On the coast, we'll use any excuse for a party, from pumpkins to sea lions.

By Steve Millburg
November 01, 2002
courtesy Gasparilla Pirate Fest

Seaside towns, because they are usually tourist-oriented, love to put on festivals. Sometimes, any excuse will do. Here's a sampling of some unusual―and, in some cases, downright strange―coastal celebrations.

Sea Lions' Arrival, Pier 39, San Francisco, January (contact for details). They're noisy, obnoxious, and beloved. They're the California sea lions who have taken up residence at Pier 39 on San Francisco's waterfront. This festival celebrates the 13th anniversary of the date they showed up. They've become such a tourist attraction that the California Watchable Wildlife Project has declared Pier 39's K-Dock a "Watchable Wildlife" viewing area; 415/705-5500 or pier39.com (click on "events").

Southwest Airlines Gasparilla Pirate Fest, Tampa, Florida, February (contact for details). Several dozen of Tampa's leading citizens dress up as pirates, sail into the harbor, and pretend to capture the city. While parading through the streets, they toss phony doubloons and other trinkets to the crowd, all in the name of a buccaneer (Jose Gaspar) who may never have existed. Who thought this up, and what was he drinking at the time? It's been happening since 1904, so we'll probably never know. One of my brothers drives down from Illinois every year to enjoy the festivities. He says he has a great time; 813/353-8108 or gasparillapiratefest.com.

Arcata to Ferndale World Championship Kinetic Sculpture Race, Arcata-Eureka-Ferndale, California, May (contact for details). Ferndale artist Hobart Brown started it in 1969 as a race for human-powered mobile sculptures that traverse both land and water. The race now covers 38 miles and three days. Brown has created spin-off races in such other coastal locales as Baltimore (May; avam.org/kinetic), Port Townsend, Washington (October; kineticrace.net), and Ventura, California (October; kineticrace.com). Still, you must travel to the original site to watch imaginative contraptions tackle the legendary―and dreaded―Slippery Slimy Slope; 707/845-1717 or kineticsculpturerace.org.

Mermaid Parade, Coney Island, New York, June (contact for details). Just what the name says: a parade of mermaids and other fanciful sea creatures (mermen, mer-pets) at New York's legendary beach getaway; 718//372-5159 or coneyislandusa.com/mermaid.shtml.

Summer Solstice Celebration, Santa Barbara, California, June (contact for details). People-powered floats and wildly colorful costumes enliven the parade that begins these festivities. No commercial elements, live animals, or motorized vehicles are allowed. Most other things are; 805/965-3396 or solsticeparade.com.

Pageant of the Masters, Laguna Beach, California, July and August (contact for details). Every summer, the good folks of Laguna Beach put on costumes and makeup. Then, at an outdoor amphitheater, they assemble themselves into living tableaux that re-create famous paintings and other artworks. Why? I don't know. But the results are astonishingly faithful to the originals; 800/487-3378 or www.foapom.com.

Fools' Rules Regatta, Jamestown, Rhode Island, August (contact for details). The intrepid, or perhaps insane, sailors who enter this event have two hours to construct a sailing vessel out of nonmarine materials. (Past "boats" have been built from Volkswagens, doghouses, and hay bales.) Then they race over a 500-yard course. Highly entertaining, though not for nautical purists. Perhaps the most important rule: All participants must wear a Coast Guard-approved flotation device; 401/423-1492 or jyc.org.

Halifax International Busker Festival, Halifax, Nova Scotia, August (contact for details). A busker is a street performer. A bunch of them entertain here on six outdoor stages along the Halifax waterfront. Performers last year included Chalkmaster Dave from Toronto; Dot Comedy from London; The Flaming Butterflies from Fremantle, Australia; Lance Spring's Funky Mime from Rotterdam, The Netherlands; Men in Tights from Toronto; Rosie's Family Facepainting from Halifax; Shirlee Sunflower from Klama Downs, Australia; and 2's A Crowd from Woodland Hills, California. Admission is free; 866-773-0655 or buskers.ca.

Weird Contest Week, Ocean City, New Jersey, August (contact for details). As I can attest from a steady stream of press releases, Ocean City loves wacky promotions. The town bundled a bunch of them together for an annual Weird Contest Week. How weird? Well, there's a wet T-shirt contest―but competitors throw the shirts rather than wear them. Other contests involve creating artwork from saltwater taffy, French fries, and pies; impersonating animals; and (for children ages 3-5) making noise; 609/525-9300.

Bumbershoot, Seattle, Washington, September (contact for details). The Web site gives an idea of the flavor: "With literally thousands of experiences to choose from, Bumbershooters can run away to the circus, duck into a quiet theater for a world-class film festival, judge a poetry slam, break in some new dance moves, gab with authors, schmooze with artists, join a parade, make a salmon sock puppet, or check out hundreds of first-tier artists." The festival fills the 74-acre Seattle Center park, originally the site of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. The name (a synonym for "umbrella") refers not only to Seattle's notoriously rainy weather but also to the notion that this is an umbrella festival covering all the arts. It certainly does encompass a wide scope. Performers in 2002 included Ani DiFranco, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, Blonde Redhead, Death Cab for Cutie, Heavyweight Art Installation, Isle of Klezbos, Janeane Garofalo, Les Soeurs Pilleres, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Sonic Youth, Tony Rice & Peter Rowan, Wilco, Wyclef Jean, and Zuco 103. I have no idea who half those people/groups are, but I'd love to find out; 206/281-7788 ext.254 or bumbershoot.org.

Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival, Half Moon Bay, California, October (contact for details). Last year, Joel Holland of Puyallup, Washington, won the Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off with a pumpkin weighing 1,229 pounds. He beat five other 1,000-pound-plus pumpkins. I can't figure out how one grows a pumpkin weighing 1,229 pounds, let alone how you'd transport it from Washington to Half Moon Bay (a little south of San Francisco); 650/726-9652 or miramarevents.com/pumpkinfest.

Fantasy Fest, Key West, Florida, October (contact for details). This is probably the wildest festival of them all―10 days of parades, parties, dining, dancing, drinking, and, yes, debauchery. You decide how wild or mild you wish to be. You can confine yourself to the pet parade, or even the children's day. On the other hand, you can find plenty of events where the costumes consist largely (sometimes entirely) of body paint; 305/296-1817 or fantasyfest.net.

Guavaween, Tampa, Florida, October, (contact for details). This Halloween bash fills most of Ybor City, the old cigar-making enclave that's now Tampa's nightclub district. There's a family party during the day. The not-so-family nighttime festivities begin with the Mama Guava Stumble Parade. Pretty much anyone can participate as long as you're in costume―singly or in groups such as the briefcase drill team. A street party follows. Anything goes in the way of costumes, except possibly good taste. The year I attended, one guy costumed himself as a prisoner―and his wheelchair as an electric chair; 813/242-4828 or cc-events.org/gw.

Sparkle Holiday Celebration, Freeport, Maine, December, (contact for details). Locals just call it "Sparkle" because that's what the town does. In the Main Street parade, everything, including floats and marchers, must glitter. Even many of the spectators wear something shiny. The celebration also includes free hot cocoa and a concert by a 50-piece band consisting entirely of tubas; 800/865-1994 or freeportusa.com.