2014 Toyota RAV4 AWD XLE. Click image to enlarge
Review and photos by Paul Williams
Red Bay, Labrador, is Canada’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is a very big deal for such a very small place. So the opportunity to see what it’s all about by driving there in a 2014 Toyota RAV4 was a no-brainer.
A “side trip” (Canadians do big side trips…) would include Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park and L’Anse aux Meadows, also World Heritage sites. The UNESCO designation means that the site is the best example of its type in the world, and it’s a World Heritage “hat trick” for Atlantic Canada to have three in such close proximity (a big tourist draw for the region, too!).
The RAV4 is Toyota’s popular, made-in-Canada (Woodstock, Ontario) compact SUV. My test model, a $32,902 XLE (includes $800 navigation option, freight and fees), is one level below the top-of the line “Limited.” It’s equipped with dual automatic climate control, 17-inch alloy wheels, sunroof, heated seats, satellite radio, automatic headlights, fog lamps and all-wheel drive. Most of the “must-haves,” in other words.
Powered with a four-cylinder engine making 178 hp mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, the RAV4 is estimated to consume 10.4/8.1 L/100 km, city/highway (as per NRCan’s 2015 revised figures). We didn’t get that, but we were heavily laden with four adults and a week’s worth of luggage on roads ranging from smooth highway to broken pavement to gravel in terrain still slowly recovering from an unusually long and severe winter.
After flying to Deer Lake, near Corner Brook, we picked up the RAV4 and headed for Gros Morne on Highway 430, also known as “The Viking Trail.” I suspect that in summer this is a hugely busy route, but a benefit of travelling in the “shoulder season” is less traffic on the road (and no bugs!).
I’m sure you’re familiar with Gros Morne, even if you haven’t visited. It’s an area of “exceptional natural beauty,” according to UNESCO, and it’s been the “poster child” for Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism over the past couple of years. While passing through, we stopped in Rocky Harbour as we’d heard a blue whale had washed ashore (it was all over the news) and we wanted to get a look.
Pulling over we rolled down the window and asked a local where we’d find the whale.
“Well, you’re the first this year!” he exclaimed cheerily, resting his hands on the RAV4’s door and settling in for a monologue about Rocky Harbour, the whale, the weather, the local food and life in general. I thought he must be a friend of someone in our group, but no, this is apparently normal behavior in these parts. I expected him to simply point, grunt and walk on, as they often do in my town.
By “the first,” he meant tourists, although we weren’t exactly tourists and I didn’t want to get into that or we’d surely be there for hours.
Such a nice chap. Effusive.
The whale we saw; definitely looking worse for wear. Sadly, nine blue whales have died this spring, apparently crushed by the unusually thick ice. This one will live on as a museum exhibit in Newfoundland.
L’Anse aux Meadows. Click image to enlarge
Further north, L’Anse aux Meadows is special because it’s the first and only known settlement established by Vikings in North America. Based on archeological evidence dating to the 11th century, you can visit a recreation of the Viking community in a remote landscape steps away from the ocean. Ignore the sign for a nearby Tim Hortons in St. Anthony, and you can imagine families trying to gain a foothold a thousand years ago on the very edge of what would become Canada. You can even authentically “go Viking” by overnighting in one of the huts, although I should warn you the Vikings were apparently not big on windows and may not have possessed what we know of as beds.
We were now at the northern tip of Newfoundland; the road rougher, narrower and less travelled. Last winter’s snow (at the end of May, mind you), was still many feet deep in places, which meant breaking out the down-filled jackets, hiking boots and gloves (explains all the luggage!). There’s really nowhere to go from here but back.
The RAV4 was doing fine, however. Shrugging off the broken pavement, undulating surfaces and the occasional pothole, it was stable and smooth riding. After several hours, the four of us had comfortably settled in, finding sufficient storage space for snacks, drinks, maps and phones, while fuel consumption was a steady 10.2 L/100 km at highway speeds.
Toyota RAV4 to Red Bay. Click image to enlarge
But our ultimate destination was Red Bay, site of a whaling station established by 16th century Basque seamen from what is now southern France and northern Spain.
Road crew near Labrador visitor centre. Click image to enlarge
Getting to “the Big Land” (Labrador) from the north shore of “the Island” required an inexpensive ferry trip from St. Barbe across the Strait of Belle Isle, but the MV Apollo was not sailing to schedule due to the prevalence of pack ice in the Strait (the same ice that was causing the whales so much trouble). Fortunately, our crossing began on time, but required the help of a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker leading the way.
After zig-zagging around the occasional iceberg, we docked at Blanc-Sablon, visiting Quebec for a few kilometres before crossing the Quebec-Labrador border and heading east. Now you’re on the Labrador Coastal Route, part of the Trans Labrador Highway 510. The local visitor centre (the Gateway to Labrador) was unfortunately closed, but a crew of road workers proved unfailing in their enthusiasm for and knowledge of local geography and history.
These guys all could have got jobs in the visitor centre, but we didn’t mention that as the road definitely needed work.