A Day in St. John's NL

19 Jul 2016

First visit to Canada’s East Coast!!

So it was both better and worse than I expected; on the ‘pros’ side, it wasn’t exorbitantly expensive, I didn’t get in a car accident, and saw/visited some pretty cool sights and generally enjoyed the day. On the ‘cons’ side, the weather was crazy, the scenic areas were more limited than I’d thought, and it was a crazy long, messy day between flights!

Itinerary (all prices listed at end):

Arrived at 7:40 am at St. John’s airport and rented a car from Thrifty Car Rental. After taking an inordinately long time to load my backpack and figure out how the thing worked (it wasn’t actually hard, lol), I had a quick and easy drive into the downtown area - even found some free parking along the way on Ordnance Street! Maybe a 10-15 min. drive, so it wasn’t bad at all, but… nothing really opened until 10 am, so I had a couple hours to kill. Since this was still in my home country, I hadn’t done as much prep and ended up winging it quite a bit, so here was the first ‘oops’. I figured I’d walk across town and get a sense of the area… and hunt down some breakfast.

The walk was great - those cute muti-coloured painted rowhouses pretty much stretch across the upper blocks of the downtown, and there’s lots of old stone architecture as well - churches and such.

Seemed to be garbage day - they had these very thematically appropriate nets over the bags on the street that really tied into the whole ‘fishing town’ thing… Probably to keep off the seagulls, lol.

Nowhere inspiring to eat, however… a couple cafes and an ice cream shop were about it. Did a loop along the top to The Rooms (a museum), which was still a half hour from opening, and then back along the lower streets and waterfront. Turns out, there are maps of recommended walks with historic sights pointed out along the way, but as I came across tehse halfway through the walk (and I was getting hungry), I just kept blazing my own trail. Tried to stop in at Rocket Bakery, but got washed out again by a horde of tourists pretty quick - too many choices, not enough time!

Harbourside Park on the way back was also beautiful, and pretty much empty in midmorning. It was at that point that I figured maybe I’d better Google for a breakfast spot, and came up with a recommended cafe… across the street from where I’d started. Sigh.

So I finally ended up stopping at Classic Cafe East for a (reputedly) traditional breakfast at a little after 10 am. A bit divey/classic diner style, but it did have the benefit of being both quiet and cheap. Tried a toutons (I think that’s a singular?), which is apparently a Newfoundland speciality, and is essentially pan-friend bread dough eaten with syrup or molasses. Kind of crispy and chewy at the same time, and in this case, friend in pork fat for a sort of baconey counterpoint to the molasses. Felt rather old-timey as an experience, which was fun… Also tried molasses baked beans and an egg for some protein; turned out to be waaay too much food. Cheap and good food in large portions; I’d come again (and in fact, tried to…)

Near where I’d parked was the Commissariat House, which was quite a small historic site, but worth the cost of admission as a second site is thrown in free. They hand out little plastic tabs that grant you access to a port-tasting & historic cellar on the other side of town. There was a converted barn/interpretative centre which tried to be edgy with a sort of shadow-puppet noir aesthetic about rebellion and newspapers… tbh, I moved on pretty quickly, but I appreciated the production value they’d put in… The house itself was two stories and held a grand private office and public counter, safe and office along the front, with a kitchen in the back, as well as a formal dining room, parlour and a couple bedrooms, all furnished. I was surprised at how close/far into the rooms you could get. Perhaps because it was early in the day, the place was quiet - I only saw two other visitors - and the site staff mostly stayed out of the way. Fun to see such early artifacts and buildings; although the level of sophistication was high, the site was hundreds of years older than any I’d visited in BC. I spent less than 30 min. at this location, then walked the couple blocks back to the car and headed out to Signal Hill.

