St. John's, Newfoundland - Canada At Its Best - My Family Travels

Canada's lesser known island off the far eastern coast boasts outdoor recreation and stunning scenic attractions, making it an ideal summer playground from April to September.

Part of Canada only since 1949, and joined together in name only since 2001, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador boasts the distinction of being the country’s easternmost province and the farthest eastern political division in North America. At 405,000 square-miles, larger than Texas, it offers varied climates, wide open spaces with little population, a capital city with much to see and do, and one of the largest groups of friendly people on the planet.

When I was assigned to cover the island of Newfoundland’s family attractions, unique culinary delights, and meet its people — in short to kick the rather large tires of this huge space — I was willing to do it in a New York minute. My history with the region began after visiting Expo ’67, when a journey east to Newfoundland seemed a reasonable extension from Montreal.

At that time, flying seemed almost ill-mannered of me — the train was the way to go. A total of two-and-a-half days of travel aboard through Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland brought me to the capital of the province. From Channel-Port-aux-Basque, the southwestern end of Newfoundland, it took 22 hours of narrow-gauge sleeping car travel on the Newfie Bullet to reach St. John’s. Befriended by a local family, I saw many of the sights in and around the St. John’s area. My teen-aged interest was piqued by what was seen and experienced and I vowed to return someday.

Fast forward to the fall of 2005 — 38 years had made many positive changes to this land of over half-a-million people.

The New in Newfoundland

Everything was different. This time, an Airbus whisked our group from Toronto to St. John’s in 2½ hours. The Newfie Bullet had run its last mile in July of 1969, and the route that it traveled has been turned into a very scenic bike trail. The Russian “fishing trawlers” in 1967’s St John’s Harbor have vanished, which is one of the positive elements of the end of the Cold War. Downtown St John’s, which had seemed run-down, was now brightly painted and teeming with galleries, fine restaurants, museums, and ongoing construction. Since 1993, when cod fishing was wiped out throughout Newfoundland by political fiat, 200 fishing hamlets in the interior of the island have been eliminated as well. The fishing economy has been replaced by oil exploration and development.

In addition, Newfoundland, once a very removed part of Canada, had become a very defined part of the Confederation, boasting of all the conveniences of the mainland. Besides all the technology needed to link the province with goods, foods, and the electronic superhighway, culture now manifests itself all over and is both imported and exported. Many wonderful cultural venues are now available to all to enjoy. However, please bear in mind that due to its northeasterly location, many outdoor activities are either limited or non-existent from late summer to early spring.

St. John’s

Given the immensity of Newfoundland and Labrador, we were limited to a very small part of it. But, there was more than enough, actually too much, to keep us busy for four days in around the capital and the Avalon Peninsula. We were privileged to stay the Fairmont Newfoundland Hotel (709/726-4980) and my room faced Signal Hill and the opening of the Narrows into the very foreboding Atlantic Ocean. The hotel offers everything that you can think of, including an indoor pool, perfect for the end of the day when even touring is too strenuous. There are also two restaurants in-house, along with retail stores for last minute gifts and necessities. Its convenient East End location is also very close to downtown St. John’s shopping. How many other places can you stay and watch a cruise ship majestically heading into St. John’s Harbor at sunrise?

If your children are old enough to understand the dynamics of eating in a fancier restaurant with menus beyond hamburgers and chicken fingers, then Bianca’s (709/726-9016) is the place to go. Located on Water Street in downtown St. John’s, it provides a great culinary introduction to local cuisine, with dishes ranging from Chicken Fricassee to Fillet of Caribou, and, of course, incredible desserts.

Avalon Peninsula: Beauty, History & Culture

You can rent a car in St. John’s and see the countryside on your own, however, our group was fortunate to have the resources of McCarthy’s Party (888/660-6060) for our ground requirements. This family-run organization led by father Jim McCarthy, gave us a wonderful way to see the area, and was coupled with Jim’s comprehensive knowledge of all things Newfoundland, and the world. This is the ideal way to tour.

