Dublin in the dominions

St. John’s – Canada’s oldest city, the capital of its newest province, and North America’s most eastern settlement. Named when John Cabot first sailed into its harbour on the Feast of St John the Baptist in 1497, today St. John’s is associated with ‘jellybean row’, the brightly coloured hillside houses that can be seen for miles around. It’s the principal city of Newfoundland and Labrador, which has a rich history, its own time zone (three and a half hours behind GMT), and a unique reputation. Visitors know to expect a broad Cornish-Irish accent, rum-based initiation rituals, and a feeling that there is nowhere on earth quite like it.

Early August brings a Civic Holiday in most of Canada, so we flew almost halfway back to London to the country’s eastern tip. (It’s sea from there to Ireland.) Our only experience of Newfoundland previously had been the hit musical Come From Away, which recounts how plane-loads of travellers were stranded and accommodated in Gander immediately after 9/11. It was perhaps an odd choice of plot for a musical but – as we soon realised – it accurately conveyed the warmth of the Newfie welcome and the jollity of their folk music. For example, when we arrived at our B&B in the early hours of Saturday morning, we discovered that another guest had arrived a day early and helped herself to our room. Our landlady was too kind to force her removal, so booked us into a hotel down the street and made us a special breakfast the following morning, apologising profusely the whole time and offering a wealth of recommendations for our short stay.

With its exerting gradients and stunning coastal views, the activity of choice for visitors to St. John’s is hiking (or ‘walking’ for our UK readers), so we first headed to Signal Hill. Overlooking the harbour, Signal Hill was the site of the city’s defences for three hundred years, and where Guglielmo Marconi received the world’s first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901. From Cabot Tower and the nearby Ladies’ Lookout, we could gaze at the Atlantic Ocean and imagine all the fishermen, sealers and sailors who had journeyed to and fro – not to mention the icebergs that surround the city for most of the year.

For a longer hike we set out from Cape Spear – the easternmost point of North America – to Fort Amherst in St. John’s Harbour along the East Coast Trail. With some rapid ascents and descents the path hugs the coastline as it takes in former fishing villages that now stand almost deserted after the cod moratorium of 1992. Along a well-kept trail we passed seemingly untouched natural beauty, the cliff peaks occasionally hidden by pine tree forests or billowing clouds. At other times human impact was vividly apparent, with the rusted metal of the SS Thetis dispersed on the barachois at Freshwater Bay.

To relax after our exertions, we headed one evening to the 42nd Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival, an annual three-day event that happened to be taking place in nearby Bannerman Park. Thus we were introduced to local groups The Once and Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers, as well as the enthusiastic Ukrainian-Canadian speed-folk music of the Kubasonics and (our personal favourite) the gypsy jazz of Christine Tassan et les Imposteures from Quebec. We estimated over a thousand people of all ages attending, and their enthusiasm was contagious.

As well as folk music, Newfoundland is celebrated for its wildlife, so with the assistance of O’Brien’s Boat Tours and an implausibly jolly guide we sped out into the Atlantic on a bracing Monday morning towards the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. These four islands are home to nearly five million nesting birds, including the largest colony of puffins in the North Atlantic, as well as common murre, black-legged kittiwake, and even bald eagles. We didn’t manage to catch sight of any whales, but as we motored back into Bay Bulls harbour we were thrilled to discover a pod of white-beaked dolphins.

Back on dry land, St. John’s is unsurprisingly famed for the freshness of its cod and chips, and the quality of its beer. The Quidi Vidi Brewing Company, in a harbour the other side of Signal Hill, is renowned throughout the province. Its Iceberg Lager is made using water collected from nearby icebergs. In town, YellowBelly came highly recommended, its lingering malty smell a pleasant reminder that the pale ale I was enjoying had been brewed only metres away.

It’s testament to the scale of our new country that we can fly for over three hours just to reach its closest perimeter. Our tour of The Rooms – Newfoundland’s official museum in a stunning location above the harbour – offered some insights into the (relatively) long history of Canada’s newest province: the influence of Irish immigration, its close connection with Britain in two world wars, and its moves finally to Confederation in 1949. Yet again we’ve discovered another facet of Canada’s diverse personality – this sociable coastal retreat seemingly a world away from the busyness of Ontario or the elegance of Quebec. Once more, we’ve been charmed by the people we meet, fascinated by the culture, and captivated by our experiences. What else can we do but continue exploring?


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