Newfoundland Express

A little while ago, Doodle came to St. John’s, in a lightning-fast visit crammed between her graduation from the University of Chicago and a hike along Peru’s Inca Trail.  Because she normally lives in Oregon, we figured that now was probably the only time we would ever see her on the east coast.

After Rusty and Mags’ visit earlier in the month, the Pie and I tried to glean the best of their lengthy visit into a more concentrated form for the two and a half days Doodle would be in town.  So, if you’re ever in St. John’s and you don’t have a lot of time on your hands, here are the absolute must-see, must-do things on your list.

1. Climb Signal Hill and the Battery

LOCATION: Downtown St. John’s

I can’t even count the number of times we’ve been up to see the Cabot Tower.  It’s the thing you do when people come to town.  You can’t not do it.  And to have a historical landmark right in the middle of town (okay, it’s right on the edge, on a cliff, hanging over the ocean, but so is most of the city) means you can’t really justify skipping it.  And if you’ve got a stout pair of walking shoes and an extra hour, I recommend wandering through the Battery and taking the North Head Trail up to the top of Signal Hill.  Your butt muscles will hate you for it but the view is worth it.For more information about these historic sites you can see the post I made when Cait and iPM were in town last summer.

And the nice thing about this place is it’s pretty even when the weather is terrible:

The view at night is also awesome.  It’s our goal some day to come and watch the sunrise here.  If it’s not foggy.

2. Eat at Ches’s Fish and Chips

LOCATION: Downtown St. John’s plus four other locations — see website:

My father, sailor that he is, has been to St. John’s more times than he can count, and he will tell you time and time again that a visit to the city isn’t complete without a scoff at Ches’s.  Serving fresh, local fish is part of their manifesto, and despite the greasiness of the menu items, you never leave the restaurant feeling gross.  Plus every time you eat there you get a free mini-cupcake.  Also available for take-out.

3. Stand at the Most Easterly Point in North America

LOCATION: Cape Spear National Historic Site, 20 minutes’ drive south of St. John’s.

Because really, why not?  It’s not like it’s far.  This is another place where I’ve been so many times I’ve lost count, but it never gets old.  I’ve seen it in all weathers: in fog, rain, wind, sun, storm, and even a blizzard.  Beautiful every time.

I like to go stand next to the edge and look out into the wide empty space of the ocean.  The Pie doesn’t like it when I do that, but I ignore him.  I’m not really that close to the edge.And the waves crashing into the coastline are truly spectacular.For more information on this historic site you can see the other post I made last summer.

Now, if you’ve got yourself a wee bit more time and access to a car, here are a few more places you should visit.

4.  Look at the Seals!

LOCATION: Memorial University Ocean Sciences Centre, Logy Bay, about 15 minutes’ drive north-east of St. John’s, past the dump.  Open to the public 1 June to Labour Day.  Donations appreciated.

I’ve only been here once, for a few minutes, but I would like to go back soon for a guided tour.  We arrived in the pouring rain but a nice young man told us all about the five trained seals they have on site and answered all our questions.  He even let us play with the local fauna in a touch pool that was really neat.  The Pie wasn’t too enthused about the nobby sea cucumber but I thought it was cool.  The institution itself looks like something out of a Jules Verne novel.Plus can you imagine going to work every day with a view like this?Sheesh.

5. Take a Ferry Ride

LOCATION: Portugal Cove-St. Phillips, 20 minutes’ drive north of St. John’s, straight down Portugal Cove Road.

Take an afternoon when it’s sunny and head up to Bell Island, my second-favourite place on the Avalon Peninsula.  Hop on the short ferry and sail on over.  We’ve been there three times now, and every time we see something different.  Here is the post about our first trip, and our second trip.  The third time I didn’t think you needed to hear all about it.  And yet here I am, typing away.

But seriously, it’s worth a few hours of your time, especially if you like looking at things that are pretty.

6. Have a Picnic

LOCATION: Ferryland Head Lighthouse, Ferryland, 1.5 hours’ drive south of St. John’s.

Now my favourite place on the whole of the Avalon Peninsula.  I think I gushed about it enough here, but I’ll tell you again that you should go.

On our visit, Doodle and I paid the $9.50 each to go through the interpretation centre, which was a little bit of a bust (unless you like looking at pot pieces in drawers with little explanation of what they are), but it meant that we got a little booklet that explained all the numbered archaeological dig sites in the area, and gave us access to a period kitchen where we talked to a nice lady dressed in costume about spinning wool by hand, and how you bake bread in a fire.

And of course we had our picnic.You can’t go without having a picnic.

And that’s just stuff to do on the Avalon Peninsula.  Newfoundland is an absolutely HUGE place, with tons to do.  Stay tuned for our camping excursion in Gros Morne!

Tourist at Home: Signal Hill and The Battery

Alidoesit’s 100th post!
Cait and iPM’s visit started with some cheese.Okay, with a heckuvalotta cheese.  Good Ontario cheese. A week later and we’ve barely dented it.  Best house guest present ever when you live in the land that cheese forgot.

Anyway, then the visit progressed.  We tried to show our friends the best of our little island in the middle of the North Atlantic.  I think that we did a pretty good job.

We started with the obvious: Signal Hill National Historic Site.

You can see this place from all over St. John’s, which made it an ideal site for observation and communication over the last four hundred or so years.  You can even see it from our house, in the winter, when the trees are all naked.

Long before ship-to-shore radio, flags raised on signal masts on the hill would tell merchants and the military in St. John’s about the types of vessels heading into the narrow harbour.

The hill also became the strategic location for the city’s military defenses, beginning in the 18th century and continuing through the Second World War.

St. John’s, a coveted port by the French, the English, and to a lesser extent, the Portuguese, fell from British control to the French in 1696, 1705, and again in 1709.  The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 recognized British sovereignty over Newfoundland, but that only temporarily ended the conflict between the French and the English.

The last battle of the Seven Years’ War was fought in St. John’s in 1762. In June of 1762 the French succeeded in again capturing St. John’s, but lost it again in September.  Lt. Col. Amherst took strategic advantage when he captured Signal Hill first, and bombarded the city with its own guns.  The historic Fort Amherst is located across the Narrows on the other side of the harbour.

Fortification of the hill began at this point, and was enough to successfully deter the French yet again in 1796.  Military barracks were built on the hill and around it in the 1830s, and it was re-fortified during the American Civil War. 

During the First World War, a contingent of the Newfoundland Legion of Frontiersmen manned the fort for St. John’s defense.  In the Second World War, the Americans maintained anti-aircraft artillery, coastal defense guns, and a mobile battery at Signal Hill.  Fortunately St. John’s did not see any action during these two wars.  In fact, Signal Hill was a place for healing.  Three different hospitals called it home between 1870 and 1920.  It was from one of these hospitals that Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901.
Between 1898 and 1900, Cabot Tower, that landmark most visible around the city, was built in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s Voyage of Discovery. The tower was used for signaling until 1960, and now it contains a gift shop and a museum commemorating Marconi’s efforts. 

Below Signal Hill is the historic Battery, a set of ancient fishing houses, stages, and stores that are an echo of the way the city used to be, when there were no roads and everyone traveled by boat.

The streets here are too narrow to drive, and the brightly painted houses lining them are old and tiny.  It is a beautiful place for a walk.Or even just to sit and stare.