We arrived in St. John’s, Newfoundland late in the evening on Canada Day and missed the fireworks. So, by then, we just wanted to find the hotel and go to bed. In the morning, we would get a good, clean start to the week’s activities. Our plan, for the next six days, was to drive down around the Avalon Peninsula, back up and down the Burnin Peninsula to Allan’s Island, Lamaline, take a ferry to St. Pierre, Miquelon, before heading back up to Pouch Cove before our return to St. John’s.
Waking up in St. John’s the first day we were amazed and amused at the lovely, rainbow coloured houses, affectionally called “Jellybean Row”. The city is well known for the vibrantly coloured row houses that sets a distinctive character. This is a must-see phenomenon. Though the nickname suggests a single street, the candy-coloured houses are not hard to find. They are everywhere.
We spent the first day in St. John’s taking in the usual sites. Made the trek up Signal Hill to take in the grand landscape of the city and waterway. Cabot Tower, located at the top of the hill, features a gift shop, exhibits about Guglielmo Marconi and wireless radio station that operated in the tower.
Later in the day, we took a short drive out to Cape Spear – the most easterly point in North America. If you’re so inclined, get there early in the morning and watch the sun come up before everyone else. We were not so inclined. The drive is not that far. Cape Spear is only about 15 kilometres from St. John’s.
Perched on a rugged cliff, the Cape Spear Lighthouse is actually the oldest surviving lighthouse in the province. Built in 1836, the Cape Spear Lighthouse provided the all-important beacon of light that enabled safe passage up until 1955, when a new lighthouse tower was built nearby, using the same original light. Interestingly, the Cantwell family have kept the light going for over 150 years.
Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve
Next day, we continued our journey south on Hwy 10 on our way to the Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve. By the time we hit Renews, the fog had started to roll in. We stopped for a short time to get our bearings before continuing along in dense fog down to Trepassey and up to Cataracts Provincial Park to take a quick look at the falls. We spent the night in St. Bride’s, along the western coast of the Avalon Peninsula, rising early in the morning to check out the Ecological Reserve.
Cape St. Mary’s is the most accessible seabird rookery in North America, with Bird Rock, the third-largest nesting site and most southern colony of northern gannets on the continent, as the focal point. This is home to some of the world’s most interesting seabirds. We were lucky enough to arrive before the fog set in and were able to get a clear view of Bird Rock and surrounding cliffs. No matter what your adventure, whether it be a relaxing walk or more challenging hike, the Cape provides an abundant array of stunning and unforgettable scenery and wildlife. During breeding season, more than 30,000 Northern Gannets crowd around on the top of the rock and neighbouring clifftops.
On our way up the west coast of the Avalon Peninsula, we made a short stop in Placentia on our way to the town of Marystown, the heart and focal point of the Burin Peninsula. A community of over 5,000 people, the town has a long history beginning in the fishery and ship building industries. This was our home base on our way to and from St. Pierre and Lamaline along the south coast.
A Hop, Skip and a Jump to France
Early next morning, we made our way to Grand Bank and Fortune for the ferry ride to Saint Pierre. If making this trip, be sure to remember to bring your passport. Even though the island of Saint Pierre is less than an hour away by ferry, it does belong to France. Saint Pierre and Miquelon is a self-governing territorial overseas collectivity of France about 25 km off the south coast of the Burin Peninsula. It is the only part of New France that remains under French control to this day. Did you know? Saint-Pierre is French for Saint Peter, the patron saint of fishermen.
Unfortunately for us, the fog had set in before we reached the island and did not let up all day. This made for a very eery atmosphere. Despite the fog, we had a very enjoyable time here. We were immediately struck by the French feel here with cobblestone streets and Peugeot cars everywhere. We learned that most of the doctors and police here actually come from France. As the community here is relatively small and everyone knows everyone, the police are assigned from France to avoid any type of favouritism. Many doctors serve their internships on the island.
We stayed in the Hotel Robert, which is pretty much the only hotel in Saint-Pierre. This is the same hotel my mother worked at in the 1930’s. My mother was born and raised on Allan’s Island in Lamaline, Newfoundland. At sixteen, with no work to be found at home, she moved to St. Pierre and found a job at the hotel, working in the kitchen and housework. She stayed there for over ten years, living at the local convent when she was not working. It was here that she learned French, which stayed with her and did her well later living in Montreal.
Al Capone Leaves His Hat
During the American Prohibition (1919-1932), it was illegal to sell alcohol in North America. However, it was not illegal to make alcohol and sell it overseas. Saint-Pierre, belonging to France, was technically overseas. During this time, rumrunners had a field day here. Rum and whisky was made in Nova Scotia and shipped to Saint-Pierre, where, for the most part, it was openly smuggled back to Canada. While it lasted, this was a big and profitable business.
