Newfoundland Mists, Sea and Dance
“Give us song,” the dark-haired beauty called out from the doorway of one of the many Celtic pubs and taverns in St. John’s, Newfoundland’s upbeat capital.
The young men sitting around the table smiled, and the patrons hoisted drinks and called for a song.
“Give us a tune,” she laughed boldly, tossing her hair carelessly.
The hand-held drum vibrated slowly.
The flute played its thin, haunting melody.
The fiddler stirred the crowd.
And a song was sung, a melody of lovers who this time triumphed over the unforgiving sea and the starkly beautiful land.
There’s something about Newfoundland that gets under your skin.
It comes from the disarmingly warm and open people.
And it comes from the aching loneliness of the surrounding sea where Lilliputian villages snuggle against the craggy faces of cliffs.
This Atlantic province is not for the tourist rushing from one photo op to another or shopping for couture in designer shops.
It’s a destination to in-gather your thoughts; to marvel at the taciturn men with laughing ways and easy quips readying boats for weeklong fishing trips.
It’s a place to respect the survival skills of villagers living in six or seven homes perched precariously on the edge of the sea.
These are a self-reliant people, fiercely independent but unfailingly eager to help. They’ll always offer a tale or two over a pint or just a chat by the side of the road.
And Newfoundland’s arts and culture deeply reflect the values and experiences of these ordinary lives, the deep community ties of this isolated place.
In the nearby cellar of the Anglican cathedral lots of Jane Marple look-alikes serve tea and crumpets in the crypt.
These blue and white haired ladies took a decrepit church basement and gaily painted its vaulted arches and catacombs.
They added tables in the coves and covered them with colorful china and cloths. With lots of “Here you are, mi Luv,” and “OK, Dearie,” they serve homemade pastries, scones, jams and non-stop conversation.
They have stories to tell.
Many of them live in the brightly colored homes of St. John’s, the deep blues and reds and greens echoing the color of the boats bobbing in ports, defiant splashes of life against a brooding sky and dark sea.
Gillian Marx, the province’s media representative, talked to us over a terrific dinner of grilled, glazed salmon, a good Pinot Grigio and crispy fried cod tongues. “Our winters are long and deep,” she said, “and so Newfoundlanders gathered in kitchens and played fiddles, hooked rugs, sang songs and told dramatic tales about the men who went down in the sea. They sang of the land and our struggle, and so our story telling tradition was born.”
The tradition is alive and well in the exuberant, kinetic three day Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival.
It lives in the comic skills of the buskers wandering the streets, performing on corners and the plazas of St. John’s.
For a population of only 530,000, Newfoundland has more art galleries, pubs, festivals and celebrations that would seem reasonable. While most of them are in St. John’s, every community in this vast island has some celebration.
Mostly they celebrate the summer and the blessed end of winter.
They celebrate with jigs, dinners and jazz.
They have dory races, potato festivals, craft fairs and 3-foot blueberry pie eat-ins.
There are mooseburgers, family pig roasts and historic walks.
And there’s the sweeping, dramatic provincial gallery: The Rooms.
Perched on a hill in St. John’s and barely a year old, The Rooms is an elegant construction of glass, chrome and surfaces that reflect the sea, seen from every angle and position.
Newfoundland artist, Christopher Pratt, brilliantly mirrors the distinct geography and culture of the island.
His work is the grand narrative of the snow, the sea and the land of Newfoundland and Labrador. But his personal style and technique carry the images of snow swept roads or isolated communities well into the realm of the universal, stirring those archetypical emotions of loneliness and awe.
When you Go
Newfoundland is a huge island, mostly uninhabited. Air Canada and Continental fly into St. John’s, and it’s possible to take the Maritime Atlantic Ferry via Port aux Basques from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, to the west coast. The drive to St. John’s along the Trans-Canada Highway to St. John’s is 543 spectacular miles.
Best time to visit is between the snow and the flowers, late June to early October.
The hilly, colorful capital of Newfoundland and Labrador is packed with quirky shops, pubs, restaurants, bars and art galleries. The colored houses are a delight, and the shops are all local ones.
Auntie Craes. On Water Street (the main drag), this combination of country general store and specialty deli has terrific cheeses, home baked goods and great coffee. Try the partridgeberry jam.
Velma’s. Also on Water Street, Velma’s serves Newfoundland food and does a brisk business in seafood (including Cod Tongues) and other local specials.
Blue on Water. Probably the best “fine dinning” in St. John’s. On Water Street, Blue is also a 7-room boutique hotel.
Where to Stay
Skip the big chains and opt for a more authentic experience, like the many B & B’s and inns ranging from the elegant to the offbeat.
Murray Premises Hotel (www.murraypremiseshotel.com) is a perfectly located small hotel with classic old-world touches and modern amenities.
What to Do
Rent a car at the airport and see as many festivals in and around St. John’s as possible.
Explore the Southern Avalon Route and take side roads into fishing villages.
Visit the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve (about an hour’s drive from St. John’s) and see the humpback whales, Atlantic puffins and maybe some icebergs.
Visit the perfect little harbor of Quidi Vidi (15 minutes from downtown). Find the small tipsy tavern, have a local beer and if you’re lucky, a story or two.
In Portuguese Cove (about 20 minutes from downtown), have lunch at The Ferry Last Stop Café. It’s one of the most imaginative cafés on the island with creatively presented cuisine.
Of course, visit The Rooms (www.TheRooms.ca)