Northeast Avalon


The Northeast Avalon Peninsula includes  the city of St. Johnís, the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador, Mount Pearl, and Cape Spear, the easternmost point in North America.

St. John's is one of the oldest European settlements in North America and is the capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador. Its name is derived from the feast day of St. John the Baptist, because it was on that day in 1497 that Giovanni Caboto, or John Cabot, sighted the New-Founde-Lande. Originally called St. John's Bay, this perfectly sheltered harbour drew explorers and fishermen here in the 1500s. The city has had an eclectic history, from summer fishing station to brawling, colonial seaport to a modern commercial and communications hub.

The blend of English and Irish, New World and Old, imbues the city with a style and vitality that's as fresh as the breeze that always blows on Signal Hill, so named because the arrival of ships was announced from here to the town below through a series of flag signals. From the hill, Canada's second-largest National Historic Site, there is a spectacular view of the city, its harbour and the adjacent coastline.

You can visit the Queen's Battery, fortifications that date from the Napoleonic Wars, and watch the Signal Hill Tattoo re-enact colonial military exercises. The Interpretation Centre features an audio-visual presentation of the history of Newfoundland, with special emphasis on military history. To the right of the Interpretation Centre is Gibbet Hill where, many years ago, the body of a hanged criminal, wrapped in chains, dangled as a chilling deterrent to potential law breakers.

At the top of the hill is Cabot Tower, built in 1897 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Newfoundland and the 60th year of Queen Victoria's reign. On the grounds outside the tower are interpretive exhibits dealing with the harbour's fortifications.

It was from a spot just below the tower that Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal on December 12, 1901 ushering in the modern world of telecommunications.

A new attraction on Signal Hill is the Johnson Geo Centre, an exploration of the planetís geology using examples from all over geologically-rich Newfoundland and Labrador.

In 1919 St. John's was the starting point for the race to fly the Atlantic because of its proximity to Europe. Several crews tried, but the honour of the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic went to Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten-Brown. Cabot Tower was the last North American landmark Charles Lindbergh saw on his solo flight to Paris in 1927. He flew right out through The Narrows, the aptly named inlet between the hills that connects the harbour to the ocean.

Another site of historic interest in this area is the Quidi Vidi Battery which overlooks Quidi Vidi Village at the eastern edge of St. John's. Constructed by the French during their capture of St. John's in 1762, its first life was a short one. The British won the last battle of the Seven Years' War right here in St. John's just a short while later. The fort was rebuilt in 1780 and manned by British forces until their withdrawal from Newfoundland in 1870. That was the year Newfoundlanders decided not to join Canada, and the British pullout left no doubt of what the Imperial Government thought of that decision. The fort was, ironically, restored in 1967 as one of many projects undertaken to mark Canada's 100th birthday. Newfoundlanders changed their minds and joined Canada in 1949. The fort's reconstruction was based upon plans of its layout as of 1812. It is open to the public daily during the summer months.

From here you can visit Quidi Vidi Lake, the site of the annual Royal St. John's Regatta which has been held since at least 1826 and is still run on the first Wednesday of August. This year marks its 175th anniversary. It is considered to be the oldest continuing sporting event in North America. Sailing, canoeing, kayaking and sail boarding are other popular activities that take place on the lake which is ringed by a walking trail, one of several that circle the ponds and lakes in the city.

Downtown St. John's is a great place to go exploring. Visitors should walk around because the traffic patterns are as eccentric as the geography. The current layout dates from 1892. That year most of the city was destroyed by fire for the third time in the nineteenth century. Wider, realigned streets laid out in a pattern designed to prevent the spread of fires from one area to another has worked for the past century. But the plan was implemented with the horse-and-cart and the streetcar in mind. Streets that cut across the hills at an angle rather than going straight up and down made life easier for horses, but by the end of World War I the day of the horse was drawing to a close and the automobile ruled the roads. Like the old cities of Europe, St. John's has struggled to come to grips with the auto.