Our first stop was Signal Hill. This point is on a bluff, high atop the Atlantic, with a far-reaching view of all of St. John’s and the Avalon Peninsula. From this vantage point, you can watch the ocean and the ships going in and out of the harbor. A tower and gift shop are at the top of this National Historic Site, linked by a series of trails that end up back in St. John’s, a few miles walk. In the pre-internet days of the 20th century, the inventor Guglielmo Marconi received the first wireless message across the Atlantic at this very spot.

Next was the Quidi Vidi (“Kiddy Viddy”) area. A pleasant neighborhood less than 5 miles from downtown St. John’s, it is woven between the ocean, the rocks, and small inlets filled with homes, stores and fishing boats stretching up the rocks in every conceivable direction. This seemed like a great place for children to run around and have fun.

From the village of Quidi Vidi, we traveled to Cape Spear, a 240-foot-high promontory above the Atlantic, the easternmost point in North America and a former gun emplacement turned National Historic Park. While the late summer winds made it somewhat cool, this was an incredibly quiet place to be, the silence broken only by the winds and the roar of the ocean. This is another great child-friendly place for letting off of some youthful exuberance.

All that touring gave everyone an appetite, and to add a Newfie touch to lunch, we dined at Velma’s Restaurant and Lounge (709/576-2264) on Water Street in downtown St. John’s. It offers several dining rooms, a brisk lunchtime trade, a comprehensive, reasonable menu, and… cod’s tongue! Being good guests, we all consumed at least one, which were small and lightly fried. While this may not be suitable for your 5-year-old, it is a once in a lifetime kind of thing and there are many other more familiar items to choose from. Velma’s has a wonderful cross-section of customers from all economic realms, and should be a must-do on your Newfoundland checklist.

After lunch, we rode a short distance to Johnson Geo Centre (866/868-7625). A most assured kid-friendly museum, this geologic-specific venue is built into Signal Hill, parts of which are visible from different areas of the museum. Opened in 2002, this 33,000-square-foot building is as deep as 20 feet below surface level and is heated by geothermal wells. It features the geologic history of Newfoundland, a planetarium, and an excellent exhibit about the Titanic, which sank off the coast of southwest Newfoundland. Newfoundland’s recent oil exploration and development is covered in the Exxon Mobil Oil and Gas Gallery. This unique place should not be missed.

Another recent addition (2005) for the whole family is The Rooms (709/757-8000), located in St. John’s near the center of the city. Created by the Province to display artifacts, art, archeology, natural history and the culture of Newfoundland and Labrador, it united three museums under one roof. While some of the exhibits are not aimed at children, most of what is there can be quite fascinating to anyone over 3-years. Unlike many museums, there is much natural light, and, in a pattern that emerged the more places we visited, it is situated on a hill, yielding very scenic views of the city, the harbor, the hills, and points beyond.

After dinner at the hotel, we were sorely in need of a hike to walk this all off. Quick aid came in the form of The St. John’s Haunted Hike (709/685-3444). While this interesting evening tour could be rated PG-13, the 45-60 minute hike for 25 people (maximum) gave us insights about some of the more sinister characters that dwelt in the city and how they made their impact. Several neighborhoods were visited, and the guide gave the tour’s participants a feeling of what it was like to have lived there. Best advice would be to bring appropriate clothing for what could be a drizzly and/or chilly night. Teenagers will especially like this.

Coastal Visit = Boats, Bays & Lighthouses

We had spent a day and half visiting the metropolis of St. John’s and its suburbs. The second day of our visit was devoted to the sea, the villages, and some culture. We took a 45-minute drive on the Irish Loop to the picturesque town of Bay Bull’s and it was here that we boarded one of O’Brien’s Boat Tours (877/639-4253) for a nature cruise to the Witless Bay Ecological Preserve (<709/635-4520). Alas, it was too late in the season for whales, but at a tiny island in the bay, we saw hundreds of puffins, up close and personal, along with a seaside view of the rugged coast. This qualified as a 3-year-old and up activity. Remember that the Atlantic can be a bit rugged (the 46-foot boat pitched and rolled at times), not a good place for an active child to be running around. With that in mind, you will have a great voyage.

