The first time we ever set foot on the island of Antigua was on a six-hour layover at the airport enroute from St. Kitt’s to Toronto. That was a few years ago when the airport was little more than a Quonset hut with a small duty-free shop and the inevitable bar where the hordes congregated awaiting their flights. Oh, and we suppose it’s worth mentioning that the airport at the time was sans air-conditioning!
We had been in St. Kitt’s for Art’s medical school reunion and were in a bit of a group traveling back to Canada. One of the groups had been on an earlier inter-island flight so by the time we arrived in Antigua someone had already booked a van and driver and planned an island tour. So we spent our time soaking in the beauty of the island vowing to return for a longer holiday – which we did a year later.
We fell in love with Antigua and Barbuda, its beauty and its people, so whenever we take a Caribbean cruise that lands in St. John’s, Antigua’ s capital, we always look forward to our day.
Just a stone’s throw from where the ships usually dock are the small streets of the town offering an array of the usual duty-free shopping as well as some shops unique to the island. If you need a new bathing suit, you’d do well to wait until you get to Antigua so that you can avail yourself of the dizzying array on offer at Sunseekers. Then, on your hunt for a unique piece of jewelry and/or art, eschew all those shops you see as you disembark and head to Goldsmitty on Redcliffe Quay. Uniquely original, Goldsmitty’s pieces are the creation of artist and jewelry designer Hans Smit. Patty has acquired a pendant and earrings on trips to St. John’s.
This most recent visit to St. John’s though was a bit disappointing. The town was overrun with cruise ship passengers that day. The main docking area in the town was jammed with ships so that our own didn’t even dock there. The alternative port is in an industrial container port area a ten-to-fifteen-minute drive from the town through an area that you would not choose to walk – and we’ll walk practically anywhere.
We took the shuttle into town, walked around for an hour and then headed back to the ship to enjoy the Antigua sunshine from the vantage point of the deck. The town seemed a bit shabbier than on previous visits and we have to wonder if the recent recession has had a negative impact.
St. John’s is still worth a port visit and Antigua and its people are still beautiful!
It is the easternmost point on the North American continent, and the city of St. John’s in Newfoundland (actually it’s Newfoundland & Labrador which is the official name of the province), Canada’s tenth province, is Art’s home town. Well, the easternmost point is actually Cape Spear, but that’s just a hop outside the city. Although he moved away many years ago, every time we go back to visit what is affectionately known as “the Rock”, we are blown away by the rugged beauty and the increasing cosmopolitanism. Recent offshore oil exploration and production have given an economic boost to the city that it hasn’t seen in some generations. And now, it’s the Canadian province with the most amazing advertising imaginable. (See the video we’ve posted at the end.)
But, maybe the most impressive promotion for the city of St. John’s itself is the CBC television show The Republic of Doyle. If you watch that show in HD, you can’t help but notice that St. John’s is one of the characters. And although we’d venture a guess that the colors have been enhanced, St. John’s truly is a character.
The last time we visited was for a high school reunion – the reunion of a class that graduated so many years ago it’s hardly worth mentioning! But, we had a chance to play tourist in a city that we actually thought we know so well.
As you fly into St. John’s, it’s easy to think that you’ve ended up at the end of the earth – as your plane reaches the shoreline of Newfoundland you begin to get a sense of place right from the start. And you must remember to keep an eye out for icebergs (at any time of the year – but in the spring in particular). St. John’s is, by the way, the oldest English-speaking city on the North American continent. With a population that’s shy of 200,000, the city itself is not large but if you seek them out, you’ll find all kinds of amenities that are worth the trip.
We’ve stayed at most of the better hotels over the years – the Delta and the Hotel Newfoundland (which has been under a number of banners, most recently the Sheraton but it used to be a Fairmont) – which are also the most expensive. Recently, we’ve stayed at the Courtyard Marriott which is well-located on the harbor-front , has immense suites with great views, a lovely little bar with a view of the “narrows” that frame the harbor entrance looking out to open ocean, is reasonably priced, and because it’s a Marriott property, has wonderful staff.
St. John’s is well-known as the North American city with the most bars per square foot than any other. We can’t provide any source for that statistic, but trust us, if you take a summer trip to the city and wander downtown to George Street as you must, you will not dispute this statistic at all! But for our money, these discerning travelers are smitten with the fine dining scene in St. John’s. There are many fine restaurants along Water Street including Bianca’s which is worth a visit, but our current favorite is Bacalao on Lemarchant Road, which is known for its quintessential Newfoundland cuisine using local products. It even won a national award for “hyperlocal food” recently. We’ve eaten there several times, and both the service and the innovative food offerings make a return trip there in the future a must.
The there is a bit of shopping…do not go to the malls in St. John’s. You will be disappointed. But do go to the boutiques for women’s clothing. Along Water Street, my personal favorite is Johnny Ruth. Oh, the owner has created a gem of a space with a truly inspired and well-edited collection of often Canadian designers. I’ve bought Comrags and Brenda Beddome there in addition to a number of others. Also nip into Twisted Sisters Boutik while you’re on Water Street.
No visit to St. John’s would be complete without a visit to The Rooms. The name is a bit misleading – this is an architectural masterpiece that is truly uninspiring from the outside. But step inside and it’s a different story. Beside the fact that The Rooms is an extraordinary museum with all manner of Newfoundland history , both natural and other, it has the most amazing view of the harbor and beyond from a window that was artfully situated to provide just such an experience.
On our most recent visit there, it was Saturday, it was raining heavily and there were two bridal parties taking refuge for photo shoots. The window makes a dramatic backdrop.
Now that Art’s parents are both dead, we have less reason to visit than we used to. But we’ll make the trek from time to time – just for the food and Johnny Ruth!
(Flight times: from Halifax it’s an hour and twenty minutes; it’s 3 hours and 34 minutes direct from New York on United).
A sample of the Newfoundland and Labrador advertising campaign…