The downtown area suffered through two decades of decline before the recent upturn in the economy. Now, almost every storefront on Water and Duckworth Streets is occupied as a new generation of entrepreneurs has replaced the traditional merchants. Boutiques are in, while department stores have moved to the suburbs. The restaurants in St. John's feature everything from traditional fare to exotic Indian dishes, pubs galore featuring music from jazz to rock to traditional, and a new civic centre and convention centre opened in 2001.

In the eastern end of downtown St. John's are several historic buildings within walking distance of each other. Commissariat House on King's Bridge Road was constructed in 1818-19 to serve as the office and residence of the Assistant Commissary General of the British garrison. This Georgian structure has been marvelously restored to the 1830 period. That means there are no electric lights inside. Guides dressed in period costumes add to the atmospheric feel of the house. This Provincial Historic Site is open to the public daily during the summer months and by appointment in winter.

Just down the street is Old Garrison Church (St. Thomas' Anglican). This church opened in 1836 and was originally the chapel for the garrison at nearby Fort William. Its interior decor features the Hanoverian Coat of Arms, the royal coat of arms when the church was built.

That grand old house just to the west is Government House. It's where the Queen stays when she comes to town. At other times, it's where the Lieutenant-Governor lives. The grounds contain many interesting trees not usually found in Newfoundland. The grounds are open to the public daily and to invited guests for the annual garden party, usually held in early August.

Colonial Building just west on Military Road is constructed of white limestone imported from Ireland. This building was originally opened in 1850 and served as the seat of government in Newfoundland until the provincial House of Assembly was transferred to the Confederation Building in 1960. The ceilings in the main rooms were decorated by a convicted Polish forger in the 19th century who received a short remission in his sentence in return for the work.

One of the most interesting churches in St. John's is the Roman Catholic Basilica of St. John the Baptist on Military Road. It is built in the shape of a Latin Cross, with twin towers reaching to a height of 42 m (137.8 feet). The basilica is noted for its excellent religious statuary, as well as for the beautiful ceiling, with its intricate design highlighted in gold leaf. Guided tours are available in summer.

Just to the south of this National Historic Site is another beautiful church, the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Church Hill. The cathedral, which has also been declared a National Historic Site, is said to be the best example of Ecclesiastical Gothic architecture in North America. It was designed by Sir Gilbert Scott and the cornerstone was laid in 1849. A silver communion service presented by King William IV and other precious religious objects are kept in the Chapter House of the cathedral.

The boutiques of the Murray Premises, a restored mercantile complex on the harbour front, open onto Water Street, one of the oldest thoroughfares in North America. This winding downtown street has been the centre of commercial activity in the city for more than four hundred years and is still lined with a variety of interesting stores, restaurants and pubs. The restaurants feature traditional and international cuisine, while the pubs in St. John's offer musical entertainment that ranges from traditional Irish music to the latest country and rock fads.

The arts scene in St. John's is very active. Writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, poets - you'll find them here. Over the past three decades the emphasis has switched from importing the artistic tastes of New York or Toronto to developing home-grown talent. There has also been a renewed emphasis on crafts, with several stores in the downtown area featuring a wide range of woolens, silks, carvings, jewellery and many more items. In this milieu, local themes and materials predominate. The environment and culture of the province provide a wellspring of inspiration. Dramas focus on people and events in Newfoundland history, while comedies are often biting and satirical. Whales, seabirds and other wildlife are common motifs in the decorative arts.

At the top of the steps leading from Duckworth to Victoria Street, is a centre of artistic activity. The Resource Centre for the Arts is located in the restored Long Shoreman's Protective Union (LSPU) Hall. At the Hall you can attend performances of original Newfoundland plays as well as international modern and classic works. The Hall provides stimulus for the creation of innovative and exciting works and is also a centre for many community activities in the downtown core of the city.

