Two Days in Halifax, Nova Scotia

It was time to leave Montreal and head for Nova Scotia one of the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. The flight was booked with the Canadian airline Porter and the departure airport was the Pierre Trudeau International Airport on the northwest side of the city. The hotel advised us to use a taxi as the fare was fixed by the city at CAD40.00 (approx. £21.00). The main alternative was to use a combination of the metro and an airport bus but that would have meant a five minute walk with cases and a change of transport and would still cost CAD20.00. No contest.

Our taxi driver was Lebanese and told us how much he liked Canada but how he missed the famous cedar trees of his home country.

The check-in and security formalities were straight forward and we were soon in the departure area. The airport, at least the domestic part, was a little tired and the prices for drinks and snacks were very high – on a par with Dalaman in Turkey which I had always thought was the most expensive.

The plane arrived at the gate but only a few passengers got off. It then became apparent that this was a multi-stop flight. It had started in Toronto and after this stop in Montreal was going on to Halifax, Nova Scotia, our destination, and then on to St Johns in Newfoundland. The plane was a Canadian built Bombardier Q400 which is a medium sized turboprop with capacity for about 70 passengers in comfortable seats with good legroom.

Sadly the flight was entirely in or above clouds so we saw nothing of the land below until we were on the approach to Halifax Stanfield International, named after Robert Stanfield a native and one time president of Nova Scotia and often referred to as “the best Prime Minister Canada never had”. The airport was surprisingly large and modern. Bag handling was efficient and we were soon heading out for the car rental desks a short walk from the terminal. Once again we heard the lovely words about “free upgrades” and suddenly we were being shown a Ford Escape SUV. Excellent, exactly the kind of vehicle I had wanted to book but the list price was a little too high.

Now I have to make a confession. Having ranted on a little recently in a post about the problems with satnavs, I switched mine on and navigated without problem to our hotel in downtown Halifax. OK, there’s a time and a place. The only thing that it didn’t tell me was that the route crossed Halifax Harbour by the MacDonald Toll Bridge which needed a one dollar in coins dropped in an automatic collection basket. Even the ultra-polite Canadians in the car behind gave a gentle toot of the horn whilst we scrabbled for some coinage.

The Halliburton Hotel was recommended by the guidebook and approved by a Haligolian neighbour back home in Richmond. What is a Haligonian I hear you say. Well he, she or it is a person or thing from Halifax, not just Halifax, Nova Scotia but also Halifax, West Yorkshire in England or any other Halifax around the globe. To get back on track, the hotel had a very established feel about it. In English terms it was almost Victorian. Our room had the heavy furniture of Victoriana but the bathroom had had a 21st century makeover and was definitely fit for purpose.

Once we’d settled in, got out of our travelling clothes and were tidied for the evening, it was time to set out for another recommendation of our Haligonian neighbour, the Five Fishermen. This is a very classy place with a bar/diner on the ground floor and more sophisticated dining upstairs. The place was busy but when we said we were there on a recommendation, the front desk said they would find us a table upstairs. And, true to their word, within a few minutes we were seated at a window table in a very busy restaurant.

Looking at the wine list we were surprised to see that alongside the usual French, German and Antipodean wines were a range of local Nova Scotian wines. As fish dishes are the mainstay of the local menus, white wine would be most appropriate. We asked the waiter a few questions about the wines and he said he would bring over the sommelier to introduce us to the local specialities. Although Nova Scotia was originally settled by Scots, the province also has significant French roots in the form of the Acadians. The French Acadians settled in the north eastern region of North America around the same time as the Scots, maybe a little before. They brought their knowledge of viniculture and started to produce local wines. We tried the L’Acadie Vineyards Blanc Organic but found it a bit acidic so switched to the Domaine De Grand Pré, Vintners Reserve which had been oaked and tasted a lot better to our pallets and to our pockets at CAD4 cheaper. The food was as classy as the restaurant. Both the haddock and the halibut were very well presented and lightly cooked so that none of the texture was lost.

The next morning after breakfast in the hotel we set out for Pier 21, the main port of entry for immigrants arriving by sea from Europe. The museum concentrates on the period after WW11 up to the end of the 1960’s. It also touches on the arrival of young children, mostly from Britain, who were evacuated to Canada for the duration of the war. There is also mention of the hundreds of thousands of Canadian troops who shipped out from Pier 21 to join the allies around the world and their return with, in many cases, wives.

The exhibitions highlight the tedium of the long voyages, the rigours of the immigration interviews and the discomfort of the trains that were used to take them onwards across Canada to their final destinations. The museum is sited in the same set of buildings that were used to process the immigrants but somehow it has lost the atmosphere. Everything is sanitised. This is in marked contrast to the Ellis Island museum in New York where immigrants to the US were received in the same way as at Pier 21. That museum is full of atmosphere and you can easily imagine yourself going through the process.

Back out in the open air, we took the harbour boardwalk along the front towards the centre of seafront activities. A visit to the Tourist Office furnished us with details of a free city walk later in the afternoon. As an aside, it is worth mentioning that the Nova Scotia Tourist Organisation does a great job. All around the province we came across their offices and each time we left with great information. Their website is also top class.

The Murphy family seem to be the mainstay of the tourism industry around the Harbour. They run boat trips, sell souvenirs and run a bar cum restaurant. We succumbed and went in to the restaurant where we could sit right at the end of a pier with a good view across the bay that forms Halifax harbour. The food was reasonable – lobster sandwiches – and the local beer good. Soon it was time to settle the bill and climb up to the top of the ancient citadel mound that was built by the British to protect the city. It was here that the city walk was going to start.  We arrived just as the changing of the guards was about to happen.  The guardsmen all wore kilts and looked very young.

