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TRAVEL | Whales, Bergs & Bars in St. John’s – A short break in Canada

By Lyndsey Thomas | 25th April 2017



My eyes darted back and forth as I stood on the edge of the most easterly point in North America. Scanning the North Atlantic Ocean with anticipation – eager to see a glimpse of a humpback whale breeching in the icy waters. And then all of a sudden, there it was, a spurt of air and water, and then a long shiny black spine slicing up the water and immersing itself back under the black of the ocean.


I held my breath, praying for it to reappear. Seconds later it resurfaced. The immensity and power and the incredible noise it made as it sprayed water from its blowhole. There it was… my first humpback whale encounter just ten minutes outside the city of St. John’s at Cape Spear, the most easterly point in North America. This was one of several whale encounters that I was to witness over my three days in the city of St. John’s.


The Canadian Province of Newfoundland & Labrador claims to be one of the most spectacular whale-watching places in the world. Between May and September visitors can expect to see 22 species of whales to include the world’s largest population of humpbacks.


My experience was a huge ‘WOW’ moment and my feet were firmly on land so I can only begin to imagine how mind-blowing it is for those who get up close and personal with these majestic mammals on a boat tour, sea kayaking right by them, or even snorkelling with, in some cases, all 70ft of them!


Perched on the steep slopes of a small harbour with a rainbow of colourful wooden Victorian-era houses known as jellybean rows lining the steep streets, my first observation was that this Canadian city on the Island of Newfoundland on Canada’s east coast has all the makings of a miniature San Francisco.


With a population of a little over 100,000, St. John’s is more small-town than big-city. But then visitors don’t come here to indulge their love of shopping in huge department stores or to be dazzled by bright lights and towering skyscrapers.



In fact, there are no skyscrapers – well certainly not of the concrete kind. But hike up to Cabot Tower on Signal Hill, the city’s most prominent landmark about a mile from Downtown St. John’s, and from April onwards, marvel at Mother Nature’s skyscrapers – 10,000 year old icebergs travelling down the North Atlantic Coast from Greenland, some as high at 80 meters!


There’s not that many places less than a five-hour flight away from the UK that have captured my heart like St. John’s. The City’s rather ordinary name certainly doesn’t do it justice. It doesn’t have the air of sophistication and pizzazz that other celebrated Canadian cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver radiate, but the ‘ordinary’ stops there. St. John’s is the other side of ordinary.


The San Francisco similarities continue beyond the steep streets and row-upon-row of colourful wooden Victorian-era houses. Just like San Fran, St. John’s has a cool, vibrant creative arts scene that’s resulted in so many of the buildings’ exteriors flaunting Banksy-style murals, and buskers lining the streets, filling the city with song. Even the letterboxes on houses across the city are artistic and colourful.

George Street in Downtown St. John’s claims to have the most bars per capita in the whole of North America. With a striking similarity to Dublin’s Temple Bar, and just as crazy, this little epicentre of partying is packed with live music venues, cocktail bars, tradition Newfoundland Irish pubs and late night clubs and is in full swing seven nights of the week.


My ‘Tuesday’ night experience continued well into the wee hours, I made (quite a lot) of new friends, was Screeched In (Google it!) and I vaguely remember trying to attempt a Michael Flatley routine, which ended in quite an applause from the locals. If you are visiting between 27th July and 2nd August you’ll be lucky enough to catch George Street Fest – a two-block streetfest featuring food trucks, artists and vendors, buskers performing for tips, and a free Main Street Concert.


The city’s unique energy derives from a colourful patchwork of Irish heritage, hospitality and warmth, Mother Nature, the city’s wild positioning on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and a deep-rooted sense of fun and a relaxed attitude towards life.


In the three days I spent in St John’s, I was lucky enough to dine in some of the city’s best restaurants to include The Merchant Tavern in downtown St. John’s and Mallard Cottage in the picture-perfect village of Quidi Vidi. An incredible eclectic mix of cuisine in many restaurants across the city marries a blend of Irish, Scottish and Aboriginal recipes with ingredients from land and sea to include favourites such as moose meat and codfish.


I tucked into everything from a fruits-de-mer for one on a platter the size of a dustbin lid, to deliciously meaty cod tongue. Mouth-wateringly fresh cod tacos, delicious roasted cod with bacon lardons and of course salt cod. There’s a lot of cod. But then this is the cod fishing and salt cod capital of the world. There’s also a lot of everything else and if, like me, you like to eat, and you like to eat well, you won’t be disappointed.


If the spending-money can stretch to it, book well in advance to secure your table at the highly praised Raymonds. A harbour-view restaurant in the downtown that has recently garnered multiple awards and accolades including Canada’s best new restaurant.


The world-class East Coast Trail stretches 265km from Cape St Francis (north of St John’s) south to Cappahayden along the Avalon Peninsula. It can be explored as day hikes or a thru-hike, stopping in villages along the way with B&B and Vacation Home Rental accommodations and camping parks nearby.


The 9km path between Cape Spear and Maddox Cove near Petty Harbour is a beautiful return day hike (18km in total) from St. John’s and it got me back to my hotel in St. John’s with plenty of time to freshen up before I tucked into a wonderful meal in one of the city’s many superb restaurants. I had three delicious courses, all of which I thoroughly deserved after such an energizing and energetic day of hiking alongside the wild North Atlantic Ocean.


I think it’s safe to say that there are very few cities so close to the UK where a short break can include such a multiplicity of encounters and experiences – maybe only Reykjavik? Then maybe St. John’s is the new Reykjavik? Just without the extortionate price tags. I travelled to St. John’s with Westjet from London Gatwick. Flight time is less than five hours and with a time difference of just 3.5hrs, the 11am WestJet flight got me into St. John’s just after lunch which makes it a great short break destination.


For the ultimate trip of a lifetime, take the short flight to Gander (five hour drive from Downtown St. John’s) from St. John’s and spends a couple of nights at the incredible Fogo Island Inn featured on BBC2’s Amazing Hotels – Life Beyond the Lobby. I was lucky enough to get to spend the weekend at the Inn in March 2017.


St. John’s is just a 10 minute taxi ride from St. John’s International Airport and it costs $25 CAD (approx £14 for a one-way trip)

I travelled to Cape Spear with McCarthy’s Party on a half-day private guided tour of the Greater St. John’s area. Andrew my guide and chauffeur, and co-owner of McCarthy’s Party collected me from my hotel in Downtown St. John’s and tailored the tour to my interests to including the best places for urban and wildlife photography. This is a great way to get to learn about the history of St. John’s, in the comfort of a luxury vehicle and with some fabulous Irish/Canadian humour along the way. Private tours can be tailored to your interests and range from a few hours to multi-day tour.

For whale watching and iceberg viewing boat tours and kayaking trips from St. John’s, contact O’Brien Boat Tours. (Bay Bulls) or Iceberg Quest in St John’s I stayed at The JAG Hotel in Downtown St. John’s. A fabulous luxury boutique hotel that has been designed around the theme of Rock and Roll.

The average cost of a local bottle beer on George Street is around $4 CAD (approx £2.50). For full peace of mind, book your St. John’s city break with Canadian Affair – A 5 night city break staying at The Fairfield Inn and Suites in St. John’s starts from £685 per person flying with Westjet from Gatwick. Terms and conditions apply. CLICK HERE for more info.

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