ST. JOHN’S – A visitor last here five years ago or so is struck by how much this city has changed. There were signs of good times on Water St. and Duckworth on my last visit. But things have taken a major turn. There are (gasp) condos going up down near the Battery and in other parts of downtown. They’re not large, but still…
There also are new, fun shops and restaurants; Basho, a Japanese fusion spot on Duckworth is one, although I didn’t get a chance to try. There’s also Chinched on Queen St., which offers traditional seafood and bistro style cuisine as well as house-made charcuterie.
Chinched is right across from the west end of George St. (see Canadian Geographic photo t left), which hasn’t changed all that much; still lined with gentlemen’s clubs and fun and funky bars and restaurants. I had some great music at Kelly’s on Saturday night, which has zero atmosphere but often seems to have good musicians. Saturday night was a guy alternating between traditional stuff like The Wild Rover and Sweet Caroline, with John Denver and The Eagles mixed in for good effect. Down at Bridie Molloy’s was an older guy with long, stringy grey hair and a very cool-looking guitar playing more traditional Irish music, although I only caught two songs in his set.
The bar seemed caught up in the St. John’s Ice Caps game, as the team was home for game seven in their set with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. St. John’s took the game 3-2 to advance to the Eastern finals of the Atlantic Hockey League playoffs.
Earlier, I’d had an absolutely tremendous dinner at Bacalao , which isn’t new but has become a staple for fine cuisine in St. John’s. The restaurant is in an old house very close to downtown, and they strike a perfect balance; a homey atmosphere with great food but zero pretense.
(Somehow, I think Newfoundlanders would beat the crap – figuratively, not literally – out of anyone that rolled into town and got too big for their britches anyway.
If you come to town, be sure to try their Jiggs Dinner appetizer; a small take on the traditional Newfoundland Jigg’s Dinner with boiled potatoes and veggies. You even get to taste the pot liquor; the water that the meal is boiled in. Down the hatch quickly and it’s not bad.
It was my encounter with a Jiggs Dinner, albeit not the kind they serve at church gatherings, and it was great. I think I liked it more than the seal flipper pie, which they serve as an appetizer with red wine sauce (lots), plus cinnamon and other spices that made it taste like a slightly fishy version of a mince tart. Kind of. This one came with a thick slice of puff pastry on top, a feature my Newfoundland dinner mate insisted on calling a “roof.”
You gotta love it.
Sunday morning I had breakfast at the wonderful Murray Premises on the waterfront; a former warehouse that’s been turned into a boutique hotel; a great spot with rooms featuring exposed brick walls and wooden beam supports and ceilings. But I’d heard tell of a great spot on Water St. called Rocket, so I wandered over. And promptly fell in love.
It’s a bright and sunny spot that features a dizzying array of baked goods, including a croissant with lemon curd as well as pain au chocolat and a bread loaf with cranberry, chocolate and almonds. I opted for the lemon croissant and wondered why I’ve never seen it anywhere else as it’s an absolutely tremendous treat.
They also serve great-looking sandwiches and sell all sorts of interesting stuff: milk and honey from Prince Edward Island and Bottle Green ginger and lemon grass cordials. And they make a great latte.
The main room for sitting features tables and chairs in deep pastel colours that mimic the so-called “jelly houses” you’ll find in and around downtown St. John’s. They also had fresh flowers out on all the tables.
A real find that I’d liken to an old-time country store crossed with an Ossington Ave. coffee house.
Later I had dinner at Piatto, which bills itself a s a true Naples-style pizza joint. It’s good, and the pizza is large with huge helpings of meat, but too thick. The salami platter had nice, roasted red peppers and a couple slices of parmesan, but it wasn’t very good parmesan. I’m not sure, but it tasted pretty much like something you’d get at a grocery store and was sliced into squares, versus the slightly crumbly variety you might expect.
There was good prosciuotto and, I think, speck or some kind of ham, plus some sliced salami that wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t terribly Italian, and they also provided two slices of brie cheese on the plate.
Brie??? At an Italian restaurant?
One of the great things about St. John’s is how easy it is to get out to the country. Often in just a few minutes. Or even seconds.
If you take the walk out past the Battery, for example (just a few minutes stroll from downtown), and make the trek on the narrow path below Signal Hill and the Cabot Tower, you’ll feel like you’re on the edge of the world. Which is pretty close, as it’s certainly the edge of the North American continent.
The walk is absolutely glorious; past impossibly colourful, brightly painted and mostly ramshackle houses with crazy gardens and funky signs. You’re walking within a foot or two of folks’ private homes as you meander your way through a maze of tiny “streets” or paths, all well-marked with signs such as “Come on Down.”
It makes you realize everything you’ve ever heard about accommodating Newfoundlanders is true, which is one of the reasons it’s hands down my favourite part of Canada.
The last part of the little trail that connects the city to the Parks Canada trail crosses some guys’ front deck. His (okay, or her) front door is within reach of your left arm as you pass by and look in the front window of the house, and the plastic deck chairs are on the other side. Utterly and impossibly charming.
The views of the harbour and the Narrows, the tiny spit of water that allows even huge cruise ships to safely anchor in the St. John’s large harbour, are spectacular. And it’s not a long walk; maybe an hour to get all the way to Signal Hill.
