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St. John's (Newfoundland) Overview
Come to St. John's, Newfoundland for the whales, puffins and icebergs. Stay for the rollicking Irish pubs, delectable cod tongues, toe-tapping Celtic tunes and funky craft shops. The capital of Canada's Newfoundland and Labrador province, St. John's is a quirky kind of place, in a friendly, lovable way.
St. John's claims North America's easternmost seaport and the closest one to Europe, so it's little wonder it claims to be the continent's oldest city. Beginning in the mid-1500s, Europeans regularly sailed across the pond to Newfoundland during the summer to exploit its fish-rich waters, while returning to their families and creature comforts for the winter. By the early 1800s, Irish and English immigrants were encouraged to settle in year-round. Some chose St. John's as a base, thus giving the city its decidedly Anglo spirit.
Perhaps because it's located on an island, one surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Labrador Sea and Gulf of St. Lawrence, St. John's has kept itself a charming mix of old and new. Major streets parallel the waterfront, while historic footpaths (now side streets) meander up the hillside, creating irregular routes. Ancient stone stairways still climb hills too steep for paved roads. They're all part of St. John's homey, easy-going ambiance.
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Other Canada & New England Cruise Ports:
Bar Harbor • Bayonne (Cape Liberty) • Boston • Charlottetown (Prince Edward Island) • Halifax • Montreal • New York (Manhattan) • Newport • Portland (Maine) • Quebec City • Saint John (New Brunswick) • St. John's (Newfoundland) • Sydney (Nova Scotia)
It's worth buying a bottle of Screech Rum, a high-proof spiced rum, for the fun name on the label alone. A shot of Screech and kissing a cod fish serve as integral parts of being "Screeched in," a hilarious ceremony at a bar or on an excursion that welcomes mainlanders to the island of Newfoundland. For a sweeter foodie option, bring home berry jams, especially those made from bakeapple (aka cloudberry) and partridgeberry.
English is the official language. After a few pints at the pub, you might have a hard time understanding the accents or local slang. "Now the once," for example, means "a little later in the day."
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Canadian dollar is the official currency. Visit www.xe.com and www.oanda.com for current rates. ATMs are easy to find in banks and the lobbies of larger hotels. Most shops and some taxis accept credit cards.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock in the heart of town, at piers 10 and 11 alongside Harbour Drive. When two ships call, the smaller vessel docks at pier 17. If you don't have an exact address, no worries. You'll be able to see your ship from all over town.
There are no facilities on the cruise pier. As the locals say, the cruise dock is within five minutes walking distance of everything you'll want to see or do downtown.
On Foot: Water Street, the main shopping street, is one block up the hill from the port. Water Street runs into George Street, best known for its lively pubs. The City of St. John's Visitor Information Center at 348 Water Street is open daily 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., May through early October and weekdays the rest of the year.
By Taxi: Taxis are usually waiting at the pier. If you're heading to the airport and your ship does not supply transfers, take the 20-minute taxi ride. Call Bugden's Taxi at 709-722-4400.
By Bus: Ride the Metrobus around town. Be aware, exact change is required. Or, buy a multi-ride M pass online. (www.metrobustransit.ca)
By Car: So you want to get out of town and don't want to join a tour. Rent a car. All the major rental agencies are represented. Cars are in limited supply, so make a reservation.
Watch Out For
Don't confuse St. John's, Newfoundland, with Saint John, New Brunswick (it's easy to do because both are cruise ports found on Atlantic Canada itineraries). And, when setting your watch, note that Newfoundland has its own time zone. It's an hour and a half ahead of Eastern Standard Time.
Signal Hill National Historic Site, at the mouth of St. John's Harbour, commemorates the cliff top where signal flags once alerted merchants, customs officials and harbor pilots to approaching ships, be they friend or foe. Cabot Tower, built in 1897, is perched atop the hill. The tower was used for signaling until 1960 and houses exhibits of Marconi's historic, first-ever transatlantic wireless message, received on the hill in 1901. (Open 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, June to August; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., mid-April to May and mid-September to January)
Cape Spear, seven miles southeast of town, is the easternmost point in North America. It's the site of Cape Spear Lighthouse, Newfoundland's oldest surviving lighthouse. Built in 1836 and actively used until 1955, it has been restored to its original appearance. Depending on the time of year, from the top of Cape Spear, you might see icebergs (they float over from Greenland), whales or seabirds. (Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday, May 22 to June 11; daily, June 12 to September 4; and Saturday to Wednesday, September 5 to October 15)
The Rooms is a cultural museum, art gallery and provincial archives rolled into one. Though the colorfully painted sides of the building are based on simple, oceanfront fishing rooms where families once processed their catch, the massive structure is strikingly modern and dominates the skyline. Displays and dioramas depict the history of Newfoundland and Labrador, starting from the glacier age. (9 Bonaventure Avenue; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, June to mid-October; closed Mondays, mid-October to May)
Been There, Done That
Johnson Geo Centre showcases geology of the world in general and Newfoundland and Labrador in particular. The museum is built largely underground in 550 million-year-old rocks. It also includes a fascinating Titanic exhibit that tells the complete story of the ship's sinking. (175 Signal Hill Road; open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday; noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday; closed Mondays mid-October to mid-May)
An accident of storing port wine in St. John's in the late 1600s seemed to give the wine a better flavor. Hence, the practice of leaving port to mature in Newman Wine Vaults, not to mention the ensuing ghostly tales. The brick and stone vaults that remain are among the city's oldest structures, and tours capitalize on the haunted factor to build intrigue. Sampling port helps, too. (435 Water Street; Open 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday, July to August)
Train buffs will be fascinated by the Railway Coastal Museum. It's located on the ground floor and passenger platform of the century-old Newfoundland Railway station. Learn about trains that once criss-crossed the island, providing links to coastal steamers. See the interiors of vintage dining cars and sleepers. (495 Water Street; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, June to mid-October. The rest of the year, hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday)
Humpback whales and comical puffins return to Newfoundland each summer. Watch them on boat tours departing from Bay Bulls. You'll cruise around Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, home to two million seabirds and countless whales. Tours last two to three hours and leave several times a day, May to October. Two popular operators are Gatherall's (www.gatheralls.com) and O'Brien's.
