Will Wain does the cosmopolitan, cultural and cod-loving capital of Newfoundland in a Day
You don’t come to Newfoundland for the weather. I’d flown in the previous evening in a misty rainstorm that would have seemed just right for Craggy Island, but my single day in St John’s before hiring a car and heading up country dawned sunny and clear, a summer day with none of the country’s notorious fogs.
I was in the country to research the story of my great-grandfather, a sea captain in the nineteenth century who had vanished from his abandoned ship, along with all the crew. Before setting out on my quest for ‘the Welsh Marie Celeste’, I had one day as a tourist in Newfoundland’s capital and I’d had some good tips on how to get a taste of the state’s largest and most cosmopolitan town.
My day in St John’s began on Signal Hill, from where the British would watch for raiding French ships in colonial times. The hop-on hop-off bus tours which travel the waterfront streets can spin you up to the 19th Century Cabot Tower in a few minutes. This, the highest point in the city, gives you what may be the best view in Newfoundland.
Near where Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless message (a letter ‘S’) you can see the rocky coast of the Avalon Peninsula down beyond the Cape Spear lighthouse, the nearest point on the whole North American continent to Europe; in the other direction, ships at anchor, the colourful wooden houses of the Artists’ Quarter, and the historic Quidi Vidi village, home to some great microbreweries. Up on the opposing hill the soaring Basilica of St John the Baptist catches your eye, and next to it the museum and art gallery, known to everyone in St John’s as The Rooms.
St John’s is sometimes compared to a mini-San Francisco, and it does have that air. You can spend laid-back afternoons in hip teashops and coffee houses on Water Street, near the quaintly-named Hill O’Chips, or browsing in the small characterful galleries and bric a brac shops down the hill from the Artists’ Quarter. The Rooms are a steep walk up from the waterfront, but worth the climb for the fascinating museum of old Newfoundland, which had a life as provincial and tough as anywhere in the old British colonies.
Newfoundland as a country was built on fishing: the cold Labrador Current brought cod almost without limit down to the famously rich Grand Banks fishing grounds and into the nets of British, French, Portugese and, later, American boats. A whole culture grew up in remote ‘outports’ until they were more or less abandoned in the 1960s in the name of modernization. It’s a heritage that the next generation of Newfoundlanders, especially the children and grandchildren of the dispossessed, are now spending time re-discovering, and the scope and sensitivity of this museum reflects that. You can recuperate from all this history in the great, though packed, café bar on the third floor, which has a fabulous view of the city.
St John’s other charms are less cerebral: Iceberg tours and Irish bars. When the lights start coming on in the early evening the bohemian langour gives way to live music – raw-voiced rock and roll or fiddle and Caili dances. George Street, between Water and the pleasant Duckworth, is home to the bars, pubs and pizza joints which attract the after-dark denizens of St John’s, locals and visitors alike.
The city has its fusion food places, but seafood chowder, or a big steak – varied with some surf n turf or a pastry in the Canada-wide Tim Horton’s doughnut shop – will give you a taste of Newfoundland cuisine. You might have to get out into the sticks for the real thing, though: fatback pork ‘scruncheons’, salt cod and a variation on the British ‘lobscouse’ stew. But don’t eat till after the boat tour, as the chop on the Atlantic can get a bit lively. And a boat tour is a must. A two hour cruise out through the Narrows in early to mid summer will give you the best chance of seeing whales, including Minkes and the incredible sight of migrating humpbacks ‘breaching’, and there are usually harbour porpoises and puffins to be seen.
Another great early summer attraction are the icebergs that float down from the Arctic to end their days in the warmer waters of the Grand Banks. A local company markets vodka distilled from the pure fresh water scooped from the side of these bergs, which can be anything up to 10,000 years old. Seeing these huge blue cliffs of ice – from a respectable distance – and then sampling the spirit when safely back on shore is a highlight of any trip to Newfoundland.
The boat tour also offers you a Screech-In. You recite – no, wait, you pay 10 dollars, then you recite – a verse which begins, ‘Is you a Screecher?’ and ends with you kissing a toy puffin’s nether regions. (I passed on this: some sixth sense must have told me that I’d be doing it for real later in my trip, with a bunch of fishermen I’d just met them that day – kissing a four foot long cod on the mouth while wearing a sou’wester.) A taste of Screech, the rough Newfoundland rum, softens the embarrassment, and you get a handsome certificate to declare to the world that you are an honorary Newfoundlander.
My day in St John’s was nearly over, but in the mid-evening, after a pizza and some blarney and beer on George Street, the taxi ride back to the Comfort Inn gave me a good chance to talk over my planned trip into the remoter parts of the state. When the cabbie, friendly and garrulous like most Newfies, heard I was renting a car and heading into the interior of the island, he had a word of caution. ‘Don’t drive after dark,’ he said. ‘That’s when you hit the moose.’
It was a warning I heard and saw all over Newfoundland, even though the closest I came to one of these huge and strangely ugly animals was a small portion of one in the burger that my fellow diner ordered in a Trinity Bay restaurant. But that, and the discoveries I made about my seafaring ancestor, are all another story.
Fly to St John’s, Newfoundland direct with Air Canada from Heathrow. www.aircanada.com
the Airport has the usual larger chain car hire, including Hertz www.stjohnsairport.com
Comfort Inn, Airport, St John’s is within walking distance of the airport, though they do a reliable shuttle www.comfortinnstjohns.com The hotel has a bar, restaurant, continental breakfast and free wi-fi. Bus into the centre of St John’s, (not at weekends!), or taxi (about 20 dollars).
Iceberg Quest tours, www.icebergquest.com leave from the waterfront, downtown St John’s. Check for seasonal dates.
The Rooms, www.therooms.ca 9 Bonaventure Avenue, St John’s (closed Mondays).
The Trolley Line, opened in 2013, operates a hop-on hop-off bus service from Signal Hill to downtown St John’s www.metrobus.com/trolley