Few places can claim the hard-edged, jaw-dropping purity of the scenery to be found on Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula. It's the setting of Annie Proulx's remarkable book, The Shipping News, which has been turned into a $45-million movie that's scheduled to open in Montreal next week.
It tells the story of Quoyle, an odd lump of a New York newspaperman who returns to his roots on The Rock to start a new life as a reporter for the local paper in a fictional outport community called Killick Claw.
The film with Kevin Spacey and Dame Judi Dench was filmed in Trinity on Newfoundland's east coast; the book itself is set on the much more ragged and mountainous west coast.
The spectacular landscape of Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula in the movie is the only thing missing from the movie.
"The places in the book are an amalgamation of places in (and around) the Northern Peninsula," Proulx, who wrote the book in 1988, told The Gazette. "There's a bit of Port au Choix, a bit of Stephenville, and of St. Anthony's and Bonne Bay."
Visitors who want the authentic Killick Claw experience should head for St. Anthony, a typical outport community at the tip of the Peninsula. It's just a few miles north of L'Anse aux Meadows, where Viking voyagers established a settlement in the 11th century.
Residents of St. Anthony claim their town and the surrounding area is the inspiration for Proulx's book. Even Proulx agrees the movie should have been shot there, but said St. Anthony was too isolated for a movie crew in winter.
But she did win one round with the Hollywood moguls. They had originally wanted to shoot the movie in Maine, but she insisted on Newfoundland, where the story is set. No Newfoundland, no movie, she said.
After screening the rough cut, she was "thrilled to see the stark and powerful landscape make a brilliant and unusual film that I didn't dream could be made from the book."
Proulx discovered Newfoundland in 1987. Several years ago, she bought a summer house on the peninsula where she could enjoy the sea and solitude. Among her favourite retreats are the windswept coast of Cape Spear, the easternmost tip of the island, and Cape Ray.
Newfoundland and Labrador - to give Canada's youngest province its full, official name - is not an easy place to get to. Last year, fewer than 100,000 people toured the island, and only about 15,000 of those ventured up the Great Northern Peninsula.
You can fly to Seal Bay or drive through Cape Breton and take the ferry from North Sydney to Port aux Basques, and head up the west coast along Highway 430, otherwise known as the Viking Trail, to St. Anthony. Along the way you'll discover spare crops of vegetables growing in unique roadside gardens in the ditch, and at Savage Cove, the road cuts across bogs and forests to reach the town.
St. Anthony is a supply centre, not a tourist destination, which adds to its charm. Most of the streets are gravel and the heart of the town is the Viking Mall. It's not an average shopping mall; you won't find a McDonald's or the Gap, but there is a tombstone-merchant with samples on display and a restaurant that serves tinned Carnation milk with the tea.
And yes, it has a local newspaper, the Northern Pen. Its editor is Allan Brock, who in no way resembles Jack Buggit, the owner-editor of the fictional paper in the movie, played by Scott Glenn. Canadian star Gordon Pinsent, who plays Billy Pretty, the Home page editor, also coached Judi Dench in Newfoundland's distinctive speech patterns.
Proulx said she dropped into the Northern Pen "to find out whether they used computers. I had no idea whether I could make the staff of the Gammy Bird have a computer, so I went to the Northern Pen to research the book and gave my paper one, and only one."
Visitors have been coming to St. Anthony's deep sheltered harbour since 1534, when Jacques Cartier named the place. For centuries it was a remote fishing village, and then in 1899, an Anglican missionary from England named Dr. Wilfrid Grenfell opened a hospital there.
The history of the Grenfell Mission is told in an interpretation centre that explains Grenfell and his work. You can buy such distinctive Grenfell handicrafts as hooked rugs and embroidered parkas in the centre's boutique. Grenfell's house overlooking the harbour is worth a visit, and there's a breathtaking view from the tea house on a hill behind the Grenfell property.
There's a pleasant seafood restaurant, the Lightkeeper's Caf�, in an old lighthouse in the park at the end of the town's main street, Fishing Point Rd.
Several smaller communities around St. Anthony, especially Quirpon (pronounced Carpoon) and Goose Cove, will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has read The Shipping News.
The book is peopled with memorable characters who have unusual names - Petal Bear, Wavey Prowse, Beety, Bill Pretty and Nutbeam, all of which came from the Newfoundland telephone book.
"Ounce for ounce, Newfoundlanders are the smartest people I have ever met," Proulx said. " I think the only reason people think they are bumpkins is because of their accent."
If You Go
If you plan on taking the ferry, its a good idea to book reservations six months in advance, especially if you require a cabin for the six-hour crossing between North Sydney, N.S., and Port Aux Basques. Phone (800)-341-7891. For sailing schedules and fares, check ww.marine-atlantic.ca.
The Vinland Motel has 42 rooms. $75 single, $85 double. The only suite in the place is $100. Phone (709) 489-8843.Thanks to Mike Kennedy for sending me this article which appeared in the Montreal Gazette on December 22, 2001.