For additional context, after reading this, read 30 hours in St. Pierre, France.
I got in to town on an Air Canada Express flight that touched down shortly before 9:00 a.m. and after I checked into my room, a little chilled, set out again. I had a full itinerary and wondered if I would get to all of it… Hah!
There was a point between 10:00 a.m. and noon, between the deserted downtown core (hello?! it was a Thursday morning!) and returning to touristy/civilization where I had time to think. It’s a dangerous and scary thing. I couldn’t stream music to my phone for fear I would drain my battery and be stranded inside a national park as sun went down. I was so very alone for that time interval, too.
These were my first/gut impressions:
- the city is damn hilly.
- the city is damn quiet.
- there are no people around, no people my age, no women, no Asians.
- those row houses are really colourful – oh, look, more colourful row houses! And more over there! Even the mailboxes depict rainbow-coloured row houses!
- this feels like the fishing villages I have visited in Nova Scotia and Vancouver Island, with some commerce injection.
- Irving across the harbour, atop that hill is such a big presence.
- this place is not at all like Halifax – it was my mistake to expect it.
What the heck am I even doing in St. John’s? I so desperately wanted to have a side trip to my Halifax trip and it turns out to have been justifiable: in just over two months, I’m back in Halifax anyways and spending like 12 days with my mother, seven days with my father; and my sister had brought her boyfriend back to Halifax with her and I felt like a third wheel – let them have a romantic Maritime holiday without me around.
With this visit to St. John’s, I have visited (at the very least, stayed overnight) in every Canadian province. It’s just Winnipeg/Manitoba I can’t claim to have visited. I sort of wish I had visited during the summer, a sunnier, warmer and busier time but I don’t come out this way in the summer high season. I tried to imagine everything I saw bathed in sunshine, filled in with more people, give the city more credit for its attractions. I was disappointed that I may be aligning more with NPY, not just being a city slicker but can’t bring myself to enjoy a different environment temporarily. The city just soooo isn’t my style even if I will tout my Maritime roots when it is convenient. ;D
So, this is what I got up to in the 30 or so hours in St. John’s.
I took a City Wide Taxi cab from the airport and was slightly mortified as the rate racked up – the airport didn’t look so far. And then the cabbie, a first-generation Canadian by his accent, tacked on a $5 surcharge because I wasn’t getting dropped off at a proper hotel – the sign said “residential” and while the apartment was in the commercial section, it was residential. “I can’t lie to you,” he claimed. He thrust a mobile credit card payment device at me and the first row allowed you to select “% or $ amount” while the second row allowed you to let the machine calculate 15%, 18%, 20%, what have you. Selecting a pre-calculated amount was easy with one button aligning below with each selection. I found the top row selection was not responding and he rushed me that the machine would time out. The surcharge racheted up the fare and I hastily selected 15% and felt a sock to my stomach at the amount I was giving him. The next day, I dropped by the visitor center to pick up a brochure for my next leg and asked the agent there. I was indeed gypped and what a sour introduction to the city that is. It’s unforgiveable.
Because I got a bit of a chill already, I sensibly changed from a dress and tights with boots to skinny jeans and boots and a long-sleeve tech top under my trench coat and light scarf. I might being wimpy Vancouver-acclimatized traveller but I’m also slightly unprepared for The Rock – wind-swept and chill to the bone.
First things first, I visited the other B&B I made a reservation with and cancelled well within their cancellation policy. I was so disappointed because I would never receive email confirmation, they charged my credit card anyhow after my first (and second) request to cancel my reservation and even after an agent reassured me she was processing it, I did not receive an email and surely didn’t see my credit card debited back the amount. I was going to demand the cash value if I had to. The girl didn’t seem entirely capable but told me my credit card had been refunded the day before. I will hold them to that.