June is a little early for tourists in Nova Scotia so we were not surprised to find that our only fellow walkers were a family of four from Denver, Colorado. The guide arrived, a student at the local Dalhousie University. She explained that she had been borne and brought up in Dartmouth, the half of the Halifax conurbation on the other side of the bay. As you might expect she was an enthusiast for all that Halifax could offer and knew the place well. Her talks at each point of interest along the trail were sprinkled with family anecdotes that added to our enjoyment of the tour.

Amongst the places we stopped at were the clock tower (built to provide a clock visible and audible to all the soldiers to make sure they were not late for their duties), Argyle Street (the home to numerous bars and restaurants), St Pauls Church (the oldest church in Canada) and the view out to George’s Island (used as a quarantine station for immigrants who were carrying diseases and today home to thousands of harmless snakes). It was a fascinating and informative tour.

One of the places she had stopped at was a bar called The Press Gang. This pub was so named to remember the dreadful practice in the 18th and 19th centuries of naval recruiting officers plying bar customers with drink, getting them on board a naval vessel that needed more crew members and, in the morning, threatening them with long prison sentences (or worse) for stowing away on the ship. Only by signing on to the ship’s crew would the sentence be withdrawn. Despite this history, it looked a good place for refreshments, so after going back to the Halliburton and changing for the evening, we returned.

The outside promise was more than fulfilled inside. There was a long wooden bar with comfortable stools and plenty of tables and chairs for diners. The theme was oysters and seafood tapas served at the bar and more elaborate, fine dining food served at the tables. We were in the former category so got two stools at the bar. The bar staff were very professional, the kind who just know when you want something else and also know when to leave you to your own conversation. We ordered Lobster Mac (a Gouda cheese and pasta dish with chunks of lobster) and calamari that had been marinated in buttermilk and were the softest I have ever tasted.

A couple of hours later we strolled along the street in search of music. Our walk guide had recommended a place with the rather unattractive name of Durty Mollys, and, as the name might suggest, it was unashamedly Irish.  Anyway, we had been told there would be live music. And so there was and it was good but rather disappointedly it was the same music you would get in any Irish bar in any city in the world, none of the local music for which Nova Scotia is famous in the world of traditional music.

The next morning, after a visit to the Bluenose Laundromat to catch up on our washing, we headed for the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, another Halifax gem. The city has a maritime history to rival any other. It is reckoned to have the finest, ice-free natural harbour in the world second only to Sydney, Australia. Over the years it has been involved in many naval campaigns, been home to a large fishing industry and a major port for passenger liners crossing the Atlantic.

Two significant parts of the museum are devoted to the provision of support to the wartime transatlantic supply convoys and the receiving of the survivors, and the dead, from the sinking of the Titanic. On both subjects the museum goes into great detail with many artefacts and excellent descriptions of the events. Other exhibits show the history of the development of fishing boats both large and small. There was so much to see and we had so little time – about 1 ½ hours – that we left hoping to return on another trip to Nova Scotia.

We also wanted to visit was one of the graveyards where some of the victims of the Titanic disaster were buried. Because passenger details were imprecise and some bodies could not be identified, most of the graves are a simple granite block with the name and date of birth (when known), the date of death being the 15th April 1912 and a roll number. Touchingly, some of the bodies have subsequently been identified, particularly through items of clothing, and the gravestones have been updated or replaced with new memorials. Most poignant of all, there is a gravestone for a small boy, never identified, which was paid for by a group of rescuers.

No report of a visit to Halifax would be complete without mention of the great explosion of 6th December 1917. Outside of Nova Scotia there are few who know about this event which was the largest manmade explosion prior to the detonation of the first atomic bomb. Everywhere you go in Halifax there are references to the size of the explosion, the damage it caused and the loss of life. In 1917 Halifax was a major port for the shipment of supplies to the war effort in Europe. On the 6th December a French ship, the Mont Blanc, was setting out from the harbour laden with 400,000 tons of TNT. Sailing into port was a larger ship the Imo. The two collided and a fire immediately ensued. A short while later the explosion occurred resulting in the immediate deaths of over 2,000 people and another 10,000 were injured. A large area of downtown Halifax was flattened. Windows were shattered over 50 miles away. One of the Mont Blanc’s cannon was found over 3 miles away and its ½ ton anchor 2 miles away. To this day there are still signs of the destruction. In St Pauls Church, mentioned earlier, there is a chunk of metal from the Mont Blanc embedded in one gable wall. The explosion is far from forgotten in modern day Halifax.

This city is a great place to visit as there is a lot to do and see – we only scratched the surface – and most things are within easy walking distance. But it was time to leave and start to explore the rest of Nova Scotia. Our first stop, about one hours drive along the South Shore, was to be at Lunenburg, a Unesco World Heritage Site. As described by Unesco :-

Lunenburg is the best surviving example of a planned British colonial settlement in North America. Established in 1753, it has retained its original layout and overall appearance, based on a rectangular grid pattern drawn up in the home country. The inhabitants have managed to safeguard the city’s identity throughout the centuries by preserving the wooden architecture of the houses, some of which date from the 18th century.

It did not disappoint.

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About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement divided between our flat in Richmond, London, our villa in Kalkan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast and travelling mostly in the UK, Turkey and the US. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels.
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