On the edge in Newfoundland's capital

31 Jan 2012

Slice Of The City: St John's - One of the most fascinating and historic of Canada's cities will soon be only a five-hour flight from the UK, says Simon Calder

The Independent, UK
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The first city in North America?

Historically, there are several contenders, but geographically, the claim of St. John's is indisputable. Many transatlantic jets make landfall above the capital of Newfoundland just five hours after leaving London. Indeed, jet trails will accompany you on your meanderings through this city on the edge – as, perhaps, will actors such as Russell Crowe. He makes a guest appearance in Republic of Doyle – CBC's hit series about a private investigator entangled with the underworld.

St. John's, at the far east of North America, is about as placid as Canada gets. But the producers were lured here by the dramatic backdrops at every turn. Settlers were originally attracted by the stunning natural harbour, today the departure point for whale-watching trips.

Closer up, picturesque rows of houses, decorated in the cheerfully juvenile colours of Fruit Pastilles, straggle down to the sea. Add the edginess of any major ocean port and it was a natural choice.

Start slicing through the city at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist (001 709 726 5677; stjohnsanglicancathedral.org). This handsome church, high above the water, looks as though it had been exported, stone by Gothic stone, from Durham or Lincoln. There has been a church on the site since the last year of the 17th century. It was one of the few of the city's structures to survive the 1892 conflagration, one of several fires to devastate St John's over the centuries. If you can time your visit for Wednesday lunchtime, you will coincide with a free concert on the imposing Casavant organ. And, in summer, the crypt becomes a homely tea-room; the church reassures visitors: "Our crypt has never been used for its original purpose!"

From here walk north-east along Duckworth Street, the busiest thoroughfare in Newfoundland. Peer down over the harbour, and the scruffy warehouse complex where Russell Crowe tells Allan Hawco (writer, producer and star of Republic of Doyle): "Well, Doyle, you've got yourself a situation here." This is not, though, Canada's Mogadishu. The walk along Duckworth Street demonstrates that the charm of St John's rests with its simplicity: unpretentious cafés and primary-painted homes – "row houses" – that seem to have sprung from a child's view of construction. Pilots Hill, to the left, is a good example. Not all the shops are everyday: at 98 Duckworth Street, the lime-green façade of the Hempware store (001 709 738 4367) promises "Clothing, Beads, Funky Local Products".

In St John's you can drift from one side to the other with barely a care: motorists will wave wayward pedestrians across (unless, of course, they are driving as extras for Republic of Doyle). So cross over and call in for replenishment at the Classic Café East, at 73 Duckworth Street (001 709 726 4444; classiccafeeast.com). Its name may carry Oriental overtones, but in fact this is an excellent place to sample Newfoundland cuisine in all its nutritionally questionable glory – such as the touton, a lump of deep-fried dough.

The Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador, at 59 Duckworth Street (001 709 753 2749; craftcouncil.nl.ca), offers more digestible products: the provincial wildlife is celebrated in souvenirs.

After no more than half a mile, you start to shrug off the city. Duckworth Street mutates into Signal Hill Road. Follow the road up towards the grassy headland, and you pass the Johnson Geo Centre en route to a small stone tower where St John's asserts its transatlantic primacy.

John Cabot arrived in Newfoundland in 1497. Four centuries on, the citizens decided to celebrate the Italian-Bristolian mariner with Cabot Tower – a stubby stone affair that looks rather like a squashed lighthouse. In 1901, radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi chose it as the ideal receiving station for the first transatlantic transmission from Cornwall. A small museum (9am-5pm daily; free) commemorates this precursor of the worldwide web.

Travel Essentials

Getting There

Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com) resumes its Heathrow-St John's non-stop flights on 18 May. Daily departures to 29 September; £750 return.

Staying There

The Quality Inn Harbourview at 2 Hill O'Chips (001 709 754 7788; choicehotels.com) has doubles from C$179 (£120) including breakfast.

Go Guided

Newfoundland Tours (newfoundlandtours.com) offers walking tours – and even jogging tours – of St John's.

Further Information

newfoundlandlabrador.com

The big attraction

Newfoundland, and in particular the Avalon peninsula on which St John's perches, is the result of a geological cataclysm. That much is evident from the stratified chaos that comprises the island's shore. But to find out what goes on beneath the surface, explore the Johnson Geo Centre. Just like an iceberg, what you see is less than what you get. The geological museum is carved from rock half a billion years old, and takes you even further back: the other half of the province, Labrador, is almost as old as the planet itself. As the permanent exhibition to the Titanic story reminds you, the power of the planet can enfeeble mankind.

Johnson Geo Centre: 175 Signal Hill Road, St John's (001 709 737 7880; geocentre.ca).