No, not the movie with Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery escaping from Alcatraz (but nonetheless a damn good movie, while we’re on the topic), although Newfoundland—aptly nicknamed “The Rock”—can easily feel like Alcatraz, especially in bleak weather conditions that can (temporarily) trap you on the island against your will.
This is why I was taken by surprise when my plane flew towards the shimmering night lights of St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador, ahead of schedule.
In fact, there’s a saying here: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.”
Generally the weather is cold, windy as hell (no day is a good hair day), and gray, gloomy skies loom overhead for most of the year (not to mention the infamous sideways-rain, rendering umbrellas futile accessories), and, and, and…
And yet I have a fondness for this city that transcends logic.
The raw natural beauty of the province is definitely not lost on me—I miss the taste and smell of the salty air and the feeling of being on the edge of the immense Atlantic Ocean (St. John’s is located on the eastern tip of Canada). There is a magnetism and electricity to this place that I do not experience in my home province of New Brunswick. The moody, isolated atmosphere makes me feel both alive and miserable at the same time. While I was happy to escape its (literally) icy clutches when I left, I still love this place… as a visitor.
There’s something else: the people here are truly special. Having lived in St. John’s for five years before moving to Germany, I have forged some of the strongest friendships in my life here. The hospitality and friendliness of Newfoundlanders is unparalleled and well-recognized—there is even a musical tribute to this fact. Come From Away tells the true story of the 7,000 passengers stranded in the town of Gander during 9/11. Residents of the town welcomed these strangers into their homes without hesitation, accommodating and treating them like family until they could return home.
These are the main reasons for my current visit and will keep me returning in the future.
There is a characteristic accent and dialect here that you won’t encounter in other parts of Canada. This accent sounds part Canadian, part Irish, and if you’re new to it, it can take a little while to interpret.
Some of the most common words and expressions you’ll hear from Newfoundland folk:
- Best kind (good; a positive response)
- Rotted (annoyed)
- Stunned—used to refer to someone acting stupid (e.g.,”He’s right stunned”)
- Arse (ass)
- Crooked (cranky)
- Skeet—basically the equivalent of “white trash” (e.g, “Look at all them skeets over there”)
Being a New Brunswicker, I’m a CFA (“Come from Away”).
Referring to inanimate objects as she is very common, as in, “She’s a cold one today.” (Translation: It’s a cold day)
B’y (not to be confused with “bye”) is often tagged onto the end of expressions when speaking to either a male or female, such as in “Yes/no, b’y” and “Whatta y’at, b’y?” (Translation: What’s up?)
For some of the most hilarious uses of Newfoundland slang and (sometimes obscure) references to Newfoundland culture, I highly recommend Scumbag Newfie on Twitter (although if you’re not a local or have never visited the province, some of his tweets might be lost on you).
I was reminded early on just how unpleasant and unpredictable The Rock’s wrath can be. I was never really conditioned for the harsh weather here, but because I’ve been spoiled in the meantime by living in southern Germany, I’m especially out of shape for this climate. Contrary to popular belief, not all Canadians are creatures of the cold and winter (that makes us sound like White Walkers), and I am a prime example.
On the second day of my visit, a massive storm (with hurricane-force wind gusts up to 120 km/hour) shook the city. Of course I had an appointment across town with no access to a car, so I pep-talked myself out the door to catch the city bus. At least I came equipped for the occasion, with a toque, heavy-duty gloves, tall rainboots, and a sturdy Gore-Tex jacket.
This escapade first involved sprinting to the bus stop (getting drenched along the way, umbrella be damned) and then seeking shelter under a robust pine tree that just so happened to be conveniently located behind the bus stop—luckily, pine trees make for pretty good umbrellas. The moment the bus came into my view from between the branches, I sprinted from my hiding spot and jumped on board, feeling like a trooper.
Jenna: 1, Rock: 0
Around the Bay
After my previous escapade, I was tempted to stay indoors underneath blankets and a hoodie, chugging hot chocolate all day, but I sucked it up and hauled my frozen, traumatized butt around the city on foot (and beyond, with my good friend Melanie).
