bonavista, first night

[Thursday, June 19]

On Mr. Albert's recommendation, we drove to the other end of town, near the lighthouse, to Marsh's, a restaurant and dairy bar, which elsewhere might be called a seafood shack and ice cream stand. All the restaurants we've been to so far have been extremely simple rooms, with folding chairs, plastic table cloths, and Newfoundland tourism posters on the wall. The menus are all about the same. Everything is either deep-fried or pan-fried, everything comes with french fries and the spit-cup of coleslaw. There might be homemade pies on the menu, but there won't be anything resembling a vegetable or a salad. Not that I'm complaining. I always go with the flow; wherever I am, I eat what the locals eat. But Newfoundlanders must be the most unhealthy people in Canada. Most people are quite large, and everyone smokes.

After dinner we walked around the town a bit. There's a beautiful 1-kilometer boardwalk encircling a pond; the boardwalk is even accessible by ramp, and has gazebos and benches at intervals. Then we picked up a couple of beverages and sat on the porch of the B&B, overlooking the harbour. After a while Albert came by, made some small talk, then asked us if we wanted to see some of the town. Why not?

As we're leaving, Albert asks, "Did you see our snack?" He shows us three plates piled high with crab - huge snow crabs, legs 10 or 12 inches long. If you love seafood, as I do, this is a rare sight. We aren't sure what Albert means. Are we actually going to eat all that? Is he kidding?

On the subject of crabs, there's a factory in town that obviously has something to do with fish processing. Knowing the cod industry is no more, I asked Albert what they do at this plant. He says, "It's crab". Crab processing? Yes. Canned? Frozen? Albert says, "It's the damnedest thing. They used to take the crab and make a finished product and ship it directly to the States. Now they cut it into sections and freeze it, then it's shipped to China, the rest of the processing is done there, then it comes back here, and it's sold to the U.S. Product of Canada." Argh!

This ties in to so many conversations we've had at wmtc. It's awful for labour, for the environment and for our health. It also ties into what might be the only good thing the Harper Government ever does: the proposal for more honest food labelling. We'll have to see how that pans out, how much industry is allowed to interfere.

Albert drove us across town, back towards where we had dinner, then down a dirt road. Horses, cows and sheep were grazing on common pasture, a rare bit of farmland for this region. Past that is a provincial park called The Dungeon.

A platform overlooks a cove, where a rock is split into two tunnels. Waves are crashing all around and through them; it looks like something out of a pirate movie. There's some geological information on how it was formed, and how the rock will one day look like the stand-alone outcroppings that dot the coastline. Albert says, "Come on, how would anyone know how old a rock is?"

This is one of the most rugged coastlines I have ever seen - jagged rocks, waves crashing, all sharp outlines. There's something very stirring about it, a kind of wild beauty.

From there we drive over to the lighthouse, where Albert says thousands of puffins will be coming in from their day at sea, but it's fogged in.

On the way back, Albert shows us some local landmarks, including a Catholic church that holds 1400 people: "The only time it was ever full was when I buried my son". He was 13 years old. He went to a hockey tournament on a Friday, and was dead by Saturday, drowned in a hotel pool in St. John's.

There wasn't much time for sympathy; Albert wanted us to know, but then quickly changed the subject. After some question of mine, he said, "Before 1949 we were under British rule, you know. Then we joined Canada, the best decision we ever made." I said I had heard a lot of people opposed Confederation. "It was 49% to 51% but thank goodness we come out on top. I think Canada is one of the greatest countries in the world." This prompted me to tell him we chose to live in Canada over the U.S. To which he said: "Strange."

This made Albert think of the war (funny how that works!), and he told us he is against Canada's presence in Afghanistan. "What are we doing there anyway? I wouldn't send my son there, so why should I ask anyone else to send their own?" I asked if he thought other people in the area felt this way. He said, "Ninety percent! We all oppose it. But that's our government for you."

Albert was born in the house we are staying in, and except for eight years in Ontario working on the Canadian Pacific Railroad, has lived in Central Newfoundland all his life. Bonavista has had about the same population the whole time, about 5,000 people, although now about 650 young people are off working in Alberta. Last year in Bonavista, 36 new homes were built, mostly vacation homes for Americans.

We get home and Albert says, "Let's go eat some crab, eh?"

Inside, he puts down a plastic table cloth, then a green garbage bag on top of that, pulls over a giant plate of snow crabs, picks up a huge knife and starts hacking away. He shows us how to use the backs of our forks to scoop out the meat, then keeps hacking with the knife, tossing pieces on the table in front of us. We're eating and he's cutting, and he's also pulling out choice bits and putting them on a plate to give to his wife when she comes later.

We ate a mountain of crab. A mountain. And it is the freshest, sweetest, most delicious crab I have ever eaten.

Albert says he's been doing this every night for 11 years. When crabs are not in season, there is shrimp. The men who catch the crabs get only $1.50 per pound, and they are weighed and checked, so no one can take home a crab without a reduction in his quota. But Albert has "some friends on the boats", and he always has crab.

I told Albert the guidebook says the B&B has "a late-night snack", and we thought there might be a glass of milk and a cookie. He says, "I'll close up before I do that!"

Then Albert's wife comes in, Florence Albert. She puts the kettle on and says she has fresh bakeapple tarts. Albert makes toast and starts slathering it with jam. The jam is partridgeberry, which tastes similar to cranberry. Bakeapples are also berries, not crab apples as I thought. Albert shows us what the berries look like and how they are picked.

Florence puts down tarts dolloped with sweet cream, plus some other kind of cookie with coconut marshmallows inside. So now we're drinking mugs of tea and eating desserts at 11:00 at night, after eating a full dinner, including ice cream, not five hours earlier. We hang out with Albert and Florence for a while, and it feels more like sitting in a friends' kitchen than staying in a hotel.

They tell us it's a rare night that they're not fully booked, and indeed the next night they are full again, so we were very lucky to have this private little treat to ourselves.

Most of their guests have been from either Ontario or BC. "Where are you from in Ontario?" "Mississauga." "Is there anyone left in Mississauga? They're all here!" We've heard this from several people already: that a huge preponderance of Newfoundland tourism right now is from Ontario. I'm so glad to hear it, as it contradicts my impression that Canadians don't seem to travel much, and especially don't travel within Canada.

Albert also says we're probably too early for whales, but reminds me that you really never know. You can see them any time from May to September, so June is still possible.

Pictures of Bonavista are here.

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