St. Johns, Newfoundland
FOUNDED in the late 16th century, St. Johns was already a settlement when New York City was a mere gleam in the eye of European colonizers. Cod was once king here, but now its the offshore oil industry that is pumping cash and confidence into this quirky city of nearly 100,000 that sits at North Americas easternmost edge. Icebergs, whales and puffins pass by in summer. And the typical friendliness of Newfoundland and Labrador comes with a decidedly Irish twist many locals speak with the thickest brogues west of Galway. George Street is the North Atlantic version of Bourbon Street in this attractive city where brightly colored row houses cascade down toward the harbor. With its steep streets, devotion to the arts and stirring views of the harbor and surrounding hills, St. Johns calls to mind a smaller but earthier San Francisco.
1) TITANIC, BUT NO DICAPRIO
An ideal first stop is Signal Hill, above, a rocky sentinel that overlooks the entrance to the harbor. Before reaching the top, though, visit the Johnson Geo Centre (175 Signal Hill Road, 709-737-7880; www.geocentre.ca), where one exhibition tells the tale of the Titanics sinking 350 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Shake your head in disbelief as you read how the ships owners neglected safety in favor of luxury and how they refused to equip the ship with enough lifeboats because it would clutter up the deck. Atop Signal Hill looms Cabot Tower, a castle-like structure next to where Marconi received the first trans-Atlantic wireless message in 1901. And if you had to pay which you dont the sweeping view of harbor and city from the lookout would be worth the price.
2) RELAX, TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES
The sophisticated St. Johns dining scene is traditionally centered on Water Street, but exciting newcomers have opened elsewhere. Waitresses at Taste of Thai (179 Duckworth Street, 709-738-3203) welcome patrons with a sawadeeka greeting hands pressed together and a slight bow. The restaurant sizzles with spicy curry dishes and a tasty cashew chicken (14 Canadian dollars, or $12.60 at 90 American cents to the Canadian dollar). Sit at Western-style tables and chairs, or take off your shoes and sit on floor cushions at low traditional tables.
3) OFF OFF OFF BROADWAY
Take in a play at the Resource Center for the Arts, the focal point of the citys arts scene. Housed in the former Longshoremens Protective Union Hall (3 Victoria Street, 709-753-4531; www.rca.nf.ca), a large 80-year-old building with a big pink, white and green flag a 19th-century symbol of Irish assimilation in the area painted on the front, the center plays host to theater, dance and art shows ranging from experimental to traditional; it promotes emerging artists in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
4) HAVE A COW, MAN
For a post-show treat, visit Moo-Moos Ice Cream (88 Kings Road, 709-753-3046), a boxy building painted a mottled black and white in dairy-cow fashion. The store makes more than 300 flavors of ice cream in its basement factory, including Fish Pond, which blends the leftovers from that days production. Turtle cheesecake a mix of cheesecake, Oreo crumbs and English toffee is among the most popular. Weve had lines out the door and around the corner, said Ruth Ryan, an employee.
5) MUFFINS, YES. HAMMERS, NO.
Fuel up on coffee and homemade baked goods at Auntie Craes Specialty Foods (272 Water Street, 709-754-0661), in a 100-year-old building that was once a hardware store. The partridgeberry muffins a Newfoundland treat are just 75 Canadian cents each. Buy the local newspaper, The Telegram, and take your food to the common room, a cozy space with wooden floors.
6) SEA LIFE
After breakfast, drive about half an hour south to Bay Bulls (Highway 2 south to Highway 3, which merges into Highway 10 south). Gatheralls Puffin & Whale Watch (Northside Road, 709-334-2887; www.gatheralls.com) is one of three eco-tour operators in town that ferry passengers to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, a group of offshore islands that in summer are host to 2.5 million mating seabirds, including about 500,000 puffins. Whales also appear in the bay during their summer migration and, if the currents are right, you might see an iceberg or two floating down from Greenland.
7) PROVINCIAL, BUT THATS O.K.
