Sunday, 6 July 2014

Newfoundland June 2014

Newfoundland was a place I had always yearned to visit. On one of those exceptionally stormy days last winter, when curiosity as to what airplanes were allowed to fly that day brought me to the Dublin Airport website, I noticed a News Announcement. It was not to do with the inclement weather and how it was affecting air traffic, but rather announcing a new direct route from Dublin to Newfoundland by the Canadian airline Westjet. This piece of exciting news brought me a sense of frustration because I was already booked on a cruise to Alaska, starting in Vancouver. I felt so tempted to book a flight to Newfoundland, but I said to myself “I can’t go to Canada twice in one year, that would be overkill.” Not long afterwards I received a phone call to tell me the Alaska cruise had been cancelled due to overbooking, and I felt slightly bereft. But then, I thought, this is my opportunity to book a self-made trip to Newfoundland!

On Monday 16th June 2014 I went to the boarding gate for the inaugural flight of Dublin to St. John’s, capital of the Canadian Province of Newfoundland & Labrador. The CEOs of Westjet and Dublin Airport each gave a speech on the launch of the new service. Westjet’s CEO said that this has been the most successful new route in Westjet’s history; it had attracted an unforeseen level of booking, and was sold out for most of the summer.

In just over four hour’s time of trans-Atlantic coffee-drinking, the aircraft touched onto a very wet runway at St. John’s. A welcome party of traditional Irish music awaited us in arrivals, with servings of more coffee, savouries and cakes. After partaking in these I got a taxi to my accommodation for five nights, the Quality Hotel Harbourview. Although it was only 11am, my room was ready, and I indulged in yet another dose of caffeine from the coffee-maker. The continuous rain dulled a promising view from my window straight down the city streets lined with the so-called “Jelly Bean” terraces of different-coloured wooden houses, leading Downtown and up the hill to the Basilica and the Rooms Museum & Gallery.

Despite the cosiness of my room I tempted myself to explore the locale, and sporting a raincoat with hood I made my way uphill to the nearby historic building of the Commissariat House. It quickly became apparent that cars stop when one even looks as if one is about to cross the street here. The only other place I have observed this nicety is in the thick winter snow of Tromso in Norway. Indeed it was only back in May when Newfoundland had its last snow. Today it was just non-stop rain. Inside the historic wooden building I had my first encounter with the very peculiar local accent which was mostly “stage Irish” with some West Country English, and the odd touch of North American for good measure. “Are you really from hereabouts?” I asked the lady on duty, and she replied “Oi be from here alroigh-sh, and you be from...Oirland...I guess.” I assured her I was indeed, just off the first direct flight. She had heard about the new service and reckoned every second Newfoundlander would use it. A friend of hers has a daughter that spent two years in Ireland doing voluntary work for Simon, and followed that up by completing a degree in Sociology at St. John’s University.

Having completed the tour of the building I wandered through the leafy surrounds towards a gate which indicated public access. “Government House”, which is Newfoundland’s answer to Ireland’s “Farmleigh”, was closed until July according to my literature. The security man called me over, and I thought I might be in trouble for trespassing. “Come look in the hall, and get a taste for what its loike”, he beckoned. A magnificent spectacle it is. “Now come see some nice horses, this way”. At the stables I was introduced to four enormous animals, including Vince, who had stomach problems that was causing some concern. “Them horses be with the Mounted Police, for ceremonies loike.” I got a complete tour of the grounds, by which time I was thoroughly saturated, the rain having penetrated right through my raincoat, my feet and shoes sodden like sponges in the puddles. Back at the hotel I removed all my sodden garments and laid them out to dry over the next two days in my heated room.

It was way too wet to get my second raincoat saturated, so I dined in my hotel, which was rated as mediocre as far as food goes. I ordered the traditional Newfoundland Cod’s Tongues, which were served with fries and a wedge of lemon. Cod tongues are not actually the tongues of the fish, but a delicious piece of flesh in the area of the throat. They were absolutely scrumptious, and served with “scrunchions” or diced pork scratchings, which are a traditional accompaniment.

Thankfully, the morning brought sunshine. Loyola O’Brien picked me up in his minibus to bring me to my booked boat trip with O’Briens’ Boat Tours at the wee village of Bay Bulls, some 25km down the road on the Irish Loop. It was lovely to see some pristine countryside with forests and lakes. Loyola chatted away to me about the Irish connections and told me his brother Michael would be commanding the boat on this occasion. On board, Loyola took the mic and gave us a guided commentary. He began with the safety briefing, advising us that we wouldn’t last a minute in the freezing water, but that we should aim to keep dry and get straight into the life raft which was available to deploy at the back. He cautioned that once a boat of this size would get into trouble it would go down with determination and that we’d have to be quick about getting saved! Loyola followed this up with a rendition of Fiddler’s Green, a song about the afterlife of fishermen.