“Around the bay” is a local expression that refers to the surrounding area of St. John’s, but nowhere in particular.
Cruising around the bay is exactly what I got up to with Melanie one day during my visit. With “Born to Be Alive” as our theme song (from the ’70s) for the drive, we occasionally stopped on the side of the road to capture the magnificent views overlooking the cliffs, or on the rocky shores of a beach.
You don’t have to go far outside the city—or leave the city at all, in fact—to capture the breathtaking landscape. Around every turn is a new, stunning panorama begging to be photographed.
Perched atop Signal Hill is Cabot Tower, one of the city’s landmarks. Originally serving as a military lookout for ships entering the harbor, the tower is named after John Cabot, the explorer who discovered Newfoundland.
The trail surrounding Signal Hill is incredibly scenic, offering a great view overlooking St. John’s downtown on one side and the open ocean on the other. During the springtime/early summer, Signal Hill is a good place to sight icebergs floating off in the distance. It is also ridiculously windy up here at all times of the year, so do yourself a favour and wear a warm hat (or maybe I’m just a wimp).
Downtown St. John’s
The city is perhaps most well-known for its colorful townhouses lined up along “Jellybean Row”, the nickname for the collection of streets that make up the downtown area (which is built on a steep hill)—most famously Gower Street. Every second jellybean house has a jellybean row image painted on the mailbox, and every gift shop sells jellybean row paraphernalia to tourists to really drive the point home—everything from fridge magnets to paintings, postcards, and t-shirts.
Apart from the jellybean motif, there are some cool murals scattered around the main streets, side streets, and tucked into alleyways:
The two main streets downtown, Duckworth Street and Water Street, house the majority of the restaurants, cafés, and unique little shops in the city, many of which sell good-quality merchandise from local artists and designers—from jewelry and mittens to handmade soaps and chocolate.
One of my favourites is Posie Row, a well-known shop with everything girly (think hippie-girly, not princess-girly), including funky jewelry, clothing, accessories, books, pretty decorations, and my personal favourite: hilarious greeting cards for every (or no) occasion. Be sure to check out the upstairs, too!
The (in)famous George Street is another St. John’s landmark, but for an entirely different reason. It’s exclusively devoted to bars, pubs, and clubs, and could be likened to Bourbon Street in New Orleans (which I’ve never visited), but much smaller. The street, confined to pedestrians in the evening, is basically deserted during the daytime and comes alive at night.
The tradition upon arriving in St. John’s for the first time is to be “screeched in” on George Street. Christian’s Pub is the most popular spot for the initiation ritual, which involves kissing a codfish, drinking a shot of Newfoundland Screech rum, and reciting some Newfoundland slang. After successful completion of this seemingly random series of events, you are bestowed with a certificate deeming you an honorary Newfoundlander.
I admit that I managed to avoid the whole thing the entire time I lived in St. John’s, being both immune to peer pressure and having zero desire to kiss a dead, frozen codfish.
The month of October is also the time for Mardi Gras (another parallel with New Orleans), which is essentially a big Halloween party on George Street. I just missed it during my visit this time around, but know that the spectacular and crazy costumes justify checking out the event, if that’s your thing. The grand prize for best costume is $5000 CAD, just so you know how seriously people take it.
The St. John’s Farmers’ Market
Of course, no trip to St. John’s is complete for me without a visit to the farmers market. You might have caught onto my not-so-secret infatuation with markets by now. In July of this year, the St. John’s Farmers’ Market was relocated to a newly renovated complex much bigger than the previous location that can accommodate more vendors. I was looking forward to visiting it on Saturday morning with my friend Jayde.
I was impressed by the venue and took my time admiring each vendor’s offerings, but it wasn’t hard to decide which baked good I would indulge in and had admittedly been fantasizing about since my last visit: the chocolate chip cookie—the coconut chocolate chip cookie, to be exact—from The Old Dublin Bakery.