Another ~10 min. East, Signal Hill was easily my favourite stop. Great views, not-too-strenuous paths, kind-of free-entry (oops - apparently I snuck in, as their website lists a $3.90 fee… No one checked tickets, anyways…) and some brief scrambling/hiking. Plus whales. Despite the revoltingly hot and humid weather (it was under 30C but felt like 40), it was really enjoyable to climb around on the cliffs. Lots of wildflowers, not too many people in the way on the paths, and whales jumping out on the water made it good fun.

The main attraction, which was pretty much swarmed, was Cabot Tower, which you could climb, learning about communications and site history, visiting a working (amateur) radio outpost and of course, the gift shop. The stairs to the top of the tower are steep, twisty, and crazy busy, but the views are pretty awesome. Some other ruins and small buildings within a few km hike from the Tower and a Visitor Centre a little down the hill round out the site.

I kind of peeked into the Visitor Centre and decided it wasn’t worth the admission fee, but stopped at the cafe. There are also washrooms in the public part of the building.

The Newfoundland Chocolate Company has a location in the Signal Hill Visitor Centre, but since I’m not a huge chocolate fan (and was melting by that time) I opted for an iced coffee and Strawberry Champagne Gelato. On the plus side, they had free chocolate shavings at the coffee stand. Sadly, though, the ice-cream was overly sweet, kind of flavourless, and full of icy, hard chunks of fruit. Maybe I should’ve gone for the chocolate after all… Total, I spent around two hours on Signal Hill, but you could easily do the tower in 15-30 min. or take an entire afternoon to really explore and hike around. There’s also a Geo-Centre further down the hill that I didn’t want to take the time to stop at, but would have been conveniently placed for a full day of fun at the site.

At about 2pm I made it to The Rooms, which is a new, purpose-built museum, gallery and archives building. I was prepared to be indignant at the $10 admission fee, but it turned out to totally be worth it. Their exhibit on local soldiers’ experience of the first world war was stunning (kind of literally), and their art gallery and local history museums were both worth the considerable time I spent wandering them. I really ran out of time, though; two hours was not enough! I rushed through their natural history exhibit, and skipped the interactive section of their local history/industry museum where (staff?/volunteers?) were teaching little mini-workshops. I’d wanted to check out the cafe as well, but pressed onward to fit in a couple more sights before they all closed for the day.

The next stop, the Newman Wine Vaults, were included in the purchase price to the first stop of the day, The Comissariat, so I rushed over to catch these around 4, just before they closed. A small attraction, it was still pretty cool (literally) to see the old stone and brick vaults. A small port tasting is included, and they had a couple (actually fun) games to keep you busy despite the small square footage. Super helpful, friendly staff, and meter parking out front. Unfortunately I had a bit too much fun here, and missed the Pharmacy Museum a block down the street, but I did catch the Railway Museum just before it closed and was allowed in to take some pictures without admission. Some neat dioramas, but overall a very information-heavy and low-interaction museum.

At that point, I remembered that there was a lighthouse that was supposed to be a big deal, and found that it was closing soon, but was also only a ~20 min. drive, so I raced back to the car and sped up to Cape Spear. Disappointingly, the area is pretty socked in with dense (pine?) forest except for right on the coast, so the drive itself was less than thrilling, but the lighthouse and surroundings were great.

Since I was less than half an hour from closing, the staff waved me through without charging for a ticket, and I raced up the stairs to dash through the old lighthouse. It’s a pretty small site in terms of reconstructed historical spaces - just a couple rooms, really, but the views were great and I wished I’d had more time for exploring and hiking the area. Again, lots of wildflowers and cool-looking cliffs, with quite extensive, but locked-down old military construction lower down the hill.

Being a Vancouverite, I figured stopping at the YellowBelly Brewery for a flight and dinner would be a cool, eat-local move, but… nope. It was crazy busy at 7-ish, which seemed good, but the beer was pretty meh and the food too uninspiring, so I moved on pretty quickly.

