Tell Me About Newfoundland
January 16, 2014 10:04 AM   Subscribe

I am considering taking a week's vacation in Newfoundland in late May and I have questions about it.

I searched through old questions but there didn't seem to be anything that was recent and about Newfoundland in general, so here I am.

My husband and I would be flying into St. John's the last week of May and would plan on renting a car. We would have a full week (Saturday - Saturday) for exploring the island. My questions specifically are:

- How many days do I need to spend in St. John's proper to catch the highlights? I like cultural museums (not so much art, unless they are world-class fantastic), historical/architectural tours, food, wandering around interesting neighborhoods, etc.

- We would like to drive the Irish Loop (maybe spending one night in a smaller village?) and then I think would probably only have time for one major drive elsewhere on the island. Will I regret not making the trek over to Gros Morne National Park? We love day hikes with great views and being in nature, but I'm also really interested in Saint Pierre and Miquelon.

- Other recommendations? Specific hotels & restaurant recs would be appreciated also. Thanks!
posted by something something to Travel & Transportation around Newfoundland and Labrador (19 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I would spend three nights in St. John's, that will catch most everything. A night in Trinity, a postcard perfect village. Then two or three nights in Gros Morne, which is a real gem.
posted by dzot at 10:30 AM on January 16, 2014

I've been to Newfoundland once, for a May conference, and the weather was kind of iffy -- cold rain and strong winds. May is a good time to see icebergs, though; I spent a weekend after the conference driving around the Avalon Peninsula in a rental car doing the odd bit of sightseeing and hiking, and it was well worth it -- great scenery. Cape Spear is a good short trip from St. John's, and Signal Hill is worth some time as well. Someone less outdoor-focused than me would have to comment on cultural stuff in St. John's, but bear in mind that it's not very big.
posted by irrelephant at 10:31 AM on January 16, 2014

Best answer: Newfoundland is really big. If you're going far beyond the Avalon peninsula, you are basically going to lose a day to travel each way, especially if it's Gros Morne (6-7 hours each way without stops) or St Pierre (4-5 hours each way without stops, and then a ferry which, during off season, only runs a few times a week, if memory serves). Gros Morne and St Pierre are both very worth doing, but if you plan to fit them into a one week visit you'll have to cut items elsewhere in your itinerary.

A note on driving around: the Trans-Canada Highway, while it has some scenic stretches, does not show Newfoundland's scenery or culture in its greatest light. Get off the main road and onto the coastal side roads as often as you can.

St John's is worth at least a couple of days. I'd recommend the walking tour of the ecclesiastical district and/or the ghost-walk, if either of them are running yet (late May is a bit early for tourist season, so some things may not be open when you're there). The Rooms (the provincial archive, museum, and art gallery) is definitely worth visiting, and not just for the glorious view from the top floor. You can skip the art gallery portion if you want (although I think it's worthwhile and it can be done in less than an hour), but they also have a great permanent exhibition about Newfoundland's history and culture, and you mentioned that you liked cultural museums. This one shouldn't be missed.

Stroll down Water Street and Duckworth Street; there are some great shops and restaurants, and the streetscape is charming. Rocket Bakery and Fixed (a cafe) are great for casual lunches; on some days, at Rocket, they have a 'session' of traditional music over lunch hour (with real live musicians I mean). Fred's Records, near Fixed on Duckworth, is a gem of a store, full of local music plus a wide variety of indie obscurities. It's very hip but very welcoming.

The Sprout, further down Duckworth, is an excellent vegetarian/vegan restaurant that's been around for ages. The Happy Hummus Hut, also on Duckworth, is a new vegetarian joint, but it's more of a lunch place. Other than that, dining in St John's, while very fine, an be difficult for people with dietary restrictions. If that's not you, then you're laughin'! There's no end of fine cuisine in the city nowadays. I've only tried a few myself, but most of them get great reviews. Mallard Cottage is the one that people are buzzing about currently. I haven't been, so I can't say, but it is located in a restored building from the 1700s, so there's that.

The Georgetown neighbourhood and Bannerman Park are very pretty to wander in. Stop by local favourite Georgetown Bakery for an excellent Montreal-style bagel.

There are often excellent plays at the LSPU hall, between Duckworth and Gower Street (a primarily residential street that is lined by super colourful, well-maintained Victorian row-houses; another nice path for a stroll).

The Ship Inn, on another one of those stairways between Water and Duckworth, often has great live music, primarily folk and/or indie. The bar has/had something of a reputation for being the local arts hangout, although I'm not sure how true that is nowadays. It's a small, unpretentious, welcoming space.

