I came to St. John’s with few ambitions beyond getting a selfie at the easternmost edge of North America: Cape Spear. I left with several new books tucked under my arm, including one on birding for beginners and another filled with easy instructions for playing the button accordion. Say what? Such is the charm of this lovely city, where the passion of its people spills over into the hearts of its guests.
Before my trip, I lusted only for its dramatic physical beauty: plunging cliffs, moody rock formations, sparkling sapphire waters. Rookie mistake, to be sure. Its residents are the true natural wonders of the region. I mean, where else would locals pop out of their front doors to invite you to nightly jam sessions while you’re trespassing on their properties to get a good shot of their jellybean houses? As you think about that, chew on this: In just a few short years, St. John’s has created an emerging food scene that has garnered global attention. Its good ol’ boys have been coming home to recreate and reinvent the dishes of their youth for new generations of travellers to enjoy.
From its people to its food to its activities, the city is unexpectedly interesting and worth adding to your bucket list. Here are a few recommendations to get you started.
The best stay
It may be the new kid on the block (having opened in late 2017), but the Alt Hotel checks all the boxes for old-time Atlantic hospitality, starting with its modern lobby, which welcomes visitors with a photographic installation that incorporates 3,500 photos by local photographer Michael Winsor. At the heart of the mural is a live stream of photos posted on Instagram with the tag #altexpo – this is community sharing at its finest.
The contemporary four-storey hotel, with clever design touches in every room (like bedside controls for lights and blinds), is well located in the downtown area, close to great shops and restaurants. Its best feature might be its enviable views of the harbour and The Narrows, which you can enjoy from several vantage points (the patio, gym, suites and meeting rooms). The fact that this 148-room hotel is eco-friendly (geothermal heating and cooling, energy-efficient lighting) just makes you feel good about your decision to book here.
The best tours
Photography: Looking for a new way to see the sights? Try a photography tour led by St. John’s photog Michael Winsor. You can choose from the Jellybean Row Workshop to the Iceberg, Whales, Birds Workshop to everything in between. Learn a bit of history and get a few camera tips, too.
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Birding: You don’t need to know anything about birds to enjoy these tours, which range from easy hikes on boardwalk paths to multi-day explorations. The most popular tour, says Jared Clarke, owner of Bird the Rock, is Seabirds & Songbirds of the Northeast Avalon, which pops up several times on the annual calendar. Newfoundland’s boreal forests are home to unique songbirds, and the North Atlantic waters draw some of the largest colonies of seabirds in the world.
Foraging: If you love multitasking while on vacay, a foraging tour is a must. Not only will you get to learn about local wild edibles but you’ll also get to enjoy a bit of exercise and, the ultimate reward, a jaw-dropping vista of St. John’s, Quidi Vidi and the ocean. The Walk on the Wild Side tour, run by Cod Sounds, is as entertaining as it is educational. With equal gusto, owner Lori McCarthy and her cousin, Alexandra Blagdon, dish on the berries and folklore from their small corner of the world. The tour culminates with a wee picnic at the top of the trail, using the berries you’ve picked along the way to make a sweet tea. (Planning on heading to Fredericton? Check out the city’s limitless outdoor activities.)
The best food hotspots
Mussels on the Corner: To experience local food at its best, stop here. Yes, they serve mussels (farmed but organic and sustainable), but it’s also a great spot to savour some long-time Newfoundland favourites like touton (pan-fried bread dough) and Jiggs’ dinner (a local stew made with salt beef, root veggies and boiled cabbage). While there, save time for a nightcap at The UnderBelly and take in some history: The building is one of the few merchantile structures to survive the Great St. John’s Fire of 1892.
Rocket Bakery: If you’ve ever wanted to experience a traditional Newfoundland kitchen party, add this to your itinerary. Every Tuesday, local musicians gather for a jam sesh over the lunch hour. The coffee is strong and the desserts are all baked on sight. Try the bread pudding (made from croissants) and lemon meringue tart, and see why they’re the bakery’s top sellers.
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Raymonds: A hop, skip and a jump from the Alt Hotel is Raymonds, an internationally recognized restaurant that serves up fine-dining interpretations inspired by the daily offerings of land and sea. Set in a stately 1915 building reminiscent of the area’s classical architecture, this award-winning restaurant offers three-, five- and seven-course menus that are complete with wine pairings. A great spot for a special night.
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