Should have done better research, as I couldn’t find anywhere with live music or traditional food to eat, but I did wander down to the harbour for a Beaver Tail - the Killaloe Sunrise was pretty great, with lemon and cinnamon sugar on a crispy fried disc. Figured I’d head back to the cafe for a greasy dinner, but by the time I climbed the hill back to the car (free 3hr parking at The Rooms), I figured out that the cafe had closed in the early afternoon that day. Oops.

Googling traditional NL food led me to Quidi Vidi Vllage, a fishing village and development off to the east of the city, but I kind of chickened out about the place I’d planned to go when I got there, Mallard Cottage (there just wasn’t time for a full meal), and decided to be wild and spontaneous and stop off at a divey-looking place a couple blocks back.

The Inne of Olde was a logical name - it was the cluttered, kitschy opposite of the current trend in carefully curated hipster bars, with Christmas lights strewn across the place, a wood-burning stove and mismatched chairs and tables. I’m afraid I intruded on the proprietress, presumably Linda of the sign: Linda’s Stories, Beers & Wood-Burning Stoves. Although a young couple was leaving just as I entered, she seemed about to close up, but agreed to track down some soup for me anyways. A (recent) cancer survivor, she seemed happy enough to make conversation while she waited for me to clear out (lol) - overall, a success, in my books.

For some reason, calculating the time I needed to get back to the airport for my 11:45 pm flight out was confusing me, and I had a bit of a panic driving back. Although it had only taken about 10 min. to get into town from the airport, Google Maps seemed to think I needed about half an hour to get back, but obviously I trusted the GPS and settled for just speeding a bit… nope, it was navigating me around to the industrial back end of the airport. Airport at St. John’s is apparently different than St. John’s International Airport. So that was stressful - especially when I was the only one going through security - I figured I was horribly late. Nope. The airport was just that small.

Despite the tiny departures hall (one set of bathrooms!) there was a small shop still open with t-shirts, and after a full day of running around climbing hills in insane humidity and a night and previous plane on the day, I was ready to spring for a clean(er) shirt, so I rounded out the day with a little duty-free shopping and picked up a snazzy St. John’s flower shirt (lol).

Overall? I’m glad I got the flights I did - finally had a chance to visit Canada’s East Coast, had a great time climbing around, successfully rented, drove and returned my first rental car, and tried some weird and unhealthy local specialties.

Would I do it again? Not unless the flights were even cheaper or the stopover longer (overnight at least), which sounds counterintuitive, but I way overestimated the amount of sleep I could get (5 hours flights + airplane seats = basically none) and way understimated how gross it would be not getting a shower and a change of clothes part way through. Cooler temperatures would probably have helped. Definitely interested in taking Icelandic Air’s service with a few days in Iceland next trip, and could be persuaded to stop over in Halifax if WestJet made that an option. Speaking of which, they were pretty fantastic. Dirt cheap flights, even with the extra $60 or so I spent on checking luggage, didn’t miss the airplane food one bit (who eats overnight anyways?), flights were on time and not crammed full - I had the middle seat empty on every flight - and their staff went above and beyond to be helpful. Would totally fly WestJet again.

Day Trip Budget: $149*

*Prices in CND as of July 2016

Transport: $84.18

($280 WestJet Flight Vancouver to Calgary to St. John’s to London Gatwick (single one-way ticket) excluded from totals)

($60 two checked pieces of luggage (no checked luggage allowance) excluded from totals)

$75.97 for 14 hour car rental

$7.21 to top up rental gas tank

$1 in meter parking

Meals: $48.82

$15.18 Brunch: Black Coffee, Toutons, Baked Beans, Boiled Egg

$8.63 Snack: $5 Gelato + $2.50 Iced Coffee at Newfoundland Chocolate Company

$10.07 Drinks: $8.75 five-beer flight at Yellow Belly Brewery

$6.44 Snack: $5.60 Killaloe Sunrise at Beavertails Food Truck

$8.50 Dinner: $5.50 soup & bun at Quidi Vidi Inne of Olde

Attractions: $16

$6 The Comissariat (+The Newman Wine Vaults included in purchase price)

$10 The Rooms

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