Another focus for art and entertainment in the city is the Arts and Culture Centre on Allandale Road. The building contains a large auditorium and a number of smaller theatre spaces for workshops and basement theatre programs. Featured performers include local and visiting dance troupes, the symphony orchestra and a wide variety of travelling entertainment for all ages and tastes.

Next to the Arts and Culture Centre is Memorial University of Newfoundland, the largest university in Atlantic Canada. The campus includes the Aquarena, built for the Canada Summer Games in 1977, has hosted several national aquatic competitions. The university offers a full complement of degree-granting programs, and is widely recognized for cold ocean engineering. Its separate Marine Institute focuses on marine themes in its educational programs.

Throughout the city are many softball fields, soccer and rugby pitches, a baseball field built in a valley in the centre of the city, a curling club, golf courses, tennis courts, and other recreation facilities. Soccer is the largest summertime youth participation sport, with more than 3,400 participants.

The Grand Concourse is an extensive series of walking trails that covers the city. From Signal Hill through parks and valleys, along the former railway track and around five lakes, the concourse is a walker's dream.

St. John's has many fine parks. The largest is C.A. Pippy Park. This 1,343-hectare park offers opportunities for recreation and relaxation that include hiking and cross-country skiing. It has picnic areas, a fully serviced campground, two golf courses and lounge. Within the park boundaries is the Memorial University Botanical Garden at Oxen Pond. The 32-hectare site has been developed to display plants native to the province and cultivated plants suitable to the local climate. There are beautiful nature trails and many programs and events are offered from May to November, included guided walks and tours. It's also a great place to see butterflies.

In Pippy Park you will find The Fluvarium where glass tanks give you a close-up view of the fascinating and complex world of freshwater ecology.

In the west end of the city is beautiful Bowring Park. It was originally a gift of land to the city of St. John's by the Bowrings, one of the city's most prominent business families, on the occasion of the centenary of the founding of their business. It has been customary for the various heads of state and members of the Royal Family who have visited the city to follow the tradition of planting a tree in Bowring Park as a living reminder of their visit. As a result, the park has some rare trees not usually found in the province.

Just inside the main entrance to the park, stands a beautiful statue of Peter Pan, from the same casting as the famous original in Kensington Gardens, London. A statue of the Fighting Newfoundlander, a bronze statue of a soldier in full battle kit throwing a grenade, reminds visitors of the terrible price young Newfoundlanders paid in World War I. The soldier from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who modeled for the piece later became an employee of the park, but few of the visitors noticed the resemblance! There's also a full-size statue of a caribou, the Regiment's emblem. There are excellent picnic sites in the park, a swimming pool, tennis courts, a new amphitheatre and a playground. There are also swans and other waterfowl and many excellent floral displays. The western end of the park features quiet nature trails.

The Waterford Valley area, especially the area just east of Bowring Park, is a good bird watching area. The western end of the South Side Hills is a virtually undisturbed forest, and many residents who live in the valley attract birds with backyard feeders. Anglers can fish here in the Waterford River or in Rennies River which runs through the east end of the city to Quidi Vidi Lake. This latter stream is famous for its German brown trout and is bordered by a popular hiking trail.

You may want to pick up a few souvenirs for the folks back home before taking the next tour around the Avalon Peninsula. There are several large malls and shopping centres located throughout the city with a fine selection of unique hand-crafted items available.

Mount Pearl is a bedroom community of 25,000 west of St. Johnís. You can reach it via Routes 1, 2 and 60. Originally a farming community established in 1829, it now has a substantial service sector as well as some light industry, but most residents commute to work in St. Johnís. Mount Pearl bills itself as the worldís first arboretum city, and has an extensive network of walkways that connect with the Trans-Canada Trail through the city and into adjoining Paradise, and the Grand Concourse walkways in neighbouring St. Johnís. A converted World War I military radio station that listened for German naval signals is the cityís main museum. There are several small hotels, shopping centres, and restaurants, and the city exudes a neighbourhood feel.

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