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.