FERRYLAND, N.L. – Sea breezes mingle with the aroma of home-baked bread as you enter the lighthouse cottage in Ferryland, N.L., and step back in time.
The rustic wooden beams, antique lanterns, open hearth and old photos lock this unique place in another, simpler decade. The red and white clapboard building that sheltered generations of lighthouse keepers is perched on a picturesque point jutting into the North Atlantic.
About an hour’s drive south of St. John’s, it’s now home to Lighthouse Picnics, an inspired entrepreneurial coup that draws tourists from around the world.
Lunch is served in baskets as visitors lounge on blankets spread over grassy cliffs bordered on three sides by ocean vistas.
The food is as extraordinary as the scenery.
Gourmet sandwiches include ham and brie, seafood, chicken curry and vegetarian creations on thick slices of molasses oatmeal bread. Orzo salad with sweet peppers and mint leaves is topped with fresh parmesan. The desserts are decadent — think chocolate ganache cake, warm gingerbread with custard sauce, vanilla cupcakes with coconut-sprinkled cream cheese frosting, and homey rhubarb upside-down cake.
The freshly squeezed lemonade arrives in mason jars. And if you’re really lucky, the meal’s entertainment features majestic humpback whales sending up giant sprays of water as they leap and splash off the coast.
Like so many places in Newfoundland and Labrador, there’s a good story behind how Lighthouse Picnics grew out of a dream of an idea in Scotland.
Jill Curran was living there when she and co-founder Sonia O’Keefe, both Newfoundlanders, first hatched the plan during a visit. O’Keefe was just finishing cooking school in Ireland. Both women were feeling the pull back to The Rock.
Curran hails from Ferryland, one of North America’s oldest settlements with a population today of just over 500 souls. Her great-grandfather was once the lighthouse keeper in the former fishing village. Her grandmother was born and raised in its two-storey cottage.
The Canadian Coast Guard has maintained the 140-year-old lighthouse since it was automated in 1970, but the adjoining home was left to face the elements.
The neglect showed. Eight years ago, as Curran and O’Keefe were set to transform the sad site into a magnet for adventurous foodies, the building was a crumbling wreck that had stood empty for 20 years. There was no running water or electricity.
Curran laughed as she recalled the initial response to her picnic plan.
“My mother was like, ‘You’re giving up your job and moving home to sell sandwiches at the lighthouse that’s falling down?’ And I was like, ‘Yes. But it’s going to be more than that.'”
Curran and O’Keefe persisted, spending their first year of business hauling already prepared food from Ferryland to be served outdoors at the lighthouse in all kinds of weather.
They leased the cottage from the town and, with its support and some help from government business loans, restored the building to a charming but more functional version of its old self.
Black-and-white photos on the walls depict the bygone days when Newfoundlanders dressed up for family picnics.
Eating outdoors has always been part of a culture built on the fishery and in lumber camps, Curran said.
“It could be really informal boil-ups as a break in the middle of the day or a nice formal Sunday picnic,” she said of how water was heated over open fires for tea. A good boil-up is still a cherished tradition during hunting season, winter outings and on the beach in summer.
Lighthouse Picnics adds a gourmet picnic flair for about $25 a person or $12 for children.
“It’s kind of a neat twist on what people used to do years ago and just kind of lost,” Curran said.
Visitors place their orders in the lighthouse cottage after a 25-minute walk along a tree-lined gravel path from the nearest parking lot. They take their blankets and a flag that co-ordinates with their order to a picnic spot. Their feast is brought to them.
It’s not unusual on a sunny day for more than 150 people to scatter over the spongy, rolling hills — some of them snoozing — so reservations are strongly recommended.
Meals can also be enjoyed indoors on wet, cold days. Picnics are served from late May until late September.
These days, the lighthouse has expanded off season into special events, arts classes and other community gatherings. Curran isn’t sure what will become of the lighthouse tower itself, which is still used as a beacon but is not open to the public.
The federal government is looking to unload responsibility for almost 1,000 lighthouses, including the one at Ferryland. Fisheries and Oceans Canada declared in May that 480 active lighthouses and about 490 inactive ones across the country are “surplus” to its needs.
A few manned lighthouses on the east and west coasts are excepted. Anyone interested in taking over a surplus site and asking Parks Canada to declare it a heritage property has until May 29, 2012 to apply.
Whatever happens, such potential changes aren’t expected to affect a picnic business that has won rave reviews and is a major boon to local tourism.
“It was good to have the hike beforehand because the food is delicious,” said picnicker Kelly Wickens, of Mount Pearl, N.L.
“There was none left, that’s for sure.”
If you go:
Reservations are very strongly recommended. Call 709-363-7456 or email@example.com
Lighthouse Picnics operates from late May until late September, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., every day but Monday. After Labour Day, Lighthouse Picnics is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Ferryland is about a one-hour drive from St. John’s, 80 kilometres south on Route 10. The lighthouse is one of the first things you’ll see as you enter Ferryland. Follow the signs to Lighthouse Road.