One of the most important aspects of traveling to Newfoundland is to pick the right destination. Fortunately, we did fly into the right city—St. John’s—but met several people during our stay who had booked flights to St. John, which is in New Brunswick. Some of these people had used travel agents, too. They then had to catch a bus then a ferry to reach Newfoundland. So if you plan a trip, make sure you look for that ‘s.
Newfoundland, which is an island, is part of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. This province has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the Western Hemisphere to relinquish its independence in the 20th century. It was a separate country, but the Great Depression and World War II left it reeling, and it actually asked if it could become part of Canada, joining the confederation in 1949. But that’s not the only thing that makes this region exceptional.
Newfoundland is ruggedly beautiful, with wild, low, glacier-scrubbed mountains, brilliant lakes, dark pine forests, and tundra-like hinterlands where moose and caribou graze and arctic hares dash for cover. Each time we drove through a pass and descended to the shore, we would find a quaint fishing village or historic site (including the site of the first successful trans-Atlantic cable connecting North America to Europe). Some of the fisheries were still operating, though fishermen now go after alternative catches: other species of fish, besides cod, crab, and lobster. But in some of these charming, seaside enclaves, old Victorian houses dripping with gingerbread have been converted into comfortable bed and breakfasts, and we enjoyed taking advantage of these.
South of St. John’s, a cruise on a converted fishing boat carried us out to the Witless Bay Ecoreserve. The islands here have some of the densest seabird populations in the world, with an estimated 2 million breeding pairs. We watched puffins, gannets, murres, kittiwakes, and other wonderful seabirds nest on rocks, skim along the water, dive, fish, and fly overhead in flocks of astonishing size. It was a real National Geographic day. Then it was back to St. John’s.
St. John’s is the capital and largest city of Newfoundland. It is said by many to be the oldest city in North America, but cod had drawn fishermen there long before John Cabot claimed it for England in 1497. In fact, the history of St. John’s and Newfoundland is tightly bound up with the history of cod. The Vikings followed the great migrating schools of cod to the land they called Vinland 500 years before Columbus set sail. Basque fishermen were probably next, followed by Portuguese, Spanish, French, Irish, English, and Scottish fishermen. At first they came just to fish, but in time they settled.
The pattern of settlement is another of the wonders of Newfoundland. People came in groups and built fishing villages populated by people from their homelands. They lived together, fished together, and only a few of them had to have contact with the markets that bought their fish. As a result, centuries later, you can still identify the regions from which the people came by their accents. I met people where I felt certain they were from Cornwall or Ireland—they sounded like they were right off the boat. But inevitably, I learned that their families had been in Newfoundland for generations. This is beginning to change now, however, because with the decline of cod populations, people have had to find other jobs, and many of those jobs are in St. John’s. As people are coming together, the differing accents are beginning to vanish.
St. John’s is charming, quaint, and wonderfully quirky. The streets are lined with rows upon rows of small, brightly colored houses known as jellybean houses. One taxi driver (a former fisherman) told us that, traditionally, one painted one’s house the same color as one’s boat. The city’s setting is lovely, on the undulating edge of a broad, protected harbor, hills rising up at the edge of town, cliffs walling in the far side of the glassy harbor. Cabot Tower, at the top of Signal Hill, looks like a castle overlooking the city. In parts of town, you can still see tidy “fishing stages,” small buildings used to store nets and fishing gear, with carefully tended boats nearby. Some of the fishing stages are still in use, some remain simply because they are so picturesque, as well as being a connection with the past, the glory days of cod fishing.
There is a lot to do in town —the Johnson Geo Center alone would probably be worth the trip if you have any interest in earth science. Newfoundland is a place of incredible geological diversity, and has provided some of the most convincing evidence for the theory of plate tectonics. We also enjoyed the Fluvarium, where you learn local history and get an underwater view of the river that bisects the city. At other times of year, whale watching and iceberg watching are popular, but we weren’t there at the right time for those pursuits.
