Travel Canada: The Rock is on a roll in Newfoundland
By Jim Byers
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A cruise ship heads out of St. John's harbour. JIM BYERS/TORONTO STAR
ST. JOHN’S—These are heady days in this oft-beleaguered town. The oil industry has brought a boom. There are new condo projects downtown and restaurants serving blistered Naples-style pizzas and Japanese fusion cuisine. New shops on Water St. sell the sort of trendy goods you’d find on Queen West or Ossington.
Yet there are still those quintessential St. John’s experiences, including pubs that would make you swear you’re in Dublin, endless ocean views from steep, craggy cliffs, gaily painted “jelly houses” and cars that screech to a stop so pedestrians can jaywalk on the busiest streets. Here’s how you can spend a great 2 days in this fabulous Canadian city.
5 p.m. SIGNAL YOUR INTENTIONS
Signal Hill is just two minutes from downtown by car. But you’ll feel a world away, with sweeping vistas out to sea and back into town and — depending on the famous fog — down to Cape Spear.
This is where Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic message, back in 1901. If your timing is right, you might see a parks worker dressed in 19th-century military gear firing volleys to salute a departing cruise ship as it slips through the rugged narrows. There are tours and military tattoos and all sorts of events in season. pc.gc.ca
8 p.m. INVENTIVE CUISINE, SANS FOAM
Situated in an old house with small rooms, there’s plenty of traditional cuisine done up with surprising flair at Bacalao. The caribou in partridgeberry sauce is lean and tasty with perfect gnocchi and roasted vegetables. They also have fresh cod, of course. Seal flipper pie comes with red wine and spices that resemble a mince tart. The honey brown ginger cake is made with local beer and topped with scalded cream. The menu is inventive, but this is, thankfully, not nouvelle cuisine. Says owner Andrea Maunder: “Foam belongs in cappuccino, not on a plate.” 65 Lemarchant Rd., 709-579-6565. bacalaocuisine.ca
10 p.m. GEORGE ST. HIGHJINKS
When I was there, Bridie Molloy’s featured an old-timer with long, stringy grey hair and a cool-looking guitar playing traditional Irish tunes. There’s frosted glass and warm wood and fireplaces.
O’Reilly’s has a cool balcony area and lots of live music, as well as local Yellow Belly beers.
At Kelly’s, you might get “The Wild Rover” followed by a singalong “Sweet Caroline.” When I was there, an old-timer got up to do a jig as his wife (I think) danced and pretended to unbutton her blouse. The young staff howled with laughter. I jokingly turned to a young woman behind the bar and asked if the old guy was her boyfriend. “I wish,” she said. “He’s adorable.” And that is why you should go to St. John’s. georgestreetlive.ca
8 a.m. WAKE UP TIME
Top-notch coffee, fabulous baked bread and inventive sandwiches are among the fabulous treats at Rocket, a bright and cheery spot that feels like country store meets Ossington. Try the croissants with lemon curd or the cranberry chocolate almond loaf. The sitting room next door has tables and chairs painted in the same deep pastels you’ll find on the city’s nearby “jelly houses.” For lunch, try the pulled pork sandwich with a bottle of ginger and lemon grass cordial. 272 Water St., 709-738-2011. rocketfood.ca
9 a.m. A PERFECT FISHING VILLAGE
The name of a small lake with a great walking/jogging/biking trail around it, it also refers to the tiny, quaint, fishing village on the shores of the rocky bay, which is enclosed by giant, brooding dark cliffs topped with scraggly evergreens. The Quidi Vidi Brewery draws crowds for an array of fresh beers, including an Iceberg beer and Eric’s Cream Ale. 15 Barrows St., 709-738-4040. quidividibrewery.ca
10 a.m. A TASTE OF WILD NEWFOUNDLAND
Take a leisurely drive past fine, country homes on your way out to the coast near Middle Cove Beach. Parts of the area look like southern Ontario’s rolling hills, but the scenery quickly gives way to stark cliffs and wild ocean. In late spring or early summer, small fish called capelin move in and spawn. Locals gather them up and puffins and whales come for the free picnic.
Head to Flatrock, which looks like a smaller version of Gaspe, and check out the pretty Our Lady of Lourdes grotto, with its Catholic monuments. Pope John Paul II came here in 1984. townofflatrock.com
NOON, WATER STREET WATERING HOLE
At Celtic Hearth, they’ve taken a series of old shops and converted the space into an Irish-style pub. There are elements from the shops that used to occupy the premises: old-time candies, funky hardware and cigars alongside bright red fire trucks and dolls outfitted in frilly lace. Ask for the lobster macaroni and cheese; with huge chunks of fresh seafood. Wash it down with a Quidi Vidi beer. 298-300 Water St., 709-576-2880. Part of Bridie Molloy’s, which is upstairs.
2 p.m. A LITTLE CULTURE
The Rooms is a fine place to learn about the history of this magic — and sometimes tragic — place. You’ll find old-time photos of guys in swim trunks on top of an iceberg or fun shots such as “Mrs. Howell and the girls on a picnic in 1943.”
Especially touching are stories about Irish immigrants coming over on crummy boats during horrific Atlantic storms. One exhibit talks about a trip of six weeks on a ship where the mast broke on Day 3 and waves poured over the deck. “You may be sure that there is not a saint in the calendar that was not invoked.”
