A great base to explore some of the sites down the east coast, a former stronghold of the temperance movement and a beautiful city in its own right, St John’s was to be our home for 3 nights. St John’s is the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador and combines being a busy port (much of which is servicing the oil rigs out in the north Atlantic) and trendy city with, according to the tourist guides, the highest density of pubs of anywhere in north America. Also, the place for tourists to undergo the traditional screech-in. The oil industry might be contributing to the overall wealth of the locals, a common sight and sound were the processions of 5L Mustangs and Harleys cruising the streets at night.
There was a music festival going on somewhere in the city but the only advertisements for it were the weirdly dressed people walking around in an array of costumes? Surely not their everyday dress code or maybe it was. Headphones with bunny ears for all! It reminded me of Winchester train station when Boomtown was on!
Finding restaurants was fast becoming a regular headache as we travelled the east part of Canada and despite being in the capital, and within walking distance of the centre, St John’s was no different. The city was full of NASCAR fans and officials, all the nearby places were fully booked so we ended up at a pizza place on a dodgy looking side street just outside the centre. There were weeds growing outside, the windows were impossible to see through and the inside was a little off-putting but what a welcome, what an array of beers! The best meal for weeks. Turns out they have a dispute ongoing with the authorities who wouldn’t let them build a patio, so they are refusing to cut the grass as it obviously belongs to the city. They’re losing a lot of custom but they didn’t care. Take-away was going well!
On our first day we travelled south to Witless Bay, a reserve comprising 4 islands used by millions of seabirds for breeding, feeding off the rich seas in the area. The numbers are astonishing with half a million Atlantic Puffin, over a million Leach’s Storm-petrel and millions of Common Mures (guillemot in English), Razorbill and Kittiwake as well as the attendant predators Greater Black-Backed Gulls and Bald Eagles. We took an O’Brien’s boat tour from Bay Bulls; these are licenced to travel out to the islands to view the spectacle at very close quarters. One characteristic of Newfoundlanders is the constant need to remind the world of how Irish / Scottish (delete as appropriate) they are so the boat arrived in harbour from the previous trip with the tour guide singing an Irish song and music was a common theme throughout the trip (and all other boat trips we did). When it mattered, however, the crew were fantastic and showed us some superb sights. They shared a harbour with two huge cable-laying ships
As an example of how close we got, the following photos show Kittiwake, Puffin, Guillemot and Razorbill. Guillemot exist in 2 forms, with and without the ring round the eye and eye-stripe (bridled).
The most amazing thing, however, was the sheer numbers of birds around us at all times
The ship’s crew offer a screech-in for any passengers prepared to pay. As this involves wearing a yellow hat, drinking a tot of screech rum, repeating some words to prove mastery of the Newfoundland dialect and kissing a codfish, your intrepid but world-weary reporters decided against making complete tits of themselves.
As we arrived back on-shore, an Osprey made an appearance, hunting in the harbour
Wise to the restaurant scene by now we had pre-booked a tapas bar in town. Remarkable only for the fact that our waitress was moving job the following week to work on an oil rig. They gave us a 30% reduction on the food as we had to wait so long but made up with it on our bar bill while we waited.
One of Newfoundland’s most iconic sites is Signal Hill, site of the first transatlantic radio transmissions by Marconi as well as much French / English rivalry. Within walking distance of the hotel this was a superb place, the history, nice cafe, great views over the city and walks all round the coastline, a great way to spend the day. As we were walking round the top 3 Bald Eagles flew past..
The cafe was housed in the visitor centre and we chose to share what turned out to be the smallest sandwich in the world, let alone Canada. This also was the only place we were asked if we wanted chocolate coated chips with it (crisps to us). No thanks.
The visitor centre had a small museum and showed a short historical film about life on Signal Hill in the past. Soldiers and their families lived up there in all weathers. Ventilation in the huts was nil, especially in winter when all doors and windows had to be closed. There were a lot of fatalities from respiratory diseases. The officers who were not affected as they lived down in St. John’s, wisely decided to move the families down to St Johns as well. Life improved, except for the soldiers left on the Hill on guard duty.
We had again reserved a restaurant table near to our hotel for our last night, portions were larger but otherwise it was unremarkable.