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Around and about St. John’s, Newfoundland

Newfoundland. The Rock. The Isle of Cod. A former colony of the United Kingdom. A member of Confederation. Canada’s most easterly province. Home to over one thousand years of history. A land where countless fortunes were made and lost fishing for cod and hunting for seal. Today, a place where offshore oil platforms abound and liquid gold is revitalizing the economy.

St John Harbour, Newfoundland

Our journey started in St. John’s, the provincial capital of Newfoundland. We were enchanted by the rows of brightly-painted Victorian terrace houses in the downtown area. They were decorated in a rainbow of hues … reds, mauves, blues, greens and yellows. These “Jellybean” houses were constructed as temporary accommodation after the Great Fire of 1892. Today they provide permanent residences for its ever-increasing number of citizens. One story even tells of some fishermen who painted their dwellings the same colour as their boats!

Jelly bean houses, St John, NewfoundlandA visit to Signal Hill was, of course, high on our list of priorities. The Battery is a small community situated at the entrance to St. John’s harbour. From here a trail meanders its way along the cliffs to the Lookout. Leaving the Battery on a clear sunny day, we paused to study a series of murals depicting life in the heyday of the cod fisheries. We strolled past a higgledy-piggledy collection of houses tucked into the precipitous rock face. At a leisurely pace, we ascended over 600 steps before reaching the iconic Cabot Tower. This historic monument was constructed to honour both the anniversary of John Cabot’s voyage to the New World and the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria. Built of red sandstone, it first opened in 1900 as a 24-hour signal station and weather observatory. Now it functions as an interpretative centre and gift store. From this vantage point, we had a bird’s-eye view of the Atlantic Ocean, the Narrows, the busy harbour and the city. Nearby we stopped to read a plaque commemorating the reception of Marconi’s first transatlantic wireless signal from Cornwall in England in 1901. Formerly, French and British soldiers fired muskets at one another in a bid for control of this strategic location. Nowadays, photographers armed with digital cameras vie with one another to capture an award-winning shot.

Built on a hilltop just south of St. John’s is Newfoundland’s oldest surviving lighthouse. This is the Cape Spear Lighthouse, a national historic site. The original lighthouse commenced operations in 1836 and has been restored to reflect the life of a lightkeeper at this time. For seven generations, the light was maintained by the same family. We are forever thankful to those dedicated people who safeguarded the journey of mariners along Newfoundland’s craggy coastline. As we look out to the sea from this most easterly point in North America, it’s hard to believe that the next landfall is Ireland!

Travelling north we headed up the Discovery Trail to Cape Bonavista where Europeans first landed on North American soil. The year was 1497 when the Italian navigator, Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), sailed on his voyage of discovery from Bristol, England, in the service of Henry VII. Instead of finding a northern route to Asia, he came across fish, lots and lots of fish. Soon after, people settled in the town of Bonavista. A preserved fish processing plant flourished here until the collapse of the cod fisheries and the sealing industry in the 1990s.

The comical Atlantic Puffin is Newfoundland’s provincial bird. This little guy I was bound and determined to see. In neighbouring Elliston we were assured there would be sightings. Even in mid-August, the strong north wind was bitingly cold. So we bundled up and ventured out onto the rocky cliff top with its precipitous drop-offs. There several feet away were a collection of these penguin-like birds with their red and black beaks and short orange legs. What a perfect picture these “clowns of the sea” make!

Our next stop was the historic town of Trinity, the “pearl of the Newfoundland outports”. In the 1700s, this little community was a bustling centre of the salt fish trade. Today it is renowned for its productions by the Rising Tide Theatre Company as well as its many well-preserved heritage churches, outbuildings, wharves and salt box houses. We were lucky enough to obtain tickets for the theatrical production, “This Marvelous Terrible Place”. A blend of traditional songs and stories, this play provided us with a glimpse into the daily lives, customs and hardships of a fast-disappearing way of life in Newfoundland’s outports.

That night we stayed at a charming B&B in picturesque Dunfield, a stone’s throw from Trinity. While we were enjoying a mouth-watering breakfast, our hostess, in her strong local dialect, suddenly broke into song with rhythmic accompaniment provided by her favourite Ugly Stick. For the uninitiated, an Ugly Stick is a traditional Newfoundland musical instrument made out of a hodgepodge of household items. This particular stick was fashioned from a mop handle decorated with beer caps topped with an old tin can adorned with a happy face and crowned with a peaked woolen cap. On its base was an old rubber boot. Our enthusiastic performer banged on the Ugly Stick with a drumstick. The distinctive sound makes it a popular instrument at kitchen parties … and even breakfast gatherings. What a way to wake up your guests!

A short drive brought us to the trailhead of the 5.3 km. Skerwink Trail, one of the top 35 walks in North America. This well-maintained path loops around a rocky peninsula. En route, we strode along wooden boardwalks and climbed up innumerable steps to grassy hilltops where viewing benches had been strategically placed. There were spectacular vistas along the coastline … sea stacks, sea caves and arches carved by the wave action as well as stunning views of Trinity and the 1930-style lighthouse and gun emplacements at Admiral Fort Point. Dragonflies darted about in the sunshine and gulls and other seabirds swooped and soared in the wind currents. At one time, the strong gusty winds almost claimed my husband’s baseball cap while I struggled to maintain my balance as I seemingly stood on the very edge of the world.

We also took a short side-trip to New Bonaventure where the TV mini-series “Random Passage” was filmed in 2002. Based on an historical novel by Bernice Morgan set in the 1800s, the story tells about the inhabitants of Cape Random, a small isolated coastal community or outport, where survival was dependent on catching and selling fish in exchange for supplies. We were the only two guests on an exclusive one-hour guided tour. Our first impression of the site was from the graveyard set on the hillside beside the church. Below set in the curve of the cove were a number of small wooden sod-roofed cottages and a one-room schoolhouse. A traditional root vegetable garden struggled to survive in the hostile conditions. Our guide told us that the timber building located at the water’s edge with an elevated platform was called “a fishing stage”. This is where the fish were landed and processed. Close by on the foreshore was a “fishing flake”, a platform built on poles and spread with boughs for drying cod. Even on a calm day, the white-capped waves were splashing relentlessly against the rocks. How it must have been to live here during a fierce winter storm! After the sun sank below the horizon, candlelight was the only source of illumination. Drinking water had to be fetched in large wooden buckets. No doubt when the wind howled, it blew right through the gaps in the cottage walls. And there was no central heating! Such were a few of the many hardships these settlers endured.

And so back to St. John’s for our last evening on the eastern side of this ruggedly beautiful island. As dusk fell, a group of about 20 people gathered at the visitor centre on Signal Hill. A young soldier gave us our orders and then marched our motley group up a gravel trail to the historic Queen’s Battery. Seated as comfortably as possible on the hard wooden benches with a single flickering light, we were regaled with a selection of ghost stories, historical tales and other strange adventures. Our talented storyteller looked extremely dashing. He was attired in the redcoat uniform of a British lieutenant in the 1800s, together with a stovepipe “shako”, a tall black cylindrical cap with a brass badge affront and a plume at the top. The evening, as well as our journey of discovery in and around St. John’s, ended with a bang as the young soldier fired his flintlock musket into the darkening skies!

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