St. John’s and Environs (35 km)

Newfoundland and Labrador's capital city of St. John's is one of the oldest European settlements in North America. Originally called St. John's Bay, this perfectly sheltered harbour drew explorers and fishermen in the 1500s. Possessing an eclectic history, from being a summer fishing station and brawling, colonial seaport to a commercial and communications hub, today it is one of the most economically- and artistically-vibrant cities in Canada.

Begin in St. John's

The city is a great place for exploring on foot and it's threaded with an extensive series of maintained trails called the Grand Concourse. From Signal Hill through parks and valleys, along the former railway track and around five lakes, the concourse is a walker's dream. Look for the signs to lead you along the way.

Hike or drive up Signal Hill

The blend of English and Irish, new world and old, imbues the city with a style and vitality as fresh as the ocean breezes up on Signal Hill – so named because the arrival of ships were announced from here 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. Here, 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 during July and August. The Interpretation Centre features an audio-visual presentation of the history of Newfoundland, with a 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 head 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. Wander the grounds surrounding the tower to learn about the hills' history. It was from a spot just below Cabot Tower that Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal on December 12, 1901, ushering in the modern world of telecommunications. Halfway up the hill is the Johnson Geo Centre, which explores the planet's geology using examples from all over Newfoundland and Labrador. Outside paths and walkways with interpretive panels and displays, explain the geology, flora and fauna of the area.

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 non-stop flight 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.

Head to Quidi Vidi, a village in the city

You can either walk to this area from Signal Hill along the Cuckold's Cove Trail, or drive there along Signal Hill Road, Quidi Vidi Road, and Forest Road. Quidi Vidi Village is at the eastern edge of St. John's, but no one really knows the origin of the name, or even what language it’s derived from. People settled there because the tiny harbor, known as ‘The Gut’, offered shelter, and there was a steady supply of fresh water from the nearby lake. When it was first settled is also a mystery, but there were people living there in the 1680s. It’s a pretty area, and attracts a steady stream of visitors, both wheeled and on foot. A recent addition is the Quidi Vidi Village Plantation, an incubator for up and coming craftspeople. Drop by and see pottery, weaving, metalwork, and other crafts being made. The village has its own brewery, Quidi Vidi Brewing, which makes fine craft beers. Take a tour and have a taste. The newest venture is Todd Perrin’s restaurant in Mallard Cottage, a National Historic Site dating from at least the 1830s. It’s due to open mid-2013, lending the old Irish-style building a new lease on life.

From here visit Quidi Vidi Lake

Quidi Vidi Lake is the site of the annual Royal St. John's Regatta, which has been held since at least 1816 and still runs on the first Wednesday of August. It is considered to be the oldest continuing sporting event in North America. Sailing, kayaking, canoeing, and sailboarding are other popular activities that take place on the lake, which is ringed by a pleasant walking trail, one of several that circle the ponds and lakes in the city.

Explore Downtown St. John's

Walking is a great way to take in the downtown, while avoiding its sometimes eccentric roadways. The current layout of this area dates from 1892 when most of the city was destroyed by fire for the third time that century. Wider, realigned streets laid out in a pattern designed to prevent the spread of fires, has worked since then, but the plan was implemented with horse and carts and streetcars 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. As a result, the roadways in the downtown are sometimes as peculiar as the geography.

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. There are restaurants featuring everything from traditional fare to exotic international dishes, pubs galore featuring music from jazz and rock to traditional, and a civic centre and convention centre – Mile One Centre – which opened in 2001.

Begin on King's Bridge Road

In the eastern end of downtown St. John's are several historic buildings within walking distance of each other. Commissariat House Provincial Historic Site 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 (at the intersection) is the Old Garrison Church – today, 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.

Military Road to Bonaventure Avenue

Turn down Military Road. The stately home just to your 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 this province. The grounds are open to the public daily and to invited guests for the annual garden party, usually held in early August.

To your right as you exit Government House is Bannerman Park, home to the Colonial Building, which 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 to his sentence in return for the work. The building is about to undergo restoration and renovation and is not currently open to the public.

A few blocks further west along Military Road is one of the most interesting churches in St. John's – the Roman Catholic Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. 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. The attached museum houses historic church artifacts and a rare book collection. Opening times vary, so it's a good idea to check in at the office located in the building on the left-hand side of the Basilica.

The name St. John's derives from the feast day of St. John the Baptist – June 24 – because it was on that day in 1497 Giovanni Caboto, or John Cabot, sighted the New-Founde-Lande.

Just west and slightly above the Basilica is The Rooms, an imposing piece of modern architecture housing the provincial Museum, Archives and Art Gallery. “Rooms” was the term used to describe a collection of seaside fishery buildings belonging to a single owner, in which a variety of processing and business functions were gathered.

From The Rooms, head down Garrison Hill

Just a short walk down the hill 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.

Down to Water Street

The boutiques of the Murray Premises, a restored mercantile complex on the harbourfront, open onto Water Street, one of the oldest thoroughfares in North America. This bustling downtown strip has been the centre of commercial activity in the city for more than 400 years and is still lined with diverse restaurants, stores and pubs.

The arts scene in St. John's is very active. Writers, painters, musicians, sculptors, poets – you'll find them all here. Over the past four decades the emphasis has switched from importing the artistic tastes of New York or Toronto to developing homegrown talent. There has also been a renewed emphasis on crafts, with several stores in the downtown area featuring a wide range of woolens, carvings, silks, jewellery and many other items. The environment and culture of the province provides a wellspring of inspiration, and seabirds, whales, and other wildlife are common motifs in the decorative arts.

