Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland
Clinging to the side of The Rock, St. John’s feels as if it can slide, at any moment, into the icy North Atlantic Ocean.
Nose pointed straight down, MacGyver snaked Black Beauty and our 51 foot stepdeck trailer, loaded with five-inch drill pipe, along roads which began as footpaths in the early 1500s, to the harbour where the R/V Joides Resolution was berthed.
Home to only a few thousand more people than moose, St. John’s is North America’s oldest English-founded city. John Cabot, legend has it, sailed into the harbour in 1497. It was first noted on a Portugese map in 1519. The first known letter sent from North America came from St. John’s in 1527. It is older than New York City, where the first visitor came in 1524 and the first permanent European settlers dates to 1624.
“Location, location, location,” MacGyver offered to my musings about why New York exploded and St. John’s with its protected harbour, first stop on the crossing from Europe, faded.
The numbers don’t show it but Newfoundland, the tenth and last province to become Canada, joining the country in 1949, is a cruel land. It is the foggiest, cloudiest, snowiest, windiest and wettest of Canada’s major cities. The temperatures on the meteorologist’s map are deceivingly modest, but the locals complain of two seasons, winter, with its icy wind, making it feel much colder than the 22 F lows, and a summer of less cold, less icy wind where the temperatures can climb to 88 degrees. The tourism industry promotes 75 days of summer on the Island. We arrived to a surprisingly warm Autumn. Ocean temperatures are five degrees above normal, said the TV weatherman.
Up until 20 years ago, Newfoundland’s reason to be was cod fishing, when it collapsed hard times hit the island. The Middle Ages fishing village is fashioning a charming future built on oil. Visitors are witnessing a rebirth, cranes dot the skyline, old buildings are being remade into expensive harbourfront condos. Rumours are rampant that Banana Republic and H&M is arriving soon.
The ship, Texas A&M University’s Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, was loading an enormous amount of supplies in St. John’s including our drill pipe, and since it would take a couple of days for them to be ready for our pipe, and the tractor and load were safe behind locked gates, we launched the Vespa to see St. John’s.
The core of the city was destroyed several times by fire, the last in 1892, the wood-frame, Victorian-style homes that remained and ones that were rebuilt — many of them in striking jelly bean colors that dance against the slate sky and ocean — are chock-a-block full of Bed & Breakfasts, but we chose a boutique hotel, Blue on Water, overlooking the harbour to be available for unloading.
We had driven team from Houston, Texas to St. John’s, 61 hours to the ferry in North Sydney and 12 hours across the Island, yogurt and cereal for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch and dinner. We wanted food.
St. John’s is building a local, organic food scene on its island roots of wild game and root vegetables — the growing season is too short and the soil too difficult for much else — Nouvelle Newfoundland Cuisine abounds.
We started at Rocket, a popular Shabby Chic eatery on Water Street, the first known street in North America which dates back to 1546, recommended by the government tourism lady at the North Sydney, Nova Scotia ferry terminal. Fresh baked good, including breads, using one of my favorite non-wheat grains, Spelt, fresh roasted coffee, fresh-made soups, stews, lamb pies and homemade sausage rolls. Pull a chair up to the distressed wooden tables or sit in the window and watch the passing parade.
There’s no fresher fish anywhere, so for dinner at Oliver’s we tucked into the Cod, the Newfoundland staple and delicacy and Halibut, a cold water fish with a firm, meaty, white flesh.
There seems to be a city-wide debate on coffee in St. John’s there’s Rocket and then there’s Post Espresso, which looks more like an Australian joint than Canadian. Spare, white, chrome and blonde wood. Chic. It wasn’t the coffee that brought us in, it was the porridge, oatmeal to non- and newer-Canadians. Mixed with berries. Creamy, sweet and delicious.
Can’t leave Newfoundland without having fish and chips, cod and chips, and the best is The Duke of Duckworth. A well-worn bar, even though it only dates to 1989, hanging from the hillside above Water Street. It has an airy batter, the fish was slippery, moist.
And for our final meal, we visited Bacalao, a ten minute walk, straight up, the side of the mountain above the harbour. One week in St. John’s and we would have had killer glutes. MacGyver ordered the Caribou, lean and rare and excellent, a sweet, slightly chewy meat. I ordered the Newfoundland lamb, which came with two small lamb chops, melted-in-mouth, and a two large pieces, rocks really, of slow-roasted leg of lamb, which was too hard to eat. Overnight, the leftovers transformed and it made a delicious addition to Eggs MacGyver the next day.
And the vegetables, everywhere, were fantastic. The Newfies, the nickname came during the Second World War, know their root vegetables, carrots, turnips, potatoes, not much else grows and imported vegetables are expensive. Roasted, charred, sauteed, all delightful.
“What’s this?” MacGyver said pointing to the pale yellow rectangle on his plate. “It’s good, really good.”
“Turnip,” I told him.
“Turnip? If all turnip was like this I would have eaten it.”
Cooked al dente, sweet, carmelized and delicious.
In between meals, we did the tourist thing. The city contains 21 National Historic Sites of Canada. We visited the most popular historic site, where 97 percent of tourists go, up the windy hill to Signal Hill, where it wasn’t really that windy — most days, the locals say that your hair stands straight out in the wind — to look down on the tiny mouth of the harbour, with its 90 foot depth, which gets about 1,200 ships a year. At the mouth of the harbour, the seawater churned a bright turquoise, the same frigid color that can be seen in a glacial lake. It must have been ice stuck under the rocks around the edges.
St. John’s sees some 370 icebergs a year float by. One woman told us that one summer, when she lived in Torbay, north of St. John’s an iceberg floated into the bay and got stuck, staying some six weeks, providing air conditioning to the town, as the wind blew across the ‘berg. It finally stopped when another iceberg floated down, striking the first iceberg and breaking it into smaller pieces.
Quidi Vidi (pronounced Kiddy Viddy), is an fishing village, but now the brewery is more notable. The microbrewery makes beer from iceberg water. We were called down to the ship, just as we pulled into the parking lot, so next time.
The St. John’s adventure didn’t end here. We were loaded for the return trip, dirty pipe from the ship, back to Houston for retooling. We crossed Newfoundland in two days. Driving daytime only to avoid the moose, we were hit by heavy winds through the entire land crossing, diesel fuel is $5.39US for a US gallon, and we were mercifully spared in the Wreckhouse, a 20 kilometer stretch between Port Aux Basques and Corner Brook on the north side of the Long Range Mountains, which has recorded wind gusts in excess of 200 kilometers and hour (125 mph).
When we arrived at the Port Aux Basques ferry terminal there were 100 big trucks waiting in front of us. Sailings had been cancelled by the high winds. The Saturday night sailing was loaded but sat all night waiting for calmer winds.
Our crossing took 46.5 hours, from the time we arrived at the terminal until we pulled off the ship in Nova Scotia.
Our ship, the Highlander, took one huge wave off the starboard beam and the woman sitting at the table ahead of me in the dining lounge was picked up, still attached to her chair, and flung onto the floor. I decided to stay put, seated, watching the horizon, to ward off seasickness and MacGyver went below decks to our cabin to lay down and watch TV for the crossing.
Next time we take a Newfoundland load we’ll do it in those 75 days of summer that the tourism ads boast.