The capital of Newfoundland and Labrador blossomed during its oil boom but it will need all the fierce optimism born of a harsh past to weather the slump.
International flights from St John’s International Airport: 2 (all year round); 7 (seasonal service)
Average summer temperature: 16c
Time zone: GMT minus 3.30
The best place to eat in St John’s is Mallard Cottage; the best seat is at the bar, where you can see the owner, Todd Perrin, cooking and his business partner Stephen Lee making cocktails. And the best night is Monday, when Perrin serves a set menu of lobster in various guises, all caught that morning, while Lee rustles up negronis and digs out the right bottles of Canadian wine to go with the lobster thermidor. On a recent Monday night, once the food has been served and wine has been drunk, Perrin – a big-chested, ginger-bearded, shaven-headed Viking – is explaining why he loves his home but is worried about its future.
“It has a pull,” he says. “Home is home but if your home is Toronto, it’s a city. St John’s is not like that. It’s a unique place that has a mix of big-city amenities but has natural beauty.” He’s right. Perched on Canada’s most easterly tip, the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador does not feel like a city and does not feel like the rest of Canada. Some 200,000 people live here out of a population of just 500,000 in the province as a whole, all spread across an area larger than the UK. It takes nine hours to drive from one end of the island of Newfoundland to the other – and even then there’s no bridge to the mainland. Toronto is three-and-a-half hours away; London just four and a half with the wind at your back. Downtown has tall office buildings but this is not a city of skyscrapers. Mallard Cottage is a 10-minute drive from downtown but it feels rural. It is rural. The restaurant backs onto a quiet bay; pine-covered hills rise in the distance.
St John’s is also a town that has changed dramatically over the past two decades. The discovery of offshore oil in 1997 led to a boom, particularly when the price of crude soared past $100 a barrel. The population increased, high-paying jobs were created and the local economy was buoyant. The boom created the environment in which restaurants such as Mallard Cottage, and others including Raymond’s and Adelaide Oyster House, could to find a market. It was not uncommon for the better restaurants to have tables spending several thousand dollars a night.
But the oil boom is over and the effects are slowly starting to be felt. Three key taxes have gone up in the past six months as both the province and the city have struggled to balance the budget. Jobs have gone and no one knows if they’ll return. There are regular protests against the state’s premier, while the mayor of St John’s is seen by many as nice but ineffectual. This is a friendly, optimistic, open-hearted town. But scratch the surface and everyone is scared. “We’re like someone who lived in a poor house who won the lottery,” says Todd. “When we got the money we spent, spent, spent. Now we’re standing on the edge of a precipice and there is a big fear we’ll drop right off.”
There are three types of people in St John’s: those who were born here are “Townies”; those who grew up in one of the hundreds of tiny rural communities along the coastline are from “Around the Bay”; and then there are the outsiders. If you have come to St John’s from anywhere else – whether in Canada or beyond – you are a “CFA”: you have Come From Away. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been here six months or 60 years, the name sticks. “We don’t consider them one of us,” says Chad Pelley. “It’s not an aggressive, nasty thing,” he adds – and he means it. Pelley, who edits the aptly named free newspaper The Overcast (it’s summer but the sun rarely emerges), is not the sort of person you can imagine being aggressive or nasty. Thick beard, cap over thinning hair, he is drinking tea in a twee café called Rocket. Bunting and bare lightbulbs crisscross the ceiling, while there are exclamation marks on the menu. Adverts pinned to the noticeboard offer yoga retreats on Fogo Island, poetry competitions and car-share schemes.
“There is a cultural sense that we don’t belong to Canada; we have our own thing here,” says Chad. As everyone mentions (and really, everyone), until 1949 Newfoundland didn’t belong to Canada. A referendum on whether or not to join Canada was held the year before; it was won by the tiniest of margins. St John’s still sees itself as different. Friendlier, happier, more relaxed. More polite too. At the end of almost every interview we’re offered a lift to our next meeting. On St John’s’ less-than-busy main roads pedestrians are given right of way – we see cars, taxis and even articulated lorries slam on the breaks when they spot someone on the side of the road waiting to cross. Not that everyone is comfortable with the word “polite”. Back at Mallard Cottage, Perrin wrinkles his nose when we mention it. He worries it makes them sound like naive pushovers.
