North Atlantic Adventure: St. John’s, Canada Part One

by Anthony D. Cliffe

I leave Halifax and catch a flight 2.5hrs up to the frozen North. Off to the incredibly rugged small city of St. John’s the most Easterly tip of North America!

If you were to think of places to go visit in Canada, the small city of St. John’s on the most Easterly edge of the North American continent, battered by the harsh North Atlantic is probably not high on many peoples list. For me however, it was. The city sits on giant granite rocks weathered by thousands of years of strong and often brutal North Atlantic storms. Pictures of Signal Hill and the harbour nestled inside between two giant looming battered mountains dotted with brightly coloured houses seemed like such a cool place to visit. St. John’s is steeped in history too. It’s where many Irish and UK settlers arrived in Canada, before aircraft technology advanced this was often the first landing place across the Atlantic in fact the first ever non-stop transatlantic flight by an aircraft was made from here in 1919, not to mention the thousands of aircraft that left this part of the world during WW2 to help the allies in Europe and it is the site of the first ever wireless transatlantic message between North America and the UK. John Cabot first discovered this land in 1497 and is officially the oldest European settlement in North America. Newfoundland or Newfie as the locals call it hold such a strong sense of identity and links back to the homelands of the UK. For example their flag is a pink and green version of the Union Flag. The crosses represent the UK, the green for Ireland and the pink symbolises the bloodshed over the years of independence. The accent too, you’d swear you were in Ireland or Cornwall rather than on the North East tip of Canada. Overall this place had a rugged and harsh appeal to it. Something I’ve really been drawn to as of late, Iceland a prime example of that. This place is the foggiest, windiest and cloudiest city in Canada. That probably gives you an idea of how rugged this place is!

After a great sleep in my hotel in Halifax it was time to say goodbye to this place as I boarded my pre-booked bus for the 45 minute journey to the airport. As scenic as the drive was the day before to Peggy’s Cove the drive to the airport was less so. Tree lined highways for 45 minutes wasn’t too exciting so instead of listening to a passenger from New York discuss lobster with the driver, I zoned out and listened to music. Before long I was walking inside Halifax Stanfield International airport. It felt like only yesterday that I had arrived and now in daylight I could appreciate the airport. It’s not the biggest airport in the world but there is something about Canadian airports, they’re always very bright and welcoming unlike many UK airports which are dark and cramped. I got there two hours before my flight, a standard thing to do in the UK. Turns out Canadians will arrive about 30 minutes before their flight. I don’t think I’d ever get used to that! Using the self-service I checked myself in and spent five minutes trying to work out how to add the tag to my bag before taking it over to the bag drop. I was in the Air Canada section of the airport which consisted of only me!

I was greeted instantly by a very attractive check-in lady “Can I see your boarding pass please sir”… “Ah yes of course, one moment”. While I’m fishing my pass from my jacket pocket she goes “Oh my GAWD I love your accent sir! You Brits have the best accent, you always look so good and you smell so good too!”. Well the modest Englishman I am I politely thanked her, smiled awkwardly and disappeared towards security. That was now twice that a very attractive lady had commented on my accent. It did seem that this accent here gained extra appeal with the ladies … or she was just a friendly customer service agent doing her job. The juries out on that but it wasn’t the first nor the last time on this trip that the accent and ladies came into play!

I was through security in no time at all because I was the only one in line! Then I headed to Tim Hortons or Timmys as I called it now, damn it these Canadians were rubbing off on me! I explored the small departure lounge, found my gate and watched the whole what seemed like 4 planes to take off and land in the two hours I was there. Finally I was boarding my tiny Dash 8 Q400 to St. John’s, a 2hr 30mins flight up north. Or should I say the frozen north. Blue skies and 13 degrees at Halifax, low cloud and 2c in St. John’s. Eeeek! Last year I flew on a Q400 from Edmonton to Calgary and dear god if it wasn’t for my noise cancelling headphones I fear my eardrums may have split! It is such a loud propeller plane! Some people hate these small planes but I love them, they’re surprisingly roomy and with decent headphones the noise is bearable. No screens to watch but who needs that when you’re flying over many Island and blue waters?

I thought I’d have a seat free next to me until a business guy arrived as the last person on board. After a safety demo the engines were turning and we were away for our near three hour flight. The views of the islands and the choppy seas was quite the view!

By time we were on approach that blue sky had turned to dark clouds and as we broke through I got my first glimpse of this very rugged landscape. What an approach! You can see the whole city nestled between those famous outcrops of land and after a smooth landing by our female captain I had my bag in five minutes and was in a Taxi to my hotel, the Jag Boutique hotel, my home for the next three nights.

This was my first taste of the Newfie accent which is basically just Irish with a slight twang of Canadian, it is so weird! Everyone already was very friendly in Canada but up here, even more so. The taxi driver was an old guy who was proud of his city, he showed me round a little bit, pointed out some places to visit all for no extra cost! Pulling up to the JAG hotel the doorman greeted me, opened the doors and took my bag for me. I was a little taken aback by this. Turns out this is one of the most expensive hotels in St. John’s used frequently by celebrities (to which I unknowingly sat next to the next day!). I got three nights for £250 which turns out to be an amazing bargain on booking.com!