On Sunday a Celebrity cruise ship was in town, and they made a big show of it in St. John’s, playing a “symphony” of ship bells and whistles as the cruiser got ready to depart. I drove up to Signal Hill to see the ship leave, only to find out the National Parks folks salute each passing cruise vessel with a three-gun salute fired by a gentleman in full British military regalia from the late 19th century.
It was one of those unexpectedly awesome moments we all live for as travelers and it’s an image I’ll never forget.
Even if it’s just a normal day, the views are stupendous (assuming the fog isn’t hovering about) down to the harbour and the Narrows and over to Fort Amherst on the other side of the Narrows. On a good day, you’ll see Cape Spear, the easternmost point of North America.
A fun sign put up by the Parks Canada folks says it’s the beginning of Canada. Or the end; depending on your perspective. And isn’t that true for a lot of things in life?
Anyway, there are way too many cool places in and around St. John’s to get into too much detail, but here’s a quick look at a few others:
QUIDI VIDI – It’s technically part of the city, but it feels a world apart. There’s a lovely pond or lake called Quidi Vidi with a 5 kilometre long walking/jogging/biking trail. Best, however, is the small fishing village that carries the same name. It’s a tiny, quaint, perfect Atlantic Canada fishing village on the shores of the rocky bay, which is enclosed by giant, brooding dark cliffs topped with scraggly evergreens. There’s a cool brewery on site called Quidi Vidi, so check their product. I liked the Eric the Red quite a bit. There’s a small iceberg blocking part of the entrance to the harbour, which is a great draw for tourists. Some folks have, sadly, built monster homes right on the water. But it’s still a cool spot to visit. There’s a small iceberg blocking part of the harbour right now, which you can just see in the distance in this photo (more on icebergs in Newfoundland later!).
MARINE DRIVE – Take a leisurely drive past fine, country homes on this drive just north of town. Sections look like the rolling hills north of Toronto or perhaps PEI. But the terrain soon switches over to more typical Newfoundland geography, with massive cliffs and gorgeous sea vistas and a lovely view down to Middle Cove Beach. Nearby is the community of Flat Rock, where Pope John Paul II visited in 1984. There’s a lovely and tranquil grotto you can check out. The pope knelt and prayed here during that 1984 visit.
PETTY HARBOUR – Not as attractive as Quidi Vidi to my way of thinking, but still pretty. And not far from Cape Spear. They say pirates used to store their treasure in caves above the cove.
CAPE SPEAR – very cool spot with old World War II batteries, a couple of lighthouses (see photo) and a small gift shop where you can get a Newfoundland 20 cent piece (from before they joined Canada) for $20. Windswept and lonely but lovely views to the south and north, and nothing between you and Ireland but the Atlantic Ocean.
You’d think icebergs are a regular occurrence in and around St. John’s. But apparently not.
I took a boat tour with Iceberg Quest the other day and found out there was a pretty solid period of several years not long ago when the winds weren’t right and the bergs didn’t make an appearance. But just as the oil business has given this town a shot in the arm – and how – so has the return of the icebergs.
For a mere $60 ($28 for kids 12 and under), they’ll take you out on a reasonably-sized, very steady boat to check out the icebergs. When the season’s right, and it’s approaching fast, you’ll also (or instead) see puffins and friendly humpback whales.
They also do tours from Twillingate, the iceberg capital of Newfoundland, where you’re more likely to spot bergs. But, this year anyway, it’s pretty good in and around St. John’s. We did a two-hour tour and spotted three reasonably-sized icebergs, all within a few miles of the city.
The first part of the tour is through the harbour and you get great views of downtown and the brightly painted homes called Jellies or Jelly-bean houses. Then you get even better views of the equally colourful homes on the Battery (see photo above right), that stretch of land that reaches from downtown out towards Signal Hill, just above the entrance to the harbour.
The day I went I was accompanied by some tourists, including roadies and members of music star Chris De Burgh’s band, De Burgh having played St. John’s the night before. We had a great time, although it was pretty chilly out on the boat. Luckily there’s a glassed-in portion with a heater, as well as a small bar dispensing beer and rum and other spirits.
The cliffs along Signal Hill are massively impressive; huge chunks of brown stone slashed and broken through eons of wind and water and towering up over the ocean. After cruising along outside the harbour for maybe ten minutes we spotted a couple of bergs that have been partially blocking the entrance to Quidi Vidi harbour for some time.
The big one (well, by my standards, not a Newfoundlander’s) was a few minutes after that. We approached it through a trail of small chunks of ice that had broken off and were floating about in the water. Then we came up to the main attraction of the day; a flat-top berg that I’m guessing was 100 metres long and perhaps six or ten metres high; depending on where you measured.
It was pale green-blue and dozens of gulls were stretched out on top and nesting, which I’m told means it’s a relatively stable chunk of ice – birds preferring not to make their homes on pieces of ice that are about to break off and send their eggs off towards Nova Scotia and all.
The colours in the water were beautiful, and it was incredibly serene to navigate around the iceberg, said to be thousands of years old and not long ago part of some distant glacier. The patterns and markings on the berg also are something you don’t expect; all roughly chiseled with sharp angles and smooth surfaces and wavy bits.
The guys working my boat told me puffin season is perhaps two weeks away, while the time for whale watching is also getting close; depending on the weather.
“The humpback whales are awesome,” they told me. “They’re really smart and they even seem to recognize our boats. They come to us year after year and we’ve named some of the ones we recognize.
“There are two we call Mutt and Jeff, because whatever one does the other does the same thing. It’s really cool.”
Yes, it would be.