I had planned on visiting the Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist the next day but I could see it not too far off and walked up to it but not before weaving and retracing my steps to get photos of more rainbow coloured row houses. The foyer of the cathedral smelled like a musty old house but the more airy cathedral was better. I had a good little conversation with God and, as always, prayed for my parents. That’s why I visit churches when I travel – such an indulgent activity I don’t take for granted and my parents do not have the time to.
Bannerman Park was on my list of places to visit but I skipped it, didn’t even really set eyes on it, somehow.
My next destination was Quidi Vidi Lake with its trail that is part of the Grand Concourse walkway network, check out the village that supported artisans, and get lunch at Mallard Cottage. I encountered the lake on the south side in middle of its length and wasn’t overly impressed. It was so small and groomed. As I head east toward the village, there was a nice boardwalk stretch that separated you from the encroaching reeds. I didn’t find the village of artisans but saw the fishing village and proceeded to Mallard Cottage which I first heard of from enRoute’s list of Canada’s Best New Restaurants up for the 2014 People’s Choice Award. Further, cousin Alan had heard of it and recommended I go, too.
Mallard Cottage was the first bright spot in my day. It was renovated inside and so cozy. They seated me at a two-top next to the window overlooking their herb garden and with a view of some guys preparing food outdoors. The tables and settings were charmingly mismatched and eclectic. Practical items like rosemary plants, recipe books and pickling jars formed part of the decor and at the center of the room, a virtual dessert buffet sat atop a barrel. There were plenty of staff but I suspect they all have defined and many tasks. I checked my phone and realized why the restaurant was empty and why the city was deserted – it was only 11:30 a.m. despite my sustained flurry of activity. The lunch crowd started to come until the place was abuzz. I hope they do well in St. John’s and bring the scene to 2014. I noticed that every table asked what porchetta was.
The most direct way for me to get to Signal Hill once I saw the lake was to take the southbound Lake-to-Lookout Trail but that conflicted with going to Mallard Cottage west of the lake. My new option was to continue on Cuckold Cove Trail until it met up with Ladies Lookout Trail that brought you to the top of Signal Hill. What makes it a Ladies Lookout? I still don’t know. At one point, I saw a trail description that rated the Ladies Lookout Trail that ascends to the top of Signal Hill as “medium to difficult”. “No Quidi,” I punned. :P
Full of brunch, I set out to summit Signal Hill (“hill” is a misnomer – it is quite dauntingly tall in the constant fog and mist). Knowing I was going to arrive at one of the most easterly points of North America cheered me up for some reason. I’m just like that. Further, I was racing against the tropical storm that Hurricane Gonzalo might bring, haha.
Cuckold Cove Trail was clearly marked near Mallard Cottage when it took some turns but for a stretch I wasn’t sure if I hadn’t fallen off the trail. It was steep but all paved with gravel. When I finally saw the trail marker, I expected to find the Ladies Lookout Trail to branch off but never saw it. Great, I was going to do a loop around the base of Signal Hill instead, huh? I was so utterly alone the remoteness of the region really hit me. I fancied that I might get kidnapped by a transient or opportunistic predator or mauled by a bear. I think those are actually impossibilities… Then Cuckold Cove Trail dumped onto paved Signal Hill Road on which cars drove to ascend Signal Hill and I was relieved.
My first vista was from Gibbet Hill and what a payoff. You can see St. John’s and the harbour in its entirety closer than when you’re atop Signal Hill and set a little farther back.
The top of Signal Hill has Cabot Tower, the noon gun/canon and the spot where the first wireless communication was sent and received by Marconi. You can go into the tower onto the roof. I was fascinated by Cape Spear, the most easterly point of North America and just how there is a 20-kilometer course between my position and all the way out there. What a tough and quiet race that would be. I was fascinated by the waves crashing against the few embankments between Signal Hill and Cape Spear. It’s so… maritime, so harsh.
