Halifax, Novia Scotia — Fishing villages, farmhouses, churches and vivid green tidal marshes emerged from the dense fog as my wife and I headed up Nova Scotia's Lighthouse Route, a scenic if slow coastal road, to Halifax, the provincial capital.
With Canada celebrating its 150th birthday this year, it had seemed like a good time to reconnect with my homeland and revisit the city in which I had spent much of my childhood.
As we approached Halifax that evening, the memories of that childhood came flooding back.
We lucked out with a hotel room facing the channel from which my father, a captain in the Royal Canadian Navy, had guided North Atlantic convoys to Britain in World War II as the commanding officer of a succession of corvettes (tiny but nimble warships). The city's deep, protected harbor had been the marshalling point for U.S. and Canadian ships bearing arms, munitions, fuel and food to a besieged Britain. Years after I was born, he had been posted to Halifax again.
Much had changed in the years I'd been gone. The city, whose population had tripled to 270,000, sported a new high-rise skyline and gentrified neighborhoods that had once been slums. The downtown itself had shifted in an entirely new direction, now offering chic boutiques as well as the shops you'd find in any tourist town. New museums lined a waterfront boardwalk, as did restaurants, sidewalk cafes and more shops.
But much was the same. The city, founded in 1749 by the British, had guarded its historic landmarks judiciously. The Citadel, a massive star-shaped British fortress, still stood guard over the harbor atop the city's highest hill. The Prince of Wales Martello Tower, another 18th century fortification, presided over Point Pleasant Park in the city's South End, as did the crumbling remnants of never-used World War I battlements. St. Paul's Church, the first Protestant church in Canada, where I had sung in the boys choir, anchored the Grand Parade, now a park.
Near the Public Gardens, which date to 1836, ice cream shops were doing a steady business. One, the Dairy Bar, a start-up serving honey goat cheese-flavored soft ice cream that day, was testimony to the city's increasingly sophisticated palate. Daniel Crowther, who was filling cones when I stopped by, told me he was bullish on business despite a slow start due to cooler than usual June weather; on warm days, he said, they had been busier than the year before.
We stopped next at the new Seaport Farmers Market, which anchors the southern end of the boardwalk. Stalls selling produce and fruit from the year's first harvest vied for attention with the meat, fish and cheese counters. Buskers entertained at the foot of the massive twin wooden staircases to the second floor that doubled as bleachers.
Outside, a statue of Samuel Cunard lent a commanding presence to a small waterfront plaza. Cunard, founder of the steamship company that still bears his name, was a Haligonian, as Halifax natives are called. He got his start in shipping by building the ferries that, in 1830, began crossing Halifax Harbor. The Cunard Line came later, as did Cunard's opposition to racial segregation after, unknown to him, Frederick Douglass was confined to his cabin on a transatlantic crossing in 1845. Passenger ferries still cross the harbor; they provide an excellent view of the city for $2.50 CAD roundtrip, vastly less than the cost of a harbor tour.
The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, housed in the former immigration hall, sits next to the market; it memorializes the stories of immigrants and refugees, many of whom arrived at this spot. One exhibit is dedicated to the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees that Canada has welcomed since Justin Trudeau became Canada's prime minister. The museum also offers free genealogical services — visitors can work with a staff member to trace, through computerized records, details about an ancestor's arrival in Canada.
We found that my grandmother had arrived in Halifax from Liverpool aboard the Cunard liner Caronia in 1911, when she was 20.
The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, farther north on the boardwalk, explores the role of shipping in the history of Canada's Atlantic provinces. Its collection includes 30,000 artifacts, dozens of small craft and a 1913 hydrographic survey ship.
One exhibit focuses on Halifax's role in recovery operations after the the sinking of the Titanic. While survivors were taken to New York, the bodies of many of those who perished were brought to Halifax, the nearest port of any size to the disaster. Among the displays are a wooden Titanic deck chair, recovered from the scene, a huge collection of wooden objects and body bags. Many of the dead are buried in Halifax's Fairview Lawn Cemetery.
We also visited the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, where an exhibit of paintings by Maud Lewis, a primitive artist who has gained international stature, was captivating. Her life is the subject of a new movie, "Maudie," starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. The exhibit even includes Lewis' tiny house, painstakingly moved into the museum; she painted on every surface — not just the walls and door, but the stove and the breadbox.
I struck up a conversation with Kayliegh Sheehan, the young woman at the reception desk. With a background in writing and the theater, she had spent 10 years in a city near Toronto before being drawn to Halifax by its burgeoning cultural scene. "Halifax is the perfect size," she said. "It's got all the amenities of a much larger city, but the whole place feels like one friendly neighborhood."
