After two pandemic-related postponements, our trip to Newfoundland and Labrador, originally planned for March, 2020, is finally about to happen. Not only are we at last headed to Canada’s easternmost province, we are on the first plane to pop the Atlantic bubble when it opens up to the nation on Canada Day. For double-vaccinated passengers like us, there are no quarantine restrictions.
Since our plane is scheduled to arrive in St. John’s shortly after 1 a.m., I fantasize that Air Canada – or perhaps the airport – will mark the event in a festive way, like the scene in Up in the Air where compulsive air miles collector George Clooney reaches his 10-million-mile mark and everyone on the plane applauds, the pilot congratulates him and Champagne is served. But my hopes are dashed – instead of Champagne, we’re offered a personal care kit containing a mask and hand sanitizer.
Our filled-to-capacity plane from Toronto’s Pearson Airport is bursting not with bubbly, but with pent-up energy from passengers desperate to be reunited with loved ones. A passenger who lives in Uxbridge, Ont., says of her waiting boyfriend, “I haven’t seen him since November, and before that, since March of 2020. But I’m fortunate – we talk on the phone every day and he’s a very good communicator.”
In front of the airport, cabs are slow to arrive. A man in his late 20s shouts into his phone, “Siri, call Jiffy Cabs!” He, too, is here to see his long-distance partner. “I’ve been through five quarantines,” he says. “If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.”
At our hotel, Blue on Water, co-owner Sullivan (Sully) Power tell us, “You’re the first tourists since March of last year.” Though the pandemic has decimated his business just like everyone else’s, the hotel’s nearly 20-year history on Water Street has made it “better positioned than others” to survive, he says. At the Hertz car-rental office the next day, agent Tracy Dwyer cheers when she sees us walk in the door. “Yay!” she says. “We have 12 reservations for today and 9 tomorrow!”
The most dramatic example of how tourism is reviving after a long dormancy occurs when we arrive at the acclaimed Fogo Island Inn, which has been slumbering, Sleeping Beauty-like, for the past 16 months. As we arrive at the all-white lobby entrance, four beaming staff members emerge and greet us by name.
We are not only their first guests of the season, we’re also the only two guests for the night, with the run of the 29-room modernist inn and its library, cinema, hot tubs, gym and dining room. Bartender Michelle Adams mixes us a cocktail with Newfoundland gin and lilac syrup, local musician Aaron Cobb is on hand to serenade us with his original folk songs, and Andrew Flynn, the property’s director of food and beverage, chats with us as we devour tender shrimp just hours out of the ocean.
“We were rusty after not being open for 16 months, so it’s a blessing to have a shoulder on both ends of the season where we have two or four guests – it’s the ultimate soft opening,” he says.
We feel like the coddled Elizabeth and Philip in The Crown, kicking around a Buckingham Palace that has floor-to-ceiling views of the Atlantic.
On our last night, innkeeper Zita Cobb, the Fogo Island-raised tech entrepreneur who founded Shorefast, the social enterprise behind the inn and other businesses supporting the Fogo economy, sits at the table next to us at dinner. The inn took an economic hit during the pandemic, she admits, but adds, “There were almost no guests who didn’t want to roll over their deposit. If they hadn’t, we would have been in trouble.”
Back in St. John’s for three days before our return to Toronto, we watch the Water Street pedestrian mall become more boisterous by the day with new arrivals. What’s not visible is the toll the pandemic has taken on both the local residents and businesses. Before the pandemic, Newfoundland and Labrador had one of the highest food insecurity rates in the nation – 14.7 per cent of households were struggling to afford food, and that figure has increased during the past year and a half. Businesses, including a number on the George Street entertainment strip, have closed down, and even the city’s best-known restaurants have had to take drastic measures to stay afloat.
Jeremy Charles, chef and co-owner of fine dining mecca Raymonds, made the “painful” decision to temporarily shutter the restaurant on Jan. 1. “Not having the tourism we rely on has really cost us,” he says. The restaurant is “taking a pause” until next spring. In the meantime, he’s expanding Merchant Tavern, his more casual restaurant, by adding a 100-seat seafood shack and opening a wine and tapas bar at the site of the former Luxus Hotel, which closed during the pandemic.
Yet, he sees a big hole in St. John’s dining landscape that Raymonds once filled. To him, a city without a fine-dining restaurant is a city with a cultural deficit. Eating at such a spot “is like going to the ballet,” Charles says. “You don’t do it every day, but it’s a beautiful thing to do.”
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