“Maybe the oldest place on Earth you have ever been,” reads the sign at Gibbet Hill, perched atop the eons-old rock on St. John’s Signal Hill, whose age (3.5 billion years) will blow your mind. Head a short way up to the summit, and you find Cabot Tower, site of the first-ever transatlantic wireless radio transmission. Hop in the car for a short drive to Cape Spear, the most easterly place in North America, where you can look out over the ocean and imagine that you might just be able to see the shores of Ireland through the mists.
Newfoundland certainly has more than its fair share of “most” and “first” and “oldest.” And there is so much awe and wonder in the big things here: icebergs and whales, sheer cliffs and narrow fjords, millennia of history and an array of famous sons and daughters. But while the magnificent abounds, this island’s charm is also very much in the small things: the colourful salt-box houses of old St. John’s, the vibrant cultural and music scene, the friendly folk in every town.
With so much to offer, it turns out that this island is just about the perfect destination for a multi-generational family holiday, as I discovered when I traveled there recently with my sister, our four children and our father. With an age-range of 65 years, spanning from two twelve year-old cousins to the patriarch at seventy-seven, you might think it would be impossible to please everyone. And yet, we managed to find something for every single one of us on our recent visit to The Rock.
The secret to our success was a well-planned itinerary that took into account each person’s unique interests and limits, and also had a good deal of flexibility to account for unpredictable weather or other hiccups.
My dad wanted to share his family’s history with his grandchildren, so we dedicated a day to driving around the bay to visit graveyards and old family homesteads in Carbonear and Victoria. Including plenty of opportunities to get out and explore on foot allowed the grandchildren to run off some steam, and the challenge of helping their grandfather locate the grave of our earliest ancestor in the cemetery gave them a purpose. Poignant stories from his childhood and tales handed down through the generations enthralled us all, as did the locals we met at every stop.
There are endless amazing day-trips to be had close to St. John’s; we spent a morning taking in the vistas at Cape Spear (the most easterly point in North America). It’s only a 30-minute drive from downtown St. John’s and with its incredible cliffs and scenic lighthouse, there’s something for all ages to see and do: paths and trails for youngsters to explore, benches to rest and enjoy the epic scenery, and a lighthouse perched seemingly at the end of the world makes the perfect subject for the shutterbugs in the group. Word to the wise: Cape Spear is accessed by way of a steep staircase, which may present a challenge to some travelers.
We spent that same afternoon visiting the nearby fishing village of Petty Harbour. The visit gave us a sense of what a traditional fishing village was like, and I took my father to see the historic power plant on which his own grandfather had worked nearly a century ago. My sister took the kids to visit the Petty Harbour Mini-Aquarium (complete with touch tanks) for the young marine biologists in our party, and the adrenaline junkies were keen to try the zip-lining adventure also located in town.
Since we were lucky enough to enjoy some of St. John’s hottest and sunniest days all summer, we spent an afternoon at the beach in Middle Harbour. The children braved the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, while my sister and I marvelled at the otherworldly beauty of the cliffs, waterfalls and pebbly beaches.
We devoted several full and half days to excursions, but we made sure also to reserve time to seek out the sights in and around St. John’s as well. Signal Hill offers hiking trails ranging from novice to expert, as well as an amazing array of learning experiences at Cabot Tower, the Parks Canada visitor centre and the Johnson Geocentre. Older visitors (or those with mobility issues) can access all these places by car, while others may choose to walk the trails and take in the breathtaking views on foot.
The historic fishing village of Quidi Vidi (now home to a popular craft brewery and craft market) is accessible either by car or foot from Signal Hill and is definitely worth a visit. The under-eighteen crowd weren’t able to taste the wares at the brewery, but there is so much else to do and see in Quidi Vidi that they didn’t feel left out. Located within walking distance of most of downtown St. John’s, The Rooms Archive and Museum is worth a visit if for no other reason than the panoramic view of St. John’s Harbour from the fourth floor café, although the exhibits and gallery also appealed to everyone in our party. One place not to miss in St. John’s is the mile marker for Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope. Every member of our party, from young to old, was touched and inspired by the monument, and a rare silence overtook our chatty group as we re-traced the historic first steps of Terry Fox’s heroic journey.
We spent many enjoyable hours exploring St. John’s by foot, sometimes as a large group and sometimes venturing off in twos and threes depending on where our interests lay. There are boutiques for the shoppers, monuments for the history buffs and an amazing array of pubs, cafes and restaurants for the foodies, all along Water and Duckworth streets. A tip when traveling with minors: due to liquor licence restrictions, many pubs and restaurants in downtown St. John’s are not permitted to seat patrons under 18 after 8:00 p.m. (especially those on or near the famous George Street), so either plan on an early dinner or call ahead to ask if everyone in your party will be admitted and avoid disappointment. Wherever your feet take you in Old St. John’s, don’t forget your camera, as there are picturesque buildings, staircases, parks and monuments everywhere.
Traveling with three generations isn’t easy, and you have to be well-prepared (and prepared to compromise) but St. John’s made it easy to please us all.