Its hard to miss the Rooms (9 Bonaventure Avenue, 709-757-8000; www.therooms.ca), a huge museum and art gallery that towers above the city from its hilltop perch. Opened last year and designed to resemble traditional Newfoundland fishing rooms where families processed their catch, the Rooms combines the Provincial Museum, the Provincial Art Gallery and the Provincial Archives under one roof. The spotlight is on artists from Newfoundland and Labrador and from throughout Canada. Unofficially, among its the best displays is the view of the harbors meeting the Atlantic at Signal Hill.
8) PEWS AND STOUTS
The Ship Pub (Solomons Lane at 265 Duckworth Street, 709-753-3870) is a classic watering hole with a laid-back vibe. There are several tables scattered about and a lot of old wood, including church pews set along the walls. Its easy to belly up to the time-worn bar and chat up the barkeepers or the mix of locals ranging from artists to lawyers. Its just not a pub, one customer said, its a living room. After a drink or two, its time for dinner. Restaurant 21 (21 Queens Road, 709-576-2112) is a slightly upscale corner restaurant on a residential street up the hill. The menu is seasonal and includes a smattering of organic items, like the delicious organic pork loin, blue cheese and double-smoked bacon with spinach au gratin, tomato basil pesto and red onion sauce (24 Canadian dollars). Bread comes with intriguing butter options, like barbecue blueberry and strawberry kiwi.
9) PLEASE, NOT DANNY BOY
George Street is party central in downtown St. Johns, a stretch of pedestrian-only mayhem jammed with loud bars, dance spots and clubs for Irish music. On a recent Saturday night at Bridie Molloys Pub & Eatery (5 George Street, 709-576-5990), an acoustic trio played to the occasional accompaniment of an Irish step dancer. Over at OReillys Irish Newfoundland Pub (15 George Street, 709-722-3735), a band with electric guitars played a more raucous set of Irish-tinged music. The music starts at about 10:30 p.m. and throbs late into the night. But whatever you do, avoid the hokey organized pub crawls.
10) IS THAT EUROPE YONDER?
You cant get much farther east in North America than Cape Spear National Historic Site (709-772-5367). Follow Water Street southwest, turn left onto Leslie Street and look for the sign for Cape Spear Drive. The nine-mile drive passes through rugged terrain until it meets the ocean. There are two lighthouses the original from 1836 and one built in 1955. You can pick up the East Coast Trail (www.eastcoasttrail.com) at the parking lot and hike south along the high sea cliffs.
11) COD TONGUES, ANYONE?
Velmas Place (264 Water Street, 709-576-2264) specializes in healthy helpings of traditional cuisine. An appetizer of cod tongues with scrunchions, or fat pork (8.95 Canadian dollars), and a meal of baked cod au gratin (10.95 Canadian dollars) or fish and chips made with cod (two pieces for 9.95 Canadian dollars; three pieces for 10.95 dollars) is as Newfoundland as it gets. Home-cooked food is the rule, and the hot turkey sandwich (9.95 Canadian dollars) is made with real roast turkey with dark meat, not bland deli meat. The strong taste will linger, even as St. Johns recedes in the distance.
Continental flies from Newark to St. Johns twice daily. Fares start at $419. Car rentals are available at the airport.
The Murray Premises Hotel (5 Becks Cove, 709-738-7773; www.murraypremiseshotel.com) is a downtown boutique hotel on the harbor; it has an electric fireplace, a Jacuzzi and a towel warmer in every room. Rates are 189 to 249 Canadian dollars (about $170 to $225 at 90 American cents to the Canadian dollar).
The Winterholme Heritage Inn (79 Rennies Mill Road, 709-739-7979; www.winterholme.com) is a national historic site in a Queen Anne Revival house. Rates are 159 to 249 Canadian dollars.
Cantwell House Bed & Breakfast (25 Queens Road, 709-754-8439; www.cantwellhouse.nf.net) is a stylish 1893 house with a third-floor porch that offers a fabulous view of harbor and city. Rooms are $90 Canadian dollars.