covered with a patchwork quilt. The original linoleum and doors have been retained, and retro details like a whistling kettle and a coronation portrait of Queen Elizabeth II add the finishing touches. 'It's a bit like going to stay with your Auntie Beryl,' says Carole, poking her head into the prim little parlour.

As I put a scratchy record of Newfoundland jigs and reels on the old record player and settle down to a jigsaw puzzle, (you have to make your own entertainment in the outports) I can't help feeling that tourism has finally come full circle. Where once the workers would have scrimped and saved to afford a break from their hardworking lives, today's wealthy western tourists will happily pay to forgo luxuries they take for granted in their own homes, such as TVs and telephones, to experience the modest living conditions of a poor fisherman's family.

In the past three years Ken has bought and restored a further two houses in different parts of the island, enabling him to offer a unique holiday package. CapeRace customers are given a key that fits the lock to the three houses, spending three nights in each before driving onto the next. First stop is the capital, St John's, a likeable port city with a small-town feel. The house perches high in the Battery, a charming neighbourhood of rainbow-coloured wooden houses clinging to a hill overlooking the harbour.

The decor is crisp and nautical and the deck is positioned so you can sit outside and watch the ships coming and going. It's a 10-minute walk into town where you can try local delicacies such as fried cod tongue and scrunchions (little cubes of pork fat) in the blissfully timewarped environs of Velma's restaurant, or head for one of the many bars that line George Street, which with its bursts of raucous fiddle music and distinctly unCanadian late-night carousing could give Dublin's Temple Bar a run for its money.

Then it's on to Heart's Delight, a 90-minute drive north on the Trans-Canada Highway, where you can immerse yourself in the slower rhythm of this sleepy bayside community. The final stop is breezy and beguiling Bonavista, a small fishing town perched on the tip of a beautiful peninsula. The house here is a 100-year-old gem (by Canadian standards it's practically Stonehenge) which sits buffeted by winds and surrounded by whispering grasses on the edge of the ocean. You can watch whales from your bed and there's a lump of iceberg the size and shape of an anvil in the freezer should you wish to chill your drinks.

The three houses are delightful in different ways but the real key to this holiday is Ken's meticulously researched 'Traveller's Diary' which everyone is sent upon booking. This ring-bound book tells you everything you need to know, from which bars have live music to where to find the best fish and chips. There are suggestions for hikes and day trips, but you'll find those in any guidebook. What makes this guide special is its intimate local knowledge. For example, a typical entry for St John's reads: 'Even if you don't need a haircut, drop in at the Barber Shop on Duckworth Street. Say hello to Ted Doyle and check out the old photographs of the city.'

In St John's we gain access to the Crow's Nest Officers Club, a private members' bar reached by a rickety wooden staircase up the side of a warehouse, by signing in under Ken's name. It's an atmospheric treasure trove of naval memorabilia left by officers of the Allied fighting ships that called in at St John's during the Second World War but you'd never know it was here were it not for inside information.

On a sunny day we drive to the village of Ferryland, where (on Ken's recommendation) we have booked a gourmet picnic: turn up at the lighthouse keeper's cottage and the enterprising women there will supply you with a rug and hamper of delicious sandwiches, homemade chocolate cake and lemonade which you can feast on while watching minke whales swimming into the bay. And in Bonavista, we drop in at Ken's favourite watering hole, the Walkhams Gate pub and coffee shop, which is the kind of local you dream about. 'Tell Harv I sent you,' it says in the book. So we do, and we're welcomed like regulars. It's a simple idea but it works fantastically well due in no small part to the warmth of the people here. Ask a local for directions and they will insist on taking you to your destination in person.

Newfoundland, which didn't join the Canadian confederation until 1949, has always felt like a place apart. The people don't feel Canadian and they certainly don't sound it. It was settled by fishermen from Britain, Ireland, Portugal, France and the Basque country who came in search of the legendary fish stocks of the Grand Banks. For centuries, many of the coves and communities could only be reached by boat and were often cut off by the harsh North Atlantic weather. This isolation explains why the accents of these settlers have endured. Close your eyes in certain parts of the Avalon peninsula in the south, and the lilting brogue might convince you that you were in Kerry or Connemara. On other parts of the coast which were colonised by fish merchants from Devon and Dorset, the West Country burr is still clearly identifiable.

It's this sense of otherness that author Annie Proulx tapped into with her bestselling novel The Shipping News. I quickly discover that gushing about how much you enjoyed the book tends to meet with a lukewarm reaction. Newfoundlanders are surprisingly touchy about it, but then again, maybe it's not so surprising when you consider that the recurring themes of the novel are incest and backwardness. Long the butt of jokes from the rest of Canada, Newfoundlanders are tired of the old stereotypes. For many, hardship is simply too recent a phenomenon for them to see the funny side.

Five hundred years of fishing have decimated fish stocks in the North Atlantic and in the 1990s the government imposed a moratorium, devastating the island's economy in one fell swoop. Many Newfoundlanders were forced to leave the island for the skyscrapers of Toronto or the oilfields of Alberta. For those that remain, tourism is an increasingly important lifeline. Gerald Smith, a former whaler and fisherman who now runs whalewatching trips for tourists in Trinity Bay, is typical. As we cruise the bay in search of humpbacks and fin whales, he tells us it's a cruel irony that in a place where the fish were once so plentiful it was said you could walk on the water, the locals are banned from going out in their boats and catching a single cod for their dinner.

Newfoundlanders are wedded to the sea. A quick glance at the map will show you that the vast majority live within a pebble's throw of the coastline. The interior is largely uninhabited - a barren and windswept expanse of scattered boulders and stunted spruce trees.

There's a wild and unforgiving beauty to this place. The place names - Come By Chance, Savage Cove, Blow Me Down, Witless Bay - tell of hardships endured and geography lessons learned the hard way. Winters are long and bleak, the summers short but sweet. Visit in July or August and you have a good chance of sunshine. The whales are arriving from their winter breeding grounds in the Caribbean, coming so close to the shore you can hear them sighing. Wild lupins and blue flag irises paint the grass purple, puffins skim across the water flapping their feeble wings like some demented wind-up bathtub toy and the last icebergs of the season drift south to meet their slushy end.

Though the main season for spotting icebergs is spring, it's not unusual to find stragglers run aground as late as July. Harv, the landlord at Walkhams pub, tells us he spotted one in the bay near Trinity, a pretty town of clapboard houses and churches where much of the film of The Shipping News was shot.

The same meeting of cold and hot currents which creates a perfect feeding environment for fish and whales also brings the fog which can cover this island like a blanket for days on end. As we set off in search of our iceberg we see a wave of white mist rolling in across the bay and within minutes we are enveloped in it. As the car climbs the narrow gravel road, I peer into the whiteness, aware that just a few feet to the left is a 30m drop into the ocean. On the headland, villages appear and disappear into the mist like Brigadoon and the muffled sound of a foghorn drifts from the lighthouse. Suddenly we spot some cars parked by the side of the road. This must be the place.

On the ground, some helpful soul has placed an arrow made of pebbles pointing up a rocky track. As we start to climb up through the trees, the smell of pine resin heavy on the air, I feel a mounting excitement. The path comes out onto a cliff top. I can't see the sea through the fog but I can hear the waves and the plaintive cry of the gulls overhead. Another five minutes of walking over springy turf and we emerge from a copse of trees and stop dead in our tracks.

'Oh. My. God,' says Carole. Just 50m offshore, giving off an eerie blue light, is an iceberg the size of a house. The swirling mists only serve to increase its otherworldliness. It's one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Strange, magical, a one-off. A bit like Newfoundland.