One of the best ways to explore Newfoundland and Labrador is by car. The network of highways criss-crosses the province and circumnavigates the coastline, taking in picturesque seaside communities, rugged terrain, and the more-than-occasional moose.
One of the most striking road trips is the Irish Loop, circling the south-eastern section of the Avalon Peninsula, named for its 400-year-old Irish heritage. Spanning 312 kilometres one way (more with a side journey to Cape St. Mary's), take your time on this gorgeous road trip, making the most of the many historic sites, birding opportunities, and coastal vistas along the way.
Witless Bay Ecological Reserve
Hit the road from the capital city of St. John’s and pass through Witless Bay on your way to Ferryland. Park the car and jump on a tour boat to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve for a birding experience like no other. We’re talking murres, black-backed gulls, petrels, and – wait for it – more than 500,000 Atlantic puffins, roosting among the four protected islands.
This is also the perfect place to witness thousands of humpbacks and minke whales as they stop by to feed, and keep the camera poised for 10,000-year-old icebergs as they drift past like glacial giants that will leave you breathless.
Back on the road, follow the highway to Ferryland Lighthouse, the perfect vantage point for breeching whales and icebergs. Plan ahead and book a Lighthouse picnic basket, laden with chutney-glazed ham and brie sandwiches on freshly baked bread, and bottles of home-made lemonade. The iconic 19th century lighthouse is the heart of the Ferryland community, known for its vibrant arts culture and rich history, including a cobblestone street built in the 17th century.
East Coast Trail
Ready to walk off your midday feast? Stretching from north of St. John’s all the way to Cappahayden, the East Coast Trail offers incredible wilderness hiking and walking paths for all levels of fitness. You’ll stroll past striking fjords, sea stacks, magnificent cliffs, and a rare freshwater geyser called the ‘Spout’. And did we mention the spectacular coastal views?
Colony of Avalon
While you’re in Ferryland, make a beeline for the Colony of Avalon, arguably the best-preserved English colonial site in North America. Step back in time and explore a colony where women held most of the power, Protestants and Catholics worshipped in harmony, and residents lived in stone and timber-framed houses along gorgeous cobblestone streets. You can even become an archaeologist for a day, where you’ll work alongside qualified crew as they dig, sift, and identify the remains of the colony.
Setting off by road again, head for one of the most southerly points on the peninsula, Cape Race. In fact, this was one of the first points of land discovered by westward-bound sailors, the treacherous coastline enticing hundreds of ships to their doom. The lighthouse served the sailors since 1856 and the nearby wireless station transmitted the distress signal from the Titanic in 1912.
Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve
Back on the Irish Loop, cruise along to Trepassey, where guided walking tours take visitors from Portugal Cove through the breathtaking coastal barrens to Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve. It’s here you’ll lay eyes on the world’s oldest fossils preserved in flawless detail, direct form the Ediacaran Period and buried by lava ash, some 580 million years ago. Keep in mind, the guided tours are the only way to view the site, so it’s best to plan ahead.
Cape of St. Mary's Ecological Reserve
From Trepassey, the Irish Loop winds around the peninsula for a further two and half hours north on its way back to St. John’s. A worthy detour is via the Cape of St Mary’s Ecological Reserve, a drawcard for birdwatchers and nature-lovers alike. This protected seabird reserve is the most accessible seabird rookery in North America, home to thousands of gulls, razorbills, northern gannets, and cormorants who perch, dive, and scramble across the cliffs in a spectacular dance that will leave you mesmerised.
Conception Bay South
As you near St. John’s, veer off the Irish Loop to Conception Bay South (20 minutes from St. John’s) and check out Manuels River Hibernia Interpretation Centre. Travel back in time some 650 million years and discover glaciers, ancient volcanoes, and an extinct marine arthropod that made the region famous. You can even go hands-on in the trilobite interactive display and touch a 500-million-year-trilobit fossil.
Take a breather in the Centre’s Coffee Matters café before you come full circle to your starting point of St. John’s.