St. John's a great city with spectacular, wild scenery just minutes away (or less!)

17 May 2012

The Toronto Star
By Jim Byers
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ST. JOHN'S NEWFOUNDLAND - 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 travellers 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.