Travel

Waking up with the whales on Quirpon Island, Newfoundland

Quirpon Island has long been a favourite off-grid getaway for in-the-know travellers. Now, the Quirpon Lighthouse Inn is doubling down on its biggest draws: whales and icebergs.

  • Mar 05, 2019
  • 1,108 words
  • 5 minutes
A humpback whale breaches off Quirpon Island, Newfoundland, home to a cozy lighthouse retreat offering unparalleled views of icebergs and whales. (Photo: Linkum Tours)
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Quirpon Island is a remote island at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula. When you mention it to “mainland” Newfoundlanders and get a blank stare in return, you’ll think none of them have heard of it, but it’s just the way you’re pronouncing it. It’s not ker-pon or kwire-pon, but kar-poon. Rhymes with harpoon.

Everyone in Newfoundland, however, seems to know the owner of the inn on Quirpon.

“Oh right, Ed’s place,” I hear over and over again in Western Newfoundland and in St. John’s when I say I’m headed to Quirpon. “Ed” is Ed English, the owner of Linkum Tours, an inveterate iceberg explorer and great storyteller. When we meet, he tells me about his grandfather, who ran the SS Ethie ashore near the island during a 1919 hurricane, saving all 92 aboard. His tales get wilder, funnier and more gruesome as you get to know him; at the end of a day he likes to say, “Only two of them were true. You can discuss over dinner which ones they are.”

But for certain the story about him buying the lighthouse keeper’s house on Quirpon sight unseen is true. That was in December 1998; he completely refurbished it and opened it as an inn just seven months later. Since then, the island has become a favourite off-grid getaway for in-the-know travellers.

Quirpon Island, located off Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, is the starting line for the annual parade of icebergs that makes its way down the coast each spring. (Photo: Newfoundland Tourism)
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Quirpon Island wasn’t always so desirable a place to be. In the 16th and 17th centuries sailors named it The Isle of Demons, so certain were they that Quirpon was populated by wild animals, devils and mythical beasts who lay in wait to attack passing ships or anyone who dared wander onto the island. These creatures were “so fearsome that French sailors would not go ashore unless they had crucifixes in their hands,” as Charles M. Skinner wrote.

But it’s a sunny and not forbidding August day when Ed meets me at the dock in Quirpon Village, on the mainland, across a tickle from the island. A few fishers are loading up their trucks with their afternoon catches. Ed helps me into his Zodiac where his part-husky dog, Willow, is waiting, and we set off on the 25-minute crossing to the island.  The ride is choppy, but exhilarating; salt water sprays up in my face each time the boat slaps the surface, and Willow paces from the stern to the fore as though excited on my behalf. Rolling with the waves, we close in on the island’s soaring cliffs, jagged formations bearing bright shards of minerals.

After we dock, it’s a short hike up the hill to the inn. The ground here is mossy and dotted with wildflowers, beautiful pinkish-orange cloudberries, or bakeapples, as the rare berries are called in Newfoundland. Flakes of quartz crystal glimmer in the rocks between clinging lichens of vivid orange and pools of freshwater reflecting the summer sunshine. No trees, though; they don’t grow here due to the high winds.

At the inn, I’m greeted by the unflappable general manager, Madonna Roberts, who assigns me my room. She leads me past the kitchen where Judy Tucker, Isabelle Cull and the rest of the team of fantastic cooks are preparing one of several classic Newfoundland dishes in their repertoire. It’s a Sunday, so a Jiggs dinner, the traditional dish of boiled beef, cabbage and root vegetables, is likely to feature.

As I wait for the call to the communal table, I venture to the inn’s wood-panelled living room, where other guests are nursing pre-dinner Newfoundland-made Iceberg beers and rehashing their day on the island — who spotted what whale and where, trails hiked and their respective degrees of difficulty and beauty. 

A view of icebergs from the sun porch at Quirpon Lighthouse Inn. (Photo: Newfoundland Tourism)
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The biggest draws on Quirpon Island are whales and icebergs. This is the starting line of Newfoundland’s famous Iceberg Alley; in the spring and early summer months, they float by, big as buildings, freshly calved from the mothership in Greenland. Lawrence Pilgrim, the grandson of Earl Pilgrim, a local writer and fisherman who lives in one of the few other houses on the island tells me that polar bears have occasionally shown up on the island in early spring, disembarking from icebergs like passengers from a luxury liner with an all-you-can-eat seal buffet. He’s never actually seen a polar bear himself, but says if he did cross one, there’d be nothing to do but ask the bear, “Do you want me with ketchup or mustard?”

The ocean floor slopes steeply away from the island, making these deep waters the perfect feeding ground for minke and humpback whales and even orcas. Early mornings and late afternoons, they congregate just off Quirpon’s shores. I see so many during my stay that after a short while I lose count.

Polar bears have occasionally shown up on the island in early spring, disembarking from icebergs like passengers from a luxury liner with an all-you-can-eat seal buffet. 

One morning a couple of days into my stay, Ed takes me out cloudberry picking and shows me an exciting new addition to his property: a glass whale watching pod. The pod, drilled securely into the rock and jutting out over the ocean, is just big enough for a bed, so guests can go to sleep watching the stars above and wake up watching the whales swim underneath.

It’s still under construction when I visit (it’s expected to be ready in summer 2019), but as I stand on its steel ribs, not yet sheathed in glass, the wind howling around me, I imagine how thrilling it would be to spend the night here, with just a sheet of thick glass between you and the ocean.

The new iceberg- and whale-watching pod under construction at Quirpon Lighthouse Inn. Just big enough for a bed, the pod will be encased in glass, allowing guests to fall asleep beneath the stars and wake up to whales. (Photo: Newfoundland Tourism)
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Back on relative terra firma, we trudge through peat bogs and moss, my feet well protected in the rubber boots I brought, picking the tart cloudberries. Ed shows me how to spot the ripest fruit, and I spend the rest of the morning hunched over, eating as many berries as I put in my bucket. Still, I return to the inn with a decent enough offering for the ladies in the kitchen, who, to the delight of guests, serve the berries atop a delicious cheesecake for dessert.

As I prepare to depart the next morning, they present me and another group of travellers from Germany with some homemade cloudberry jam, a souvenir of this special place. As we walk the trail to the dock, one of the Germans turns to me and says, “Now I know what the edge of the world feels like. Magic.”

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