For centuries life in ST JOHN’S has focused on its harbour, a dramatic jaw-shaped inlet approached through the 200m-wide channel of The Narrows. In its heyday, the port was crammed with ships from a score of nations; today, although traffic is not as brisk, it draws a mixed maritime bag of trawlers, container ships and oil construction barges. It still possesses a boisterous nightlife too, but the rough houses of the waterfront have been replaced by shops, slick office buildings and chic restaurants, and its inhabitants – of whom there are about 200,000 – are less likely to be seafarers than white-collar workers, artists and students from all over Canada. Yet the waterfront remains the social hub, sprinkled with lively bars that showcase the best of Newfoundland folk music – one good reason for visiting in itself – as well as providing the backdrop for hit Canadian TV show Republic of Doyle.
With the exception of Signal Hill, all the main downtown attractions are within easy walking distance of each other. Note that the appellation “cove”, commonplace here, means a short side-street, not a bay.
The Algonquian-speaking Beothuks, who reached Newfoundland in about 200 AD, were seminomadic, spending the summer on the coast and moving inland during the winter. They were the first North American Aboriginal peoples to be contacted by English explorers, who came to describe them as “Red Indians” from their habit of covering themselves with red ochre, perhaps as some sort of fertility ritual or simply to keep the flies off. Neither side seemed to need or want anything from the other, and even after three hundred years of coexistence, hardly anything was known about the Beothuks. As settlers spread north from the Avalon Peninsula in the eighteenth century, they began to encroach on the Beothuks’ ancient hunting grounds, pushing them inland. By the early 1800s, settlers’ attitudes had hardened and the Beothuks who hadn’t succumbed to European diseases were casually slaughtered. Some white settlers organized expeditions into the interior to catch one or two alive, but the last seen member of the tribe, a young woman named Shanawdithit, died of tuberculosis aged 29 in 1829. She spent the last years of her life in the protective custody of the attorney general in St John’s, and it was here that she built a small model of a Beothuk canoe and made ten simple drawings of her people and their customs. No other Beothuks were ever found; she is considered the last of her people.
From St John’s it’s a 15km drive via Rte-11 to Cape Spear National Historic Site (open access), a rocky, windblown headland that is nearer to Europe than any other part of mainland North America. The cape is crisscrossed by boardwalks, the most obvious of which leads up from the car park past the heritage shop and the modern lighthouse to the squat and rectangular VictorianLighthouse, the oldest in the province. Built in 1836, the lighthouse’s interior has been pleasantly decked out in nineteenth-century style, down to imitation barrels of sperm oil and the neatly made bed. The other specific attraction is the substantial remains of the World War II gun emplacement at the tip of the cape, but the views are really the main event, right along the coast and up to St John’s. In spring and early summer, the waters off the cape are a great place to spy blue-tinged icebergs, and there’s a reasonable chance of spotting whales.
The English and Irish settlers who first colonized Newfoundland brought their music with them: step dances and square sets performed to the accompaniment of the fiddle and the button accordion, followed by the unaccompanied singing of locally composed and “old country” songs. The music was never written down, so as it passed from one generation to the next a distinctive Newfoundland style evolved, whose rhymes and rhythms varied from outport to outport – though its Irish and English roots always remained pronounced.
This traditional style of folk music has lingered on, as exemplified by the island’s most famous fiddlers, Rufus Guinchard and Émile Benoit. The two died in the 1980s, but their approach was adopted by younger artists like singer-songwriters Jim Payne and Ron Hynes, musician-producer Kelly Russell and groups such as Figgy Duff (named after the traditional Newfoundland pudding). Currently, Celtic music is the big deal in the bars of St John’s (Shanneyganock is one of the biggest bands on the scene), but local musicians regularly perform in a more traditional idiom. In particular, look out for one of the most popular bands since the 1990s, the Irish Descendants, who still occasionally perform here. Other artists to watch out for include Duane Andrews, who blends traditional Newfoundland folk with Gypsy Jazz; Hey Rosetta!, one of the most popular indie bands; and local girl Amelia Curran, who has scored big since her 2000 debut. The best of the island’s dozen folk festivals, the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival (t 709 576 8508, w nlfolk.com), is held in Bannerman Park in St John’s in early August.