Outside Rocket though, 28-year-old Lacey Corbett doesn’t mind. She is about to move to Vancouver – the first time she will have lived anywhere other than St John’s. “People aren’t as friendly there,” she says but she thinks she’ll welcome the anonymity. “You can’t go downtown without bumping into someone you don’t want to see. It’s terrible!” She says it with a laugh though. She breaks off as a woman she recognises walks past. “Hey!” says the woman, “congratulations on your graduation!”
Her soup is getting cold but Corbett keeps talking. “If you meet someone from Away there’s an obligation to make sense of what makes this place so great.” She mentions restaurants not to miss, walks that must be done, even offers to make toutons (a sort of fried doughnut particular to St John’s). The sun has just broken out and the temperature has, for the first time this week, reached double figures. “If the weather wasn’t so terrible everyone would come,” she says as she turns her face to the sun. “It keeps us the world’s best-kept secret.”
The sky may normally be grey but the streets make up for it. Downtown most of the roads are lined with so-called jelly-bean houses: parades of pastel-coloured, three-storey clapboard homes. Pale pink, teal, turquoise; a deep red, light blue, burnt orange. “It’s almost mandated by the council,” says Pelley. “Nobody really knows why it started but it’s actually enforced now. Downtown has to be wooden.” (Incidentally, do not mock the jelly-bean houses – however gently – in the presence of a Townie. We said everyone’s friendly but even in St John’s there are limits.)
Rhonda Hutton’s house is white and purple with a yellow door. “Not very Jelly Bean Row, I’m afraid,” she says. We’re sat in Coffee Matters, a busy café towards the top end of town. “Don’t look but right behind you is the Hugh Grant of St John’s,” she stage-whispers. “Don’t look!” It’s not clear who she’s talking about – the celebrity in question could be anyone. No one else is staring. “There’s no ‘selfie’ culture here,” she says. “It’s more of a ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ place.”
Hutton is a Townie. “I was brought up just down the hill from here,” she says, pointing over her shoulder. “I went to school just up the hill,” she adds, gesturing behind us. Her job is to sell the town – she works for Destination St John’s – and she does it well. She’s one of those who left and returned, and she doesn’t regret it. “To wake up in the morning and there’s no gridlock, no pollution…”
It helped that until recently St John’s was a “boom town”. Oil money trickled down. “All the bars were full,” says Hutton. “There was just more of a heartbeat throughout the city.” More airlines started flying into St John’s – so many, in fact, that they added the word “international” to the name of the airport. Now the oil price has dropped and the jobs are disappearing, Hutton is trying to put a good face on it. “We’ve been here 500 years. We’re not going anywhere. We pull on our boots and wade through the muck.” She pauses. “It’s unnerving though.” Later she jokes that people will look back on this period and say “Remember that time we nearly went bankrupt? Ha!” We finish our coffee and she offers us a lift.
St John’s has been through rough times before – three points in its history stand out. In 1892 a fire broke out in Quidi Vidi, the part of town where Mallard Cottage now stands, and tore through St John’s, consuming more than 1,500 buildings. Then in 1916, 800 young men – the town’s future – were killed in a single battle during the First World War. And in 1992 the Canadian government announced a cod-fishing moratorium, leading to the loss of 30,000 jobs in Newfoundland alone. Buildings, people, jobs: each was a disaster with enormous repercussions that are still felt. If St John’s is to avoid another memorable date, it will need leadership.
Confederation Building sits on a hill overlooking the city. This is where the power is. Joe Smallwood, the province’s first premier and the man who – for good or ill – had more influence on Newfoundland and Labrador than any other politician, wanted the building to dominate the town – and it does. City hall, where the mayor is based, is more austere and discreet. If you were being kind you’d describe it as brutalist; if you were being honest you’d say it looked like a multistorey carpark.
On a midweek afternoon, city hall is quiet. The mayor is on his way back from a meeting of Canadian mayors in Winnipeg so his assistant shows us the chamber with its mayoral seat, a wood-and-leather chair with carved dogs on the armrests. “It’s too big for him,” the assistant says. “He has to perch on the edge.”
Dennis O’Keefe – or Doc as everyone calls him – is as nice as we’ve been led to believe. A short, thin man, he walks into his office talking and doesn’t stop for the next three hours. He talks about the town’s history, its problems, his heart (“I died five years ago for five minutes,” he says) and his ambitions. At times he sounds blasé about the very real troubles that the town’s citizens are facing. “Everything happens in cycles so it doesn’t really concern me. I take a long-term view. Energy prices will pick up.” Things aren’t that bad, he argues. We have a long back-and-forth about the 11 empty shopfronts in three blocks we counted on Water Street. First he denies it. Then he says some have been empty for a long time. Others, he claims, have moved elsewhere.
