A Weekend in St. John’s, Newfoundland
I’ve just spent a few days in St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland and the most Eastern city in Canada. It’s the 20th largest in the country; which means it’s just a bit bigger than Barrie, ON and a bit smaller than Sherbrooke, QC. You wouldn’t know how small it is if you went on the shocking number of yoga studios (about the same as Montreal, the second largest city in Canada) or on prices (rental and housing prices are somewhere between Montreal and Toronto) and it doesn’t feel small town like the Prairies. It’s got a distinctive metropolitan vibe of a little city that’s been here longer than most provinces in Canada.
On the first day, I headed up in the rain and wind to Signal Hill for a classic view of the city. It was blustery, but the trails around the hill and the view of the ships coming in to port were really something worth seeing.
The history of this place is dense and sorted. There’s so much to learn about how it was settled, before Cabot landed 500 years ago, by native tribes coming down from Labrador (more on that later) . And there’s also the whole last-province-in-Canada to join Confederation thing (1949) which means that Newf’s were on the forefront of both World Wars, being so tied to Britain. Signal Hill is a monument to the time when the Brits fought the French in the Seven Years War and secured themselves as the main European super power in the Americas. This was also the spot that the first trans-atlantic wireless signal came through. The Marconi Bros. sent an “S” in Morse Code.
After a lovely walk down the hill where all the pins blew out of my hair and my glasses almost off my face, I took a rest at the Geo Centre, a very 80s and very badass Geological and Historical Museum on the road down from Signal Hill.
Don’t let this picture, taken from their site, fool you-it’s a late 70s/early 80s eyesore. Inside, there are movies and talks and exhibits about geological history of the planet as seen through the province of Newfoundland. Apparently Labrador has some of the oldest rocks uncovered on earth, 4+ billion years.
The exhibit on what really happened with the Titanic was a series of 50+ panels with pictures and facts telling the story of how the ship came to be (greed), what life was like onboard (they were not even 70% sold when they sailed) and why it went down (greed again). I was there for an hour reading and educating myself on this epic voyage along with several other tourists. It was great-excatly like the 80s: the room was quiet and I was left alone and trusted not to mess up the exhibit, no one even told me to put away my apple when I got a snack out to tuck into this delightful exhibit.
There were great drawings, replicas of the ship as a ruin (above) and replicas of artifacts onboard that guests would have had. The politics and lust for dominance over the shipping trade by Wall Street giant J. Pierpont Morgan who co-owned White Star Lines, the manufacturer of the Titanic-was epic in proportion. It was the largest ship of it’s kind at the time. Anyone who has watched Titanic, the movie staring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, knows that they pushed her too hard through the waters (due to greed) and that’s how she hit the iceberg. But did you know that the captain had received 9 (yes 9!!!) messages warning of icebergs from other ships ahead, two directly to the Titanic that he ignored? He sent two officers to keep watch for bergs before heading to bed without outfitting them with any kind of spotlights or binoculars and he even knew they were in the ice belt by the temperature drop before he turned in for the night. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why he wouldn’t take at least some precaution. I figure he was drunk.
Even better, if they had hit it front on, it would have been fine, but it was the last minute steer out of the way that doomed the whole thing. Nearby ship, The Carpathia turned in to get people after the first distress call-sent out by the Marconi Bros (same guys who did the first trans-atlantic wireless call-hope you’re paying attention) but because of the choppy waters, it took them hours to get there even though they were only an hour away. The creepiest part of the story was how people in lifeboats that were 1/3 full could hear people screaming in the water as they drowned, calling out to them, even saying, “I know you can hear me, please just save one.” 1500 people perished and 500 could have been saved in the boats, only one boat went back to help and they pulled 4 out of the water. I really hope that the survivors were at least haunted by those voices of their brothers and sisters drowning for the rest of their lives. There has always been a rumour in Newfoundland that a call was sent out and more people could have been saved by local Newfoundlanders had the man at Cape Race not been passed out (most likely drunk) when it came in. That’s just the rumour though. I haven’t found evidence yet.
Needless to say, the Geo Centre was riveting. I could have stayed for three more hours, but I also wanted to check out some yoga too.
(pic curtesy of The Overcast)
I stopped at the Peaceful Loft for some vegan food. Everything on the menu was authentic from Macao, China, it was all vegan and it was all fried. I had the General Tao’s beef and veg which was TVP, tofu, green beans, enoki mushrooms and asparagus on rice. It was okay. The real winner here is that owner, Paulo, makes all the sauces himself from oyster sauce (vegan style) to a mild minced ginger and hot pepper sauce to a very very spicy red pepper sauce. He was extremely friendly and I got the full story about how he ended up in Newfoundland: basically he lived in Toronto for four months and didn’t like it, was going to go home and his brother told him to see more of the country first, so he flew out here on a whim and after a little accident in the car where his nephew threw up he was having a hard time communicating in a store that he needed a “tissue” and someone in line thought he needed a “teeshirt” and gave him the one off his back. Paulo decided that these were the kind of people he wanted to be with. That was in 1999 and he’s never looked back.
Then I hit a Moksha class across the street and went home feeling really really good. The weather all summer has been pretty cold and blustery and Tiff, our instructor, made a great joke when she could see we were buckling under the heat in the room: “well, think of it this way, if we ever gets a good day, we’ll be ready.” I loved her laid back vibe and the yoga was pretty standard Moksha-truth be told, I was looking for some warmth and that’s why I chose it.
The weather was basically the same for Day 2, but I was better prepared having bought an extra sweater and a scarf plus some light gloves. I basically spent this day out walking around and eating. Here’s the top hits that I uncovered.
