St. John’s, Newfoundland is a Feast for the Eyes
Maritime weather might be foggy and rainy, more likely freezing with severe Nor’westers and dastardly blizzards in winter, but everyone agrees that St. John’s, Newfoundland is a feast for the eyes despite the climactic conditions. Colourful facades light up any day no matter the time of year.
Bob and I traveled to Newfoundland in June hoping to avoid the summer crush of tourists, and in true East Coast fashion, the weather was cool and damp. Right from the time we flew over Halifax, Nova Scotia, a thick blanket of dull grey reached from one horizon to the other. A stewardess informed us that the forecast for The Rock was for rain, fog and drizzle.
The view from our room at the Sheraton Newfoundlander, the oldest and most famous hotel on the island, was seen through a giant-sized porthole window that seemed à propos given the proximity to the harbour.
I was instantly reminded of our view from the Nadia Hotel in Amsterdam where we overlooked Westerkerk Church and Anne Frank’s hideaway. It was the verdant green vegetation – trees dressed in a fresh green cloak – and a similar lofty view that sparked the memory, but St. John’s is far more colourful .
Through the porthole, we saw that the fog had dissipated so we snapped a few photos before a heavy bank of fog again enveloped the town resulting in zero visibility.
Even though we were running on about 4 hours sleep, the picturesque streets of the old quarter lured us from our cozy retreat.
A fine mist greeted us as we swept through the revolving doors, but it quickly turned to a light drizzle as we descended the steep streets towards the harbour.
You really have to see this harbour to appreciate it. It is almost totally surrounded by land providing superb protection for the city.
Stormy seas descending upon this quaint capital would be stopped in their tracks by the finger of land jutting out from shore.
That headland and an opposing one almost completely close off access to St. John’s from the ocean; only a small gap allows ships entry into port.
There is something about airplanes and ships that brings out the kid in me. So, to stretch our legs, we made our way to the piers where a variety of large vessels were moored.
St. John’s is rich in history and culture so it is one of the world’s most popular oceanside cities to visit. That might explain some of the cruise ships that pull alongside the wharves, but a long history of fishing, commercial shipping and naval activity accounts for a good many of the other vessels seen docked there.
Brighter skies welcomed us to a new day so our view from the room was much improved. Numerous brightly-coloured ships had arrived in the harbour during the night – freighters, coast guard and trawlers.
After a hearty breakfast almost eaten in haste so we could get out exploring, Bob and I set off on a walking tour. A higher ceiling of clouds and fog allowed for a brighter sky,
but the gaily-painted façades of the wooden heritage homes brightened the day without any assistance from the sun. And that is exactly why Newfoundlanders have chosen to paint their homes and businesses in all colours of the rainbow. This also gave rise to the fond nickname for the rowhouses, Jellybean Row.
Newfoundland is a grey, foggy, desolate place…deemed the windiest, foggiest and cloudiest of Canada’s large cities…so there is ample reason for residents to incorporate cheerful colours into their surroundings to compensate for the bleak landscape.
It is a centuries’ old practice that has its roots in Ireland. When speaking with a local fisherman in Dunmore East on the west coast of Waterford Harbour in Ireland, we learned that there are strong ties between the people of Newfoundland and the residents of County Waterford, Ireland.
In the eighteenth century, scouts recruited fishermen from Dunmore East, seen above, to work in the Newfoundland fisheries. Originally, the fishermen would return to Ireland after the summer fishing season was over, but eventually the young men decided to stay in Newfoundland for the winter. It wasn’t long before they and their families went on to establish fishing communities.
Along with their music and traditions, the Irish people brought with them the desire to fashion communities that reminded them of those at home. The cheerful facades of pastel painted homes dotting the Irish shore…
are strongly reflected in the lively exteriors of homes lining the streets of St. John’s, scattered throughout fishing villages all along the coast and even in rural areas of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Over the years, because of the growing availability of man-made paints as well as outside influences, a whole realm of tones began to show up on homes and businesses around Newfoundland.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in returning to the original Newfoundland palette. With computer technology, it has been possible to use old paint chips to recreate the colours that were once ubiquitous across the province.
Pounding the pavement up the hills from the harbour and along the main streets was akin to walking through a flower garden.
The charm of the heritage buildings combined with the vibrant shades of colour had me snapping an endless stream of photos before we actually got down to business and utilized the trail system leading to Signal Hill.
Simple in nature, the trail navigates hikers through less busy neighborhoods…
where eventually we skirt the base of sheer rocky cliffs.
Sometimes, the trail narrows to a mere cowpath.
A testament to the good nature and friendliness of the Newfoundland people is the fact that they allow hikers to keep to the route by crossing their property even to the point of walking across wooden decks attached to their homes.
Passing by within steps of their dooryards had a distinct advantage. Locals were keen to chat awhile, and I took every opportunity to become friendly with the neighborhood pets.
At one point, we had to navigate footpaths that hovered above weather-worn and dangerously derelict seaside structures left in the wake of the crippling storm surge of 2010.
Work to clear the debris was a slow and painstaking process handled in large part from the water. Despite structures that were in obvious distress with upper stories missing, wooden supports at odd angles, roofs caved in and wooden staircases leading into thin air,
still a beauty exuded from this seaside community once again sparked by the brightly-painted homes and fanned by the warm welcome of the local people.
Newfoundland is known as The Rock for good reason. During the last glacial period, most of the soil was scraped from the island leaving behind a landscape that is dominated by rocks. Residents creatively incorporate the rocky terrain into their dwellings when need be.
The hiking trail eventually brought us out at Signal Hill from which we had a dandy view of the busy harbour shimmering under the glow of unfamiliar sunshine. After exploring the historical landmark and fortifications on this promontory, we continued further on an obscure hiking trail along the cliffs. We made really good use of the clear morning.
The Shipwreck of the S.S. Ethie on the West Coast of Newfoundland