Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Halifax, Nova Scotia

I had a conversation with a friend a few weeks ago where she asked about things to see in Nova Scotia. It got me reminiscing, so I thought I'd plot out my dream tour of Nova Scotia, if I had all the time I wanted, and money was no object. Yes, I love NS that much. Well, if money was really no object I'd probably go to Greece, but NS is pretty special!

(There are a TON of links in the post, and I think they're all pretty interesting, so take your time and go through them!)

British-flavoured NS as we know it was shaped by the Treaty of Utrecht, which referred to it (and some of some other provinces as well) as Acadia, as at that time NS was largely French. If you know ANYTHING about Canadian history, you probably know that the French and the British fought over the Atlantic coast like two siblings over the last piece of cake. This treaty-to-end-all-treaties was massive and divvied up colonial holdings all over the globe like so many Monopoly properties.
Downtown Halifax from the ferry
So, having an appropriate appreciation for the hundreds of years of European history in NS, start a grand tour by flying into Halifax, of course. You could probably spend a week in Halifax and only brush the surface of what's there. NS is OOZING with history, which must be where my love for it came from. The province has a chain of 27 museums, large and small, all over the province. Make sure you check out the pass that gets you into all of the museums, because if you're going to go to more than a couple, it can be a decent savings.
If you're wondering about when to go, spring through fall is the best time, but if you go late June/early July, you can catch the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo. It's kind of hard to describe, but it's sort of like the Calgary Stampede Grandstand Show meets a Celtic-influenced circus, only a gazillion times more exciting. You can see last year's promo video to get an idea of what it's like. I just went the once when I was a kid, but watching the video now takes me right back, gives me a quiver of excitement and maybe a tear or two, and the intense desire to take up Highland dancing. :)

 Probably the biggest event in Halifax history is the Halifax Explosion. Until Hiroshima, it was the largest man-made explosion ever. It was during WWI, when a couple of ships (one of them loaded with munitions) collided in the Halifax Harbour. It was tragic, and scars of it are still everywhere. It was a powerful force in shaping Halifax to be the city it is today. The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is the best place to learn about Halifax, and a must-see. Even if you're not really into museums you'll find fun things there. I recommend starting all of your touring of Halifax here, because it will change the way you view the city, and make your experience there all the more rich!
I mean, when you walk into a museum and are greeted by a dead pirate, you know you're in a quality establishment...

They have a huge Titanic exhibit, as well as lots and lots of ships - big and small. When I was a kid they had an old surveying ship permanently docked there, and they did summer camps on it where you could learn to tap out your name in Morse Code and eat weevil biscuits (gingersnaps) and drink grog (hot chocolate). It's the little things in life...

Just down the waterfront is the Canadian Museum of Immigration is at Pier 21 on the Halifax waterfront. I've never actually been there, because it opened since I moved away. But it's on my list next time I go's also a prime place to do genealogy research.

Near Pier 21 is Alexander Keith's brewery. The tour is super fun, winding up in an old pub with samples of the brew, staff in costume, and music. Even though I don't like beer at all, I quite enjoyed the tour. (Tip: the Keith's pottery/glassware is nice, but EXPENSIVE. Go to Value Village instead and look for some gently used pottery instead. Second-hand shopping in NS is da BOMB - they're big into the 3Rs there!)

The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has two locations - one in Halifax, and one in Yarmouth to which I've never been. If you go on a Thursday evening, admission to the museum is free! My favourite part of the AGNS is their Maud Lewis exhibit. She was a NS folk artist who did amazing work, and after she died, they put her WHOLE HOUSE in the art gallery. It's definitely worth going on a Thursday evening just to see that.

The 'crowning glory' (haha!) of Halifax is Citadel Hill. You don't necessarily need to pay the admission and go into the fort, but you should at LEAST go up the hill and look at the view. If you go at noon, they fire the cannon everyday, which, at least as a child, was very exciting. Also check out the round clock tower, one of three significant round structures in Halifax.

St. George's Round Church is a really cool building near the foot of the Hill. In 1994, the year we left Halifax, it caught fire and was really badly damaged. I've never actually been in it, but I need to do that one of these days!

If you're near Citadel Hill, and want a place to sit down and rest, or eat a picnic lunch, the Public Gardens are the place to go. Bikes, pet, and jogging are forbidden, and there's often music in the bandstand, which gives it an othertimely air. There are also ducks, and I really like ducks. :)


I used to call the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History the Frog Museum, because of the GINORMOUS frog statue clinging to the outside of the building. I'm not sure if the frog is there or not, but the very same tortoise has been living in the lobby since at least when I was 9. The geology gallery has always been my favourite. I'm pretty sure it's to blame for all the rocks I have in my library...

An interesting bit of Halifax history that I heard of since I moved away is about Africville. I don't remember Africville from when I was a kid, but now that I'm an adult, it really intrigues me. If I had access to university archives in Halifax, I would definitely research it. I'm not sure if it's something that's not really talked about there, or if it didn't have reason to cross my pre-teen radar, but I WANT TO KNOW!

