canada,  north america,  travel

St. John’s and Eastern Newfoundland – Day 1

As someone who craves travel, with all its trip planning and adventures in discovering new places, being grounded for the last 18 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult, to say the least. With all the uncertainty surrounding the new variants and rising case counts, I had pretty much written off any chance of a real vacation in 2021. But it’s been a long year, personally and professionally, and I was in need of a break to just get away and decompress. Since I’d only really be able to take a week off work, I decided I wanted to stay within Canada. I’d never been to Atlantic Canada and so ultimately settled on Newfoundland, for its rugged scenery, the possibility of some great hiking, and what looked like quality coastal road tripping.

My Newfoundland adventure was to start in St. John’s for a couple of days and then I’d fly to Gander to rent a car and drive to the island’s western coast to visit Gros Morne National Park. I would’ve flown in to Deer Lake, which is actually on the western coast, but thankfully I’d the presence of mind to check on car rentals first. Turns out, Deer Lake had run out of cars, so Gander, situated roughly in the middle of the island, would have to suffice. My trip planning foibles continued when I received an email asking for me to approve a flight adjustment (usually just a flight time that’s changed a few minutes), but this was an adjustment of Friday to Sunday. So I had to cancel and re-book on a different flight that got me in a bit earlier on the Friday. This turned out to be fortuitous, as Hurricane Larry was scheduled to hit eastern Newfoundland that evening, and I just managed to squeak in before it arrived.

Hurricane Larry visits St. John’s

I’d booked into a Holiday Inn at the airport, as I arrived in the evening and had to pick up my car rental at the airport the next morning anyway. My cell had no service (thanks Freedom Mobile), and so I had to rock an old school payphone, once I scrounged up some quarters, to call for the hotel shuttle. It was a late night, as I listened to the howling winds and rain batter the windows until well past 3 am. The power flickered on and off throughout the night, and the cherry on top was the fire alarm going off just before 7 am. Not the most auspicious start to my vacation, but the next day brought sunny skies and a newly acquired car rental, so I was ready to turn things around!

As I still had no cell service, I did spend an hour or two first at a nearby mall waiting for things to open, so I could buy a SIM card to use while in Newfoundland. Unfortunately, because of the storm the previous night, mall employees weren’t sure when they’d actually be opening and that I should try again later. Thankfully, the mall had wifi, so I was able to map out how to drive into town. My first scheduled event of the day was brunch at Merchant’s Tavern in downtown St. John’s. As I had a bit time of kill, I parked and walked around the colourful streets and down to the harbour, to just get a sense of the city. With a population of just over 200,000, it definitely has a small town feel, and I covered a fair bit of ground just waiting for my reservation.

Once 11 am rolled around, I was eager to finally eat something. My go-to reference for culinary recommendations often starts with Anthony Bourdain. He’d actually done an episode of Parts Unknown on Newfoundland, which featured the owners of Merchant’s Tavern (and Raymonds, which closed during the pandemic). The space had soaring ceilings and a chic aesthetic, and as I was a party of one, I parked myself at the bar. The bartender was friendly and chatty, and she gave me suggestions for places to visit in the area. My classic eggs Benedict was tasty, though pricey (I’d later discover that food in Newfoundland restaurants generally seems to air on the pricier side). I also enjoy the pair of mimosas I consumed, one of which she gave me on the house.

With a full belly, I was ready to start sightseeing and thought I’d kick things off with Signal Hill, a National Historic Site for its strategic significance dating back to the 17th century. Just a short drive from downtown, I wound my way up the hill and to the parking lot, emerging from the car to fantastic ocean views. I excitedly explored the area, whilst also trying to not get blown over by the extreme winds. Remnants of the previous night’s storm, winds were still gusting over 100 km/hr. As I climbed up to Ladies’ Lookout, the highest point on the hill, my eyes were tearing up, and I had to crouch down to ride out the insane winds. Through my tears, I did glimpse excellent views of the city and harbour.

St. John’s from Ladies’ Lookout on Signal Hill

There are a number of different hiking trails one can take around Signal Hill. I opted to stay close to the top of the hill (preserving my legs for the more strenuous hikes to come), checking out Cabot Tower and the surrounding coastline.

Once I’d had my fill, I poured my windblown self back into the car and continued driving up the coast, outside of St. John’s. I still had no service, so I just navigated based on signage and my rough awareness of the layout of the area. As I got further away from the city, the roads gradually narrowed. I passed in and out of small fishing villages, finally ending up in Pouch Cove. I took a short walk down a portion of the East Coast Trail to take in the coastline views.

part of the East Coast Trail at Pouch Cove

I turned around and headed back towards St. John’s, keeping my eye out for any interesting sights. I spotted a promising view and so veered off the main road and down tiny side streets, finally parking at what I hoped was public access to a trail. Other than a dog bag dispenser, there weren’t any signs one way or the other, so I started off down the dirt and gravel path, hoping to glimpse a picturesque seaside vista. It was a peaceful walk, with just the sounds of what I think were cows mooing in the distance. After you 10 minutes, my trail intersected another, and I finally glimpsed the ocean (along with a sign indicating I was in Gallows Cove). The water was stunning, with cliffs and rocky outcroppings jutting out into the blue. I followed the trail for a time, until I figured I’d seen enough, and made my way back to the car.

Gallows Cove

Once I was back in St. John’s, I checked into my AirBnB, housed in one of the charming, brightly-coloured row houses that are so iconic to the city. I made my way over to Chinched for my dinner reservations, eager to tuck into some deliciousness. Thankfully, they did not disappoint. I had a veritable smorgasbord, which included a small cheese plate (with a selection of 4 Canadian cheeses), Southern fried chicken livers with red onion jam, and sweet onion bisque with pork belly ragout. I happily tucked in to my excellent feast, washing it down with a pair of tasty cocktails.

An excellent first day in St. John’s, marred only by the fact that I went out to the mall to deal with my SIM card situation another 2 times (the second, spending nearly an hour there as they tried to sort out activation issues). At long last, I had data and was all set for the remainder of my Atlantic adventure.

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