A humpback whale was spotted. Our skipper, Michael, followed the whale at a distance, as he surfaced now and again. A Minke whale also appeared. It took quite a lot of our time tracking the whale, so that when we came to the famous bird cliffs of Witless Bay, our bird-spotting was brief enough. Still, it was very exciting to see so many puffins in one place at one time, and the seas were a fantastic emerald green close to the rocks.

Before returning to base, Loyola “Screeched-in” a couple from another part of Canada to become honorary Newfoundlanders. The pair had don sou’wester hats in order to take on the supposed appearance of a “Newfie” (sometimes regarded as derogatory), then Loyola asked as per tradition “Is you a Screecher?”, whilst holding up the wet fish to be kissed. Following embrace of fish, the couple declared “We is”, followed by a shot of Screech, the Jamaican rum which used to be traded for cod. Loyola then declared “Long may your big jib draw, and may the road rise up to meet you”, the latter part of sentence derived from a famous old Irish saying. In the evening I dined out at a nearby Tripadvisor recommended Korean restaurant, where I enjoyed a most delicious meal.

A second bright sunny day encouraged me to my goal of Signal Hill, a mere two kilometres walk away, but it is 143 metres high. Half way up I stopped off by Deadman’s Pond, which is overlooked by Gibbet Hill, where executed criminals were elevated within view of the denizens of St. John’s to discourage them to follow suit. Today some happy local black ducks bobbed about in the water which was fringed by fluffy white bog cotton.

Across the road I made a detour into the Geo Centre, a vast and spectacular underground museum dedicated to local and world geology, exploration and mining, oil and gas harvesting, and even a room dedicated to the causes of the Titanic disaster which took place a few hundred miles offshore in “iceberg alley”.

A little further up the hill I called into the Signal Hill Interpretation Centre, which described the first Marconi signal from Cornwall to North America at this point, as well as the voyage of John Cabot, and Italian explorer who ventured here from Bristol. I recall, during a visit to that English city, learning about the voyage. There is a tower in Bristol named after him, just as there is Cabot’s Tower on the peak of Signal Hill.
Not being fit, I struggled up the hill, as people sauntered past me. Once up there, the reward was great. I had a terrific view over two icebergs, and south down to Spear Head, where the sun rises first in North America. Many trails lead from Cabot’s Tower around the cliffs. I came upon a beautiful black Newfoundland dog with his owner. Another tourist asked to hold his lead as she was photographed with him, and this is the picture I got taking of the dog. He was a real sweetheart.

Going downhill I detoured through a wonderful nature park by the Geo Centre. Dozens of native wild plants were in blossom, all labelled. Here in St. John’s everything of interest to tourists and locals alike has an information notice. From the park I walked a trail into an upmarket new housing estate, and from her I walked half a kilometre to the most photographed of all Newfoundland fishing villages, Quidi Vidi, still within the environs of St. John’s city. Some beautiful wooden buildings and fisherman’s “rooms” surrounded the narrow hill-clad environs of the village. I went into the Quidi Vidi (pronounced Kiddy Viddy) brewery and purchased some beer, followed up by a visit to the Quidi Vidi Plantation which is an incubation centre for people starting a business in craft production.

On the way back to the hotel I stopped by the Inn of Olde, a very individual pub with an eclectic gathering of items on display. The lady behind the bar had the strongest local accent of any individual I had met. She was looking after the place for the owner, Linda, who was next door in her home doing stuff. She asked me if I was a personal friend of Daniel O’Donnell, who is a regular visitor to Newfoundland, and to this pub. She discussed his wife, Majella’s illness, and his mother’s recent death. She was also familiar with some of the cast of Coronation Street, which is followed by lots of Newfoundlanders. “Oi have to go to Gander next month, which is 4 hours droive, but Oi hate drivin’, what with the mousse on the highway. It’s as cheap to floi to Oirland, that’s whoi de Oirish route will do so well, as well as that, everyone here wants to go to Oireland.

A thoroughly wet day followed, same as the day I arrived. The weather does nothing by halves here. This was a day for the museums. I walked uphill and south to the Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, which was consecrated in 1855. Construction was supervised by Irish Contractors, under the eye of Irish Archbishop Michael Fleming. Stone from Clonmel was used. A funeral was taking place when I entered through its doors, so it was not appropriate to take a photograph of the interior. It is a fine grey stone building with two towers and a plethora of associated buildings extending from it.
Just across the road loomed the great modern building of The Rooms, a museum, gallery and archive centre whose design is based on the large huts used by Newfoundland fishermen for storing their equipment. It is a wonderful piece of architecture which, along with the basilica, dominates the skyline of St. John’s. Within, I viewed many exhibitions, including artist Pam Hall’s collection of paper houses, collected from many friends throughout the world and displayed in most interesting ways. I learned a great deal about the culture of the various peoples who make up the population of Newfoundland and Labrador, including a large section on the Irish!

