What’s your best-kept travel secret? Perhaps it’s a small boutique hotel that always treats you like family when you stay there. Maybe it’s a certain vantage point in your favorite city that gives you sprawling views you can’t find elsewhere. Or it could be a locally owned restaurant where not only is the food amazing, but the atmosphere as well. Sometimes our “secrets” are specific places in the destinations we love, and sometimes they’re the destinations themselves.
Such is the case for the Avalon Peninsula, which makes up the southeast portion of the island of Newfoundland. National Geographic Traveler has referred to the peninsula as “one of the best-kept tourism secrets in the world, with stunning natural and cultural integrity.” Located on the Avalon Peninsula is St. John’s, the capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador. The city on the far eastern edge of North America and nestled against the Atlantic Ocean has a population of over 200,000 residents.
Of course, St. John’s itself isn’t a secret. According to Paul Buggé, director of sales for Faith Travel Association member, Destination St. John’s, over 500,000 travelers visit the city and province in a typical year. His description makes it clear why St. John’s is such a popular destination.
“Visiting St. John’s and the surrounding close-knit communities—with strong local culture reflected in the music and the arts—is like going back in time,” he explains. “It’s one of the oldest English cities in North America and home to a rich, diverse culture and a history steeped in faith.”
When it comes to faith-based sites in St. John’s, Buggé notes two that usually stand atop the list. The first is the Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. This metropolitan cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s is considered the “mother church” and a symbol of Roman Catholicism in Newfoundland.
When it was constructed in September 1855, it was the largest church building in North America. Even 165 years later, it remains the second-largest in Canada, after Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montréal. The basilica was one of the few buildings to survive the Great Fire of 1892, which devastated the eastern end of St. John’s and destroyed much of its major commercial area.
Buggé mentions several different points of interest that basilica visitors should plan to see. One is The Altar of Sacrifice. Located in the front of the sanctuary, it includes one of the most revered and valuable pieces of statuary in the basilica, John Hogan’s “The Dead Christ.” The renowned Irish sculptor created three similar statues, but this is the only one that can be found outside of Ireland.
The statue was completed in 1854, five years before the first of the basilica cathedral’s 28 stained glass windows was installed. These windows, which are of English and French workmanship, were added over a period of 46 years and can be found in the basilica’s upper walls, also known as the clerestory. These windows were gifted to the basilica by patrons and religious societies, such as the Society of the Holy Rosary. More stained glass windows, 35 of them to be exact, can be found in the ambulatory of the basilica. These windows were all designed by Earley and Company of Dublin.
Buggé also recommends that basilica visitors take time to listen to its pipe organ. Installed in 1955 by Casavant Frères, one of the best-known pipe organ builders in the world, the organ serves as a memorial to the parishioners who died in World War I and World War II. The organ, which includes 66 stops and 4,050 pipes, is the largest instrument in Newfoundland and one of the largest pipe organs east of Montréal.
Buggé also recommends a stop at the Basilica Museum, which is open seasonally and is located in the Episcopal Library attached to the Archbishop’s Palace. Its exhibits include religious art, artifacts from the basilica, pictures of the bishops and archbishops of St. John’s, and furniture from several period rooms of the palace. The library and palace have both been designated as National Historic Sites of Canada.
The city’s other must-see faith site is Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto. The grotto is located in Flatrock, a small community of just over 1,000 residents just 12 miles away from St. John’s. The grotto, which is the largest religious grotto in eastern Canada, was inspired by a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, by the parish priest at the time, Rev. Father William Sullivan.
It includes statues of the Virgin Mary, St. Bernadette, and St. Michael, as well as a life-sized crucifix and the Stations of the Cross. A popular summer stop for travelers, it had a special guest in September of 1984, when Pope John Paul II visited Flatrock and prayed at the grotto.
The basilica and grotto aren’t the only stops on a religious-themed St. John’s itinerary. Buggé notes that the city’s downtown district includes over 10 churches, cathedrals, and places of worship, all within walking distance of each other. “These are each historic and majestic in their own unique way,” says Buggé, who adds that the district is pursuing UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
For a truly unique experience, travelers should dine in the Cathedral Crypt Tea Room at the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, which offers an assortment of scones, tarts, cookies, and jams.
Of course, there is more to St. John’s than just faith sites.
“Be sure to take in two of our National Historic Sites, such as Cabot Tower on Signal Hill and Cape Spear Light House, home to the most easterly point in North America,” he notes.
Buggé also suggests visiting The Rooms, a modern art gallery and museum dedicated to natural and cultural history. Specifically, he encourages guests to dine at The Rooms Café, which offers not only traditional Newfoundland and Labrador fare, but stunning views of the city as well.
Another popular stop is the Johnson Geo Centre, a facility on Signal Hill that is dedicated to geological interpretation. “Most of the center is located underground,” Buggé explains, “in an excavated glacial formation that shows the exposed bedrock of the hill.”
Train aficionados will enjoy a stop at the Railway Coastal Museum, which he says “tells the story of great initiative, courage, and sacrifice of Newfoundlanders involved in building and operating the Newfoundland Railway and Coastal Services.”
Though there is immense cultural history to be experienced in St. John’s, travelers won’t be able to miss its natural beauty as well.
“Our unspoiled scenery ranges from stark moonscapes to crystal-clear lakes to wide-open spaces where moose and caribou roam,” says Buggé. “St. John’s is home to the world’s largest population of humpback whales, swimming alongside 10,000-year-old icebergs. Our waters hold more than 29 varieties of marine mammals, so you will find more species, more often, in more places than anywhere else in Canada.”
Stunning creatures are found both in the water and in the air around St. John’s. More than 35 million seabirds gather in the area every year.
“You can see northern gannets, kittiwakes, murres, puffins, osprey, falcons, hawks, storm petrels, razorbills and bald eagles,” explains Buggé, who adds that the Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve has the largest Atlantic Puffin sanctuary in North America.
How can this wildlife (and sea life) be experienced? Buggé says that there are a number of boat operators on the waterfront in downtown St. John’s who are ready to take you on the experience of a lifetime.
Or perhaps travelers would rather explore the region’s natural beauty on foot, in which case they could head out on the East Coast Trail, which was voted one of the Top 10 Adventure Destinations in the World by National Geographic and starts its 335-mile length in St. John’s.
With so much to do and see, tour operators will want to take advantage of all that Destination St. John’s has to offer.
“The Destination St. John’s team and our incredible destination partners are always ready to work with operators, planners, and guests to make their visit a memorable one,” says Buggé, who was born and raised in St. John’s and joined the DMO in 2019. “We will work with you to understand your needs and provide recommendations and itinerary planning. We want to ensure you make the most of your time in St. John’s.”
Top photo: Duckworth Street
Photo by Brian Carey