Havin’ a blast in St. John’s at the biggest and oldest events in North America

For a week each summer, St. John’s George Street, becomes the continent’s largest open-air bar, with express service windows, drink specials and top entertainment. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Many travel publications give readers stories based on 24-, 36- or 48-hours in a place. They have readers rushing around major cities like refugees fleeing insurrection. Well, relax. For a true laid-back, kick-ass time you can always count on St. John’s.

This is especially true in mid-summer when The George Street Festival leads in to the Royal St. John’s Regatta.

Most people know George Street is the city’s infamous street of bars. In three blocks there are 24 pubs, clubs and bars. The easy-to-follow directions I was given on my first visit to St. John’s were, “Walk that way. You’ll hear it before you see it.”

For six nights each summer George Street closes to the public and implements an admission charge to become the continent’s largest pop-up bar. Bands perform on a main stage constructed for the festival and street establishments waive admission charges, create special drinks and provide express service windows. People are allowed to wander the street with drink in hand. It’s New Orleans north. While it sounds raucous, it’s a fun, multi-generational experience.

I’ve twice attended the festival. I kick myself for not taking a camera to the first when I saw three university-aged lads wandering the street with an olive-green, velvet sofa. Periodically they would sit it down in the middle of the street and pause for a drink. Other times it could be seen leaning beside the doorway of whatever club they were in.

Music fans fill the George Street and its bars for the week-long festival that closes the street to traffic. (Allan Lynch Photo)

The festival is a great, great time. You’re outside. People who smoke can and there’s top entertainment. In 2014 acts included Dr. Hook, Billy and The Bruisers, Bic & The Ballpoints, Serena Ryder and for the last night Alan Doyle, who pumped up the audience with gritty home-grown songs that seemed like impassioned generational anthems.

Alan Doyle drives his music into the souls of his audience at the George Street Festival. (Allan Lynch Photo)

When he sang Just an Ordinary Day, it was like land-based thunder as a 5,000-voice choir joined in singing the chorus,

“And I say way-hey-hey,

It’s just an ordinary day

And it’s all your state of mind

At the end of the day you’ve just got

to say … it’s all right …”

He followed with When I’m Up, which begins with reflective lyrics “I am the fountain of affection, I’m the instrument of joy” then shifts to a driving joyful, powerful message about youthful exploits of grinning and spinning, finishing with a semi-Biblical, “I am lifted”.

Not to get involved in that song in this place means you’re dead. It was such a powerful performance the audience was exhausted by the time Doyle left the stage. It’s the passion of the place and people which is so uplifting.

The Royal St. John’s Regatta is North America’s oldest sporting event. (Allan Lynch Photo)

The next day, which was overcast, bought on the Royal St. John’s Regatta. This is one of the quirkiest events in the world. Quirky because it’s a floating civic holiday. While scheduled for the first Wednesday of August it is dependent on good weather. Every year at 6 am the regatta committee – not the mayor, council or premier – determines if the weather is good enough for the regatta to proceed, which triggers a civic holiday in St. John’s.

If the weather is bad, the committee meets Thursday to repeat the process

Regatta Day is about fun and food. (Allan Lynch Photo)

and so on. In it’s 198-year history the Regatta has only been postponed a few times: the death of George III, world wars (tho’ in 1941 it was held as a diversion for men at arms and to help with their physical fitness) and because of wind and rain in 2007 and 2008. Some times the weather turns during the regatta. In 1968 the last races ran so late that car lights were used to guide rowers to the finish.

Since Wednesday could be a holiday, St. Johner’s party the night before – like I did at the George Street Festival. If the regatta is postponed, they go to work and party again Wednesday night because Thursday could be a holiday. The local joke is never to schedule surgery for early August because you don’t know what state your surgeon will be in.

One side of the lake is for family fun and food, the other the diehard racers. (Allan Lynch Photo)

The regatta is the oldest sporting event in North America and the last fixed-seat rowing competition in the world. It’s held on Quidi Vidi Lake (pronounced Kitty Vitty). The day is filled with 20 races between 80 sculls comprised of six rowers and a coxswain (the guy who yells at the rowers). There are competitions for men and women with teams made up of a wide swath of the community from lawyers, to car dealers, members of the military, students, airline staff, pharmacists and others. One side of the lake is occupied by regatta fans, the other by a massive festival with games of chance, crafts, food vendors, music and at the far end bouncy castles, slides and rides for kids. There are two types of regatta attendees: the rabid racing crowd and the carnival crowd who ask, “Oh, is there a race?”

