Newfoundland may not be the most popular island out there to visit, but it does have some unique history that makes it stand out within North America.
The highlights include a capital city that touts itself as the “Oldest City in North America” (the “oldest settlement in North America to become a city” would be more accurate), the presence of American bases from World War II that still stand today (from the days of the Dominion of Newfoundland, before it joined Canada in 1949), and remnants of French and British forts from the 17th and 18th centuries (the days when Newfoundland was fought over for its rich fishing grounds).
Here are a some experiences that will help you get to know a couple of these significant places.
Hiking the Steps to Castle Hill, Placentia NL
As much as I complained about small-town living while I was a teenager, I always appreciated the fact that I was in a small town with a pretty significant history.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Placentia (or Plaisance) acted as the French Capital of Newfoundland. Fort Royal, sitting atop a hill overlooking the town itself and the bay, was set up to protect the area from British warships. At 100 metres above sea level, the site was too high for ship-mounted cannons to reach.
While you can drive right up to the visitor’s centre, there is another way to reach Castle Hill—a path that was actually utilized during the time of the fort’s use.
How to get there
The path begins near the archeological site in Placentia, next to the Super 1 Stop convenience store, which is easy to spot once you see the lift bridge.
Start walking towards the water to the south (towards Placentia Bay) and you’ll see a (sort-of) path that leads through the clearing. You’ll find yourself walking towards a hill to the right of the Bay. Eventually, a rocky path will be clear. As you walk up, the rocky path will swing around and appear to go north—don’t follow it. Instead, keep going straight. You’ll see the steps to your right after another minute or so.
Though it should only take you 10 or 15 minutes to reach the top, keep in mind that it’s a lot of steps that go up pretty much the entire way.
You’ll reach a sign that will point to toward either Fort Royal (the main attraction) or the Gaillardin Redoubt. Either way, you’re almost there.
The Trail to Signal Hill
If you visit St. John’s (Newfoundland’s capital city), you will see (and probably visit) Signal Hill. Again, you can simply drive right up to Cabot Tower, or you can park in the Battery and hike up.
Signal Hill is a Parks Canada National Historic Site. It is significant for being the location where Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901.
Atop Signal Hill sits Cabot Tower. Cabot Tower is not the first tower to sit atop Signal Hill—it’s rather young, in fact. Construction began in 1898 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s discovery of Newfoundland.
The trail to Signal Hill itself is easy-to-moderate, and can be completed in under two hours. The steepest section is a set of steps at the very end, which takes you up the last climb to the Signal Hill parking lot.
There are a couple of steep sections along the way. At one section, you’ll find a chain bolted to the granite walls. It’s not necessarily a comfortable feeling to cross this if you’ve got a fear of heights. But, if I can do it, you can do it. This is the only section where you may feel a little tense.
I must note that this is a popular route to begin from the top and descend into the Battery. But, starting at the bottom and working your way up to views of the Narrows, Fort Amherst, Freshwater Bay, and Cape Spear is so much more rewarding. Keep in mind that this is the north Atlantic—it may be mid-July, but the air will likely have a bite to it (if not, you are incredibly lucky).
How to get there
Park on the Lower Battery Road and walk up the road in the direction of Signal Hill. Residents here seem to be very aware of the fact that it’s not the easiest place to navigate, and many have put up signs pointing you in the right direction. If you still can’t find the trailhead, there’s usually someone around who can help.
Once you reach the trailhead, the path will be clear. However, you might pause to wonder how to get back to your car once you’ve reached the top. If you don’t want a return trip, you can head down Signal Hill Road, past the visitor’s centre and Geo centre, until you see Cabot Avenue on your left, this will take you back to Battery Road.