St John’s sits on the northeast corner of the Avalon Peninsula, a jagged, roughly rectangular slab of land divided into four arms and connected to the rest of Newfoundland by a narrow, tapering isthmus. Highlights include the varied attractions along the Irish Loop; Heart’s Content, with its antique cable station; Castle Hill, from where there are panoramic views over Placentia Bay; and the sea-bird colonies of Cape St Mary’s. With the exception of the cape, which is a tad too far away for comfort, all make good day-tripping destinations from St John’s.
Immortalized in the much-loved ballad Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s, these days the wild, isolated headland, some 65km southwest of Placentia, is more famous for its mesmerizing sea-bird colony, protected within Cape St Mary’s Ecological Reserve. It’s one of the few places in the world where 24,000 gannets, 20,000 kittiwakes and 20,000 murres (guillemots) congregate to nest on easily accessible sea cliffs and stumpy sea stacks, 140–150m above the waves; you can get exceptionally close via paths overlooking the shore (littered with blue-flag irises in summer), the rocks so smothered with birds they look like snow-covered peaks – you’ll smell them before you see them. The main gannet colony, and the most dazzling spectacle, is generally considered to be 90m-high Bird Rock, just a few metres from the cliffs and a twenty- minute (1.4km) walk away from the car park, lighthouse and Dr Leslie M. Tuck Centre. Inside the latter you can watch a video about the site and view an exhibition on the local birds and ecology – you can also pick up one of the reserve’s guided walks (free). Make sure you wear sturdy footwear and prepare for fog, even in midsummer.
Negotiating much of the length of the Avalon Peninsula, the East Coast Trail is a long-distance hiking trail that passes through fishing communities, provincial parks, national historic sites and a couple of ecological reserves. The 265km stretch from Cape St Francis to Cappahayden has been completed, but there is a further 275km of undeveloped trails: to Topsail, on Conception Bay in the north, Trepassey in the south and across to Placentia in the west (from Ferryland). It’s an extraordinarily ambitious enterprise (the Topsail section will be developed first, depending on funding), and largely reliant on volunteer labour. The East Coast Trail Association (t 709 738 4453, w eastcoasttrail.com) sells first-rate 1:25,000 waterproof topographical maps covering the whole trail ($37 per set of 24), and guidebooks covering different sections of it. Only the first two – from St John’s to Petty Harbour ($21.95), and from Petty Harbour to Bay Bulls ($28.95) – have been published.
The East Coast Trail is linear, which means that if you’re after a day’s hiking you really need two cars and at least two people, but there are places to stay along the trail and it is possible to arrange to be picked up (and/or taken out) by taxi. The Association is glad to help and advise, and also organizes free group hikes. The 3.7km hike from the former fishing village of Blackhead to Cape Spear is one of the easier and more accessible portions of the trail and it covers a handsomely rugged stretch of coastline; allow one and a half to two hours. The trailhead is clearly signed.
From the Colony of Avalon a bumpy gravel road leads 2km up to Ferryland Head, towards the lighthouse and one of Newfoundland’s most pleasurable experiences: Lighthouse Picnics (June–Sept Wed–Sun 11.30am–4.30pm; t 709 363 7456, w lighthousepicnics.ca). Halfway along you must park your car – part of the attraction is the walk along the final section (allow 25min each way), studded with jaw-dropping views of Ferryland Harbour and Bois Island. Inside the lighthouse itself you pick up your picnic (usually a choice of sandwiches, all with salad, dessert and lemonade; around $25/person) and blanket, then just pick a spot on the headland, high above the rocky point and the waves. Reservations highly recommended.
Straggling around the head of a deep and pointed inlet, 25km south of St John’s on Rte-10, the village of Bay Bulls makes much of its living from boat tours to the four tiny offshore islets comprising the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. The best time to visit is between mid-June and mid-July, when over 800,000 birds gather here – the reserve has the largest puffin colony in eastern Canada and there are also thousands of storm petrels, common murres, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots and cormorants. In addition, the area is home to the largest population of humpback whales in the world, and finback and minke whales are often spotted between June and August.