The North Head Trail starts at Cabot Tower on the bluffs overlooking the North Atlantic and traces the edge of the continent back into the city. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Another of my St. John’s must-dos is to walk the North Head Trail on Signal Hill, below Cabot Tower. I’m a desk-bound person, but even I can do a two-hour stroll along the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic, surrounded by rocks and wildflowers. There’s the scent of wild roses, the aroma of salt air, accompanied by nature’s symphony of wind, waves, and seagulls’ cry.

The trail follows the shoreline. Ahead are The Narrows, the 180-metre-wide

Part of the North Head Trail is cut into the hillside running by the harbour entrance. (Allan Lynch Photo)

entrance to St. John’s Harbour. On the far right is the rainbow painted city. On the left is the Atlantic Ocean and Ireland. I like to come here with a small picnic and sit with my back to North America, gazing at the sunlight dancing on the deep blue ocean waves.

The trail turns right towards The Battery, that eccentric collection of rickety crayon-coloured homes, some on stilts over the water, some forced up against the cliffs, that are popular with artists, craftspeople and holiday rentals. The last stretch to The Battery is via a narrow path worn into the side of Signal Hill. In many places it’s a straight 40-60 ft drop into the water below. It ends at a wooden deck for a tiny, tidy cottage at 44 Outer Battery Road. Depending on your direction, it could be

The trail ends at the first house in North America. (Allan Lynch Photo)

the last house in North America or the first. It’s owned by Barb Garland. On my first walk I was unsure about trespassing across the deck. But her late brother, Harold, a retired fisherman, who sat waving to sea captains piloting their ships in and out of the harbour, told me the deck was a public right of way built by Parks Canada. Garland says, “If it weren’t for the walkers I’d be lonely.”

How can you not love a place like this? For a mid-week, mid-summer break St. John’s is a winner.

The 2017 George Street Festival http://georgestreetlive.ca/george-street-festival/ is July 27 – August 2. The Royal St. John’s Regatta http://www.stjohnsregatta.org is scheduled for August 2.

Awe-inspiring iceberg watching off Newfoundland

Icebergs have many shades and some have graffiti-like veins of soil and rock embedded during their creation and movement. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Iceberg watching off Newfoundland is a bucket list experience.

There are very few places in the world where you can see icebergs. And none are as convenient a perch as Newfoundland. Once here, you almost don’t have to “go” anywhere to see them. Some days you can sit in the linen-and-crystal comfort of the Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland’s Oppidan restaurant and watch them pass by the mouth of St. John’s Harbour. Or you can walk almost anywhere along the shore to see them.

Icebergs are fascinating, in that odd, mammoth way nature can present itself. Of the 800 + icebergs which make it as far south as St. John’s, most come from glaciers in Western

Larry the crab fisherman who took me out to see a berg up close. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Greenland, the rest from the Arctic. Whatever their nationality, to me, icebergs seem to be some gigantic parade of martyrs on a sacrificial pilgrimage to the warmer waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

In Newfoundland, during iceberg season, which is from April to July, you can sit on the shore and watch these silent behemoths floating, like ghosts, across the horizon. Or you can join a boat tour to get a closer look.

Spurred by my friend’s seductive photos, I made my second trip to Newfoundland to see icebergs. My first experience was off Saint Anthony on the tip of that north-pointing finger which sticks up from the island of Newfoundland.

On a bright July afternoon I joined 16 others at Noddy Bay, between the L’Anse Aux Meadows UNESCO World Heritage Site and St. Anthony’s to board an open boat and head out in search of these floating curiosities.

 

An hour from land, an iceberg reveals itself through a fog bank. (Allan Lynch Photo)

After an hour’s sail, our conversation was suddenly broken by a chorus of “Oh my gawd!”

