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Signal Hill is a must-visit


I’m standing at the edge of the continent, looking out past the cliff edge over the endless Atlantic to the horizon. There’s an eruption in the water below. A small whale breaks the surface, blowing a cloud of mist. A second whale breaks the surface, followed by a third. The hook-shaped dorsal fins far back on their bodies and the white bands on their flippers tells me these creatures — about eight metres long — are minke whales.  

Whale sightings from land are a bonus when visiting Signal Hill, the rocky promontory guarding the narrow entrance to St. John’s Harbour in Newfoundland. This is a national historic site, known mostly for its importance in human history, but also the gateway to outdoor adventure and unpredictable wildlife encounters.

I spot the whales on a walk along the north end of the 1.7-kilometre North Head Trail near Cuckolds Cove, on my way from the Quidi Vidi Brewery. The trail reaches Signal Hill, then curves to continue south along the harbour entrance, leading back to downtown St. John’s.

At the pinnacle of this national historic site sits the three-storey stone Cabot Tower, a famous Canadian landmark visible from all over the city. Big crowds attended the laying of the tower’s cornerstone on June 14, 1897 to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s arrival, the first European since the 11th-century Vikings to explore these shores.

Colourful homes and shanties in The Battery.

A short walk down the hill toward the city, the Signal Hill Interpretation Centre offers educational exhibits, a shop, and a Newfoundland Chocolate Company café. From here, Parks Canada offers experiences like guided walking tours and musket demonstrations.

On the way back up the hill, I stop at the Queen’s Battery Barracks, a simple stone building overlooking the harbour. This is where the musket demonstrations happen.

“The year is 1862,” calls a guide in scarlet tunic and tall, brimmed shako-style military cap. I learn about the daily life of a soldier as he slowly loads, then fires his musket.
As I depart, he reminds me that I can sign up for the firing of the Noon Day Gun from the top of the hill. I file that experience away on my St. John’s bucket list.

At the top of Signal Hill, I explore Cabot Tower, best known as the site where Guglielmo Marconi received the world’s first transatlantic wireless signal on Dec. 12, 1901. Marconi’s first message was simply the letter “S,” sent from Cornwall, U.K., some 3,500 kilometres away.

Then in 1909, the first transatlantic telegraph cable made landfall here, creating a physical communications link between North America and Europe. Another cable linked St. John’s to New York. Within 20 years, seven more cables connected Europe and North America via Signal Hill.

In another communications first, the Canadian Marconi Company transmitted a human voice across the Atlantic Ocean from Cabot Tower on July 23, 1920. A wireless station operated onsite from 1933 to 1949.

Those were just the latest chapters in the history of communications from Signal Hill. Other kinds of signalling went on for centuries. Because the views of the open Atlantic and the city itself are unobstructed, this location was perfect for low-tech military and commercial communications. From 1704 to 1870, the British used flags, cannons, and muskets to communicate with the navy, announce the arrival of merchant ships and regulate daily military life. For many years, a blockhouse sat atop the hill for the sole purpose of signalling. Signal Hill’s communications era finally ended in 1958 with the dismantling of the last signally mast.

From Cabot Tower, I head back to town via the North Head Trail, following it along the steep hillside. Since the 1500s, people have walked this trail, today more for the scenery and the exercise. I descend from the top of the hill into the Ross’s Valley. The depression in the rocky headland might not look like a valley to the average hiker, but meets the geological definition: a hanging valley gouged from this ancient stone by glaciers. Over the centuries, locals planted gardens here and in the 1890s authorities built a small quarantine hospital that locals called Prowse’s Folly.

Just beyond is North Head, the trail’s eponymous rocky headland. From here, I can see Cape Spear, the most easterly point in North America. Perched on a rocky point over the ocean, it certainly feels like the end of the Earth.

Continuing on, I walk beside the Narrows until the trail turns into Outer Battery Road. With its colourful houses and shanties clinging to the rocks, the Battery is one of the most photographed places in Newfoundland. This is the narrowest section of an already narrow harbour entrance. Ships that enter this busy harbour pass here.

So do seabirds like gulls and ducks. It’s a place shared equally by people and wildlife. Watching both come and go seems a suitable ending for a day at Signal Hill where whales are as much an attraction as tales of wireless and wars.


Stops On a Round Trip Walking Tour of Signal Hill


Quidi Vidi Brewery

Stop for a tour and a flight at St. John’s best known craft brewery.


Mallard Cottage

A few paces from Quidi Vidi, this is one of the city’s most respected restaurants with seasonal cuisine built from local ingredients.


Johnson Geo Centre

The whole family will enjoy a stop at this science centre for its fun exhibits on geology, astronomy, oceanography,
and climate.


St. John’s Harbour Lookout

Across the street from the Geo Centre, check out this lookout for fantastic views of St. John’s and its harbour.


Terry Fox Memorial

Just before re-entering the city, stop at this site to pay homage at the statue of Terry Fox, the Canadian hero who launched his Marathon of Hope, a cross-country run, in St. John’s to raise money for cancer research.

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