Bergs and Birds and Brews! Oh My!

Thursday, June 12, 2014 Road Junkies 0 Comments

THE BIG CHILL, CHAPTER 2:  IN WHICH WE DISCOVER WHAT WAS HIDDEN IN THE FOG

Day 3:  St. John's, NL.  Just the climate we were seeking greeted us this morning as we left our hotel.  It was the perfect contrast to the Georgia heat—drizzly, chilly, and windy with a temperature of 37°.  Our first destination this morning was Cape Spear, North America's most easterly point.  Located on the Avalon peninsula about ten miles south of St. John's, Cape Spear is home to Newfoundland's oldest surviving lighthouse (1836) and a famous stop on the province's 340-mile East Coast trail, which traces Newfoundland's Atlantic coast.


East Coast Trail at Cape Spear
On the approach to Cape Spear, we spotted our first iceberg of the day just off shore.  When we planned this trip, we didn't even realize that Newfoundland and Labrador have an annual iceberg season.  We have since learned that Newfoundland lays claim to being one of the world's best places for viewing icebergs.  Each year about 40,000 bergs break off from the glaciers of western Greenland.  Ocean currents push the bergs southward, and hundreds make their way to the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador.  

As we hiked around the cape, wind buffeted us, occasionally pelting us with sleet, a combination that produced a refreshing wind chill in the 20s.  Cape Spear's position as the easternmost point on the continent elevated its significance in World War II, when it served as a coastal defense battery with two 10-inch guns built into the landscape.  Remains of bunkers and batteries occupied by Canadian and U.S. forces from 1941 to 1945 stand as reminders of the threat German forces posed to North American shores.

World War II bunker
Just as we were leaving Cape Spear, skies began clearing, and by the time we returned to St. John's the sun had made an appearance.  We returned to Pi Gourmet for lunch, sharing a savory mushroom crostini.  From there, we headed back south on Highway 10 to Bay Bulls, where we had booked a 90-minute puffin and whale watching boat tour with Gatherall's, arriving just as the custom 70-ft. catamaran was about to shove off.

Since their busy season doesn't begin for another few weeks, our cruise was comfortably uncrowded with about two dozen people on the 70-passenger boat.  Captain Jimmy navigated the craft out to Witless Bay Ecological Reserve while Al and Hillary provided narration, humor, and local folk music. The reserve comprises four islands in an area of 12 square miles.  For most of the year, these tiny islets are relatively quiet, but from May to August, they are teeming with hundreds of thousands of breeding and nesting sea birds.

Wing-to-wing common murres on Gull Island
This is home to North America's largest Atlantic puffin colony.  More than 260,000 pairs nest on the islands during late spring and summer.  According to our interpretive guides, puffins are monogamous and mate for life, producing only one chick per year.  They live in burrows which they dig on grassy slopes just above cliff edges.  Their colorful beaks, one of the bird's most distinctive qualities, are evident only in mating season.  At the end of the season, moulting removes the special coatings that produce the bright colors.

Puffins and their burrows
We were a little too early in the season to see whales in this area.  They typically follow the capelin, a small fish in the smelt family, as the fish migrate into the area from the northern Atlantic.  The first three weeks of July are typically the high whale season in Witless Bay.  We did see an iceberg which had grounded near one of the islands.  Captain Jimmy approached it but not nearly as close as a much smaller boat which we observed within a few feet of the berg.  

Hearing from the captain about a bald eagle nest at Signal Hill, where the sun was finally shining, we knew it was time to hit this St. John's highlight.  A consultation with the staff at the historic site sent us off in the direction of the eagle nest, which is located below the ridge trail, allowing hikers to look down into the nest. Within range of our binoculars, the nest was beyond the scope of our camera but not that of amateur photographer Wayne Norman, whom we spotted clinging to a ledge on the cliff above the nest.  When he packed up his gear and came back up to the trail, we chatted with him about the eagles.  He has been photographing them since the eggs were laid and makes the pilgrimage daily.  Some of his photos are posted on Flickr. 