In the middle of a wall of haze was a dark, ominous structure which gradually revealed itself to be an iceberg. It was frightening and beautiful. This meringue-like mountain glowed in the sunlight on a brilliant blue calm sea, surrounded by hundreds of floating pieces of debris ice. I had a hair-raising glimpse of what it must have been like on the morning after Titanic sank. It’s nature’s perverse joke that the prettiest things are often the most lethal.

Some bergs are smooth, some rough. (Allan Lynch Photo)

While the group struggled to speak – it was so beautiful that coherency and adjectives left us – we snapped photos and pointed as if you could miss an eight-storey-high iceberg a few hundred yards to port. In modern society, we seem to make size comparisons to football fields. The website icebergfinder.com, which is operated by a group of experts at Memorial University in St. John’s, puts icebergs in six, easy to understand, size categories. Extra large is the size of a suspension bridge like Lion’s Gate in Vancouver or the MacDonald over Halifax Harbour. Large would be a football stadium, like Toronto’s Skydome or Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Medium is the size of a 15-storey office building. Small is church size. A “bergy bit” is the size of a house while a “growler” comes in at van size.

The waters around this first iceberg were a calm, Caribbean-like turquoise colour, which glowed against the blue-black of the North Atlantic. The lightness is due to the reflection from the submerged part of the iceberg. For us, there was an Oz-like feel to being here. But we had gone down a different type of yellow brick road to find a piece of ice the size of several football stadiums. Clarence, the man at the helm of our boat smiled, “You should come here in April month – they’re uuge!’ (Pronounced without the h.)

The iceberg looked big enough to me. It was like a white cake whose centre had collapsed to reveal a translucent blue-green interior. Periodically, we heard a crack, like a gunshot, and then thunder as a wall of ice cascaded into the ocean, adding to the debris field. Icebergs have a dangerous, seductive beauty to them, like a forbidden love.

My second foray into iceberg watching was off Bonavista. A four-hour drive north of St. John’s, this is where the explorer John Cabot landed in 1497. A replica of that original ship made a return voyage in 1997. It is on display in the town.

The borrowed lobster boat we used to get up close to icebergs. (Allan Lynch Photo)

I arrived late in the season and was supposed to sail out of Trinity Bay on a scheduled cruise with Captain Art of Atlantic Adventure Boat Tours. Unfortunately, our cruise was cancelled because of heavy rain and fog. However, Newfoundlanders won’t ever leave you high and dry. So Captain Art made some calls and found me icebergs in Bonavista. “The guy at the Elizabeth J Cottages – he’s new, from Ontario (this was several years ago – but by Atlantic standards, he would still be ‘new’) – said there were three icebergs off his place now. And he knows a lobster fisherman who was going out. You could probably go with him.”

I hopped in the car and drove the 55 kms to Bonavista, concerned I might be expected to help haul lobster pots on a working boat. I found the two crayon-coloured self-catering Elizabeth J Cottages perched on a rocky cliff overlooking the North Atlantic. Our man there called Scott, the lobster fisherman, who was already out in his boat. We agreed to meet at the wharf at 1:30.

When Scott motored in to the inner harbour at Bonavista, I was expecting a Cape Islander type of boat, with a small wheelhouse to provide some shelter from the elements. Scott’s lobster boat was 20 feet long and wide open. It takes guts to go out to work on the ocean in something like this.

Scott decided he should stay in port to help his partner sell their catch, so he called his friend Larry to take me out in his boat. Then, looking at my clothes he asked if I had my wet gear in the car? I was wearing a light ski jacket, a fleece, jeans and suede deck shoes. “No, I don’t mind getting a little wet,” I naively said.

Scott shook his head and, in the rain, stripped right there on the wharf. It wasn’t the full monty, he just took off the rubber jacket and pants and told me to put them on. Then looking at my deck shoes, he offered me the boots he was wearing. It’s one thing to take the slicker off a fisherman’s back, but I couldn’t take his boots.

The boat fueled and me covered in fishy-smelling, water-repellent clothing, Larry and I set off in a heavy rain, on a five-mile boat ride, banging over white caps in the North Atlantic, to the closest iceberg. Water splashed over the sides and poured down from overhead. I was more than a little glad for the borrowed wet gear.

