Looking for the heart of Newfoundland? It's in the gut — of Quidi Vidi
Meet Greg Walsh, an unsung hero of N.L. tourism
"I want to see the real beauty of Newfoundland and meet some of its fine people. I hear so many wonderful things about Newfoundlanders' gracious hospitality."
I laughed as I read this message from a client in Vancouver who is planning her first trip to Newfoundland this summer.
Besides being welcoming and hoping for the best, I wasn't sure how to guarantee they'd meet gracious Newfoundlanders — that just happens on its own.
I know that first-hand.
I found out the day I obeyed the "Do Drop In" sign hanging outside Greg Walsh's modest shed, which sits in front of a glorious fishing stage on the water in the Quidi Vidi gut, just a stone's throw away from the Quid Vidi Brewery.
Having caught, apprehensively skinned and then cooked my first cod, danced to music and hung out in the sun on his fishing stage, I've experienced the memorable hospitality of Walsh and his family firsthand.
And my friends and I were not the only ones.
Walsh estimates he meets about 1,000 visitors a year passing through what is affectionately known as "Greg's stage."
Our hospitality is a tourist attraction
The people of this province all know we have a reputation for being friendly, especially to visitors. We've read heartwarming stories of kind islanders lending their cars to tourists and we even have our own hit Broadway show displaying our hospitality and compassion on a global scale.
I have no doubt that besides our breathtaking landscapes, our Jellybean Row homes, and our unique history and tropical weather, our hospitality is a big tourist attraction.
Visitors like my client from Vancouver come here hoping to take back an anecdotal story of how they truly felt welcomed in their interactions with locals. It's interesting, because these authentic interactions are a part of tourism that you can't truly manufacture, commodify or report on.
But they're just as important as those you can.
Welcome to Greg's stage
When Walsh isn't working offshore, you'll hopefully find him at his stage.
And if you have the good sense to follow his sign, you'll walk into a cosy kitchen with a table and metal chairs. To the left is a wood stove with cast-iron pans and a washing line hanging across the room for tea towels.
On the wall are numerous framed pictures of different sizes that represent the history of the Quidi Vidi gut and memories of days gone by.
Walsh points to a picture of a stoic-looking fisherman in his overalls and tells me the man gave him the weathered fish fryer in the corner that he still uses to bring crispy cod joys to more people than he can remember.
You walk into the main shed area on a cement floor, cracked under the weight of many happy feet stomping along to kitchen party bands.
Around the room you'll see thick-knit, one-size sweaters; fishing rods; rubber boots; life-jackets; ugly sticks and a '90s-era CD player with a selection of music that would be at home on Sunday morning jigs-and-reels radio shows.
As someone who recently became the proud owner of my first screwdriver, I am in awe of the number of tools littered around the shed.
The many curious people who poke their heads in through the door are invited to stay.
When I last visited him, Walsh was deep in conversation with a couple from Ottawa that had wandered in. Their conversation flowed from the cod moratorium to minimum wage and then the seal hunt. Walsh showed them a lead cod jigger from the 1960s.
The couple left, thanking him for his hospitality, a full half-hour later.
Time is suspended at Greg's stage.
Greg's got it right
Walsh grew up near Quidi Vidi, playing by the water and waiting patiently for the local fishermen to go in to eat breakfast. That was when he'd be allowed to remove and sell the cod tongues for pocket money.
Today, he encourages every child who comes through this door to take a Mason jar and small dip net and then helps them catch some fish.
"It's important for children to have the opportunity to interface with nature and be off their phones for a little while," he said.
If you're lucky enough to be walking by, or get a word-of-mouth invite, one of the most memorable days at Greg's stage is his annual fish fry in August.
What started off as an idea to encourage seniors to come out of their homes for a day of music, sunshine and laughter has grown over the past seven years.
Last year more than 400 people dropped by and had free fish and chips, with a side of Newfoundland culture.
"Doing something nice for a stranger is payment enough," he said when asked why he does this for free.
Many tourists walk away slightly confused by the generosity, but thankful to have experienced what my visitor is looking forward to: gracious Newfoundland hospitality.
Tourism is important to this province, particularly in the summer months. The industry is responsible for almost 20,000 jobs and currently generates $1.13 billion in visitor spending each year, according to Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador. The provincial government is committed to growing that amount to $1.6 billion by 2020 which is no small feat, but necessary for our economy.
As Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, we all can play a role in boosting the province's tourism — and good karma — by simply keeping up that gracious hospitality, for tourists and locals alike.
Just like Greg Walsh.