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Consider Newfoundland as summer getaway

If El Nino switches from last winter's wicked winds and rains to a full blast of heat this summer, there may be a scramble for cooler vacation locations.

North Carolina has long been the summer heat salvation for Floridians. Last summer, however, even that outpost experienced some heat waves that may have reduced 18 holes of golf to nine.

This could be the summer that travelers who have been considering a journey to the Maritime Provinces of Canada will go, topping off their trip with a visit to Newfoundland.

Primary considerations: increasing distance from El Nino and visiting a North American nature wonderland spread over 156,000 miles on a giant glacial deposit. More than a half-million well-weathered people live on it. Both in jest and reality, Newfoundland is referred to as "the Rock."

In 1990 we drove to Newfoundland, assisted by a ferry ride from Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Port aux Basques. Then, in parts of 23 days of exploring all but one of its peninsulas, we ran up 3,900 miles.

We had no traffic problems along the way. The island's population density is about four people per square mile.

Thousands of U.S. travelers along the Atlantic seaboard and Floridians on our west coast head for Canada's ever-popular provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Perhaps in the minds of some, the extra step to Newfoundland may exceed their vacation time limit, but it is still a worthwhile and interesting future consideration.

The natural assets of Newfoundland are many, but its once-famous commercial fishing industry has been crippled by depleted fish stocks traced to fishing methods used by foreign nations, notably Spain and Portugal.

A fishing ban has been in place for a long time, a blow to the vast number of native fishermen, but recently there have been promising results from the rebuilding of a new generation of fish.

The map of Newfoundland, with its jagged coastline, looks like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle, but the midlands have natural features that balance nicely the thundering shorelines.

There are two major national parks, Gros Morne, with 750 square miles, and Terra Nova, with 154 square miles, both of which impressed us.

But how many pondering a trip to Newfoundland and its Labrador neighbor are aware of the mountains to climb, the fjords, vast forests of birch and fir, huge lakes and rushing rivers?

"The wooded river valleys and the Arctic tundra of the interior offer some of the most spectacular scenery in eastern North America," proudly states the Travel Guide of Newfoundland and Labrador.

History buffs who haven't tapped into the Rock's lore will find Labrador and Newfoundland rewarding in their quests. Both areas have human history that spans almost 10,000 years.

We drove to the first recorded settlement of the adventurous Norsemen at L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern peninsula, dated 1000 A.D.

St. John's, the capital city, is a magnet for aviation buffs old and new. It was the departure site for the first trans-Atlantic airplane flight by Alcock and Brown in 1919.

Between then and 1937, more than 40 pioneering trans-Atlantic fliers took off from there, among them Amelia Earhart, Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Wiley Post and Harold Getty.

Our Newfoundland arrival was in early August, too late for the spring parades of icebergs and the sighting of humpback whales but in time for clouds of seabirds in numbers enough to dim the rays of the sun.

Even so, we saw a small iceberg that drifted into the harbor town of Anthony in the late stages of its disintegration, weird sounds coming from it and a startling loud bang from a section resembling an arch as it collapsed.

Of course, we took pictures of "our" iceberg as tourists are prone to do when first seeing pelicans in Florida.

Longtime bird watchers ashore and afloat, Peggy and I were impressed by the seabirds we saw in astounding numbers, many of them year-round ocean-living types.

Our previous searches for the colorful triangular-billed puffin were mainly on Maine's offshore islands, not easily located, then only in small numbers.

Imagine, then, the hordes of them we saw close at hand a few miles south of St. John's, the largest puffin colony on the East Coast of North America.

On another memorable day, we motored 120 miles from St. John's to Cape St. May to see thousands _ not hundreds _ of high-diving gannets along with other birds, including storm petrels, kittiwakes, razorbills, more puffins and guillemots and herring gulls.

To see them closer, on a bitter cold, misty day, we walked across spongy stretches of heath, bucking gusts of wind and rain.

To do so, at least to me, was reminiscent of British movie scenes of a couple trudging the moors of Scotland in similar weather.

There were several delightful surprises on our expeditions, and also a small handful of disappointments.

Since Peggy is moose-happy but rarely has encountered one, the prospect of seeing a few out of the 40,000 said to be on Newfoundland seemed a sure thing.

But she didn't see moose No. 1; it was really hard to believe after we had heard stories of how automobile traffic at times is backed up to let legions of moose go by. She would have settled for a lone caribou, since Labrador and Newfoundland have some of the largest herds of caribou in the world.

Moose-less and caribou-less on the Rock! She might just as well have left the camera back home.

While earlier we had proposed that Newfoundland would be an ideal place to fend off El Nino because of cooler weather, the inevitable back-of-the-hand exception was handed us.

Dressed for cooler weather out on the water one day, we returned ashore to find an unbelievable close-to-90-degree temperature.

Our hotel's kitchen had closed for lack of air conditioning. Automobiles drove by with windows rolled down. Tongues were said to be hanging out in the pubs.

The lead story in the morning newspaper was all weather. We checked and found that temperatures in St. John's should range from a summer daytime high of 73 to nighttime lows of 55; the winter figures, 27 to 32 degrees daylight, 18 to 20 at nightfall. Sounds good enough to make Newfoundland an ideal summer hiding place.

Finally, a few tips:

Pronounce Newfoundland as Newf'ndLAND; don't confuse the Saints _ St. John's is in Newfoundland, St. John in New Brunswick.

For Newfie information: Check with a travel agent and, for sure, write to:

Department of Development/Tourist Bureau Branch, P.O. Box 2016, St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada, AIC 5R8.

_ Write to Red Marston, c/o the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.