Inviting seating area with a beautiful waterfront view | Robin Esrock
By Robin Esrock
When you think about a hiker’s hut, it’s typically a spartan wooden shed with a couple of bunks, a wood stove, and perhaps some splintering chairs that have seen better years. On the south coast of the East Coast Trail, Belle Maison Dine and Dream keeps the emphasis on the hiking but completely reimagines the hiker’s hut into something as memorable as the famed trail itself. There’s simply no other place in the country like it because no other place in the country has a host quite like Sharon Sinnott.
Located on her original family property in Port Kirwan, Sharon is an avid hiker who sits on the board of the East Coast Trail Association. She was never quite drawn to the idea of a B&B but knew that hikers on a bucket list trip to Newfoundland often experience logistical challenges the further south they travel from St John’s. Better to Dine and Dream than Bed and Breakfast! As a full-service exclusive partner with Great Canadian Trails, Sharon takes care of the accommodation, transfers and meals for our hikers. Although ‘takes care’ doesn’t quite do it justice.
The first thing you’ll notice when you pull up to Belle Maison is the colourful shipping container and trailers that greet the weary walker. Inspired by the tiny homes movement, Sharon wanted to create living spaces that are cozy, comfortable and flexible. The container – converted into two rooms with ensuite bathrooms – originally held furniture and equipment shipped from Alberta. There’s a wonderful can-do spirit in Newfoundland, embodied by Sharon’s partner Alvin who personally built these unusual spaces. The sheets are soft, there’s space for gear, and the view of the fishing boats in the small harbour is classic East Coast.
Adjacent to the accommodation is the Snack Shack of hikers' dream. It’s got everything you could want for lunch, breakfast, and post-hike downtime. Dozens of teas, cereals, fruit, snacks, drinks, cheeses, meats, bread, condiments, spreads, coffee…all included. Sharon initially cooked her guests breakfast but found her guests were better served prepping their own mornings and trail lunches. She also takes extra care to provide plenty of options for gluten-free, vegan and hikers with other dietary restrictions. There’s room in the fridge for the beers or wine you’ll want to pick up en route from St John’s (your driver Jamie is more than amenable to stop at a liquor store along the way). The Snack Shack has all the pre-requisite cutlery, glasses, sandwich and lunch bags. It’s got hiking poles and water bottles. There are board games, wine and pint glasses, local books, maps, hockey and golf paraphernalia, soft chairs, cooking appliances, antiques and exercise balls. Sharon has thought of everything, including boot dryers for your wet hiking shoes. She’s also happy to wash your dirty laundry in the house as part of the service. Inspired by wooden huts with sweaty cheeses and hanging hams in Europe, every hike in the world needs a Sharon Snack Shack.
Port Kirwan, population 22, has no general store, but it does sit at the start of the stunning Spurwink Path Trail. It’s also located close to the beautiful Avalon Peninsula and some of the most scenic and dazzling hikes along the 300-plus kilometre East Coast Trail. Belle Maison has been Sharon’s family home for well over a century; she was born and raised here along with her five siblings. Her mother, Belle Fennelly, was a local music legend, receiving a lifetime achievement award from the government of Newfoundland for her role in preserving traditional music. Thousands of visitors and musicians from around the world have visited the house, dancing in the kitchen, jigging in the living room. When I tell Sharon there’s a wonderful energy to the place, she tells me I’m not the first to say so. Hospitality is taken seriously in this part of the world, and the neighbours love hikers visiting from around the world. They’ll drop off fresh salmon, local scallops, sweet local berries and other local delights, all of which will find their way onto your dinner plate.
I’d heard about Sharon’s cooking months before I finally got to Port Kirwan. “You know how you might watch TV or read a book? Well, Sharon watches cooking shows and reads recipes,” explains Alvin. Dinner is catered each evening in the main house, and what a dinner it is. A passionate foodie, Sharon’s meals are as good if not better than any restaurant in the province. Perfectly cooked Atlantic salmon with mango salsa and beet curry; lightly crumbed local scallops in a mushroom base; pea-mint and mango-carrot soup… it’s pretty remarkable and wholly unexpected. If elevated pub food is a thing, this is a stratospheric B&B…sorry, Dine and Dream.
Sharon’s advice for the trail: bring walking poles. “It’s really important for hikers of a certain vintage, as our brakes don’t recover as quickly. If you don’t have them, we’ve got poles, gaiters, whatever you need; we’ve got your back.” Many hikers also underestimate their water, especially considering how quickly bone-chilling summer fog can turn into blistering summer heat.
Sharon knows each section of the trail intimately. She briefs guests each evening on what to expect and how to make the most of the walk. If the weather or your fitness isn’t great, she’ll suggest an alternative trail to tick off the boxes. Shuttling us between trailheads, Alvin is also a wealth of local knowledge, enthusiastically explaining the culture and history of the region.
Hikers tend to be curious, respectful, and deeply appreciative of the hospitality. “You definitely see like-minded people travelling to Newfoundland,” Sharon tells me after another sumptuous dinner. “People come together, share their stories, laugh around a table. You walk out there, and you just feel something. And locals love seeing hikers. We’re overwhelmed that people come all the way to Port Kirwan.”
Robin Esrock is the bestselling author of The Great Canadian Bucket List.