Fixed Coffee fixed me up with wi-fi so I could get a good Instagram lurk on and also brag via photos about my time in NL (photo courtesy of FreshCup.com).
Laughed my ass off at this cover. They made me a hot chocolate with love and almond milk too.
Jelly Bean Row is what they call all the candy coloured houses that St. John’s is famous for. They have long winters, this keeps everyone cheerful. It’s really hard to resist taking photos of the row houses “all done up.”
I went to the Bagel Cafe for some lunch and saw this on the menu. A touton is a fried bread; you fry it up in salted pork fat called which is also served on the side, called scrunchions, and then smother it in butter and maple syrup or molasses. “Newfoundland Steak” is bologna. My grandmother used to cut off thick slices and fry it up with eggs and potatoes for me for breakfast and it’s delicious. I didn’t quite go there yesterday, but I have gotten toutons after the bar-a far worse idea and loved every bite.
(this pic from yelp.ca)
There are a lot of war monuments
The Basilica of St. John’s the Baptist is definitely the largest Catholic church on the island and a testament to the deep Irish roots the locals have-plus, you can see where the town got it’s name. It was a weekend when I passed by and the parking lot was rammed with cars of people attending mass.
The weather hit “awesome” on Day 3 and everyone ran outside to lose their minds enjoying every last drop of it.
I started off at The Rooms, which is probably the most noticeable building in the St. John’s skyline. It’s a modern museum and art gallery tracing the history of the island as well as showing local artists in one of their galleries. The building is pretty modern (90s looking even though it opened in 2005) and has some stunning views of the bay throughout.
In the museum I learned a lot about the native migration and history of the island before the Europeans came. It was confusing after a while trying to keep it all separate by time period and tribe, especially with Innu and Inuit, Paleo and current. Being that my family has been here for eons, we are part native, just not sure which tribe and like many families, there are no records to prove any of it. My grand father looks like every Innu photo they had on the walls though, so that settled that, there is some sketchy evidence to support some Mi’kmaq on my dad’s side as well, but it has yet to be confirmed. We’re a province of mutt’s so it was nice to read up on all the history and maybe get a bit of my own in the process.
It was really cool to see the drawings of what they think the area looked like during whichever period juxtaposed against a photo of the actual areas today (80s onwards of course). There’s still something so prehistoric about a lot of the modern day sites, like the culture has been entombed there for centuries.
Mi’kmaq traditional dress. The hat was worn by women and originally they were made out of that dangly bit of skin user a moose’s chin; the coat is for men. They are both H&M XS. People were really tiny back then, both the natives and the Livyers (that is pronounced “live years”) who were white settlers living here year round.
Here’s an Instagram pic of the fish cakes I had and the view in front of me at The Rooms Cafe. Some gorgeous!
At the end of all the exhibits there was this massive collage of photos from all over the island. Some of them native, some of them with the distinct Irish/British stamp that has left it’s imprint here as well. And this plaque on one end of the collage read:
I teared up like a little baby reading it. It’s true, this place does get under your skin. It’s so hard to explain it without transporting you here. But safe to say the people are gorgeous in a way that you will never see anywhere else in North America. “Right” confident and funny and quick witted. The women are some of the most beautiful in the country with clear skin and petite figures with curves for days and the men are easy to talk to and happy to help even a stranger. There’s a shyness that comes with any place where people use their best manners talking to strangers, but they wear it with a smile and a sense of fun that just isn’t pulled off so effortlessly anywhere else in the county.
Betting on the good weather, Moksha organized the second annual Sunset Savasana on Signal Hill where a few hundred yogis came out to get their Down Dog on while the sun set over this beautiful island.
That night, I decided to hit up George St. Live, an annual music festival where George Street, known for having the most bars and pubs per square foot in North America hosts tons of bands and people party for a week. The street is only two blocks long, but it feels a lot more dense than that. The entrance fee to the festival is $25, which gets you in to free concerts and you can take your drinks from one bar to the other and drink in the street all night (well, till last call). St. John’s doesn’t celebrate the August Civic holiday like the rest of the country, preferring the middle of the week for regatta day instead, so George Street Live spills out from the weekend into the middle of the week. This year the headliners ranged from Trooper to City & Colour, Blue Rodeo to Classified and a comeback by Ron Hynes. I went out on Classified’s night and danced my arse off. He was great, telling the crowd that the reason people think Canadians are so nice is because of this province right here. He talked about being a parent and gave props to people in the crowd who had to work the next day. After the concert, joined by a crew of British and Canadian ladies form the City Hostel I was in for one night, I went dancing. I danced a jig to an incredible three piece local band in one bar and then to really badly mixed EDM with what felt like teenagers in another, and then we found a live band playing Guns N’ Roses and Great Big Sea (don’t think I didn’t notice how fitting that was) and Bryan Adams-they were also stellar. We capped it off at a club playing hip hop and bad mixes of dance and hip hop. Even in the clubs where the music wasn’t so great (EDM), the heart on the dance floor was unparalleled-I’ve been to several festivals this summer and George Street Live was the only one in Canada that I enjoyed.
Side stories worth noting: I left my computer charger in a coffee shop and a delivery guy went to get the keys and open up for me, even though her didn’t work there; just so I wouldn’t miss my bus out of town at 7AM. So many men and women who bumped into me in a very packed crowd actually stopped to say “sorry” or “excuse me”, making eye contact. I met people from all over the world who were attending MUN University and loved living in Newfoundland. And finally, I have been called “my love” or “my ducky” at least 100 times in the last few days and I like it a lot.
Here’s me doing my worst Dancing Shiva to date on Signal Hill just two days before in weather that can only be described as “hateful”. They say in St. John’s, “if you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes for it to change.”