I made my way downhill via the fine Anglican Cathedral to Downtown, or as we tend to call it the City Centre. On little George Street, the hub of some infamous wild carry-on at night, I made my way into one of the city’s Irish pubs, Bridie Molloys. This was no shamrock-kitsch version of an Irish pub, but one which you would find at home, without the leprechauns. Irish Stew and Guinness featured on the menu, but I opted for one of the traditional Newfoundland dishes, a Jigg’s Dinner. Not a pretty sight, but very tasty, it consisted of a mash-up of corned beef, turnip, carrot, cabbage, pease pudding, stuffing, and gravy. Washed down with Quidi Vidi beer.

My final call of the day was the Railway Coastal Museum which is at the southern end of the city. My walk took me past the Newman Wine Vaults and O’Mara’s Pharmacy Museum, both of which would not be open until July. The rain, by now, was worse than ever, and I was barely able to take a look at the beautiful historic engine and carriages parked outside the museum. Inside was a lovely model railway, featuring elements of the now defunct railway between St. John’s and Port Aux Basques on the south-west coast of the island of Newfoundland. The museum featured very interesting information about the now defunct railway service and the shipping lines to Nova Scotia on the Canadian mainland.

A long walk through the city brought me back to the hotel. I was far too wet and miserable to launch out for an evening meal, so I settled for a nice bit of Newfoundland cod in the restaurant.

This city is so full of hills, my legs were giving out. I decided to get a taxi to my final specific point of interest, the Fluvarium, and then walk the 3 kilometres downhill back to the hotel. It was a sunny day, ideal for my pursuit. To explain a bit about the Fluvarium; it rhymes with aquarium, one looks through glass at fish, but the glass has a direct view of brown trout and even salmon as they swim through the local river. It is an octagonal building located in Pippy Park, which is St. John’s equivalent of the Phoenix Park in Dublin. The visitor descends a staircase to the area underground where one can inspect all elements of the riverbed as well as the fish. There are plenty of displays on the rivers of St. John’s, particular Rennie’s River which was named after a Scottish Miller who operated a baking mill on it.

Following my visit I began my walk back, starting at the Long Pond where a few people were practising Canadian canoeing. I continued along the Rennie’s River Trail, which a walk akin to the ones alongside the Dodder and Tolka Rivers in Dublin. The Rennie’s River is very rocky in places, and makes for a picturesque river valley through the most upmarket suburbs of St. John’s. Beautiful boardwalks are provided with lovely foot bridges, a gazebo, and picnic tables. Many beautiful houses with verandas peep up beyond the banks, and some have terraces, gardens and steps descending right down to the river itself. I continued my walk through Bannerman Park, where a tiny Miniature Pinscher was frolicking about in the safe enclosure for off-lead dogs.

For evening dinner I came by a plain but good Chinese restaurant, frequented by Chinese people, always a good sign. I chose an absolutely delicious dish of beef sizzled with fresh orange zest, unforgettable. A few men at two tables men were speaking across to one another in Cantonese, and one of turned around and apologised to me, and introduced himself as hailing from Hong Kong, I told him it is very much on my bucket list!

On the day of my departure my flight was leaving at around 11pm, so I had the best part of a day to fit in something. I considered going to the Botanic Gardens, but they are at the southerly end of Pippy Park, and difficult to get back from. Besides, it was a day of mixed weather, with some nasty rain showers on the horizon. I decided to take another boat trip, this time with Dee Jay Charters. The boat was small enough to enter the narrows of Quidi Vidi harbour, so I was able to see this beautiful village from a different perspective which was very worthwhile. The boat passed very close to the two glaciers outside of St. John’s Harbour, and they looked enormous by comparison to what they appeared from shore. The voyage continued to Cape Spear, the easternmost point in the whole of the Americas. It was fun waving up to the folks wandering about the elevated shore and lighthouse. The boat returned to St. John’s close to some picturesque bays with interesting rock formations, and one with a waterfall splashing from cliffs down to a pebble beach. Voyaging through the narrows of St. John’s Harbour was fascinating with views to Signal Hill.

Before departure I had a lovely meal in the Sheraton Hotel -3 minutes up the hill- of salmon with Screech sauce and ice-cream, again with Screech sauce. The flight home took less than four hours, and I was just delighted to arrive in Dublin at the dawn of a new day.

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