She was certainly right about that. The Haligonians we met were universally friendly, especially the people at our hotel, the Westin Nova Scotian, who were happy to lend a hand any way they could. I had a personal connection to the hotel; when I was a child, before there were bridges across the harbor, my father would take me on the old car ferry from our home at a naval base across the harbor to the hotel barbershop for haircuts.
Before leaving, we made a circuit of the homes my family had lived in.
Our visit to one was momentarily distressing; it had been my family's last stop before my parents' divorce. Set on a block of beautiful old homes, it had become the neighborhood's black sheep, having fallen into an advanced state of neglect. It momentarily brought to mind the old adage, 'You can't go home again.'
But I had — quite enjoyably, too.
Listed from most to least expensive
The Bicycle Thief, 1475 Lower Water Street at Bishop's Wharf, 902-425-7993, www.bicyclethief.ca
Chives Canadian Bistro, 1537 Barrington St, 902-420-9626, www.chives.ca
EDNA ("Eat, Drink, Nourish Always"), 902-431-5683, 2053 Gottingen St, ednarestaurant.com
The Arms Public House (Lord Nelson Hotel), 902-420-9781, 1515 S Park St, thearmshalifax.com
Lemon Tree Restaurant, 1532 Queen St (off Spring Garden Rd), 902-877-7007, lemontreerestaurant.ca
PAVIA, Halifax Central Library, 5440 Spring Garden Rd and Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1723 Hollis St, 902-407-4008 www.paviagallery.com/about-us
Norbert's Good Food, 1209 Marginal Rd at the Seaport Farmers' Market, 902-420-0376, selwoodgreen.com
Humani-T Café, 1451 S Park St, 902-425-9535, humanitea.com
Just Us Café, 5896 Spring Garden Rd, 902-423-0856, justuscoffee.com
Dairy Bar at Stilwell Beer Garden, 5688 Spring Garden Rd www.manualfoodanddrinkco.com/dairy-bar
Listed in alphabetical order
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1723 Hollis St, 902-424-5280, www.artgalleryofnovascotia.ca
Boardwalk, two-mile walkway between Seaport Farmers' Market and Casino Nova Scotia, 902-229-2628, www.my-waterfront.ca/waterfront/halifax
Fairview Lawn Cemetery, Titanic graves, 3720 Windsor St, 902-490-4883, www.halifax.ca/Cemetery
Halifax Citadel Historic Site, fort and museum, 5425 Sackville St, 902-426-1990, www.regimental.com
Halifax Central Library, 5440 Spring Garden Rd, 902-490-5700, www.halifaxpubliclibraries.ca
Halifax Harbour Ferry, 5000 George St on the boardwalk, 902-490-4000, www.halifax.ca/transit/ferries.php
Halifax Public Gardens, 5665 Spring Garden Rd, www.halifax.ca/publicgardens
Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market, 1209 Marginal Rd, 902-492-4043, www.halifaxfarmersmarket.com
Harbour Hopper Tours, 5050 Salter St, 902-490-8687, www.mtcw.ca/tour-schedule
Historic Properties at Privateers Wharf, 1869 Upper Water St, 902-429-0530, www.historicproperties.ca
HMCS Sackville, Battle of the Atlantic Place, 1675 Lower Water St, 902-429-2132, hmcssackville.ca
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, 1675 Lower Water St, 902-424-7490, maritimemuseum.novascotia.ca
Point Pleasant Park, 5718 Point Pleasant Drive, 902-490-4700, www.novascotia.com
Province House, 1716 Hollis St, 902-424-4661, nslegislature.ca/index.php/about/tour
St. Paul's Church, tours, 1749 Argyle St, 902-429-2240, www.stpaulshalifax.org
Listed from most to least expensive
Westin Nova Scotian, 1181 Hollis St, 902-421-1000, convention hotel connected to rail and bus stations, near cruise ship terminal, hwww.thewestinnovascotian.com
Lord Nelson Hotel, 1515 S Park St, 902-423-6331, elegant landmark opposite Public Gardens and near Spring Garden Rd shopping, lordnelsonhotel.ca
Four Points by Sheraton, 1496 Hollis St, 902-423-4444, pleasant rooms near the boardwalk and museums, www.fourpointshalifax.com
Coastal Inn Halifax, 98 Chain Link Drive, 902-450-3020, modern suburban accommodations, excellent value, coastalinns.com/coastal-inn-halifax/
Dalhousie University Summer Accommodations (until Aug. 18), several locations including a contemporary building at 1246 LeMarchant St, 902-494-8840, basic rooms with shared baths, suites with private baths, access to fitness facilities, www.dal.ca/dept/summer-accommodations.html
Halifax International Hostel, 1253 Barrington St, 902-422-3863, dormitories and shared rooms with shared bathrooms, downtown, hihostels.ca/en