Here we are, catching up on my black hole of content from August of 2016 to April of 2017! I can’t wait to turn my detailed notes and journals into blog posts from Canada, the United Kingdom, Hawaii, Thailand and Bali! First up: Newfoundland.
Thanks for joining me on this trip down memory lane.
The summer of 2016 will long be remembered for me as the summer I finally got to truly came to appreciate my neighbor to the north. Prior to that summer, my Canadian travel experience consisted of a conference in Toronto, a trot across the bridge at Niagara Falls, a boozy New Year’s Eve in Montreal before I reached legal age in the USA and a childhood Suzuki music camp my mom dragged us across the border to — inadequate exploration indeed, and readers often reminded me of that fact, in tone that ranged from welcoming to we-hate-you.
Well I sure showed them when I booked practically back-to-back trips to two of Canada’s most off-the-beaten-track provinces!
I fell wildly, head-over-heels in love with Manitoba, from the city of Winnipeg to the polar bears and beluga whales of rural Churchill. And just a month later, I was back on a plane heading to another colorful Canadian province I’d never set foot in before: Newfoundland and Labrador.
While I’d traveled to Manitoba for work, this trip was of a more personal nature: visiting my boyfriend Ian’s childhood home for the first time. A true townie (I was quick to learn the Newfoundland lingo!), he grew up in the heart of St. John’s, the capital and largest city in the province. Don’t think too large — the population sits at just over 110,000. However, St. John’s earns several superlatives, it turns out — it’s also the oldest and most Eastern city in North America, sitting closer to Dublin than to Vancouver. Reputed to be as hilly as San Francisco, as colorful as New Orleans, and as charming as Martha’s Vineyard, I felt lucky to spend four days exploring the city with a personal, local tour guide. Here’s what we got up to.
Wandering Jellybean Row
Jellbean Row isn’t really one specific street — these rainbow-hued Victorian houses are all over St. John’s. While Ian’s parents have moved to a house a short stroll from the downtown core, he was born in one of these iconic, colorful homes. We spent plenty of time wandering through St. John’s streets, and one morning with great lighting went on a photo walk hunting bright hues.
The whimsical colors are tied together with crisp white trim, and many homes are accented with row-house painted mailboxes, bright window boxes of flowers, or charming wind-chimes. Legend has it the tradition started in the 1970’s as a way of cheering up the declining urban core, and now regularly land St. John’s on lists of the world’s most colorful cities.
Rows of cars made it somewhat tricky to nail the perfect shot of the jellybean houses, but I never tired of wandering around spotting new favorites.
Many shops and businesses have adopted the tradition. While we spent many days enjoying home-cooked meals at home with Ian’s parents, we had a fantastic lunch in one such restaurant, Sprout, a vegetarian eatery where the food on the plate was as colorful as the exterior.
Exploring Quidi Vidi
Looking back, Quidi Vidi was my favorite part of St. John’s — a quaint fishing village that seems almost transplanted into a provincial capital city, just a five minute drive from downtown.
After scoring one of the very limited parking spots, we wandered around the tiny harbor known as “The Gut” and marveled at the perfect weather, a rarity in moody St. John’s. I found myself fascinated with the rickety houses raised up above the water by stilts and spent a long time just staring at them, wondering what it would be like to call one home.
For beer drinkers, the natural next stop would be the Quidi Vidi Brewing Company, Newfoundland’s largest microbrewery and home to Iceberg Beer, made from pure 20,000 year old icebergs found floating around St. John’s. The tour and tasting are just $10!
For craft lovers, the natural next stop would be the Quidi Vidi Village Plantation, a visitor center slash artist’s cooperative that was sadly closed the day of our visit.
For food lovers, the natural next stop is a meal at Mallard Cottage — and that’s exactly where we were headed. Reservations are highly recommended for this 18th Century, Irish-Newfoundland style cottage-turned-eatery, considered one of the oldest wooden buildings in all of North America. Ian and his parents and I had a beautiful brunch here, undoubtedly one of the most memorable meals of the trip. They post their menu every day to Instagram, if you want a peek at what’s on offer.
I can’t recommend a day in Quidi Vidi more highly — I felt like I stepped back in time.
Hiking from Signal Hill
You simply can’t come to St. John’s without seeing the view from the top of Signal Hill — at least that’s the impression I got from my local tour guides! Ian, his parents, one of his best friends and I all headed to the top of the mountain one breezy morning after dropping one car off at the end of the trail in Battery Park and strolled around the historic sights at the top for as long as we could stand the wind.
There was Cabot Tower, a castle-looking monument to the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s discovery of Newfoundland, and a plaque commemorating the first transatlantic wireless message ever received, sent in 1901.
And then, there was the North Head Trail, connecting Cabot Tower with the waterfront Battery neighborhood. At 1 mile / 1.7km, it certainly wasn’t too long in distance, but it was fairly dramatic, tracing the sheer cliffs and winding around into Newfoundland’s harbor.
Though it was a big late in the season for them, we kept our eyes peeled for whales and icebergs. Just like I did at the Grand Canyon, I marveled at the lack of safety railings and warning signs — this is nature, unobstructed, and I liked it. That said, there are extremely steep stairways and very sheer cliff drop offs — at one point, there’s a chain bolted into the cliff that you hold onto while skirting around a narrow edge — and so I recommend wearing proper footwear and skipping any pre-hike boozy brunches. Those with a fear of heights and / or free-spirited children may wish to avoid this trail. Me? I loved it.
The trail spat us out in The Battery, a charming neighborhood that reminded me faintly of Quidi Vidi with its colorful, ramshackle houses perched cliff-side. Next time we go back, I’m going to download this app and do a little self-walking tour — I only just discovered it while researching for this post! (The beauty of this trip? That I didn’t do five seconds of research before arrival — I just blindly followed Ian around and loved every dang second of it.)
Fence Hopping in Fort Amherst
On the opposide side of the harbor from Signal Hill sits Fort Amherst, where Ian and I set off a different morning for a wander. The lighthouse is surrounded by private home with limited parking and so the lot is about five to ten minute downhill from the main attraction, but the stunning views easily pass the time.
At the top you’ll find a bright red and white lighthouse as well as a World War II fort that’s today covered in colorful graffiti. Getting to the fort required hopping a fence and scaling some steep cliffs, which I was wary of, but Ian assured me it’s an open secret that you’re welcome to do so.
While I wandered around waiting to be arrested, Ian commandeered my camera for some fabulous photos.
We also got to enjoy The Battery and Signal Hill from a new vantage point, and marvel at the sheer trail we’d hiked the day before.
On the way out, we got a little taste of the industrial side of St. John’s in the active harbor — this is a seafood lover’s heaven!
We managed to squeeze quite a bit more into our short four night, four day trip — a trip to the museum and gallery at The Rooms, a night out on George Street (where they have the most bars per square foot of anywhere in North America!) where I got “screeched in” at Trapper John’s, a romantic date night at Adelaide Oyster House, and lots of time kicking around at Ian’s house with his parents. And there’s so much more to go back for.
I also got to experience something truly St. John’s-esque — a “baycation” to one of the outports. What’s an outport, you ask? Essentially, any coastal community that isn’t St. John’s itself. And Ian gave me the most beautiful gift on this trip — a two-day road trip to Trinity and Bonavista that he planned start to finish and I got to just plain be delighted by. Stay tuned!
Next up: our Newfoundland Baycation!