Oh my America, my New Found Land
title of this article comes from a poem by the seventeenth century English
writer, John Donne. He never traveled to the Atlantic coast of Canada, but, in
common with a lot of people of his time, the New World loomed large in his
imagination. The island of Newfoundland (part of the easternmost Canadian
province, Newfoundland and Labrador) isn’t really appropriately named – far
from being newly discovered it was the first part of America to be visited by
Europeans. In this case, the expedition was led by the Viking Leif Erikson in
the ninth century AD – a full five hundred years before Christopher Columbus’
belated arrival a few thousand miles further south. This is historical fact,
not legend, and there’s archaeological evidence to back it up.
Not all cruise lines run their itineraries as far out as St.
Johns – most stop at Halifax, down the main Canadian coast to the southwest.
But if you are aboard a ship that’s bound for this island settlement, you’re in
for a treat. The city is geared towards the cruise industry – which is its
main source of tourism – and you will find yourself at a dedicated tourist
information center as soon as you disembark.
heading into town there’s one site of interest that you must visit – Signal
Hill. Although you need to be in reasonable shape, the pull to the summit is
not at all difficult, and once you’re up there the view over the city and the
harbor is definitely worth it. It was from Signal Hill, in 1901, that Gugliemo
Marconi sent the very first transatlantic radio message. He picked St. John’s
as his base station because it’s the north American city closest to Europe. The
test that Marconi made was successful, and the rest is history. There is a
small museum on the summit commemorating Marconi’s achievement. It isn’t from
wireless that the hill gets its name, however – it’s the site of a tower that
was used to hoist signaling flags to ships coming in and out of the city’s
harbor in the days before radio was even thought of. If you’re enjoying the
fresh air and sea breezes the climb to the top of signal hill is also the start
of a ridge walk that takes you along the harbor skyline. More information can
be had back at the tourist information station.
back down the hill you might now want to have a wander into the historic center
of St. John’s. The downtown area claims to be the ‘oldest commercial district
in North America’ – with some justification, as trade was taking place here
while the British, French and Spanish were still fighting over the mainland of
what would become the United States to decide exactly who was boss. George
Street, Water Street and Duckworth Street form the heart of the old town, which
in recent years has been regenerated into a thriving shopping and social
If shopping is your thing, then this most certainly is not some
sort of northern wasteland. Though the big chain stores are not
over-represented, there are dozens of small boutiques selling everything from
designer clothing to books. Because of the city’s rich Anglo-Irish heritage
(the local accent still has a distinct Irish twang about it) and the prominence
of the sea in the local economy, the city has a long tradition of producing
excellent wood sculpture and other handicrafts. The skills required to make
many of the crafts available are derived from the sort of techniques that would
have been used onboard wooden hulled, square rigged sailing ships to maintain
equipment. There aren’t too many square riggers sailing out of St. John’s
today, but the skills and the crafts persist – some wonderful items can be
bought quite cheaply if you shop around.
is also the best area in the city for dining. The Anglo-Irish heritage has also
bequeathed the city a host of excellent pubs, many of which serve first rate
bar meals. The best are to be found along Water Street and Duckworth Street.
Many have outdoor terraces and ‘beer gardens’ where al fresco eating in
summertime is great fun. The local cuisine is pretty much what you’d find back
home in the states, although the popularity of Irish stew once more hints at
the city’s background, while the preponderance of fish dishes is a reminder of
the strength of the local fishing industry. Remember that Canadians use
Commonwealth usage when talking about the world’s favorite snack – so fries are
‘chips’ and chips are ‘crisps’!
St John’s is quite a small city, so a day is plenty of time to
have a good look around. You’ll probably have appreciated as you arrived how
remote the city is – which just goes to show what a great time you can have in
the most unlikely places!