'I'M STANDING above the harbor in St. John's, Newfoundland, a couple of days before New Year's, taking photographs of a Russian fishing vessel docked there. A few low-ranking crew members are sweeping snow off the deck and into the chilly waters below.
I descend a short gravel drive to get a closer view, and as I approach the ship, one of the sailors gains my attention and motions me to the stern. Before I can say "nyet," I am quickly smuggled on board and into the cramped room of one of the Russians.
A bunk bed is crammed against one wall; on the other is a desk. Taped above it are pictures of bathing suit-clad women ripped from the pages of a magazine, probably Sports Illustrated.
Four of us are huddled between the desk and the beds; another is standing guard outside the door. Hurriedly, one of the sailors pulls from a drawer a huge Russian-built camera lens that I sign-language doesn't fit my camera.
Next he presents a cheap telescope that I try to focus through the porthole, but to no avail. The ship has been long at sea, and the glass window is crusted with dried salt and severely scratched from years of foul weather.
I wonder, are they just showing me this stuff because they're proud of their possessions, or what?
Finally, when one of them paints in the air with his index finger a dollar sign followed by a two and a zero, I get the idea. I turn my front pockets inside out -- the international announcement for having no money -- and without hesitation they hurry me back off the ship.
One of the first things you notice in Newfoundland is how friendly the people are -- even the Russians, but sometimes for different reasons.
Kimberlee and I are in Newfoundland for five days to celebrate the New Year. Canada's most easterly province has its own time zone: It's a half-hour ahead of its Atlantic cousins. So on New Year's you get to celebrate 30 minutes before anyone else in North America.
We are staying at the Hotel Newfoundland, which since 1982 has offered a "New Year's Eve Gala Ball" package, including a room, dinner and lots of partying. Other St. John's hotels also offer New Year specials.
On our first full day in Newfoundland we hook up with McCarthy's Party, a family-operated tour company, for a guided tour of St. John's. David McCarthy, one of the four sons, is our escort, and he fills us in on St. John's history. We visit Cabot Tower, built in 1897 atop Signal Hill to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of St. John's by English explorer John Cabot. It was also here that Guglielmo Marconi received the first trans-Atlantic wireless message, on Dec. 12, 1901.
Many famous ships have entered St. John's Harbor in its 500-year history, including Capt. William Bligh's HMS Bounty and the SS Terra Nova, Capt. Robert Scott's ship on the ill-fated voyage to the South Pole.
We are shown Newfoundland's aged churches, including the century-old Roman Catholic St. John the Baptist Basilica with its wondrous view of the harbor and one of only a few historic buildings to survive the Great Fire of 1892, which left 13,000 people homeless.
The fishing village of Quidi Vidi, built into a narrow inlet opposite a sheer cliff near St. John's, is a scheduled stop, as is a drive down Water Street, North America's oldest shopping district. If for nothing else, Newfoundland should be explored for its history.
LATER THAT evening we have dinner at the McCarthys, and it is here that we learn about an old Newfoundland holiday tradition that has been recently rekindled in St. John's.
"Mummering" is sort of like an adults' trick-or-treat. People in the community dress up to make themselves unrecognizable, then visit their neighbors, who are to guess their identity. If they aren't successful (actually, even if they are), the hosts set out a "drop of stuff" (rum) for all to drink, then pieces of Christmas cake, and finally everyone will dance.
After dinner, Regina McCarthy sings Newfoundland ballads, and her husband, Jim, entertains us with unique Newfoundland words that have been passed down from generations past.
Some, he tells us, are mispronunciations of "real" words like biver (to shiver with cold), while the origin of others is not really known: words like ballycater (ice formed by spray on the shore), dwoi (a short snow shower), and duckish (the time between sunset and dark).
On our way back to the hotel we stop in downtown St. John's, where there are literally hundreds of pubs to explore. We settle on Erin's Bar -- it sounds the noisiest -- walk in and grab a couple of stools. The place is smoky and cramped as a Newfoundland band is playing rowdy jigs to a boisterous but well-behaved audience.
Kimberlee and I order Black Horse, a Newfoundland beer; the Americans next to us get shots of Screech, a special Newfoundland rum imported from Jamaica. We toast our good fortunes and continue basking in the wonderful raucous mayhem.
5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . Happy New Year!
It's 24 hours later. We are down at the harbor along with more than 10,000 others cheering in the new year. CBC Radio is here broadcasting live to all of Canada. In another half-hour they'll be counting down New Year's again for the Atlantic Provinces.
In what has become a tradition, people gather at the harbor to celebrate. They line the shorefront, huddle on building tops, even cluster in parking garages overlooking the water. At precisely midnight, as all eyes are focused on the harbor, fireworks explode across an ink-blue sky, their colored tracers extracting oohs and aahhs from the gathered revelers.
Bottles of rum, champagne and beer are passed from hand to hand. Small circles of people form, arms around each other's shoulders, dancing and twirling and singing. Newfoundlanders love to throw a party.
Kimberlee and I began the day with a walk downtown, heading toward the Battery with its houses built into the hillside and the sterling view of St. John's Harbor. However, a biting cold wind blowing off the snow-frozen land chased us into the warm confines of the Newfoundland Hotel sooner than planned.
Later, at lunch, we feast on traditional Newfoundland foods such as cod tongues (actual fried tongues of the fish), Fish and Brewis (a fish, hard bread and pork dish), seafood chowder and partridge berry cheesecake.
That evening, dressed in our best clothes, we cavort down to the Gala Ball. A bagpipe duo is playing in the lobby, the distinctive music signaling the beginning of a festive evening. Actually, we began earlier, toasting champagne in our room. This partying stuff can be infectious.
At the tables are full carafes of wine -- that they'll keep filling all night -- along with party hats and noisemakers. The Commanders Orchestra is pouring out big band music and people are dancing, talking, drinking and carrying on like kids at recess.
Dinner is served. First salad, then soup, followed by sirloin and salmon. Then just before desert -- around 11 p.m. -- Kimberlee and I sneak out and hurry up to our room to change clothes: We're heading to the harbor.
As we step into a sparkling, crisp evening, we rendezvous with hundreds of others walking toward the seaport. Some are singing, some -- including us -- are blowing paper horns, while others are content with just pushing through the snow and keeping their balance.
Once near the water's edge, the swarm of humanity swells. Puffs of breath, like miniature clouds, appear and disappear continually above the crowd. Kids with their parents are here, as are teen-age couples holding hands and stealing kisses.
Groups of friends congregate around a bottle, CBC Radio is blasting music, watches are constantly being checked.
Then the countdown begins. Midnight arrives in a rush and as thousands let out a loud and lengthy cheer, the sky explodes with color -- reds, blues, yellows, even silver -- in streaks of celebration. The noisy reveling becomes intermittent, the toasting constant.
With the fireworks finished at about half past midnight, people pour from the docks into the streets. The pubs begin to fill up again and private parties are replenished.
Kimberlee and I head back to the Hotel Newfoundland and the Gala Ball, first changing back into our formal clothes. A bottle of champagne is waiting for us at our table. We drink and dance until 3 a.m. Exhausted but happy, we fall into bed. What a night!
New Year's in Newfoundland is a wonderful time. The people are friendly, the food unique and tasty, the party constant. And you get to celebrate a half-hour before any of your friends in North America. For information on Newfoundland, write the Department of Development, P.O. Box 8700, St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada A1B 4J6; or call (800) 563-6353.