We've planted ourselves in a modern suite hotel right next to the famous harbor at St. John's, and we're splitting our time between sightseeing and genealogy.
Some of the best sightseeing is right outside our window, where we marvel at the rapid loading and unloading of the fleet of small ships that service the offshore oil rigs. We found pictures of these ships on the internet -- they're View from our window built by Maersk and are specifically designed for raising and lowering massive sea anchors, as well as ferrying supplies to the rigs.
On the shore, everything moves like clockwork. The massive crane bellies into positions, the not-so-small forklifts dash about, trailer trucks loaded with containers line up on the pier, while tanker trucks transfer liquids to the tanks on the pier. Men in hard hats move here and there, crews get on and off the ships. Brilliant lights shine on the scene as they work through the night. Night or day, whenever the ship has finished loading it puts to sea. The pilot boat follows the ship through The Narrows and picks up the pilot to return to harbor. It's beautiful to watch the lights dim and the ship grow smaller as it slowly exits this, the best protected harbor in the world.
We have taken a drive to Cape Spear, which has two picturesque lighthouses and advertises itself as the easternmost point in North America. There we found ourselves watching the oil rig ship return to harbor, coming to a stop about half a mile outside of The Narrows while the black and white pilot boat came alongside to deliver the pilot for the trip back through The Narrows.
No doubt the skippers of these oil rig ships know the harbor just as well as the pilots, for they're in and out of Cape Spear lighthouse The Narrows all through the year. In the museums we've seen pictures of St. John's harbor packed with ice. We don't plan to stay around to see how the ships get to the oil rigs in that weather! But we have been here long enough to see the same ships return to harbor after a trip to the rigs.
Across the harbor, the shrimp boats remain tied up to the docks -- it's out of season, so the fishermen are finding other work to do. And three Coast Guard ships are tied up at their base at the far end of the harbor.
There are lots of restaurants to try within walking distance of our hotel, but we have only found one restaurant good enough to mention: Django, on Duckworth Street, has an excellent chef, one of the few in Canada who has mastered the art of seasoning. Of course we're addicted to Tim Horton's for breakfast, where we have yogurt with fresh berries, fresh baked muffins, bagels, scones, or donuts, and well-brewed coffee and tea. Our hotel has a little continental breakfast, but we usually go to Tim's instead. As for traditional Newfoundland food -- well, cod is expensive these days (as is all seafood) and we don't share the Canadian fondness for a plate of fried potatoes smothered in gravies or sauces. We have had some nice smoked salmon, however, and the locally harvested mussels are out of this world!
But St. John's is more famous for its drink than its food. The city boasts more bars per capita than any other city in North America. George Street is practically all bars -- they close off both ends of it for festivals and charge Multilingual barber shop admission. You have to imagine Bourbon Street up in a land where it seldom gets above 75 degrees, and often a lot lower. Of course it's summertime, so the locals are all attired in shorts and skimpy tops -- while we put on jackets and rubbers to fend off the rain!
The two operative words for politics in this neck of the woods are neglect and exploitation. Newfoundland has been part of Canada for less than 60 years, but it didn't fare very well as a British colony. The English tried to forbid settlement, but there was work to be performed conveniently through the winter on "the island" (as it's known) in support of the fishermen, so the shore stations gradually turned into year-round habitations. And there's a small and diminishing native population. The Brits neglected Newfoundland, being primarily concerned with exploiting its resources -- the Grand Banks. But the cod fishery is pretty much finished. In the 16th century, many reliable sources claimed the cod in spring were so numerous they could be just scooped out of the water. Not any more. The Brits exploited the manpower of Newfoundland, sending the locally manned regiment into the worst battles of WW I. Over three-quarters of the troops were killed or injured. Canada neglects Newfoundland, but wants to exploit its oil. The high-tech centers of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver exploit the countryside, as the young brains of the maritime provinces are drained off to Typical Newfoundland coast the higher-paying jobs in the cities. Some of them return to the land of their birth when they retire. Newfoundland neglects Labrador, which is part of the province, but wants to exploit its timber and minerals and hydroelectric capacity. St. John's neglects the "outports," which means the rest of the island. And everyone neglects and exploits the First Nations tribes, although they make good subjects for museums and archaeologists.
