One of the last great unspoiled adventure destinations, Labrador is home to the planet’s largest herd of caribou, wandering polar bears, awe-inspiring waterfalls and a string of pristine coastal communities that have preserved a raw, nineteenth-century quality despite the onset of wi-fi and SUVs. Travel here takes some planning and can be expensive, but the rewards are considerable; you can still hike or point your kayak anywhere into the interior (most of which is Crown land), and camp, fish or meditate for a couple of days, totally cut off from civilization.
Labrador also has a rich cultural heritage, with two of the most important historic sights in Canada, Red Bay and Battle Harbour, on the coast. Around one third of the population of 29,000 lives here, while the remainder inhabit the towns of the interior: Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Churchill Falls and Labrador City, each offering quite different experiences. Labrador has a distinct identity to that of Newfoundland, with a diverse ethnic mix of white settlers, Métis, Innu and Inuit; the Labrador flag is flown everywhere with pride. Summer is the most pleasant time to visit, though winter can be fun – especially if you travel by snowmobile – and has the added bonus of seeing the spectacular Northern Lights.
At its peak in the late sixteenth century, over two thousand men lived in Red Bay during the whaling season, producing half a million gallons of whale oil that was subsequently shipped back to Europe on a month-long voyage. Whale oil was used for light, lubrication and as an additive to drugs, soap and pitch; one 55-gallon barrel could fetch a price equivalent to $10,000 today – so for the Basques the discovery of Labrador’s right-whale stocks in the 1530s was tantamount to striking gold. Yet as well as the treacherous journey from Spain to what they knew as Terranova, the Basques withstood terrible hardships to claim their booty. Once in Labrador, they rowed fragile wooden craft called chalupas into these rough seas and then attached drogues to the whales to slow them down. It was then a matter of following their prey for hours until the whale surfaced and could be lanced to death. Three factors brought the whale boom to an end: first, the Basques were so successful that within thirty years they had killed off more than fifteen thousand right whales; second, the industry became more hazardous with early freeze-ups in the 1580s; and, finally, many Basque ships and men were absorbed into the ill-fated Spanish Armada of 1588 – by the 1620s the annual migration was over.
Serious study of the Red Bay area began in 1977, when marine archeologists discovered the remains of three Basque galleons and four chalupas. Land excavations uncovered try-works (where the whale blubber was boiled down into oil), personal artefacts and, in 1982, a cemetery on Saddle Island where the remains of 140 young men were found. Many were lying in groups, indicating that they died as crew members when chasing the whales, but some had not been buried – suggesting at least part of the community died of starvation when an early freeze dashed their chances of getting home.
Spending a night or two on the island of BATTLE HARBOUR is one of the most memorable experiences in Canada. This beautifully restored fishing port is visited by towering icebergs in spring and humpback whales in summer; killer whales often cruise right off the dock. Established in the 1770s, Battle Harbour became one of the world’s busiest saltfish, salmon and sealing ports in the nineteenth century; Wilfred Grenfell opened a hospital here in 1893, it was home to a Marconi wireless station from 1904 and was the scene of Robert E. Peary’s first news conference after he conquered the North Pole in 1909. A devastating fire in 1930 exacerbated long-term decline, and by the late 1960s most residents had been relocated to Mary’s Harbour on the mainland – the last fish merchant was closed in the wake of the 1992 cod moratorium. Since then an epic restoration project by the Battle Harbour Historic Trust has resultedin a clutch of wonderfully evocative old wooden buildings opening to the public,a visitor centre and several walking trails; you can also stay in some of the old houses. Many of the former residents of the town serve as guides and are as equally absorbing as the site itself – prepare for seriously traditional Labrador accents.
As of 2016, much of the monumental 1208km Trans-Labrador Highway (TLH), from the Québec border near Labrador City to Blanc-Sablon on the south coast via Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Red Bay, was paved; even the remaining gravel sections can be passed in a normal car, but it’s best to only attempt the trip in high summer. If you’re renting, another problem might be your rental policy: most firms try to bar drivers from the roughest sections of the highway (between Cartwright Junction and Happy Valley). They can’t physically stop you ignoring this rule but if you have an accident, insurance may not cover you. Check the latest situation for the current extent of paving. A greater barrier to renting is sheer distance; returning a car to Blanc-Sablon or anywhere in Newfoundland means driving a massive loop of almost 3000km through Québec (via Québec Rte-389) and the Maritimes via at least two ferries, while one-way drop-off fees are exorbitant.
Despite failing global demand, half of Canada’s iron ore output is produced in Labrador West, from canyon-like open pit mines that are serviced by oversized 20m-long dump trucks. The only way to appreciate the super-human scale of what goes on here is to take a mine tour, which you can arrange at the Gateway Labrador. The biggest and most mind-boggling facility belongs to Iron Ore Company of Canada in Labrador City; it normally offers regular tours from July to August (Wed & Sun 1.30pm) for $10. Call Gateway in advance to check the current situation, or contact Destination Labrador.
Labrador North is the region at its most remote, yet the coast is fairly easy to explore, thanks to the weekly, summer-only ferry service of the MV Northern Ranger, which is becoming popular as a budget cruise. The foot-passenger-only ship, run by Nunatsiavut Marine (t 1 855 896 2262, w labradorferry.ca), leaves twice weekly from Goose Bay to Nain (usually Mon 1pm & Fri 3.30pm), with stops at Rigolet (6hr 30min), Hopedale (17hr) and every larger community along the way. In most cases the hour or so the ferry spends at every stop is plenty for a look around. Should you decide to stop for longer, you’ll have to stay for several days until the ferry docks in again, and will have to ask around for somewhere to stay, though it’s generally not too hard to find accommodation. The ferries run from mid-June to late November; soon after this, the Arctic ice pack closes in to seal up the area for the rest of year. The late-season schedule is notoriously unreliable since storms can delay sailings, sometimes for days.
Fares are based on the number of nautical miles travelled, with supplements for cabin space, which you should reserve well in advance, otherwise it’s likely you’ll have no option but to make yourself as comfortable as possible on the aircraft-style seats. A single trip from Happy Valley-Goose Bay to Nain costs around $156 and $489 for a standard cabin. Prices at the onboard canteen are reasonable but choice is limited and the meals are reminiscent of over-cooked school dinners, so it’s worth stocking up on provisions beforehand.
Nain is as far north as you can get using public transport in Labrador, and to travel another 200km to the awe-inspiring wilderness of the Torngat Mountains National Park you need to take a tour, rent a boat or charter a plane – all very expensive options. If you can afford it, you’ll have the utterly intoxicating experience of hiking in the highest range east of the Rockies, spot loads of polar bears and truly spectacular fjords. The Torngat Mountains Base Camp runs from mid-July to early September at St John’s Harbour in Saglek Bay (the southern boundary of the park). Here you’ll find tent accommodation and excursions via speedboat, longliner, helicopter and fixed-wing charters.
The Torngat Mountains Base Camp (t 1 855 867 6428, w torngatbasecamp.com) offers packaged excursions to the Torngat (late July to Aug) that include charter flights on Air Labrador Twin Otters (no bathrooms) from Goose Bay to Saglek airstrip (it’s 1hr 30min to Nain for a brief stop, then 40min to Saglek) on Saturdays and some Wednesdays, and onward Zodiac boat transport to the Kangidluasuk Base Camp (15–20min) at St John’s Harbour in Saglek Bay. Packages also include all meals, tent accommodation, and guided excursions – prices start at $3900 for two nights, flights from Goose Bay and all meals.