From the Murray Premises at the more westerly end of Water Street, wander east and take in the many establishments along the way. As you explore, make your way back up a block to Duckworth Street.

Behind the Courthouse, at the top of the steps leading from Duckworth to Victoria Street, is a centre of creative theatrical activity. The Resource Centre for the Arts is located in the restored historic Long Shoreman's Protective Union (LSPU) Hall. Within the unique, intimate space of the Hall you can attend performances of original Newfoundland plays as well as international modern and classic works.

Back in your car, head northeast toward the centre of the city

Another focus for art and entertainment in the city is the Arts and Culture Centre, on Allandale Road. Its 1,000-seat auditorium is home to the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra and the building has hosted a wide variety of concerts, plays, musicals and dance events since it opened in the late 1960s.

Next door is Memorial University, which has several venues for musical and theatrical performance. The campus also has an aquarena and athletics field house that double as community health and recreation resources – in addition to hosting the university basketball, volleyball and swimming teams.

Memorial University – the largest in the Atlantic provinces with about 17,000 students – has matured into a major contributor to the social and economic development of the province, with world-class, cold-ocean science being perhaps its most famous and renowned discipline.

Throughout the city, there are many softball fields, soccer and rugby pitches – one is the home field of the national champions. There is a baseball field built in a valley in the centre of the city, a curling club – home of the 2006 men's Olympic curling championship Brad Gushue team – golf courses, tennis courts, and other recreation facilities. Soccer is the largest summertime youth participation sport, and a 6,400-seat soccer field with artificial grass next to Quidi Vidi Lake regularly attracts international events and national championships

Pippy Park

St. John's has many fine parks. The largest is C.A. Pippy Park. This 1,343-hectare park offers opportunities for hiking and cross country skiing. It has a fully-serviced campground, picnic areas, two golf courses and lounge.

Within the park 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, including guided walks and tours. A tropical house adds a touch of the exotic. It's also a great place to see butterflies and birds.

In Pippy Park you'll also find The Fluvarium, where underwater viewing windows give you a close-up of the fascinating and complex world of freshwater ecology.

To the West End of St. John's

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. It has been customary for visiting heads of state and members of the Royal Family to follow the tradition of planting a tree in Bowring Park. As a result, the grounds contain rare trees not usually found in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Just inside the main entrance to the park stands a beautiful statue of Peter Pan, taken from the same casting as the famous original in Kensington Gardens, London. A statue of the Fighting Newfoundlander, a bronze likeness of a soldier in full battle kit, throwing a grenade, reminds visitors of the terrible price young Newfoundlanders paid in World War I. There's also a full-size statue of a caribou, the Regiment's emblem. A replica of the memorial in Beaumont Hamel in northern France, where the Newfoundland Regiment was almost wiped out on July 1, 1916, has also been erected nearby. It contains the names of all the Newfoundland and Labrador soldiers and sailors killed during the war who have no known grave.

There are excellent picnic sites in the park, a swimming pool, tennis courts, an 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, especially the area just east of Bowring Park, is good for birdwatching. 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 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 flanked by a popular hiking trail.

Mount Pearl

Mount Pearl is a small city of 25,000, west of St. John's. 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 and big box stores.

Mount Pearl bills itself as the world's 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. John's.

Admiralty House Museum and Archives, a converted World War I military radio station that listened for German naval signals, is the city's main museum. There are several small hotels, shopping centres, and restaurants, and the city exudes a suburban, residential feel.

Take Route 11 from St. John's to Cape Spear

One of the must-see places on any visit to the province is Cape Spear Lighthouse National Historic Site, the most easterly point in North America.

To reach it, drive west on Water Street in downtown St. John's, keeping a keen lookout for the small brown Parks Canada sign indicating the road to Cape Spear, Route 11. Keep in the left-hand lane. The turn onto Route 11 is just past Victoria Park and goes over a bridge. You'll come to a stop sign at the end of the bridge that says "Welcome to the Cape Spear Drive." Continue straight ahead up the hill, through the neighbourhood of Shea Heights and to the lighthouse about eight kilometres from Water Street.

Built in 1835, the Cape Spear Lighthouse is the oldest existing lighthouse in Newfoundland. The two-storey wooden structure that served as a marine beacon from 1836 to 1955 is now a museum. A modern lighthouse stands nearby. The first lightkeeper at Cape Spear was Emmanuel Warre. Following his death in 1845, the government appointed James Cantwell to take his place. Members of the Cantwell family have tended the light ever since.

World War II saw increased activity at the Cape. Two gun emplacements were constructed and underground passages and barracks were built. Most of the installations were demolished after the war, but the gun emplacements still exist.

Continue along Route 11 through Maddox Cove and Petty Harbour

Maddox Cove and Petty Harbour make up a small, delightful outport community just 18 kilometres from the capital city. Here you'll see old wooden stages used to dry the salt cod that Newfoundland once supplied to the world. Petty Harbour has been the location of several feature films. The community museum tells the stories of people whose names have been familiar here for centuries.

Continue on Route 11 to Route 10 to return to St. John's, or continue south.

The East Coast Trail

A unique way to experience this area of Newfoundland is by the East Coast Trail. The trail links 30 historic communities between Cappahayden in the south and Pouch Cove in the north, along 220 km of trails. It provides hikers with a special blend of wilderness adventure, outstanding natural beauty, wildlife, history, and cultural contact. The trail takes you past towering cliffs and headlands, sea stacks, deep fjords, and a natural wave-driven geyser called the Spout. It also showcases abandoned settlements, lighthouses and ecological reserves. Walks range from easy rambles to wilderness challenges. When completed in 2015, the trail will encompass 540 km of coastal and inland hikes.