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24 Hours in St. John's, Newfoundland

Insider Guides
by Candice Walsh Aug 3, 2012
This post is part of Matador’s partnership with Canada, where journalists show how to explore Canada like a local.

I CAME HOME TO ST. JOHN’S last Wednesday after months of living in Montreal. I felt something akin to culture shock. The isolation of Newfoundland only becomes apparent when you travel, and even more so when you return.

It’s in the denim outerwear of the old fogeys sipping coffee at Tim Horton’s, and their sharp accents reaching me as I stand at the cash. I keep thinking the waitresses will serve me with a “Bonjour, hello!” rather than the typical, “What can I get ya, my love?”

I’ve had many guests stay with me over the past six years here. It is my duty to make you love this place as much as I do. It’s the Newfoundland way. Here’s what happens when you make my futon your abode.

9 AM: You’re probably hungover. That’s too bad, because we’re going to Classic Café on Duckworth Street, for a breakfast Caesar and toutons smothered in molasses. Toutons are slabs of bread dough, fried up in butter and served with your choice of breakfast meat. Not up for the alcohol in your Caesar? Tough titty. You’re in Newfoundland.

10 AM: We’re going to hike Signal Hill. Okay, we’ll walk along the harbor front first, just to let our breakfast digest. And so you can giggle over the street named “Hill ‘o Chips.” Would you like to pause for a sausage at the Long Dick’s Sausage Emporium? I think you can handle the 12-inch.

10:15 AM: We’ve made it to the Battery, the start of our ascent up the Signal Hill trail. There are reputably more than 800 stairs on this trek. You’ll be fine.

We start here because the little houses and fishing stages crowding the edge of The Narrows give us the impression we’re actually in rural Newfoundland. Actually, the trail begins once we cross somebody’s front deck. Sometimes the owners are outside sipping tea.

10:45 AM: By now you’re panting. We’re steadily moving uphill, waving at people passing below us in their boats. Hold onto the metal chain as we skitter across this next piece of trail – otherwise you’ll fall headfirst into the Atlantic. At the same time, keep your eyes open for icebergs or whales just beyond Fort Amherst.

11:30 AM: Summit. You have the best view of the entire city, so take it in. Cabot Tower is to your right. It’s a pretty big deal in the city, built in 1898 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s discovery of the island. It was also the site of where Guglielmo Marconi received the first trans-Atlantic wireless message, in morse code.

12 PM: We’re not done…we’re walking to Quidi Vidi Village. It’s a short hike, over some hills and down some stairs and through some trees. A couple of months ago, a huge iceberg floated into The Gut. You might think a giant chunk of ice is boring, until you’re there. Until you’re standing in front of its huge, completely silent mass. Like it’s holding onto all the ancient secrets it pulled from the ocean as it made its way from Greenland and down through Iceberg Alley.

12:45 PM: But no, the real destination is the Inn of Olde. It’s my favourite pub in the city, a place that’s practically a museum for old Newfoundland memorabilia. It smells like mothballs and has Christmas decorations from the 80s. It makes me homesick.

The sign out front says “Wood stoves and stories,” and it’s pretty accurate when you get Linda the bartender talking. The bar is literally attached to her living room.

1:30 PM: We’ll grab a half-case of Quidi Vidi Iceberg beer from the brewery, sit down on the wharf and soak up the smell of salt water and the sound of seagulls and the lapping of water.

2:30 PM: Heading home is an easy trot. We’ll stop for ice cream at Moo Moo’s, that place painted like a giant cow. We’ll take the scenic route, weaving in and out of the downtown core, where brightly coloured houses have become known as “Jellybean Row” around the world. Just a FYI, Jellybean Row isn’t a real place. I’m sorry.

3:00 PM: Water Street. My favourite. We should probably stop for some sandwiches at Rocket Bakery, whattaya say? They also make great quiche.

4 PM: We need coffee. Jumping Bean & Co. on Harvey’s Road has the best stuff, especially the Screech Coffee. Don’t worry, there’s no real rum in it. Yet.

4:30 PM: We have to go to Cape Spear. Why didn’t I think of this earlier? Here is the easternmost tip of North America, where the sunrise reaches the shores of the continent first. If we can find a DD later in the evening, we can drive out there and be the first to watch it all happen.

If you’re here and without a ride, Jiffy Cabs can deliver you for a small sum. 722-2222. They’ll answer with their characteristic, “JIFFY CAAAAABS!” and they’ll be there in a jiffy. Conversation with the driver is encouraged.

5:00 PM: We arrive. You’re at the edge of the world. We’ll walk through the old war bunkers, around the lighthouse, keeping an eye on the horizon. There might be more whales.

6:30 PM: It’s suppertime in Newfoundland. We’re going to the Duke of Duckworth for some fish ‘n chips, because you can’t handle the cod tongues and scrunchions being served at Nautical Nellies. Pussy.

This is another favourite pub of mine, where mostly old men and a few oddballs hang out to watch sports and drink local brew. (Storm’s Irish Red comes highly recommended, by the way.) But their lightly battered cod with a side of fries covered in gravy and dressing (a savory and bread crumb mix, like turkey stuffing) will fill you to the gills.

7:30 PM: I’m sorry I’ve made you so full and uncomfortable, because now our pubcrawl begins. We need to have a pint at Yellowbelly Brewery. Order the Fighting Irish.

8:30 PM: We’re due for an Irish trad session at Shamrock City, or O’Reilly’s. Take your pick. Around here, “Irish trad” refers to a mixture of Newfoundland and Irish music. If we’re lucky, we might see some Masterless Men, or The Navigators, or even just a one-man band who knows how to get a crowd going. Newfoundland’s Irish roots are found everywhere in this place, even the Republic of Newfoundland flag which has a pink block where the orange block ought to be.

11:30 PM: Now’s the time to hit up George Street. Bars close later here than most places in Canada, at 3 AM. But even then, George Street becomes a circus. It’s a street entirely dominated by pubs and clubs, and people flow freely between them all.

We’ll go to Lottie’s first, for a White Russian. We’ll stay long enough to do a “Lottie’s Loop,” to circumnavigate the bar, and then we’ll go to Trapper John’s.

12:30 AM: This place dubs itself to be a “museum/bar,” but really it’s just a bar. We still love it. We’ll stay long enough for a beer and a “Trap lap” (much the same as the “Lottie’s loop,” actually).

1:30 AM: It’s time to head to our final destination, but the destination is up to you. The Sundance for some dancing and shameless flirting? Christian’s for a more chilled-out night? Or, if it’s summer, the rooftop of Turkey Joe’s?

3:30 AM: We’ll wander the streets, bumping into old friends and making new ones. Stop and take it all in, my dear. If you see someone you recognize, make sure you greet them with a “Whatta ya at?” (What’s up?) or a “How you getting’ on?” (How are ya?) Talk about the weather.

4:00 AM: Crawl home, uphill. Many hills. They don’t seem so hard now, though. Let me tuck you in. We’ll have more Caesars in the morning.

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