I wouldn't recommend George Street (the pedestrianized bar and club district) unless you enjoy clubbing; if you do head there, keep in mind that most places are quiet until 12, if not 1. Instead of this, I'd recommend stopping into the Duck of Duckworth, a pub on one of the narrow stairways that join Water Street and Duckworth Street. If you've seen Republic of Doyle, it is the pub in that show.

Signal Hill makes a good Very First Stop, straight from the airport in fact, as it gives a great view of the city and its working harbour in one direction, and the open Atlantic and the rugged desolate cliffs that border it in the other direction.

Obviously Cape Spear. On paper it sounds like a kind of silly thing (go to the easternmost point just to say I've been to the easternmost point?) but it is a barren, moody location, with two historical lighthouses, dramatic cliffs, and old World War II fortifications that have never been removed but also never been touristified.

Quidi Vidi village is part of St John's, but tucked around a hill from the bulk of the city, and it really does seem like an outport in some ways. They have a new thing there called the Quidi Vidi Plantation (socio-economic sidenote: in the NFLD context this word doesn't mean what it means in the American context); it's a space for local creators of arts and crafts to both do work and to showcase what they've made to the public. Quidi Vidi breweries is also located here; if you're into craft beer, they're worth a visit (certainly worth a try, if not a visit - and remember, in Newfoundland, you can buy beer at gas stations and corner stores).

Get a taxi cab at least once if you can. Every taxi driver I've ever had has been a chatty local with a thick accent and a store of local lore that they're happy to share.
posted by erlking at 11:02 AM on January 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I grew up in NFLD, and went back a few years ago for about a week.

May really is a shoulder season, there are going to be plenty of places not quite open until June (inclds this great place

Yeah, 3 days is sufficient for St John's,

roads are not fantastic in many places (including highways), so don't count on zipping around.

Gros Morne and area could easily take 4 to 5 days between travel (about 7-8 hours) and having enough time to experience it and getting back. the Avalon can take 2-3 days depending on how fast you want to breeze though it. You likely will have zero problems just pulling into any open hotel/rentals and getting a place.

This trail (serious hiking!)

If I had to plan the trip for you?
2 initial days in St Johns, including a few hours on Signal Hill and hiking around the area, including one sunrise there as well .
Spend some time here:
Go here:
Go here:

Then drive south toward Ferryland (if the lighthouse picnic is open go there)
go here:
find a place to stay. there is enough outdoor stuff to do to spend 2 nights in the South Avalon

Drive up and around to Bonavista area
Stay a night or two in the area.
Drive back to St Johns

Eat lots of Fish and Chips with Gravy and Dressing

if you can at all, go in June.
Expect to see whales and icebergs and lots of birds
posted by edgeways at 11:15 AM on January 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

on preview.. yeah a lot of what erlking says
posted by edgeways at 11:16 AM on January 16, 2014

Best answer: OK, that's St. John's covered! More advice (sorry I am going on so much, but, well, I'm from Newfoundland, and I love my home, and I used to work in the tourism industry back there, so I could go on all day, although I'll try not to).

Daytrips worth doing, using St John's as a base:

- Trinity, as mentioned. A bit early for the Trinity Pageant, I believe (a walking tour of the town that stops at various important sites for actors to do their thing - sounds potentially hokey, but I remember it as being very good), but it is a picture-postcard of a fishing village. Perhaps a bit long of a drive for a daytrip, but accommodations are really worthwhile here. A lot of Newfoundland hasn't really figured out how to do tourism quite yet, but Trinity definitely has.

- Brigus is a very charming sea-side town about 1 hour's drive outside of St John's. It was home to Arctic Explorer Bob Bartlett, and his family house, Hawthorne Cottage, has been maintained as a heritage house and museum. If you head out this way, be careful: the turnoff to go into the old part of town from the main road is a bit difficult to spot.

- Ferryland is on the southern shore / Irish loop, which you expressed an interest in seeing. I'd definitely stop by the Colony of Avalon archaeological dig and interpretation centre; Ferryland was one of the earliest European settlements in Newfoundland (early 1600s). Also, it's just a really nice town. If you do the Irish loop drive and stay overnight somewhere, I'd recommend either Ferryland, Trepassey, or St. Mary's.