Check-in was seamless and my room was massive! I was cold though. Dropping to 2c and a strong cold biting wind outside with grey skies I turned the heating right up, unpacked and laid down on the bed. Due to the timezone change (again!) it was getting close to 4pm. I’d been up since 7 a.m for my mid-morning flight and the day was almost done. I wanted to just go have a nap but knowing night time wasn’t far away up this far North, I wanted food and I also wanted to get my bearings in this new city. Get a feel for what it’s like, what it feels like and have a look at the places I want to go visit. So I put my scarf on and off I went into the freezing grey winds of St. John’s.

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Time to see what this town is all about!

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What struck me first as I walked along the harbour where giant industrial sized icebreaker and resupply vessels hummed away was just how quiet this city was. It was 4pm in a city. Usually there would be loads of cars and people but it was virtually empty! As the clouds grew darker and the wind whipped up biting through my jacket, the desolate towering icebreaker ships, the old industrial buildings lining the road all set to a backdrop of those giant granite cliffs I suddenly became aware of just how far I was from home and just how rugged this place is. It hit me out of nowhere. I didn’t get that warm feeling that I had got in most cities I visit in Canada, it was an odd feeling. It wasn’t an unwelcoming feeling by any means but I think because it was so vastly different to anything I had experienced before that it threw me. By time I would leave here in three days I had fallen in love with the place, I had come to revel in its brutal rugged and quiet charms. On first impressions however I was unsure. I had grown used to Canadian cities being busy, horns blaring and most of all towering skyscrapers. Here, none of that. The largest building was a few grain silos and buildings were no higher than 3 floors max. It felt more like a small Canadian town or village and that impression only grew when I ventured onto St. John’s main high street (which just so happens to be by the way the oldest street in North America! How cool!). Low rise buildings, quaintly decorated shops with signs that swung in the wind, it was all an experience, just not what I was expecting but I liked it, it was certainly different. I needed the loo at this point, the cold weather does no favours for my bladder. I notice a sign for a shopping centre nestled within the small buildings. It says shopping centre, just imagine a combination of a few small buildings with shops inside is effectively what it was. Upon entering the much appreciated warm air I hear singing, a choir. As I turned the corner there was a local choir practicing in the now closed for the day food hall. They were pretty good! But I did feel a little creepy as I didn’t expect that! Just one of the many little quirks and surprises this place had to offer.

I’d read about a famous street in St. John’s called George street. This street was full of nightlife, pubs, bars and restaurants. Apparently the locals like to come out late into the night so the street was still pretty quiet except a group of guys drinking beer outside one of the bars who said hello. The street is full of graffiti but not the shit kind, the kind that an artist has actually been employed to do, you know, the good kind! With Irish music blasting out of an Irish bar in the distance I was starting to warm and get acquainted to this quirky rugged little outcrop of Canada. I went into the bar, had a Bushmills whiskey and after chatting to the waitress who recommend a local delicacy of Moose Stew, I took her up on her suggestion and waited patiently for it to arrive. A guy with his guitar was setting up while two old guys sunk a few beers and chatted about sport. My Moose Stew arrived and damn that was good!

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Trying some local food, moose stew! 😊

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After another drink I headed back out to explore the city which was done fairly quickly on foot. It’s tiny! The low cloud had started to lift and the wind had died down as dusk was beginning to fall. I wanted some water and some snacks for the room and my phone told me that the nearest convenience store was 0.5 miles away. St. John’s is locally known as the San Francisco of the North due to the many steep streets. Oh boy. Where they steep! By time I got to the top of the streets to the convenience store the tea was burnt off, I was hungry again and my legs were burning!

What I loved about this city though is because it is so small, a five minute walk takes you directly into residential lined street but not like any residential streets I’d seen before. Every wooden house is painted differently due to a law of not having the same coloured house on the same street. They’re called Jellybean houses and it really gives this place this amazing rustic, unique and quirky charm.

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Jellybean Houses

I was starting to really get into this place after my initial impressions. I walked passed about 10 people on my way back to the hotel and every single person said hello or how are you doing. That is just something you do not get at home. When I replied a few of them would ask if I was visiting or where I was from and all of them gave me places to visit and wished me a lovely stay in their city. These people were so friendly! What started off feeling quite isolating and miles from home in this rugged wind battered part of the world felt a lot more like home. I stayed out until night fell, walking back passed the harbour, the giant ships still humming the cold air stinging my face. I was grateful for the hot shower once I got back to my room.

Rugged St. John's harbour, Canada

Rugged St. John’s harbour

Today had been surprisingly long and had been interesting. This was a place I wanted to visit for its rugged charms and at first because it was unlike anywhere I’d ever been or expected it threw me a little. As my first few hours had passed I had warmed to it, I liked it for its different style, its quirks, its people. Tomorrow the weather looked good if not a little windy, an ex Atlantic hurricane would be blowing in through the night leaving clear blue skies but strong winds behind it. I had booked myself onto a tour at the last minute by phoning a company called McCarthy tours which was recommended so I was excited to go on that to see more of this city and the surrounding area. The tour was planned to take me to the most Easterly point in mainland North America, then to visit some Newfie fishing ports before a city tour and a drive up to the top of Signal Hill. A 9 a.m start though so I was going to get an early night until I get three knocks on the door. I peer through the spy hole to see a waitress with a cart and a small silver tray. I unlock the door and cautiously say hello and was about to say I haven’t ordered room service but she says “complimentary chocolate turn down service sir, which would you like?” and presents me with five mini boxes of chocolates! I take one, thank her, she wishes me goodnight. Wow. How cool is this hotel!? After a nice tasting chocolate I set my alarm and drifted off to sleep as the hurricane began to ripple through the Atlantic.

Tomorrow one of my favourite days of the entire trip awaits!