So, to imagine Newfoundland, imagine a country (and it's not too far off base to think of Newfoundland as a country) which, although long neglected and exploited, is filled with honest, hard working people, accustomed to the rigors of an isolated location and winter storms, used to losing their loved ones in fishing accidents and wars, always friendly and smiling, and mildly surprised that tourists find the countryside so compellingly lovely. The impression is that the land looks much the same as it did 50, 100, or 200 years ago. Only the roads have changed.
To begin with, imagine a breathtakingly beautiful seacoast which is nearly devoid of human development. There are almost ten thousand kilometers of coastline, dotted by tiny fishing villages. The forests are evergreen, the air is fresh and crystal clear (when it isn't raining or foggy), and the colorfully painted boxy clapboard houses are a symbol of this lovely island.
In St. John's the houses and businesses are next to one another, many of the streets are narrow and twisty as they negotiate the steep hills that surround the harbor. There are lots of parks and scenic walks and monuments. A nice trip Fort Amherst guarded the harbor just a few minutes from downtown takes you to the top of Signal Hill, where a national park commemorates the wars between the English and the French. Wars, of course, not fought for ownership of the land, but rather for control of the economically valuable fishery! As military history, the battles were rather pitiful. It was simply a matter of which nation landed enough troops to storm the fort. Once the fort was captured, the troops were removed, and the other nation could capture it back. Besides the magnificent views and Cabot Tower (the blockhouse), Signal Hill is renowned as the location where Marconi made his first partial experiment in transatlantic radio communication (the letter "S" was transmitted as three short Morse Code dits.)
Lots of the stores and restaurants are located in former houses -- perhaps some of them still have apartments on the upper floors. In some restaurants the tables are found on three floors.
We were looking forward to our visit to The Rooms, which is the brand new provincial museum of Newfoundland and Labrador. The little buildings erected next to the water in the fishing villages of the province are not houses to live in, but workrooms for the fishermen, designed to hold all the nets, spare rigging, rowboats, this and that, all needed for processing the fish. The idea dates back to the time when the cod were salted and laid out on flakes of wood to dry. Miles of unpopulated coast The piles of dried cod could then be transported to market. Of course the way people use language, the adjective "fishing" was soon dropped from the term "fishing rooms" and these buildings were pretty universally known to the locals as just "rooms." So that's where the name of the museum came from.
The museum itself is designed to look like a fishing room -- a rather boxy structure with peaked roofs that sits on the highest promontory overlooking St. John's harbor. Clearly the architect was given free rein, and the museum is so big that the locals describe it as "the box the basilica came in." Once you've seen the basilica you'll appreciate the size of the museum. The Rooms was designed to replace the museum of natural history, the historical museum, the provincial art galleries, and the archives.
But we were reminded a little of the infamous San Francisco Public Library, where so much attention was given to dramatic architecture, multi-media communications and computers, that there wasn't enough room for all the books. The interior of The Rooms is just as spacious and breathtaking as the exterior, with an enormous four-story open atrium and spacious marble and steel staircases. The actual exhibit space is tucked off into a few small galleries on each floor.
The curator's challenge is to fill these widely separated galleries with exhibits that accurately impart the natural and human history, development and creative accomplishments of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. That's a very tall order, because there are many separate threads which are intertwined to create the modern province. We have The lobby of The Rooms seen better exhibits in other museums. For example, the exhibit which we viewed in Corner Brook of the "French Coast" (Newfoundland's west coast) was an outstanding work of scholarship, drawing upon a wealth of ancient records to be found only in Paris which depicted the huge deployment of French cartographers and explorers to exploit the Newfoundland fisheries during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the many French-speaking settlements established along the coast. There was no exhibit in The Rooms which was that good. And there were some particularly ugly works of art, like a stack of grey painted pseudo fishing boats and grey painted pseudo lobster pots, both of which are far more beautiful when seen in their natural surroundings along the coast. And there were a number of interesting travelling exhibits (such as "The Search for the Giant Squid," which had no particular relationship to the province. The curator had made sure to get his name repeated throughout the museum -- there were signs reading "xxxxx, Curator," or "Curated by xxxxx" all over the place. Would that he had devoted as much thought to building some thematic unity to the displays, and the challenge of representing the history, art, flora and fauna of an entire province in a single museum.