Distinctly different and well worth visiting
By Dale Dunlop
While some may question the effectiveness of the United Nations in maintaining world peace, few would deny the significant role that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has played in identifying and preserving places of universal value to all mankind. Starting in 1978 UNESCO began designating World Heritage Sites for either their intrinsic cultural value or their natural attributes. Each year thereafter new ones have been added to the list, for a total of 1,121 spread over 167 countries, as of 2020. Only 20 of these are in Canada and of those seven are in Atlantic Canada and an eighth just over the border of New Brunswick in the Gaspé area of Quebec. Here is a short guide to each Atlantic Canadian site.
L’Anse aux Meadows
L’Anse aux Meadows was the first cultural site in Canada to become a World Heritage Site, making the list in the very first year along with the Galapagos Islands and Yellowstone Park, among others. It is the site of the only verifiable Viking settlement in North America and as such marks the oldest attempt by Europeans to establish themselves in the New World. It is located in a very remote area on the very northern tip of the Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula and has been dated to the early 11th century. Archaeologists have excavated and reconstructed eight buildings which correspond very closely with similar timber frame and peat structures found in Iceland and Greenland. In addition to the reconstructed buildings there is an interpretive centre and trails that thread their way through the peat bog to the shores of the nearby cove. While L’Anse aux Meadows won’t blow you away with its natural beauty it will inspire awe when you walk in the same place that Leif Ericson might have done more than 1,100 years ago.
Gros Morne National Park
Designated in 1987, Gros Morne National Park is considered one of the best places in the world to appreciate the effects of plate tectonics or continental drift. The Tablelands is one of the few places on the planet where the earth’s mantle is exposed as a result of being pushed upward as two continents collided. Due to the redness of the rocks and limited vegetation, people taking the 1.5 hour interpretive walk here have likened it to walking on Mars. However, the Tablelands is only one reason Gros Morne received its designation. This area on the southwest coast of Newfoundland was substantially altered during the ice ages, leaving a vast freshwater fjord, hanging valleys with cliffs over 1,100 feet (335 metres) high in places and some of the tallest waterfalls in Canada.
The recreational opportunities at Gros Morne are numerous and cover all four seasons from hiking, sea kayaking, boat tours, cross-country skiing to deep sea fishing as well as exploring the interesting fishing villages that dot this coast and sampling the great sea food on offer. The ultimate Gros Morne challenge is to hike to the top of the mountain of that name and take in a vista that some say is the best in the world.
Red Bay Basque Whaling Station, Labrador
Designated in 2013, Red Bay is situated on the shores of Labrador directly across from Newfoundland near the narrow Strait of Belle Isle. For centuries there was rumor and speculation that even before John Cabot landed somewhere in Atlantic Canada in 1497 that European fisherman, in particular the Basques from northern Spain, had made voyages to the Grand Banks and neighboring waters to fish and hunt whales.
It was conjectured that the marine riches were so fabulous that the Basques did their best to keep it a secret. Only in the 20th century was the existence of these voyages proven to be historical facts, although unlikely as early as Cabot’s explorations. Red Bay is the site of the earliest and largest European whaling station ever found in North America.
For a period of 70 years starting in the 16th century, Basque whalers set up summer quarters in this remote bay and hunted numerous species of whales, which then were hauled to the whaling station where the whale oil that lit the lamps of Europe was rendered.
Visitors today can learn about the history of Red Bay at the Parks Canada Interpretive Centre, take a boat to nearby Saddle Island where many of the whalers who died here over the years are buried, or hike to the top of Tracy Hill to get a panoramic view of Red Bay.
This is Atlantic Canada’s newest World Heritage Site and one of two in the area that received its designation as a result of the fossils that are found there. It is located on the southeast tip of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula and essentially consists of a 17-kilometre stretch of sea cliffs that contain the world’s largest known repository of Ediacaran fossils. For two billion years, life on earth was restricted to microscopic organisms, until during the Ediacaran period some 600 million years ago “life got big” and what are considered to be the first true animals appeared in the seas. Their fossilized remains can be seen today, but only on guided tours to the area.
Old Town Lunenburg
In 1995 the entirety of the oldest portion of the fishing and ship building port of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia was designated. UNESCO defines it as the best example of a planned British colonial settlement in North America. Long famed as the home of the iconic schooner Bluenose, tourists have been flocking to the town for over a century, drawn by its unique architecture, well preserved waterfront and fine collection of inns and restaurants. It still gets by far the most visits of any World Heritage Sites in Atlantic Canada and for good reason. Taking a tour of Lunenburg harbour on the Bluenose should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Joggins Fossil Cliffs
The Joggins Fossil Cliffs represent the finest example of Carboniferous Period fossils found anywhere, in what UNESCO describes as “the coal age Galapagos.” If you want to see examples of fossilized trees, early amphibians and the footprints of twenty different species this is the place to do it. Located on the shores of the Bay of Fundy near the former coal mining town of Joggins, visitors start with a tour of the excellent Interpretive Centre where many of the best fossils found here are on display. This is followed by a guided tour of the cliffs where fossils will definitely be found. Each new tide brings the possibility of exposing a never before seen species. It’s happened before. Joggins is a must visit for budding paleontologists.
The Landscape of Grand Pré
The final UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated in 2012, is completely different from any of the other six in Atlantic Canada. It preserves a large swath of land that essentially was turned into a manmade landscape reclaimed from the sea by the efforts of the Acadian settlers from France in the 17th century. It is also associated with one of the most tragic events in Nova Scotia history, the Grand Dérangement, also known as the Deportation of the Acadians. Parks Canada manages much of the site with visits usually starting at the Interpretive Centre in the rural community of Grand Pré, where the history, not only of the Acadians, but the Native Americans who preceded them and the New England Planters who followed them is told as well. This is followed by a visit to the Acadian memorial and the famous statue of Evangeline after which there is a self-guided driving tour to many sites in the vicinity, many of which offer great views of this most bucolic of landscapes. Food and drink can be had at many of the nearby wineries
and restaurants, for which the region is
Intro caption: The only verifiable Viking settlement in North America, L’Anse aux Meadows
Header caption: The Landscape of Grand Pré includes the Interpretive Centre and the church that was the gathering place for the Grand Dérangement.