St John’s and Vicinity
Cabot Tower, where Marconi received first trans-Atlantic signals.
The lively and colourful capital of Canada’s newest province is located on the Avalon Peninsula. Starting out as a tiny English settlement in the 1500s, it now has a population of nearly 200,000. Like the rest of the island, its telephone area code is 709. A major seaport, it handles about 1,500 cargo and passenger ships per year. It’s three hours by air from Toronto, four from New York, and five from England, and it’s closer to Rome than to Seattle. In fact, suburban Cape Spear is as far east as you can go in North America. At St John’s, average temperatures are 25F (-4C) in January and 60F (15C) in July.
Over the centuries the city has had to survive wars, attacks by pirates, and other devastation. It has been rebuilt after three disastrous fires, most recently in 1892. There are some public buildings of imported stone, but since there is no clay of the type used to make bricks on the island, all other buildings are made of wood. Perhaps to show their individuality, the beautiful late-Victorian homes and stores are painted in all the colours of the rainbow. It’s certainly a cheery town!
St John’s harbour from Signal Hill.
It’s a visitor-friendly place, where people live, play and celebrate in the downtown core. No wonder: there are numerous restaurants, and the area around George Street is famous for its dozens of “watering-holes” and clubs! It’s a peaceable spot too, where serious crime is rare, and the city police don’t need to carry guns. Shopping is a pleasure, and it was great not to see the kind of boring malls with predictable merchandise that you find elsewhere throughout North America. Besides hotels in all price ranges, there are many excellent heritage inns and bed and breakfast establishments. We were delighted with our accommodations at the Bonne Espï¿½rance House (726-3835), a Victorian house right downtown. Our efficiency apartment was furnished with modern appliances as well as genuine antiques, including a pump organ; the breakfasts were of gourmet quality, and only the name is French!
St John’s has all the amenities that you’d expect to find in a modern capital city. You can get details at www.city.st-johns.nf.ca or by phoning 800-563-6353. A thorough visit would take at least a week, but with only two and a half of our seven days allotted to it this time, we could only scratch the surface. Here is a sampling of some of its many attractionsï¿½
One of St John’s main shopping streets.
For history buffs, Signal Hill has various military installations and batteries, an Interpretation Centre, a Tattoo in summer months, and the Cabot Tower, where Marconi received the first transatlantic signals a century ago. There is Quidi Vidi Village, a 17th-century fishing settlement, where you’ll find Mallard Cottage (1760s), the oldest unaltered wooden dwelling in North America. Interesting official sites include the Confederation Building where the provincial House of Assembly meets, the Lieutenant Governor’s residence (1832), and the neo-classical Colonial Building, which now houses the provincial archives. There are also the Roman Catholic Basilica, which at the time of its consecration (1855) was the largest church in North America, and the magnificent gothic revival Anglican Cathedral (1843). Rebuilt in 1905 after the great fire, it stands beside Canada’s oldest cemetery (1699).
There are plenty of educational and cultural facilities. Memorial University, Atlantic Canada’s largest, offers a full range of programs and courses, and has a 110-acre (45-hectare) botanical garden with a great variety of flora and displays. The family-oriented Fluvarium offers a look at the underwater life of a river. The brand new Johnson Geo Centre, a geological showcase bored deep into the ancient rock near Signal Hill, provides realistic displays of volcanoes, earthquakes, glaciers and cataclysmic storms. The Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador is the province’s main public gallery, but there are many private ones as well. An outdoor Folk Festival is held on the first weekend of August, there are several theatre companies, and the Newfoundland Symphony performs throughout the year.
Sports-lovers enjoy outdoor activities year-round in the city’s extensive parklands. In the summer, the main spectator sport is the 200-year-old Royal St John’s Regatta, held the first Wednesday of August on Quidi Vidi Lake. In the winter, watch the St John’s Maple Leafs (American Hockey League), or the many amateur hockey and curling clubs.
The Scademia, a Grand Banks schooner (800-77-WHALE), sails around the harbour and goes to Cape Spear, south-east of the city. There you can visit the province’s oldest lighthouse (1835), right beside a modern automated one.
Dusk descends at Cape Spear.
You can watch for seabirds, icebergs and whales anywhere along the coast, but one of the best places is at Bay Bulls, about 15 miles (25 km) south of St John’s. Along with about 60 others from Canada, the USA and Europe, we took a three-hour cruise there with the O’Brien’s cruise company (www.netfx.ca/obriens). Their Canadian Coast Guard-certified boats can hold up to 90 passengers comfortably. Joe O’Brien acted as tour guide and M.C., explaining all about the different species of whales and birds, and regaling us the rest of the time with sea shanties and “salty dips”.
At the Witless Bay Islands Reserve we saw many of the estimated two million puffins. These little pigeon-sized birds that look like miniature penguins with orange beaks and “boots” live in tiny burrows, which they dig out of the soft rock. They don’t just fly, they can also dive to depths of 150 feet (45 m) and reach speeds of up to 18 knots under water. As for whales, although we saw a few spouts, none came up to play, so I didn’t get any pictures of them. We did, however, go right up to a whopping huge iceberg which had been grounded nearby for several weeks.
We’ll certainly go back again, and next time it won’t be for just a few days!