After a sea cruise, being on land that did not roll seemed like a good thing. Another 45-minute drive south on the coastal road on the Avalon Peninsula put us in the town of Ferryland, the biggest surprise on the trip. In concert with many other locations, houses were built up the hills along the coast (what views from their front porches!) coupled with spits of land jutting out almost a mile into the Atlantic. Ferryland is a two-page panoramic picture in National Geographic come to life before your eyes.

Along the coast, you see lighthouses; some of which you can look at, some you can climb (harder than it looks), and others you can walk around. In Ferryland, you can have a delightful picnic lunch in and around one at Lighthouse Picnics (709/363-7456). The owners, Jill and Sonia, locals both, have lived all over the world, came back home, and have created a world-class gourmet dining facility in an Edward Hopper painting. The sandwiches, pastries and fresh lemonade are delicious as well as family-friendly, and children’s picnics are available. You can eat inside or outside on, you guessed it, a scenic bluff. Appetite for lunch is kindled by a brisk 25-minute walk from the parking lot. In my travels, this is one of the most unique experiences I ever had. Do not pass this up.

A year after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, The Colony of Avalon was established by Lord Baltimore and known at that time for its religious tolerance. By 1637, it was the only successful English proprietary colony north of Chesapeake Bay. Forgotten for many years, the site is now home to the Colony of Avalon Foundation (877/326-5669) in Ferryland and consists of an Interpretation Center with exhibits and artifacts, some of which date back to the 16th century, several gardens, and a reproduction of a 17th century kitchen, as well as an archaeological dig, where archaeologists and field crews are working and can show you what is being uncovered, including seven sites from the 1621 Colony. It is all there, tantalizingly close to Lighthouse Picnics. This is not your usual family attraction, and visiting families will leave instilled with knowledge of what it was like to live in that era.

So much touring, so little time. A quick dinner at Ches’s (709-726-2373) on Freshwater Road near downtown St. John’s for fish and chips was perfect. A great spot for the wee ones, and the not-so-wee ones, with no maddening waits for the food. It was pretty quick, and very tasty!

That night we attended a concert at the Arts and Culture Centre (709/729-3900) in St. John’s. The artists are known as Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers, and although much of their material might be suitable for older teens and above, the three gentlemen, all Newfoundland locals, perform with enthusiastic comic and musical talents and made us laugh and cry (not at the same time).

A Newfoundland Farewell

The last day was a short one, and all of us were left to our own devices for the morning. My curiosity was piqued by the Railway Coastal Museum (closed Mondays October-May; 866/600-7245) located in the very same St. John’s Railway Station I had arrived at back in 1967. The highlight of the museum was being able to walk through actual railroad cars that had been used until the end of passenger service over 30 years ago. Other exhibits chronicled the development of the Newfoundland Railway and the coastal boats that served the towns along the water. For the younger set, a model train layout runs continuously. Everyone will learn something by visiting here.

In the last 38 years, many changes happened in my life, in St. John’s, in Newfoundland, in Canada, and in the world. Visiting the first place I had set foot in St. John’s as the last place on this trip showcased that Newfoundland and Labrador had kept pace, and in many ways exceeded, the pace of this post-modern world.

As our Air Canada jet took off from St. John’s Airport, I thought of one song that was part of the Buddy Wasisname concert. “Saltwater Joys” was written by Wayne Chaulk, one of the group:

I was born down by the water, it’s here I’m going to stay
I’ve searched for all the reasons why I should go away
But I haven’t got the thirst for all those modern day toys
So I’ll just take my chance with those saltwater joys.

St. Johns and the Avalon Peninsula. Don’t pass them by – you owe it to your family to go there.

For more information, visit Newfoundland Tourism, or call 800/563-6353 for their brochures, so you can see for yourself.  For additional ideas for places to stay, please see St. Johns Hotels.

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1 Reply to “St. John’s, Newfoundland – Canada At Its Best”

  • The 25-year-old tour company Wildland Tours has a family vacation package for 2009. It will be a great multi-generational adventure for folks who like whales, puffins, comfortable hotels, and the many wonders of Newfoundland.