He is equally frustrating on the issue of tax, offering a complicated explanation of tax code that ends with the surreal statement: “We didn’t raise taxes but taxes went up.” Yet he’s hard not to like. He offers to drive us to a new development we haven’t had a chance to see. He chats about other mayors he likes, about the grape-red clapboard house he grew up in, about the 1,000 ways in which his town has changed. Once he relaxes he admits that things aren’t rosy. “I have four grandchildren, all under seven. Am I worried about their future? Yes.”
Maybe everything will be fine. Maybe the town’s entrepreneurial spirit and Viking soul will see it through. They’ve been through worse, after all. Fire, massacre, massive job losses on an unimaginable scale. Maybe everything will be fine. Outside the mayor’s office the stairway is lined with local artist David Blackwood’s disturbing paintings of previous disasters. We’re halfway down when there’s a shout. It’s the mayor, standing at the top of the stairs, a smile on his face. “Are you sure I can’t give you a ride?”
Adelaide Oyster House: Run by chef Steve Vardy, Adelaide serves more than oysters (though they do justify a trip by themselves); try the fish tacos and the kung pao shrimp and scallop. The staff are lovely and they make a mean tequila cocktail too. As our photographer Alexi pointed out, it would make a good place for a first date.
334 Water Street
+1 709 722 7222
Mallard Cottage: Any day of the week is great for a visit but the set menu on Monday stands out: lobster bisque, thermidor and mussels the size of your thumb. It’s got a cracking atmosphere too.
8 Barrows Road
+1 709 237 7314
Raymond’s: This was the first great restaurant to open in St John’s (and in some people’s view it is still the best). It has won awards and recognition across Canada and deservedly so. Be careful though: if the sommelier knows you’ve Come From Away she will make sure you try pretty much every wine on the list.
95 Water Street
+1 709 579 5800
Fixed Coffee and Baking: Very good coffee and even better bagels. If it’s sunny (and that’s a big if), sit outside near the grass. Once you’re done head next door to Broken Books (see below).
183 Duckworth Street
+1 709 576 7797
Anything with a row of jelly-bean houses painted on the side: There are shot-glasses, fridge magnets, T-shirts; every bit of tourist tat you can imagine. Find them in the host of underused “heritage” shops on Water Street, the main shopping street that is not as busy as it should be.
Hire a car: You can get one at the airport. Or you could just speak to someone for more than five minutes: they’ll offer you a lift. Failing that, taxis. They’re everywhere and they’re relatively cheap. Don’t rely on the bus. Given how small St John’s is you’ll probably find you can walk to most places anyway.
Broken Books: Ask them for books by local writers; there’s a great selection. Pick up the new Ed Riche novel, Today I Learned it Was You: it’s about a man “transitioning” into a deer (but really, do read it, it’s very good). While there is nowhere near as much live music as there used to be, some bars are still worth checking out. Have a read of The Overcast (see below) to find out what’s on.
183A Duckworth Street
Signal Hill: Though pretty much everywhere counts once you’re out of the downtown area; imagine a small town plonked in the middle of a national park – that’s St John’s. But Signal Hill is a great, windy walk with a wonderful view back over the bay and out to the ocean. Though if you happen to be up just before dawn, take the path behind Mallard Cottage and keep walking until you reach the end. The view of the sun rising out of the ocean is (we’re told) spectacular.
Gros Morne National Park: If you have time, don’t just stay in St John’s – head out west to Gros Morne National Park. Give yourself enough time though: it may only be on the other side of the island but it will take about eight hours to drive there.
Avoid George Street: It claims to have more bars than any other street in North America but this is not a claim to be proud of – the bars are awful. You’ll end the night wearing fishing waders, doing half a dozen shots and kissing a cod. It’s called “screeching in” and it’s as stupid as it sounds. Also avoid the waterfront, where all you’ll find are a bunch of chain restaurants with no character or style. They’re doing well while others start to suffer, which is never a good sign.
Layers: Raincoat and sunglasses, walking boots and sandals. Layers, lots of layers. The sun might come out, it might not. During our time in St John’s it veered between 6c and 18c. Toronto, meanwhile, was 25c and sunny.
The Overcast: You could pick up a copy of the Telegram. It’s okay. Better to read Chad Pelley’s paper, The Overcast. It’s smart, informed and interesting and you’ll find it in cafés.