Clear skies reveal Cabot Tower at the top of Signal Hill
Originally known as the Lookout, Signal Hill has been used for communication since 1704.  Whether by flag, radio or cannon blast, messages from the hill have been broadcast to the city below, out to sea, and across the ocean.  Cabot Tower was constructed at the top of the hill in 1897 in honor of the 400th anniversary of John Cabot's voyage of discovery, which led him to Newfoundland.  Used for signalling until 1960, the tower today houses exhibits and a gift shop. 

Since today was our last in St. John's, we had one more stop to make before calling it a day—Quidi Vidi village (pronounced kitty vitty), a St. John's neighborhood just north of Signal Hill.  Once known as a historic fishing village, Quidi Vidi today offers a cultural experience where visitors can watch artists create unique handmade items.  Our interest in the village was stirred by a letterbox which had been planted there and by a recommendation from Megan, the owner of Pi Gourmet Eatery, who had put it on her list of must-see places in the city.  We were not surprised when the letterbox was AWOL but its clue had informed us about the Quidi Vidi brew pub, so we thought we'd have dinner there.

Quidi Vidi - pity in the city
This meal was not meant to be.  When we drove into the village, we had noticed numerous emergency vehicles preceding us, mostly from the local fire department.  In our attempt to visit the brewery, we discovered that it was the destination of the first responders.  Later we learned that the fire had taken place on one of the sailboats moored at the brewery's wharf.  Meanwhile, on our way out of the village, we passed a sight we could not resist.

Quidi Vidi Inn of Olde
Still seeking a bit of local color, we thought Linda, with her offer of stories, beers and wood-burning stove, might be just the one to provide it.  Upon entering, we thought we had mistakenly stepped into someone's dark, cluttered, low-ceilinged basement that was long overdue for a good de-cluttering.  In every nook and cranny, tacked up on most every inch of wall and ceiling space, was a random collection of  "stuff."  From hockey sticks to spoons, old lottery tickets to dolls and puppets and ceramic jugs, lanterns, and even lost driver's licenses, it was all there, slung up willy-nilly, wherever a somewhat empty space had been found at the time it arrived.

Quidi Vidi Inn of Olde interior (photo from theworldofgord.com)
We marveled that the inn could actually secure a license for preparing and serving food, estimating from the looks of things that it might score about a 20 on a 100-point sanitation inspection.  But we weren't there for a gourmet meal; we were seeking an authentic local experience.  And we found it.  Though Linda was off practicing for a dragon boat race, her sidekick Ruth, a lifelong Quidi Vidian, was doing an admirable job holding down the fort and eagerly telling her own stories.  Since we were the only customers, we had her full attention.

Opting for the relative safety of bottled drinks—no glass, thank you—we stayed a while to listen to her tales.  A young couple relocating from Nova Scotia dropped in while we were there and we used them as cover to slip out after paying our tab.

St. John's, a jelly bean kind of town
On the way back to our hotel, we finally found the perfect spot for a photograph we had been wanting to take since we arrived.  Near the top of Signal Hill was the city overlook we had been seeking to show off the city's amazing color palette.  Legend has it that in its early days as a fishing village, St. John's was populated by street after street of identical Victorian row houses. When exhausted fishermen returned from their voyages, often in the fog, they struggled to distinguish which house was their own.  In order to make their homes stand out from the others, owners began painting them different vibrant colors, never the same color as the house next door.  The tradition has continued, making St. John's one of the most colorful places we have visited.

Our last day in St. John's (pop. 100,645) was very full, and yet there was so much that we had missed, giving us ample reason to return.  Tomorrow we head north to the tiny village of Trinity, one of the province's best-known towns, to discover what makes it so beloved.

More Photos from Today

The Gatherall's catamaran
Iceberg near Gull Island in Witless Bay
Common murres build no nests and incubate their eggs on the rocky ledges.
Part of the village of Bay Bulls on Witless Bay
Signal Hill light station
A photographer (not Wayne Norman) perched above the Signal Hill eagle nest
East Coast Trail at Signal Hill
Quid Vidi harbor
Quidi Vidi harbor