Nfld. & Labrador

Meet some young entrepreneurs bringing new life to rural Newfoundland

Youthful ambition is the order of the day for some Bonavista Peninsula business owners, who are bucking the conventional wisdom about the rural economy.

These Bonavista Peninsula business owners are bucking conventional wisdom on the rural economy

Martha Nelson and Gavin Clark now call Newfoundland home, year-round. (Martha Nelson)

Rural Newfoundland is having trouble keeping its young people. This isn't a new trend, but these days, it seems to be happening at a quicker pace.

But some young entrepreneurs on the Bonavista Peninsula are seeing big potential in rural Newfoundland, and it has just as much to do with lifestyle as it does business.

Martha Nelson, a 20-something Australian, runs the HI Trinity Skerwink Hostel in Trinity East with her Scottish boyfriend, Gavin Clark. Nelson and her family initially came to Newfoundland as tourists. They stumbled across Trinity East by pure luck: Nelson's family had waited too long to book accommodations, but they found a last-minute room at the local inn.

Martha Nelson and Gavin Clark in front of the HI Trinity Skerwink Hostel. (Martha Nelson)

The family was immediately drawn to Trinity East. "We felt that it had a really nice vibe," says Nelson. "It was relaxing, peaceful, and authentic."

The hostel property had been up for sale for 10 years, and seeing the opportunity, the family bought it. Nelson and her sister, Libby, immediately started working to renovate the property into a hostel.

Setting up a business in rural Newfoundland wasn't easy, but Nelson had plenty of community support. Nelson recalls one cold spring day in 2011, when she and her sister were at the hardware shop purchasing supplies. They had a conversation with the women working there about how there was no heat in their building. Shortly after, Nelson and her sister headed off to lunch.

The HI Trinity Skerwink Hostel has received a facelift in recent years, including a small garden plot. (Martha Nelson)

When they returned to the hostel, they discovered that temporary heaters had been hardwired throughout the building.

"There was a note from the electrician explaining that his wife wouldn't let him come home until he'd given us some heat," says Nelson.

The friendliness and ruggedness of the landscape just adds to the area's lure, and Nelson says more young people are taking note. Even her Australian friend set up a kayaking business after having fallen in love with the place during a visit. Nearby Bonavista is experiencing its own boom in business.

Alicia MacDonald and Sonja Mills at the Port Rexton Brewery. (Marc Lafreniere)

What started out as a seasonal job has now turned into a lifestyle for Nelson and Clark. Instead of returning to Europe for the winter months, they've relocated to Corner Brook where Clark is a snowboard instructor.

Sonja Mills and Alicia MacDonald, the women behind Port Rexton Brewing Company, were also drawn to the Trinity Bight area. Mills grew up in Clarenville, while MacDonald hails from Nova Scotia.

Sonja Mills and Alicia MacDonald enjoying the fruits of their labour in Port Rexton. (Sonja Mills)

But it's the Bight that has the most personal connection for the couple.

"We were particularly drawn to this area because we had gotten engaged while camping near Fox Island in 2013, and then we got married in English Harbour," says Mills.

The couple was well aware of the tourism potential of the area, and they were looking especially for a place to live year-round. Port Rexton turned out to be it.

"It's a very picturesque and interesting town. The sense of community and support is huge here, and there's a lot happening in the summer," says Mills.

Before relocating to Port Rexton, Mills and MacDonald lived in Halifax, where they were within walking distance to cafes, coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and shopping. Mills was a lawyer, and MacDonald a nurse. Many of their evenings were spent attending local events, or socializing at wine or craft beer bars. 

Sonja Mills pours a pint at the Port Rexton Brewing’s taproom. (Candice Walsh)

Their social life hasn't slowed down since moving to Port Rexton, though. MacDonald and Mills spend their evenings working or visiting friends, or heading out for evening walks or skis.

Nelson's nearby hostel also drives visitors to the taproom, lending to an upbeat international travellers' spirit. New friendships are easily forged. Nelson and Clark have even started organizing Trivia Nights at the brewery throughout the summer. 

Mills and MacDonald have also had a lot of other community support. People come by to plow their driveway without asking during the winter months. Others will bring fresh cod or other fish for dinner.

"We were open on Tibb's Eve and the taproom was filled with locals, some living here and some who have returned for the holidays," says Mills. "We had a great time!"

Martha Nelson and her sister, Libby Nelson, pose for photos during hostel renovations. (Martha Nelson)

Like Nelson and Clark, Mills and MacDonald have made Trinity Bight their home year-round. Mills says there's a lot to offer there, whether it's world-class hiking or a five-star dinner overlooking the harbour.

"Now that we are residents of Port Rexton, sustainability is at the forefront of our minds," adds Mills. "We want to attract a younger demographic, and to encourage them to live and stay on this beautiful peninsula."


Candice Walsh


Candice Walsh is a freelance writer and travel blogger in St. John's.