Larry kept up a steady dialogue. I don’t know if he didn’t notice the rain or was keeping me distracted or if he was just very sociable. Like I imagine most men of this coast, Larry knows everything about the sea, the catches, where you catch what, which boats are best for which fishery and has opinions on government and the Cod fishery. I don’t think many Newfoundlanders are in the diplomatic corps. I also learned about life on a crab boat. It was a first-hand lesson in the fishery.

As we got closer to the iceberg, it looked more blue than it had from the shore. Icebergs are full of tiny air bubbles which reflect the available light, so the overcast sky contributed to the bluish hue. In addition to their scale, icebergs can be filled with interesting caves, the odd waterfall and can seem decorated by dark lines as if some deft-handed artist decided to detail the structure.

Larry matter-of-factly explained we had to keep our distance while circling the iceberg “because if she tips over or breaks apart, we’re goners.” He seemed not to notice my look as he detailed the dangers: we could be sunk by flying ice or by the waves created by a major breakup or flipped over by a submerged part rising above the waterline. Suddenly, the luster was coming off this little adventure.

After an hour of tasting salt on my lips, trying to keep my glasses clear, of maintaining a death grip on my camera to keep it from flying overboard, and wondering if my feet would ever be dry again, we headed back to shore.

My contact at the Elizabeth J Cottages told me that morning he watched an iceberg disintegrate. “I was walking the dog along the shore and I heard this loud crack and suddenly the iceberg just exploded!” he said. It broke into two halves, with the centre part flying into the air.

Stave Bruno, an engineering professor at Memorial University , and author of Icebergs of Newfoundland and Labrador, explained, “The ice itself is under a lot of tension, so when it does break through some catastrophic failure, like an iceberg breaking in half, there’s so much stress being relieved that things do snap and fly. And the iceberg is quite high, so big chunks may fall and splash or may splinter up and outwards. When huge icebergs roll over and chunks break off and strike the water, they give the appearance of bombs blowing up with water spray shooting way up in the air, so it does look every bit like an explosion.” But that’s one of nature’s illusions.

As amazing as icebergs are to watch, Newfoundland provides an equally curious array of land-based discoveries to fill in your non-water-based schedule. For example, I don’t know that a lot of Canadians understand the importance of the viking settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site. A thousand years ago 75 Norse men and women settled this site, making it the only known Viking settlement in North America.

L’Anse Aux Meadows feels like the place time forgot. Aside from a few houses in the distance, the landscape looks untouched. It’s almost spooky in its raw, rugged naturalness to be in a place where Lief Eriksson and his party lived 500 years before Columbus set sail. It is far enough north that it’s possible to see the Aurora Borealis, polar bears in spring and moose all the time.

L’Anse Aux Meadows is also the first place in the world to earn a World Heritage Site designation from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It earned this designation – before places like the Pyramids, Great Wall of China and Venice – because when the Vikings landed here, they completed the human circle. Scientists believe the human race originated in Africa. Between 150,000 and 250,000 years ago some tribes went East as far as Siberia, while others went west and north to Europe and Scandinavia. The descendants of the Siberian populations are the indigenous people of North America, so the Vikings’ arrival in Newfoundland was the first time the two arms of the human race reunited and the encirclement of the globe was complete.

Less important to the world, but interesting for visitors, are places like Port Union, which is Canada’s only union-built town, and a place so progressive that it had electricity before New York City. At the Ryan Premises, in Bonavista, I learned about the various fisheries that built a once-prosperous economy here. In the town of Trinity I found a pretty, yet somewhat sad place. Architecturally, it is filled with well-maintained and colourfully decorated homes. The sad aspect is that this once thriving community only has 20 elderly year-round residents. In summer the population climbs to 250. That’s when the place comes alive, when parking lots fill with visitors staying in B&Bs, visiting the historic buildings and attending performances at the Rising Tide Theatre.

This area is off the beaten path for many visitors to Newfoundland, but it has all the elements for a successful holiday. In addition to the raw beauty of nature, there are elegant accommodations, seafood so fresh you can see it being landed, and people so friendly they will literally give you the clothes off their back. And then there are icebergs, whales, seabirds. Where else can you have all this?