Newfoundland had long whispered my name. I can’t decide whether it was the foggy, jagged coastlines, bohemian-coloured homes, witty humour, or I-have-no-idea-what-he-just-said colloquialisms, but I got myself sucked right in. And yep, I even kissed a giant dead fish. I’m not exactly sure why, but I blame the Screech. Oh, the Screech.
It was a girly escape. Three friends had fallen in love with the rock during a visit last year. Fallen hard. Like your first chocolate croissant kind of love. They came back gushing – the bands, the boys, the beauty. I had to see what the fuss was all about. So, when they hatched a plan to return to St. John’s, I twisted around my east coast plans so I could crash their party. And oh how we partied – I was there for five days. I believe I squished in 12 days of drinking, staying up past my bedtime, exploring and wandering. Sleep is highly over-rated when surrounded by such brilliance.
We were based in St. John’s, but put a ton of miles (erm, kilometres, I am a Canadian girl..) on the rental. We fell exhausted into silky soft sheets at the Sheraton St. John’s - lovely digs, worth it entirely for the banana bread at breakfast, everything else is sugar on top.
Where to even start? Right in St. John’s you’ll be scraping your jaw off the ground. Whether you’re hiking up Signal Hill, strolling out to The Battery, or trying to decide what colour your Jelly Bean Row house will be, there’s plenty to delight you.
George Street. There’s really nowhere else you need to go – you’ll instantly find yourself inside a celtic jukebox – fiddles, guitars, jigs and reels spilling out from countless pubs, sudden bursts of dancing in the street, welcoming smiles – it feels like Cheers became a street, you’re secretly disappointed people aren’t greeting you by name.
Our fave haunt was O’Reilly’s Irish Newfoundland Pub. You’d swear your server is your long-lost friend from high school (despite the fact that they’re a wee bit younger than you.) While the place is cram packed, they’ll be on top of your order, bring you a fish to kiss, and join you for a drink when their shift is over… uh, I think the shift was over?
The music is non-stop. Local bands intermingled with folks who have played far and wide. Oh, and a wee band called the Irish Descendants. If you dig celtic folk music, and haven’t heard of them, you’ve got some homework to do. And they’re all quite charming – happy to sit and chat with you between sets, no pompous “I’m a star” ego anywhere to be found.
And the dance floor is hopping. None of this standing idly by the wall wishing for either the courage to get up there, or for someone to drag you up despite your mock protests. It simply draws you in. I was asked to dance by someone who was clearly the oldest man in the bar. He moved gently and gracefully. I did not. (I had been up for about 22 hours straight at that point…) I believe he left a sign on my back that said “Will dance with old guys” because he was the first in a string of older gentlemen who led me around the floor, trying to keep me upright. It was lovely.
Far more entertaining than watching me trip around the floor is the local talent. A guy appeared from nowhere and tore the place up with his clogging/step dancing jig action. That, or his shoes were filled with fire ants – either way, it was most impressive. Topped only by Stevie Lane – with his 80s style headband and absolute focus, this wee firestorm danced with the vigor of someone half a century younger. No partners required, or recommended, the dance floor is all his. Check out my less than fabulous video. (Did I mention the Screech?)
So I mentioned that the bands are happy to chat? Get this – Con, the lead singer of the Irish Descendants, a sweet, unassuming man with a cheshire grin actually let me drive his boat. Clearly he’s also a complete lunatic. His family runs O’Brien’s Whale and Bird Tours, and true to east coast hospitality (and the perks of being the only man on a boat with a bunch of delightful/unruly girls) he invited us out to sneak up on some whales and puffins. After some brilliant wildlife spotting, I popped into the bridge to check out the fancy steering wheel (ok… to grab another sandwich) and somehow Con left me in control while he hit the head. Seriously – I fall out of my kayak every single time, and here I am on the ocean – with giant whales – playing captain. The man is a fool. When he came back, I refused to return the boat to him (my very first piracy!) and so he took the time to show me what all the screens and gadgets did. He patiently let me take the boat back into the harbour, but insisted that he should dock it. I didn’t have boat repairs in my travel budget, so I reluctantly submitted.
The hospitality was one of the best parts, immediately exuded from everyone we met – stop by Linda’s Inn of Olde at Quidi Vidi, Linda and Ruth are like visiting your favourite eclectic aunties. This place is such a treat and must be visited. You’ll understand when you get there.
For the animal lover, the St. John’s area does not disappoint. The Irish Loop, a 312 km long scenic route along the southern portion of the Avalon peninsula, leads you to a number of delightful finds – from quaint villages to gob-smacking scenery. Cape St. Mary’s is one of these stops – about 200km southwest of St. John’s and totally for the birds. Literally – this Ecological Reserve is home to one of the largest nesting colonies of Northern Gannets, you can find nearly 25,000 of them during nesting season. Add to that 20,000 black-legged kittiwake, 20,000 common murre, and 2,000 thick-billed murre all squawking and swooping about. Toss in some razorbills, cormorants, guillemots and fulmars and you’re in a birder’s paradise. Though as a non-birder, I was still pretty giddy about it all.
And if that’s too far a jaunt, or you’re into whales (who isn’t?) then Bay Bulls is easy peasy. O’Brien’s even offers up a shuttle service from St. John’s if you’re sans rental car. We spotted numerous whales, including an 80 foot blue (I think?) whale that dove directly towards the boat, which I found entirely unnerving. If whales aren’t enough, the boat goes a little further on to an island blanketed with nesting puffins and razorbills, all found within the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. I can’t promise that they’ll let you drive the boat, but there might be sandwiches. Whales, wildlife and sandwiches – what more do you need?
Oh, And The Part Where I Blubbered
Hero. Inspiration. The same words that millions of others have used to describe Terry Fox, and yet they feel completely insufficient. There’s something about him that leaves me in complete awe. Last summer, I stopped by the Bata Shoe Museum and I think I finally understand what those squealing little girls feel when they see Justin Beiber – I saw Terry Fox’s blue Adidas shoe and I lost all composure. I fear the security footage is mocked endlessly on YouTube somewhere. So, to be in the place where this idol took his first step on the Marathon of Hope, dipping his shoe into the Atlantic, I couldn’t help but blubber. The city has done a beautiful job commemorating the site, a small park area with inspirational quotes, signage, and a statue of a Canadian hero. Go see it, and bring tissue.