St. John's (always abbreviated and with an apostrophe), the oldest English-settled city in North America, is a world apart from the rest of Newfoundland. The island's small fishing villages and long empty roads through spruce and bog speak of loneliness, quietude, and wildness; St. John's, on the other hand, is a vibrant, cultured, and bustling place. Coming into this city (pop. 180,000, including suburbs) after traveling the hinterlands is like stepping from Kansas into Oz; the picture suddenly bursts into color. In a manner of speaking.

Like its sister cities in the Maritimes, Halifax and Saint John, St. John's also serves as a magnet for its province's youth culture, and clubs and restaurants here have a more cosmopolitan, edgier feel than anywhere else on this extremely rural and conservative island. Mix in the presence of Memorial University -- the province's top institution of higher learning -- less than 3km (2 miles) west of the harbor, and this city gets yet another shot in the cultural arm.

St. John's natural harbor is impressive, protected from the open seas by stony hills and accessible only through a narrow, pinched gap called (wait for it) The Narrows, a rocky defile of the sort you'd expect to see a guy like Atlas straddling. The Narrows sits at the north end of the harbor, hidden from much of the downtown, so first-time visitors may think they've stumbled upon a small lake -- albeit one with tankers and other oceangoing ships sitting on it. But this is no lake, just a very protected harbor.

If you can arrange your trip that way, come to St. John's after you've explored the remote parts of Newfoundland described earlier in this chapter. At that point -- after a couple weeks eating fried seafood, staying in simple inns and motel rooms or camping beneath the stars -- you'll more fully appreciate the city's urban attitude, its pizzazz, and its diversity of culture. Not to mention the wide choice of hotels and a truly varied cuisine that might make you wake up the next morning and momentarily wonder: Where am I today, anyway?

Yes, it's really that different from the rest of The Rock.