- Cape St Mary's. This is the ecological reserve on the Avalon Peninsula's southwestern tip; it's one of the largest seabird colonies in the Atlantic, but what makes it special is that it is located on a column of rock that is perhaps only thirty or forty feet from the mainland, so visitors can observe the birds from extremely close. It's also flipping gorgeous out there (observe the people gathering on the lookout point)! If you google directions from St John's to the Cape, it will have you going down the Salmonier Line, through Colinet, down to Branch and over to the road to the Cape. Much of this drive is pretty dull, and a large stretch of it is absolutely uninhabited. I'd recommend heading down Route 100, through Placentia (the ancient French capital of Newfoundland and a pretty town in its own right - and Philip's Cafe, by the bridge that spans the entrance to Placentia's harbour, as some of the best food on the island; they had keffir on the menu the last time I was there; usually, restaurants in rural Newfoundland are the domain of fried chicken and french fries!) and on down the Cape Shore, which is kind of the b-side to the Irish Loop. South of Placentia, it's one of the most scenic drives in Newfoundland, and it takes you through some very well-preserved Irish-Newfoundland villages. After you've seen the Cape, you can head through back to St John's either way.
posted by erlking at 11:18 AM on January 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with everything edgeway says - if you can move this trip even a couple of weeks into June, many more things will be open and the weather will probably be nicer. Summer can be glorious in NFLD (high-teens-to-mid-20s in the day - celsius, mind - with pleasant cool nights for sleeping. No one I know back home owns an air conditioner!)
posted by erlking at 11:19 AM on January 16, 2014

I forgot the East Coast trail - yes, if you like hiking at all, that is 100% Not To Be Missed.
posted by erlking at 11:22 AM on January 16, 2014

Fogo Island (which is part of Newfoundland) is supposed to be pretty amazing. I have a friend who went and is now writing a book about the architecture and food. Check out this article for more info.

Also, Fogo Island Inn was rated one of Canada's best new restaurants. Here's a blog post about one of the chefs there.
posted by andreapandrea at 11:46 AM on January 16, 2014

I grew up in St. John's as a kid and my parents still regret never going up to Signal Hill at sunrise/sunset. It is reported to be absolutely spectacular. Just be prepared for chilly weather.
posted by serelliya at 1:06 PM on January 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was born and raised in St. John's and currently live in the downtown area. A few days there should do it. Keep in mind that Gros Morne is about a seven hour drive and the Trans Canada Highway across the island is mostly inland, so it's sadly pretty boring. Yes to everyone who suggested heading to Trinity. Last time I went was in May month and the B&Bs were open by then (and the Provincial Historic Sites there open around May 24th weekend). Please drive the Irish Loop. It's an absolute pleasure. I do it often in the summertime. Make a day out of it, you'll be glad you did!

When in St. John's, you must drive up Signal Hill for a breathtaking view of the city on one side and the open ocean on the other. Cape Spear is also worth the drive (about 20 minutes outside of town) and you can hike part of the East Coast Trail from there. I adore the East Coast trail no matter what the season. I got my map at the Outfitters on Water Street.

If the St. John's Haunted Hike is on the go by that time, it is definitely worth checking out. I know the guys who run it and it's a top notch tour.

St. John's is a small city with a huge arts community. Live theatre is popular here (check out the beautiful LSPU Hall, a place very dear to my heart) and there is a ton of live music on the go year-round, especially on the weekends. And not all the music here is traditional folky stuff. On the contrary, there's a great variety here.

I covered restaurants in this earlier AskMe comment but I have more to add now. Mallard Cottage (mentioned above) is a lovely historical property and is getting kickass reviews, although I haven't eaten there yet. Also add Get Stuffed, Bistro Sofia, and Chinched to that list.

Feel free to message me with any questions you might have! And enjoy our beautiful province, it's a very special place!

(The weather blows though. Bring rain gear and be prepared for pretty much anything).

Also, erlking should move here and get a job in tourism! Great suggestions there.
posted by futureisunwritten at 1:21 PM on January 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh! I forgot! Another good shop to check out in downtown St. John's is Living Planet on Water Street. It's primarily a t-shirt shop (although they sell lots of other interesting miscellany), but what a t-shirt shop: all their designs are made by local artists, usually referencing local arts and culture in clever or fun ways, so they give a great boost of both income and visibility to local designers and artists (see: Accordion Revolution, Godzilla VS Puffin, and a version of Van Gogh's Starry Night altered to depict St. John's.)
posted by erlking at 1:31 PM on January 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

geeze guys you are making me want to go back
posted by edgeways at 2:31 PM on January 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I am so glad I asked this question! Thank you all so much for all the great, helpful information. I'm actually relieved late May won't be high tourist season yet - we much prefer traveling when there aren't many people around, even if that means the weather isn't great. I'm really excited to see this part of the world!
posted by something something at 6:18 PM on January 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Globe and Mail had a couple of great travel articles on Newfoundland recently. Here's one on Mallard Cottage, and another on food & shopping.

