Newfoundland: Arrival in St. John's

photo: St. John's seen from Signal Hill

The multi-coloured clapboard houses of St. John's seen from Signal Hill

Before I headed for Newfoundland I was trying to work out my itinerary, so I was going through my guidebooks and pouring over maps. And I became obsessed with the infamous Newfoundland place names. Tickles, Leading Tickles, The Tickles. Jackson's Arm, Sop's Arm, Joe Batt's Arm - there were plenty more "Arms," but I got tired of them. Conception Bay, Placentia, Butts, Dildo - and let's not forget South Dildo. Heart's Content, Heart's Desire, Heart's Delight-Islington, Little Heart's Ease. Muddy Hole, Dark Hole River, Cow Head, Come By Chance, Blow Me Down, The Motion, Bacon Cove, Seldom, Little Seldom, Random Island, Mistaken Pond (many things were Mistaken in Newfoundland, but somehow a pond seemed most ridiculous), and the oxymoronic Nameless Cove. But my favourite - and the one I most wanted to visit, was Low Point. Because who wouldn't want to have a photo of themselves in front of the town sign to point out to friends the Low Point of their trip ... But I decided not to chase names around the island. I'm pleased to say that passing through my runner-up place-name, "Goobies," was a requirement on the way to Gros Morne.

Another interesting discovery about the officially lumped-together Newfoundland and Labrador is that Google Maps' Street View covers the entirety of the island, up to and including the remote L'Anse aux Meadows - 11 hours drive from St. John's in the far northeast corner of Newfoundland. But they haven't done a single street in Labrador.

Our flight did a turn over St. John's on approach that put us right over a very distinctive cove: it pays to know your maps, because I knew we were flying right over Quidi Vidi (pronounced, I'm told, "Kiddie Viddie"). It's a classic NL tiny fishing town ... that just happens to be about 3km from downtown St. John's - in fact, it's essentially surrounded by St. John's. And man is it lovely from the air. As is the coastline, with rounded cliffs tumbling into the sea - very dramatic.

And on the tarmac just as we were taxiing in - four massive grey U.S. military transport planes.

Street after street of two and three story clapboard houses - but so colourful. The architecture is very consistent, but the colours!: white, yellow, red, blue (all shades), teal, brown, orange ... I suspect there are more, but I left town fairly early the next day. It's also a very hilly city if you're near the harbour.

And in the middle of downtown, my B&B had left two envelopes in the front entrance hall with my and Catherine Bell's names on them, including the combo to get through the front door button lock and room keys - inconceivable in Toronto. But hey, it's St. John's.

If you count the larger metropolitan area, the population of St. John's can be said to number 200,000 - by which it's by far the largest urban centre in Newfoundland and Labrador (and, according to Wikipedia, has earned anyone who lives there the title of "townie"). The second largest urban centre is Corner Brook on the other side of the island, population 20,000. I come from a city of 4.5 million, and it's left me with a silly notion that a provincial capital should be ... bigger. Have to say that St. John's feels smaller than its 200,000.

After dinner I finished out my first evening at Yellowbelly, which is a pub right at the end of the notorious George St. But unlike most of the other pubs, they brew their own beer. And I was happy to find that they do "flights," ie. racking up small samples of each of their beers in front of you if you want it. These were:

  • Wexford Wheat - I actively dislike wheat beer, so I'll allow others to judge. But since it tasted slightly musty and I didn't hate it, I'm concerned.
  • the seasonal "beer" was in fact an Apple Cider - fairly sweet, definitely tastes of apples (some things called "cider" barely hint at the association with apples), too yeasty for me
  • Yellowbelly Pale Ale - "hints of grapefruit, pineapple, caramel, and honey" - uh-huh - that grapefruit was NOT a hint (more like a sledgehammer), and the others couldn't get past it ... It's a "session," whatever that means, but reminds me a lot of an IPA - a fairly good one, actually. Maybe I can buy the caramel and honey?
  • Fighting Irish Red Ale - "Our most complex beer." - "burnt toast, strawberry jam, coffee, chocolate, and leather." Damn I love these descriptions. It's pretty good stuff. But I prefer ...
  • St. John's Stout - "it has a dense and creamy head" - no kidding, the head never settles. Classic stout, with notes of coffee and chocolate. They mention bitterness, but it's slight compared to the Red. They do mention the long finish - and they're serious: goes on forever. Okay, slightly bitter, but chocolate too. A really lovely beer.