St. John's claims it has more pubs for its population than any city in Atlantic Canada, and many of them are found on George Street. So, what could be more natural than a pub lunch or pub dinner of fish and chips? The fish is generally cod. Don't miss the local favorite of cod cheeks or crispy cod tongues. Both are fleshy parts of the cod's head and as tender as you might imagine.
Local Eats: Portobello's (115 Duckworth Street, www.portobellosrestaurant.ca) serves exceptional seafood, steak and poultry in a two-story setting overlooking the harbor. Lunch, served 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday, includes salads, chowder, fish cakes and pan-fried cod with scrunchions (fried pork rind). Celtic Hearth (298 Water Street) serves beer-battered fish and chips, Guinness lamb stew, and other Irish pub grub. It's open 24 hours and handy if you're looking for a bite at odd hours. The Gypsy Tea Room is tucked in the historic Murray Premises. The Mediterranean menu highlights seafood. Check out the fisherman's stew, seafood pasta or Greek souvlaki. (315 Water Street; Open for lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday; brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday)
Gourmet Dining: Oppidan (115 Cavendish Square in the Sheraton Hotel) offers chic surroundings with harbor views. Lunch, served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., features Screech glazed salmon, burgers and salads. Saltwater Restaurant + Bar (284 Duckworth Street) serves fresh fish and shellfish in a classy contemporary setting. Go for lunch, noon to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday.
Near Attractions: Grab a bite at The Rooms Cafe. when visiting the cultural museum of the same name. The menu offers soups, salads, sandwiches and traditional fish dishes. (9 Bonaventure Avenue; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday)
Boutique: Not only is Murray Premises Hotel close to the cruise pier, but history buffs will be intrigued by this 1846 structure. Originally a warehouse for the fishing industry, its 67 rooms feature such upscale amenities as electric fireplaces and jetted tubs. (5 Beck's Cove)
Familiar Surroundings: Set on the former site of Fort William in the heart of the historic downtown district, the 301-room Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland (115 Cavendish Square) offers all the usual big hotel perks. You'll find restaurants, a health club, indoor pool and a business center with free Wi-Fi. Ask for a harbor view room with a round porthole-like window. The Delta St. John's (120 New Gower Street) is a high-rise with 400 rooms and amenities similar to the Sheraton. It's located near the convention center and a short walk from George Street pubs.
Kid Friendly: If you're bringing the kids, try the Quality Hotel Harbourview. It has 162 rooms, a restaurant, free parking and free Wi-Fi. (2 Hill O'Chips)
Staying in Touch
Most cafes and coffee shops offer free Wi-Fi. Rocket Bakery (272 Water Street) is a local favorite. Near the dock, try Starbucks (215 Water Street) in Atlantic Place.
Best for First-Timers: A half-day highlights tour takes you to the top spots in St. John's. You'll visit Signal Hill and Cabot Tower, where Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901. There's time to explore The Rooms Museum before driving by the city's historic churches and multicolored wood homes, locally know as jelly bean row.
Best for Fun-Lovers: The small fishing village of Quidi Vidi lies within the boundaries of St. John's, yet it seems a world away. The village is home to an 18th-century battery built to protect the bay from invasion. An old fish plant is now a microbrewery producing unique craft ales such as Iceberg Beer, made from real icebergs. Half-day tours include a stop at Newman Wine Vaults, one of Canada's most haunted places. Listen to ghost stories while you sip a bit of port. You must be at least 19 to sample alcohol.
Best for Wildlife: There's nothing like seeing wildlife up close. You'll travel to Bay Bulls to board a small boat for a cruise of several hours around Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. The reserve contains four islands teeming with birds, including puffins, guillemots and kittiwakes. Depending on the season, you might see humpback, fin, minke or orca whales, as well as dolphins.
For More Information
On the Web: Destination St. John's or City of St. John's
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Canada
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Canada Travel Guide
--by Ginger Dingus, Cruise Critic contributor