Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Whale watching from a porch at the edge of the world

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QUIRPON ISLAND, Nfld. -- From the porch of the former lightkeeper's residence, we could see the whale as it rose from the water, pointed its snout skyward and belly-flopped into the small cove below.

The energetic humpback, about the size of a city bus, repeated its spectacular stunt four more times before disappearing beneath the Atlantic's dark, frothy surface.

Welcome to Quirpon Island, one of Newfoundland's most remote and romantic tourist retreats.

Only seven kilometres long and three kilometres wide, the island sits at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, guarding the entrance to the Strait of Belle Isle, the treacherous body of water that separates Newfoundland from Labrador.

Dotted with tea-coloured ponds, spongy peat bogs and clumps of stunted spruce and fir, Quirpon Island (pronounced kar-POON) is at first glance a rugged, forbidding chunk of rock.

For much of the year, the uninhabited island is lashed by gales roaring across the open ocean, and the cold Labrador Current can keep the place locked in sea ice until June.

But at Cape Bauld, the rocky point on the island's northern tip, there's a postcard-perfect lighthouse flanked by a solid two-storey home built in 1922 for two lightkeepers and their families.

The Quirpon Lighthouse Inn, which opened in 1999, is a cozy, secluded outpost that seems as if it's perched at the edge of the world.

"It's the adventurous sort of person who comes here," says Ed English, the inn's owner. "It's not a family destination ... It's for people who appreciate nature and want to get away."

In late summer, the island is covered in wild bakeapples, tart yellow berries that resemble plump raspberries.

A closer look at the windswept barrens reveals pockets of alpine milk vetch, a rare plant with delicate, purple-streaked flowers that is more common in the Arctic.

Inside the lightkeeper's house, the living room walls are lined with dark, varnished wood. Comfy couches beckon guests when the weather turns ugly.

Around the corner, a large dining room leads to the kitchen, which is infused daily with the aroma of hearty, home-cooked meals and fresh bread.

Upstairs, each of the small rooms offers a thick quilt and a stunning ocean view.

Best of all, the inn's hosts -- Doris, Madonna and Hubert Roberts -- exude a friendly warmth and generosity of spirit that is so typical of genuine Newfoundland hospitality.

At dinnertime, fresh fish and chowder are often on the menu, which is not surprising considering the surrounding waters have attracted fishermen since the 16th century.

The explorer Jacques Cartier first anchored here in 1534. And in the 1880s, Quirpon was the last stop in Newfoundland for Labrador schooners headed for fishing grounds farther north.

The island itself, shaped like a lobster claw, has a series of hiking trails, one of which leads to the rusted remains of barracks left over from the Second World War. Another path leads to the top of a 150-metre hill, where the island's black, granite cliffs can be seen.

But the best sightseeing takes place on the inn's wide, wooden porch.

From here, visitors can watch icebergs drifting south though the busiest part of Iceberg Alley during the summer months. As well, many species of whales, seals and seabirds are frequent visitors.

"What attracts people to the island are the whales and the icebergs," says English, a 41-year-old businessman and outdoorsman from Corner Brook, Nfld.

Some guests have reported being soaked by spouting whales as they cruised the deep, cold waters close to shore.

Not far from the main house, English has converted an old supply shed into a whale watching station with huge windows on the north and west sides.

"It's nice and cozy in the evening if the weather's bad," he says. "It's quiet enough that you can sit in there and read, and you can hear the whales come up."

At night, the sound of pounding surf is constant -- none of the rooms has a TV, phone or radio -- and the bright, white beam from the lighthouse can be seen sweeping over the barren landscape before piercing the inky darkness over the ocean.

"When you get here, priorities change and you just unwind," says English. "There's nothing else you can do. The whales will tell you when to come and watch them."

--Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 18, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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