What to do (and eat) on Bell Island, Newfoundland and Labrador
The ferry between Portugal Cove and Bell Island isn’t a time machine... but it will transport you to a fascinating and important era in Newfoundland and Labrador’s history, while also launching you into some modern entertainments.
The island’s steep, imposing cliffs hide vast iron ore deposits that once fed steel mills in Nova Scotia. German U-boats attacked the quiet cove during the Second World War. People have fished from and farmed on Bell Island for centuries, but it was the high-quality iron ore buried underneath that launched an economic boom similar to those seen in recent decades in Alberta’s Fort McMurray.
Today the island’s population is around 4,000, many of whom commute to work in St. John’s. But in the 1960s, it was about 12,000. You sense the boom-town atmosphere strolling through Wabana, the island’s main settlement, where many murals tell of times past. Atlantic Canadians might be surprised to find an early photo of Lou Lawton, the founder of the well-known Lawtons Drugs, and his first store.
For a sensory immersion in Bell Island’s mining past, go to the Bell Island Community Museum and tour the Number Two mine. Local residents, some with mining history, will answer your questions. Guides will ask if you’re uncomfortable with enclosed spaces or steep climbs (the slope is approximately 10 degrees) before taking you underground to a dank tunnel where miners once laboured. The interpretative talk set amidst old shovels, railway tracks and dripping walls make an impression. Dozens of men died underground; those who survived put in long, difficult hours of demanding physical labour.
The ferry shuttles visitors to Bell Island several times a day.
You’ll see headstones of these families at cemeteries alongside the quiet island roads. The earth has reclaimed many of the markers, but pausing amongst the final resting places, you sense the importance of faith to people wrestling with harsh conditions. Unlike in modern cities where people of differing faiths may be buried next to each other, here you will find smaller rows of headstones arranged by church.
As a visitor, you can toil as much or as little as you like. The 21-kilometre Gregory Normore Coastal Walking Trail is more precisely a series of trails. You can do them all or you can tackle shorter sections. Drive to the west end of the island to amble among the lupines and long grasses while you gaze across the water to Kellys Island or Little Bell Island.
Stop at Lance Cove on the way back to see the Seaman’s Memorial commemorating people lost to Second World War U-boat attacks. Prepare for an invasion of a different kind, as local ducks approach visitors enthusiastically, looking for treats.
On the east end of the island, park near the Bell Island Lighthouse for some photographs or enjoy a snack at the Bell Island Keeper’s Café. The lighthouse is closed but the views are worth the drive. For more great scenery, head to the beach east of the ferry terminal. There you can see the rocky cliffs from ocean level and if you’re there in the summer you might be lucky enough to catch Bell-fest on the Beach, a musical celebration of the island including a “Walk the Plank” into the cold waters.
When it’s time to head to the ferry, stop at Dicks’ Fish and Chips. Launched in 1950, the restaurant is a local landmark. Perch at one of the tables near the dancefloor and disco ball or underneath faded, black-and-white historical photos and watch the coming and goings. Fish and chips orders are popular but many living here during Bell Island’s heyday would have enjoyed cod cakes similar to the recipe on this page.
For details on current events in Bell Island, check tourismbellisland.com