My father, also from Lamaline, was in his twenties during the heyday of rumrunning. He would tell me stories of “borrowing” fishermen’s boats at night and making the trek to Saint-Pierre to bring back rum and whisky in the dark. From what I gathered, this way of life continued long after prohibition ended. During World War II, a small United States Military base was set up on top of “The Hill” on Allan’s Island. My father would often tell the story of getting in deep trouble with the military stationed there for selling rum to their cook, who in turn was frequently too drunk to make supper for the men.
Al Capone was a frequent guest of the Hotel Robert during the height of prohibition. There is a small “museum” in the hotel which features his hat he left behind on one of his visits.
As in many parts of Europe, Saint-Pierre closes up shop for a couple of hours around noon. It is recommended you bring a lunch as there is not much open during this time. Plan ahead. We decided to take a guided tour of the island during this time. One of the more interesting stops on the tour as to the The Saint-Pierre Cemetery, located on a hill just inland from town. The caskets are generally buried above ground in St. Pierre, as the island is basically rock. Reminds me of New Orleans. Mixed with the fog, the feeling around the cemetery was both amazing yet eerie. Wouldn’t want to be here at night!
We finished off the afternoon with a visit to L’Arche Musee et Archives. The Arche is home to the Archives and the Museum of the Territorial Collectivity of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. This museum is a gem. After your visit here you will completely understand the history of this archipelago. The history is well curated and the artifacts and the paintings are wonderfully informative and entertaining. Somewhat surprisingly, the English translations are quite good.
Allan’s Island, the Hill and the Tsunami
Next day, we took the Ferry back to Fortune and continued down along the southern coast to Allan’s Island, Lamaline. This is where both my parents were born and raised. Allan’s Island is a small fishing village that is part of the town of Lamaline. We visited the church at the top of “The Hill” and found the gravestones of my many relatives laid to rest in the neighbouring cemetery. A older gentleman stopped to talk to us (probably because the village is so small and he didn’t recognize us). Upon learning who we were, he pointed out my uncle’s home just down the hill. Sadly, my uncle was out fishing and couldn’t be reached, but we did have a very nice visit with my aunt who, though we had talked on the phone, had never met before this.
That afternoon, we learned a little more about the area and saw the house my mother grew up in. I have a very old photo of my grandfather standing in front of the same house way back around 1900.
I remember a story my mother used to tell about when she was small. She was standing at the front door before supper time and called out to her mother that all the water in the bay was gone. Her mother then quickly grabbed all the children and ran up the hill behind the house to the safety of the church. That’s when the great Tsunami of Newfoundland hit in 1929. She would have been about 12 at the time. The house is still standing.
After a few hours, we hit the road again on our way back to Marystown for the night. Next morning, we headed north to Grates Cove, stopping in a little town called Dildo. The town’s unusual name has brought it a certain amount of notoriety. Despite the name, this little town on Trinity Bay has been named on of Canada’s ten prettiest towns. Very picturesque fishing village with lipids growing wild everywhere.
Feels Like Ireland
We reached Grates Cove mid-afternoon after a short stop in Hant’s Harbour, another small fishing village. Grates Cove, the most northerly community on the Avalon Peninsula, is located on the tip of the Bay de Verde Peninsula. For me, the feel of the area was very Irish. With rigid, stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean and historic Rock Walls, this place reminds me of the Ireland’s coastal regions.
After a few short stops in Bay de Verde and Burnt Point, we stopped for the day in Carbonear. Our stay for this night was at Sophia’s Heritage Inn, an elegantly restored, former 1890’s home of the mercantile Duff family. Our room was large, comfortable and featured a whirlpool bath and fireplace. The hostess was very accommodating and complimentary breakfast was superb. Highly recommend this inn if you are in the area.
The last leg of our excursion saw us visit Port de Grave, Cupids, Brigus and finally, the lovely ocean-front community of Pouch Cove before returning to St. John’s. One of the earliest settlements in Newfoundland (c1611), its rich fishing territories attracted British fishermen to the area even though the waters were considered dangerous at the time. Though fishing is a thing of the past, Pouch Cove is well positioned to provide an escape for city folk to “away from it all”. Aside from the slower pace, in season it is quite common to see icebergs and whales in the coastal waters. No bad for a community located just 25 min from St. John’s.
We spend our last night in Newfoundland back in St. John’s with steak dinner at The Keg on Harbour Drive, and bar hopping along George Street, joying the foot-stomping music of local Newfie bands.
There are many areas of Newfoundland we wished to have seen. But, that will be trip for another day.
Recap of our trip to Newfoundland in July 2006.