Seven spots to revel in the newly cosmopolitan St. John's

Mallard Cottage brings a 'new swagger' to the rustic East Coast
posted by lukez at 3:00 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I visited NFLD back in August 2007 with my then-girlfriend (largely because I'm a huge fan of Great Big Sea, and wanted to see firsthand where they are from, otherwise I might not have ever considered it for a vacation spot). We flew into St. John's, spent a few days there, then took the DRL bus to Port-Aux-Basques for her to attend a wedding my ex had been invited to there (that's a long story). We spent a few days in PAB, then took the DRL bus back to St. John's where we spent a day or two before flying home again. I rented a car in St. John's for the last portion my trip, and found the car rental to be entirely unnecessary.

Watch out when renting a car. They don't seem to have unlimited mileage like they do on rental cars in the US, and Newfoundland is HUGE, so if you venture far out of St. John's, you'll likely be driving far more miles than your rental company's allocation and will therefore be hit with huge fees. The bus trip from one end of the island to the other took 10-12 hours each way, if memory serves. There is only ONE bus company (DRL), and they have ONE daily Greyhound-like bus that leaves St. John's around 7 AM or so and stops in many major towns along the Trans-Canada highway. (There's also ONE daily bus going the other way.)

I'll second the ghost walk -- we did it and I enjoyed it. I also spent more time at Signal Hill than I'd intended, because that kind of thing interests me, so I'd recommend that. Cape Spear was another good outing. We did a whale watch tour as well, spontaneously buying tickets at the dock -- looking back I could have skipped that one.

While we were in PAB we took a side trip to a coastal town somewhere by Harbour Lecou (I forget the name of the town) and had lunch there. It was a quaint little town, as I'm sure many are. I'm not sure how far from St. John's you're planning to travel.

I regret that I didn't have an opportunity to visit Gros Morne. I'll just have to go back some day. ;) I didn't go to St. Pierre et Miquelon. That's another place I'd like to visit on a return trip.

The weather in August was pleasant. It rained some but wasn't very cold -- 50s and 60s for temps -- a light jacket needed at most. I can't speak to any other time of year, but I imagine winters are harsh.
posted by tckma at 9:31 AM on January 17, 2014

Sorry for the multiple responses.

I see you're traveling in May. I don't know if snow would still be an issue then.

I don't have specific hotel or restaurant recommendations. We were on a pretty limited budget. The first few nights in St. John's, we stayed in the dorms at MUN, since it was summer and students weren't there so they rent out the dorms. I don't recommend that, particularly since it seemed to be a red flag for Customs Canada to do extra inspections on our bags when they asked "where are you staying?". In PAB, we stayed at the house of a friend of my then-girlfriend. The rest of the trip we stayed in a hotel just outside of St. John's. I forget the name of it, but I didn't like it, and it seemed to have been converted from an old apartment building.

If you watch the Cooking Channel at all and are familiar with Chuck's Eat The Street... he recently did an episode on Water Street (I think -- I know it was in St. John's). So you might want to try finding a rerun/recording of that. It certainly seemed to be better eating than I did while in NFLD.

George Street is just a bunch of bars (the longest continuous stretch of bars in North America, apparently), so avoid it unless you like pub grub. I only ate at the Sundance Saloon to say I've eaten at the Sundance Saloon (again, overzealous band fandom).
posted by tckma at 9:54 AM on January 17, 2014

@tckma: Contrary to people's impressions, St John's actually has a milder winter than most of the rest of Canada*, although an average daily high of -2 celsius (28 fahrenheit) is still pretty chilly. The unpredictability of the weather is what to look out for. I have been outside in a t-shirt in December, but I have also seen my breath in August. According to Environment Canada's weather records, late May temperatures regularly range from just above freezing to low 20s (high 60s/low 70s).

*outside of southern coastal BC of course
posted by erlking at 10:08 AM on January 17, 2014

Yeah, regarding car rentals and unlimited mileage. I've no idea if you can still do it, but that was one thing I had trouble finding and really searched and dug around internet forums for before I left, it took awhile to find a code to enter when making the reservation, but I did. The car rental fellow was polite, but pretty surprised when they pulled up the reservation and it had unlimited mileage attached to it.

As I said, I've no idea if you can do this now, but really search and do due diligence on this aspect, it'll save you a fair bit.
posted by edgeways at 10:08 AM on January 17, 2014

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