St. John’s, Newfoundland. September, 2021

St John's Harbour from Signal Hill

Last fall, I led a a tour for Mile Zero Tours through Newfoundland and, had the weather been better, over to Labrador and back. This was my third trip back to the Rock.

My first exploration of the island back in 1997 was truly epic. I was gathering research for a book about Canada’s national parks. Along with my wife, we drove and camped all the way to Cape Spear National Historic Site, the farthest east you can go from Victoria and back. If my memory serves me well, we put approximately 15,000 miles on our aging Honda civic over a 6 month period while visiting 26 national parks and several national historic sites along the way.  My book “Phantom Parks: The Struggle to Save Canada’s National Parks” was published in the spring of 2000.

The second time was in 2014 when I was invited to take part in a two-day symposium on ocean literacy and citizen science at Memorial University. After hours, we’d head downtown to catch the vibe on Water Street. There were a couple of profs and a few grad students who lived in the city and knew the best places for food, drink and live music. My personal favourites were the Yellowbelly Brewer Pub and the Celtic Hearth seen below. I had decided to stay an extra day after the symposium to explore the surrounding region. Turned out that one of the other participants had plans to do the same. Together we rented a car and drove around the southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula.

Yellowbelly Brewery St. John's
Celtic Hearth St. John's

Each time I’ve visited St. John’s, I’ve had the good fortune to be staying near the downtown core. Unlike the previous two trips, on this one, I had sufficient downtime to explore the surrounding neighbourhood on foot. Setting out from our hotel, The Jag, I initially wandered up and down the streets with no solid direction in mind, but then I stumbled on one of the city’s heritage loop walks.

Section of Heritage Walk Loop St. John's
secion of Heritage Walk Loop St. John's

What a delightful discovery this turned out to be! After ascending this stone staircase between a church and a restaurant, the walk  took me down incredibly picturesque lanes and streets. At one point, I met a woman coming up a narrow lane towards me carrying an ice cream cone that looked positively delicious. It was a hot day and I had been walking quite a while at this point. The cone promised to refresh me. She told me that she got it at Moo-Moos Ice Cream and that it was made from scratch.

Her directions there sounded easy enough to follow. But after a couple of turns I wasn’t sure where I was going. That’s when I bumped into a guy carrying a guitar headed downtown to do busker on Water Street. He got me headed in the right direction. The route took me up King Street passed row upon of” jellybean houses”, so called for their bright and bold colours.

By the way, I was saddened to see that the owner is retiring and the building is currently up for sale at the time of writing this.

Kings Road St. John's

There are numerous stories of why these houses are painted this way. Some fanciful, such as the colours enabling drunken mariners to find their home. The truth is much more mundane. Back in the 1970s, the city was suffering economically and looked for something to attract tourists. Someone came up with the brilliant idea of painting homes near the downtown core and the idea quickly caught on and spread to other parts of the city and from what I saw, even to other communities on the island. 

Colourful Mailbox St. John's

The previous day, my group and I went on a bus tour of the city and surrounding region with a local guide. Our first stop was Cabot Tower on Signal Hill. The tower was constructed in 1898 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s discovery of what is now called Newfoundland. It’s from here, in 1901, that Marconi received the first trans-Atlantic wireless message.

Signal Hill is a National Historic Site in recognition of it’s military and commercial importance. Initially claimed by the British by right of discovery, the harbour was under constant threat of being taken over by the French. To deter this threat, cannons were placed along both sides of the Narrows at the entrance of the harbour. But the cannons weren’t enough of a deterent and soon the harbour was being swapped back and forth between the two empires. The Treaty of Utrecht signed in 1713 was supposed to settle the matter in favour of the British, but in 1762, the French attacked and re-took the harbour. They immediately beefed up the defences at the entrance to the habour expecting the British would attack from the sea. They were caught completely off-guard by British troops who landed further away and mounted a sneak attack from behind the French defences. 

There are numerous trails that fan out from the summit of Signal Hill and then skirt along the bluffs above the Narrows. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time for me to hike down any of them. Next time!

Our next stop was Cape Spear National Historic Site about 12 kms distant from St. John’s downtown core. It is the most eastern point of Canada. You can go no further by land. The Cape has a long history of human presence. Both the Beothuk and Mi’kmaq people are known to have used the area historically. But it’s during the late 1930s and early 1940s that the area underwent its greatest transformation. To protect passing convoys from enemy attack during World War ll, bunkers were dug for guns mounted on carriages such they could be pulled back undercover after firing. Underground passage ways were dug to connect them all and barracks were built to accommodate the troops. 

There are two lighthouses on the Cape as well. The original one was built in 1836. It is the second lighthouse in Newfoundland after the Fort Amherst lighthouse which was contructed in 1810.



Cabot Tower Signal Hill
Original Lighthouse Cape Spear
Fort Amherst Lighthouse Entrance to St. John's Harbour

Circling back to our hotel, we stopped in the quaint and scenic Petty Harbour. According to our local guide, the harbour back in the day served as a refuge and base for pirates, before gradually evolving into a small fishing village. But with collapse of the cod fishery back in the early 1990s, the community has become a huge draw for tourists. So much so, during the peak summer months, finding a parking place becomes impossible at times. Fortunately, we had the place pretty much to ourselves being there in September.

Petty Harbour

Well, there you have it. A bit of an overview of some of the attractions of St. John’s Newfoundland. Stay tuned for more blogs on the rest of my travels across the Rock with stops in Twillingate, Gander, Rocky Harbour, Gros Morne National Park and L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site.