cheers! to newfoundland

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Our second port of call on the fiftieth birthday sailabration was St. John’s, Newfoundland. Once again, I had sketched out a skeleton of a plan and the Hubs was game.

It was early morning and pitch dark when we pulled into port, so we couldn’t fully appreciate the navigational challenges or just how fitting the nickname “The Rock.” Newfoundland is a massive slab of the oldest rock on earth rising sharply from the beautiful but deadly sea. It was only when we left port, much later, that the perils became clear, waves cresting, crashing and churning with furor at the entrance to the harbor.

We spent a wonderful day in St. John’s. It started with a chuckle. Our ship was perhaps half-full of French Canadians this cruise; we were surrounded by the constant babble of French. I don’t mind in the least (a Francophile, a wannabe) although I understand very little. Of course, the Quebecers didn’t miss a beat in Saint Pierre and Miquelon, while most of the rest of us were skirting the language barrier.

However, in Newfoundland, the table delightfully turned. There were just a few small cabs waiting at the pier and piles of people trying to find their way hither and yon in sizable groups. A sole, rather overwhelmed man was working to bring calm to chaos. I stepped up to the curb and spoke to a cabbie, who told me to speak to the man to be sure there was no one else in line ahead of me. The man, inundated by a barrage of French, said in exasperation, “I don’t understand a word!” Then he was only too happy to hear my plea in English to release the cab. The Hubs and I were off!

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It was perhaps ten minutes’ drive from the pier on Water Street to the top of Signal Hill. Along the way, our cabbie filled in a few gaps about the history of the city and features of the surrounding landscape. Approximately mid-point of the hill, we passed the Johnson GEO CENTRE on our left and on our right, the innocuous looking but ominously named Deadman’s Pond. In addition to being the site for public hanging years’ past, our cabbie insisted this was a bottomless pond emptying into the ocean, supposedly proven by a few people who drowned in the pond and their bodies recovered in the ocean. It makes for a great story.

Cabot Tower, sitting atop Signal Hill, was built in the late 1800s to commemorate John Cabot’s discovery of Newfoundland in the 1400s. The tower now houses a fascinating exhibit of the first transatlantic wireless signal received by Marconi in 1901. The hill was a defensive site for the British from the 18th century through the Second World War, when American soldiers joined Canadians stationed there. A line of cold black cannons perched atop the cliff at what remains of the Queens Battery harken to an earlier era. 

At this point, we were quite near the outermost edge of the island and mouth of the harbor. From here we could see miles of trails traversing rocks, cliffs and hills — some of them, no doubt, treacherous, especially in Nfdld’s foggy damp climate. We were blessed with a relatively clear day and sure footing but I had no trouble imagining the difficulty with mobility issues. We followed one trail for awhile and could see so many more beckoning. It’s was pretty cool to realize we were standing atop the easternmost point of North America (excluding Greenland, I suppose). If only we had more time to explore. Next time, for sure.

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We walked out to the road and down the hill to the Johnson GEO CENTRE, a marvelous place with, as the name suggests, geographical exhibits and more. Newfoundland is celebrating its “550 millionth year” of rocks. (Give or take a few, eh?)  This beautiful, modern natural history museum is built down into the earth so that rock slab becomes part of the exhibit. The CENTRE’s brief introductory video must be among the most innovative in museumland. Video integrated with a holographic speaker, water, atmospheric, sound, and light effects are unrivaled in my experience. Walking through the main exhibit area, recalling some of the characteristics of rock, I remembered why I found geography with Dr. Revetta so enjoyable.

I think my favorite exhibit, however, was the Titanic Story, presenting a critical perspective of a needless tragedy. Putting aside the apparently unmatched greed and ego fueling construction of the RMS Titanic, it seems especially ironic that the wireless signal so recently developed and proven here — the technology that should have saved lives — was a source of distraction contributing to tremendous loss of life, also near.

Multiple transmissions were sent to the Titanic from ships warning of dangerous icebergs in the immediate vicinity. It was an abundant year for icebergs; currents carrying many further south than typical. Some of these messages were relayed to the bridge. Arrogant to the point of foolhardy, Captain Smith chose to ignore them, steaming full speed ahead. Other messages were never relayed. Caught up in relaying fee-based personal messages for passengers, the wireless operator responded in frustration, “Shut up! Shut up!”  He later worked feverishly to rectify his mistake. It was too little, too late. The Titanic Story was a sobering exhibit.

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By then it was well past lunch time and we were ready to lighten up a bit, figuratively speaking. We took our young lady cabbie’s advice for lunch and local brews at the Yellow Belly Brewery. I think they must serve the best seafood chowder in North America, if not the entire planet.  Served with a delectable fresh and tender selection of seafood and topped with steamed mussels, The Yellow Belly gets it just right. (And bumps the market on the pier in San Fran serving chowder in a chewy sourdough bread bowl to #2.)

St. John’s is a great brew town, too. We’ll try local brews anywhere we can find them. The Hubs had the Fighting Irish Red and I, the Yellow Belly Pale Ale. We toasted turning fifty and a perfect ending to a great day on The Rock.


I must say, in all of our travels, we’ve never been bid so warm a farewell as we were on this day. Dozens of Newfoundlanders with big smiles hailed from cliffside homes or hiking trails stretching like thin ribbons high and low alongside the narrow channel. Look closely in these photos for tiny specs dotting the uppermost rock: friendly, hardy, colorful, brave Newfoundlanders!

~ René Morley

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