There’s also cool, modern art, displays on the cod fishery and Basque whalers from Spain, plus exhibits on native Beothuk and Inuit (from Labrador).
The building is bright and airy and there are killer views of downtown and the harbour. Adult admission is $7.50, with reduced rates for students, children and seniors. 9 Bonaventure Ave., 709-757-8000. therooms.ca
5 p.m. JELLY TIME
Brilliant blue. Autumn gold. Deep cranberry. Cape Cod grey. Avocado. And colours the crayon people have never discovered. This city’s “jelly bean houses” are something to behold; brilliant displays of wild, fog-repelling (okay, maybe not) paint with a ton of character. You’ll find some of the best on Gower Street. Check the former Cochrane Hotel at Cochrane and Gower. It’s said to have housed everyone from Marconi to Leon Trotsky in its day.
8 p.m. WATER STREET DINING
Bianca’s does a tremendous cod served over tender gnocchi with bacon and a spicy rose sauce with broccolini and asparagus. Also try the pork belly, which is tender and rich, or the shrimp and lobster bisque. Owner Bianca Tzanov, who came from Bulgaria, says it took a few months for Newfoundlanders to catch on to her different menu, billed on the website as regional-based but also avant garde with Mediterranean roots. 171 Water St., 709-726-9016. biancas.net
10 p.m. DUCK INTO THE DUKE
This pub on Duckworth Street is a favourite of Jim Cuddy from Blue Rodeo and is featured on the Republic of Doyle. The fish and chips are plentiful, with a crunchy exterior. Be aware that often in this town you’ll be offered dressing (kind of a powdery, turkey-like stuffing sprinkled on top), plus gravy. There’s homey wallpaper and stained-glass light fixtures and scarves from soccer clubs around the world. Nothing fancy but just right. 325 Duckworth, 709-739-6344. dukeofduckworth.com
10 a.m. RECHARGE YOUR BATTERY
You can’t really do St. John’s without a stroll out to the Battery; the impossibly colourful (there’s that word again) collection of ramshackle homes that line the rocky entrance to the harbour. Head out Duckworth, turn right on Battery Road and look for a place to park, or just make a 10- to 15-minute walk from downtown.
There are welcome signs everywhere you go and the trail is well-marked. You’ll zag past blue, orange and pale green homes and artist studios. Finally, just before you enter the North Head Trail below Signal Hill, you’ll cross over somebody’s front deck, about a metre from their front door. One can only surmise they get dressed before picking up the morning paper. The trail can be a tad slippery but the views of the narrows, the surging surf, the boats, the gulls and abandoned military posts are tremendous.
NOON, A TASTE OF NAPLES
Piatto is an upscale Italian place on Duckworth, with the de rigeur Vespa in the window, a wood-fired pizza oven and a fun, bistro-like feel. My salumi appetizer was $14 and came with roasted, sweet peppers, prosciutto, speck and sliced salami, plus focaccia bread, a few olives, two small slices (not the good, crumbly stuff) of parmesan and two wedges of, um, brie. There was a half-ton of meat on my Sicilian pizza; spicy sausage and prosciutto and roasted peppers but the crust was a tad thick for real Neapolitan pie. 377 Duckworth, 709-726-0909. piattopizzeria.com
2 p.m. QUEST FOR ICE
There may not be icebergs this far south in July but, in May, there were still plenty out and about. The folks at Iceberg Quest will take you out for a couple of hours and show you some of nature’s most sublime sights.
If the bergs aren’t around, and some years they simply don’t appear near St. John’s, you can get close-up views of puffins or take a whale-watching trip. One of my tour guides, Nathan, says he knows some of the whales by sight. “Two of them we call Mutt and Jeff. Whatever one does, the other does the same. It’s great. They sometimes get within a couple feet of the boat.” The ticket booth is at Pier 6 at Harbourfront, near The Keg. Tours are $60 for adults, $55 for seniors and $28 for kids 12 and under. 866-720-1888. icebergquest.com
5 p.m. CAPE CRUSADERS
Cape Spear, a national historic site, can be stunningly lovely. Or not. Troops stationed here during World War II complained of being cold, clammy and miserable. There are two lighthouses and a great boardwalk and old battlements from the war. It’s the easternmost point of North America, far closer to Ireland than to Vancouver, and a lot of folks come for the sunrise. There’s a big sign down near the water that tells folks that Canada either begins here or ends here, depending on your perspective. It’s a great place to say hello to St. John’s. Or goodbye.
JUST THE FACTS
SLEEPING Murray Premises is an old warehouse that’s been converted into a boutique hotel on the waterfront. Almost all rooms have Jacuzzi tubs of various sizes, plus free wi-fi, fireplaces and flat-screen TVs. Many rooms have exposed-brick walls and wood pillars. The back door empties out 70 or 80 steps from the bars on George St., making this an ideal location. Rooms for July 15 and 16 recently ranged from $189 for a queen to $239 for an executive suite with a two-person Jacuzzi and a king bed. 5 Beck’s Cove, 866-738-7773. murraypremiseshotel.com. The Chef’s Inn is a cozy B&B owned by local chef Todd Perrin and run by his parents, Bill and Wanda. My room had an ensuite bath, a small TV and a view of the harbour. Cute as a proverbial button. Wanda will leave out lemon cake for your breakfast if you have an early-morning flight. 29 Gower St., 877-753-3180. thechefsinn.ca