ยป Gallery / 2001 / Maritimes /

St. John’s, Newfoundland

Our plane to Newfoundland is full of tough-looking casually dressed businessmen. It feels like we’re heading to a wildcatter’s convention, and I wonder how many oil rigs are poised offshore. We land at the little St. John’s airport and step to the tarmac – the jetways are under construction along with the rest of the facility. There are plenty of jersey walls and plywood barriers, and only one working baggage return.

Our rental Sebring makes a funny clicking noise when we turn the wheel. Whatever – it makes the ten-minute drive to the hotel without much complaint.

We have reservations at the Fairmont Hotel Newfoundland, where the receptionist talks us into upgrading to the Gold Level for an extra twenty bucks or so a night. It’s the end of the trip so we treat ourselves a little. The room is comfortable and we get access to the sixth-floor lounge, complete with concierge and a nice view of the mouth of St. John’s harbor.

Our room looks back to the city itself, but the view is charming in its own way with the rows of brightly-painted townhouses.

St. John’s is compact and walkable. Our hotel is at the west end of the main downtown area, and we walk down Duckworth and down a little further to Water Street looking for some grub. The Westminster Pub on Water offers so-so food and slooow service; we forego another pint and walk back up to the Duke of Duckworth for a pleasant seat at the bar.

An hour or so later we stumble uphill to photograph the lovely painted houses in the setting sun and decide to move here.

We check email and order hangover prevention meals from room service before heading into town at ten, curious to see Saturday night in Newfoundland. The Ship Inn is pretty quiet, the promised band sitting around a table and playing celtic reels (all in A minor, I think) to each other. By the time our first order of Guinness comes up the dark room has begun to fill, and a group of men has tried to take over our table. We hold our ground and at eleven or so the band takes the stage. The crowd erupts into dance, and grows as the night progresses. Looks like they party late here. We make peace with the guys who tried to usurp our space and come to find that the lead usurper is an environmental regulator who had dealings with the Washington area company I interned with in college. The group is in town from Ottawa for a soccer tournament, and the guys are out looking to medicate their sore muscles before tomorrow’s match. They’re still undergoing treatment when we call it a night.

Before I forget:It’s all jumbled, smeared, wiped. I can’t place these items.

(notes: Tuesday, September 11 2001)

On Sunday we pile into the Sebring and head as far south as we dare. First stop is Cape Spear, the easternmost point of North America. The guidebook waxes poetic about facing the ocean here and sensing the entire population of the continent at your back; apparently there weren’t any ships at sea the day they wrote that chapter. Our visit is graced by a research vessel full of hollering, cursing sailors reminding us that there were at least a few people to the east this day.

During World War II two ten-inch guns were placed here to protect the harbor. The concrete bunkers show their age but are open for inspection. The guns are huge.

We head south directly from the cape rather than double back to the main road. The don’t call Newfoundland “The Rock” for nothing – it’s the northernmost reach of the Appalachians, and driving through the unyielding terrain we marvel that vegetation finds root here at all. Our little road dips and twists down and up again through little fishing villages, following a giant exposed pipeline. The pipe ends near a lake – we figure it carries fresh water down to the little villages.

We rejoin the main road and continue south past a big music festival along the water in Bay Bulls, finally pulling off to duck into tiny Cape Broyle to snap a few photos of life along the rocky coast. Looks like most of the residents are up in Bay Bulls. Things are pretty quiet this Sunday.

We make it as far south as Ferryland and spend some time investigating the archaeological dig.

Much of the interior of the Avalon peninsula is given over to preservation; with no cross-peninsula roads to work with we double back toward St. John’s, bearing west as soon as we can. We follow the lonely roads as far as Brigus, and tool through the little town and past its handmade tunnel before turning back toward the main highway in the gathering darkness. About halfway through the hour-long drive to St. John’s a thick fog sets in, so dense we contemplate pulling over to ride it out. We continue on and eventually miss our exit. We end up back at the airport (where the big road dead-ends) and creep back to the hotel to call it a night.

Monday morning dawns clear and we split up to take photos. It’s the last full day we have planned for the trip.

I’ve set aside time to take in the Guglielmo Marconi exhibit at the Colonial Building (home of the Newfoundland Historical Society). In December of 1901 Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless transmissions atop Signal Hill at the mouth of St. John’s harbor. It’s a great story of innovation and perseverance, and the Historical Society has briefly procured the original gear Marconi built to receive the transmissions.

It’s neat to see all the wood and varnish that went into the precursor of the slender gray plastic cellphone. They even have the kite Marconi used to capture the faint telegraph signal.

I’m inspired to write to the gearheads back at the office and I pick a shady spot on the Colonial Building steps to fill out a postcard. I finally get to use those stamps I bought back at the Halifax Citadel.

It’s unusually hot and humid today. After a hearty lunch of curried chick peas at International Flavours (recommended by the guidebook) I run into Melanie on Duckworth Street and we decide to drive up to Signal Hill rather than walk in the still, steamy air.

Cabot Tower is open to the public and offers great views of the harbour – when the air is clear. Visibility isn’t so good today, so we spend time at the year-round Marconi exhibit inside. Not quite as authentic as the temporary display over at the Historical Society, but the handset demonstrating the faint tap-tap-tap Marconi had to listen for leaves a lasting impression.

I see a cargo ship making its way for the narrow mouth of the harbor. We rush back to the hotel to watch the tight squeeze from the comfort of the sixth floor lounge.

Okay it’s not as dramatic a squeeze as I’d hoped.

We discuss heading back into town but we’ve seen pretty much all we wanted to see already. I’m ready to go home. We linger in the lounge with the travelling businessmen, watching live coverage of the Canadian Alliance Party as it apparently struggles with an identity crisis in the cutthroat world of Canadian politics.

It’s a few days shy of our anniversary but this being the last night of our vacation we treat ourselves to the Cabot Club restaurant at the hotel. The appetizers are great, the seafood dishes a disappointment.

We retire early to the room to lay out our clothes and watch the Redskins get beaten up on Monday Night Football.

Our flight isn’t until 1 PM on Tuesday so we’re in no rush to pack up in the morning. Melanie heads out to pick up some last-minute gifts and I lazily try a few different ways to arrange my sneakers around my shaving kit. The hotel picks up Boston TV networks and I half listen to the Today Show’s top story: it looks like Michael Jordan will in fact return to basketball. I don’t care much for basketball. I don’t care much about the author touting his biography of Howard Hughes – “the most amazing man America ever produced.” My curiosity is piqued when Matt cuts the author short, announcing they’re going to stop early for commercials and return with a breaking story.