Newfoundland is also a terrific destination for those who enjoy eating “off the beaten path,” foods anchored in the region’s history. During my stay, I indulged in fried cod tongues with scrunchions (fried, diced salt pork), moose stew, caribou tenderloin, partridgeberries, bakeapple berries, Jiggs dinner (salt beef, cabbage, rutabaga, carrots, and potato boiled together and served with mustard pickles, pease pudding, roast beef, and gravy), toutons (described to me as Newfoundland’s answer to beignets, which is a fair, though not exact, comparison), fisherman’s brewis (a mixture of salt cod, salt pork, and hard tack), and seal flipper pie (yep, real seal flippers). Most places in town serve one or more of these delicacies.
However, Newfoundland is definitely not all cod tongues and seal flipper pie. There are also more “normal” specialties, including myriad cod recipes (stuffed cod, cod au gratin, cod cakes, and fish and chips being the most common) and the local lobsters (not large, but flavorful). The berries mentioned above are definitely worth trying—bakeapple (name is a corruption of a French phrase) is the same berry as is found in Scandinavia by the name of cloudberry. It’s rare and delicious. Partridgeberries are either similar to or the same as lingonberries, depending on who you talk to.
And there are some really wonderful restaurants. At the Cabot Club, which is located in the Fairmont Hotel, we savored sensational lobster risotto, perfect seared foie gras, intense asparagus soup with crumbled Stilton cheese, and a beautiful presentation of caribou tenderloin and seared scallops. These were served with sautéed mushrooms: oyster mushrooms and locally collected Newfoundland chanterelles. Newfoundland chanterelles are very strong, very earthy, and a bit bitter. The hostess told us that they are not to everyone’s taste, even in Newfoundland. However, because we took leftovers back to our room, I had the opportunity to learn that the flavor does grow on you, and I found myself quite relishing them by the next day.
Water St., the oldest street in St. John’s, is lined with wonderful eateries. Velma’s Place is a local favorite for such regional favorites as fisherman’s brewis (which is delicious) and cod au gratin. At Aqua, a stylish storefront restaurant and bar, the cuisine was more eclectic. Bread was served with curried lentil spread, black bean spread, and hummus. The amuse bouche was scallop seviche with an Asian twist. Roasted garlic and butternut soup was velvety and flavorful. Though we were tempted by such offerings as caribou with blueberry reduction and blue cheese potato gratin and an Asian-influenced dish of tiger prawns, we wanted to try the local shellfish, so we opted for the grilled lobster with basil cream sauce, wild mushroom risotto, and garlic spinach and chard. Yum. So Newfoundland is no culinary backwater.
In addition, there are some wonderful specialty food shops in St. John’s. Auntie Crae’s on Water St. is an old, quirky gourmet/ethnic grocery with a bakery, coffee bar, smoothie bar, and fabulous cheese shop. There is also a nice communal area, so you can consume your purchases on site, if you wish. Belbin’s (www.belbins.com), on Quidi Vidi Rd., is a spectacular and ambitious grocery store that manages, in a relatively small space, to include all the necessities, all the local delicacies, and everything you might hope for in the way of British imports, gourmet treats, and splendid produce.
And then there is the Screech—the local O.P. rum, available everywhere, but most importantly featured in the “Screeching In” ceremony, which involves a variety of tasks and Newfie lingo, along with kissing a cod and downing a shot of Screech, and which renders you an honorary Newfoundlander. My traveling companion and I were Screeched in at O’Reilly’s in George St., a bar that offers a wide range of local specialties, along with great Irish and Newfoundland music on weekends. (A nice feature of the bars on George St., St. John’s bar and entertainment district, is that there is no smoking indoors.) Actually, Screech is such an important part of Newfie culture that being allowed to make it was one of the points they wanted written into the deal when they became part of Canada (Canada having previously limited the alcohol content of rum).
In closing, I want to note that, when speaking of the glories of Newfoundland, the people are high on the list. Newfies are among the nicest people in the world—cheerful, often chatty, polite, outgoing, interested, enthusiastic, and always eager to be of service. I can hardly say enough about how much a part the Newfoundlanders themselves played in our enjoyment of our stay.
This story originally appeared in a slightly different form in Hungry Magazine.
© 2008 Cynthia Clampitt