I was relieved to be headed back towards civilization, uplifted because I had finally seen other people. My first stop was at Mile 0 memorial for Terry Fox who began his Marathon of Hope in St. John’s after dipping his artificial leg into the harbour. I was sniffly from the chill I felt and coming to a stop after a lot of walking and sometime while reading the second placard, maybe the part where Terry Fox became a marathon runner after his leg was amputated and I got extra sniffly. It is a nice and very peaceful memorial.
Heading towards the core, I kept weaving between Water Street and Duckworth Street. The latter is more colourful but I was also trying to get to my firm’s St. John’s office on Water Street. I visited and lingered in the dreamy HOME on Water St. kitchen and bathrooms goods shop. I spotted Newfoundland Chocolate Company from a distance because of its mural and they profited from my visit.’’ I continued along Water Street and came across the TransCanada Trail (Highway?) Mile 0 (0th kilometer). The Pharmacy Museum was closed for the season and I considered continuing on the Harbourside Walk to the Beothuk Monument but I was tired of walking alongside the industrial waterfront. Near my place, I visited the liquor store and had fun selecting a small bottle of Newfoundland wine (has partridgeberry) and Screech (rum).
The route I took until that point was over 11 km and I don’t know how much distance was added with my backtracking. In poorly supported boots. Needless to say, with just a few hours of sleep even, I needed a break and retired to my room for a bit. I used The Telegram’s “Top 10 restaurants of 2013” to guide me to list three restaurants on Duckworth to check out: Basho, The Club and Get Stuffed. Based on name, I wasn’t inclined towards any. Basho was too regular Japanese for what I wanted and The Club didn’t post a menu at the window so I went to Get Stuffed. Since I had been so chilled, I was inclined to get a fish or seafood stew and it was on the menu.
I finished dinner shortly after 8:00 p.m. and what was I to do with myself? George Street didn’t look like it had really woken up except at a few of the bars. An Irish pub seemed most amenable to someone who is solo and I narrowed it down to Bridie Molloy’s, Greensleeves and O’Reilly’s. The first two had a fundraiser night and looked divey, respectively, and O’Reilly’s was piping their live band into the street so you know what you were getting.
At the bar, I was soon chatting with a Toronto transplant trying to blend into with the locals, a musician who was a special act on the cruise ship coming in the next day and a very recent divorcee. I learned the George Street way which is to hop from bar to bar all evening long and the amount of stamina the locals had. Within four or five hours, we spent time at the first pub, O’Reilly’s, then five more: The Martini Bar, Allure, Christian’s, Shamrock City and Sundance…! In St. John’s, on George Street, I was far from being “too old”!
Good thing the bar and entertainment district was just around the corner from where I was staying.
The next day, I made it for my 9:00 a.m. meeting without too much difficult but I was at the wrong location. :S While I waited, passengers from the Princess Legend of the Seas disembarked and made their way from the wharf to Water Street. I was asked by three groups how to find the Tim Hortons – which was due, I realized later, to me holding a Tims coffee – and one couple asked me about the shopping available to them. Um? None? No malls, and it was too early for the independent shops to open.
My last stop in St. John’s was to “work”, i.e., write this, in a coffee shop. Rocket Bakery has been on You Gotta Eat Here, but what hasn’t (she asks cheekily)? I ordered a cod cake to have a hot item and a quinoa salad to pick at during my stay there. They have a lot of room since they serve real food and I’ve enjoyed writing this, reliving it all so shortly after, at a communal table.
I ended up enjoying my short stay very much. I’m not normally cut out for that size of city (a quarter the size of Halifax) but a visit to Mallard Cottage and the vibrancy of George Street on a Thursday night in the fall gives me hope.
Further, for four reasons I know of now, I will return to St. John’s, probably within the next five to ten years: to visit the most easterly point in North America, Cape Spear; to get my Newfoundland race medal perhaps doing the unique Cape to Cabot 20K run; I never left the downtown core but suspect there are gentrified areas with shopping (that the cruise ship passengers would have enjoyed) along Topsail and beyond; and to visit the St. John’s office after Friday’s debacle!