Province House is the old Provincial Legislature building and has beautiful architecture and artwork. When I went there with Mom she saw her MLA, which was sort of fun! It makes government feel very accessible, and the guards are pretty friendly if you chat with them.

Halifax is home to one of Canada's two major naval bases, and the Maritime Command Museum is worth a visit if you're a huge history geek like me. (Although at this exact moment the website doesn't seem to be working, so double-check before you try to visit it...I haven't been there in years.)

Still in Halifax proper, but further away from the downtown core is Point Pleasant Park. It's a beautiful place to spend an afternoon. It's HUGE - 77 hectares. In the summer, you can see Shakespeare by the Sea. The park is home to a Martello tower, the third round structure I mentioned. It also has a ruined fort and some other interesting features that make my inner archaeologist salivate. If you've read Anne of the Island by Lucy Maude Montgomery, you might get a little thrill out of knowing that Point Pleasant is the park that Anne walks in, and Dalhouise is her university. (And I JUST discovered that the Halifax library has a literary walking tour guide!! Ahhh!!!)

Because Halifax was a major colonial-era military power, there are a lot of old forts scattered around the city, and the province. York Redoubt is the home of well-maintained historical decay, part of the Halifax Defence Complex, and has a beautiful view of the Harbour.

Point Pleasant and York Redoubt are near-ish to each other, and so is the Sir Sandford Fleming Park (he was best remembered for spearheading worldwide standard time), and the Dingle Memorial Tower, which is a cool piece of architecture.

The Bedford Institute of Oceanography is on the Bedford Basin part of the Halifax Harbour and has a lot of interesting information on how humanity affects natural resources, a sea pavilion with a touch tank, guided tours of the research being done, and fascinating images of the bottom of the Harbour. I really love it there - and I took Trevor once, and I don't think he was totally bored... :)

The Shubenacadie Canal once linked the Halifax Harbour and the Bay of Fundy. Restoration work is under way, but parts of it are still open for canoeing or kayaking, and portions of it in and around Halifax have walking paths. If you want to get out of downtown Halifax and experience a more rural setting, following the canal will lead you to all sorts of interesting and beautiful spots.

When I was a kid Dad was stationed at the Shearwater air force base, and now my brother volunteers at the Shearwater Aviation Museum when he has time (and he worked there for a couple of summers, too!) so I'm kind of attached to it. My brother helped with the Swordfish and the T-33 that are on display, and interestingly the T-33, also known as the T-Bird, was the type of plane Dad flew in back in the day. Simon checked though, and that specific T-Bird wasn't one that Dad flew in. T-Birds have a pylon thingy on each wing tip (I'm sure there's a technical name for it...) that from on the ground when they fly over head looks like the S-foils on an X-Wing. Just FYI...

Fisherman's Cove, just across the harbour from Halifax and near Shearwater, is a beautiful little fishing village with a boardwalk, and it's the best place EVER to get fish and chips. The community is called Eastern Passage, because it's on the eastern side of Lawlor Island. It has some neat wartime and pre-war history, as well as some connections to the Halifax Explosion (see the Hydrostone neighbourhood in Halifax, which has some cute shops, including one that has steampunk jewellery that I'm dying to check out). And of course now that I've implied that the Hydrostones were built out of Eastern Passage sand, I can't actually find proof of that anywhere. Sadly, it must have been childhood lore.
Fishing boats in Eastern Passage
photo by Chris Rehmann

In Fisherman's Cove, the tourist info place can hook you up with a guy with a boat who will ship you out to McNab's Island, drop you off at one end, and come back later to pick you up at the other end. Given that's the only way on and off the island, the beachcombing is prime, and the 'urban' decay is amazing.

Old Fort McNab

It's a beautiful walk, and although Halifax Harbour is a busy seaport, you feel like you're in the middle of nowhere. It's an amazing place!
George's Island
George's Island is easily visible from the ferry between Halifax and Dartmouth, and I'd love to go there, although access is limited. Another island of note in the Halifax Harbour is Devil's Island, which has a fascinating history. I have a thing for islands. :) There's a guided tour of Gorge's Island coming up this summer, put on by the Halifax Citadel, and I'd give my eyeteeth to go on it! Unfortunately, no one wants my eyeteeth badly enough to pay for airfare to NS, which is the great drawback to living in a country that's so spread out. :P
If you're looking for a place to stay in the Halifax area, I recommend The Inn at Fisherman's Cove. I haven't stayed there myself, but Dad has. It's right on the harbour in Eastern Passage, and is perfectly located for easy access to downtown Halifax via the passenger ferry. (Can you imagine having to take a BOAT as part of your everyday commute? I would so be all over that!)
If you don't find a souvenir in the artists' co-op in Fisherman's Cove, going over to Bedford to visit Clayworks is worth the trip if you like local pottery. I have a few of her pieces that I love. Her hours seem sporadic, so call first!
For food, I recommend the donair pizza at Pizza Delight - there are a few of them around the city. It's an Eastern Canadian chain that I miss! Stayner's Wharf is right by the passenger ferry in Halifax, and has great atmosphere, and I'm told they have great chowder, although I haven't tried it myself. The Lower Deck is a very popular pub with a good reputation, although I haven't eaten there, I don't think. I've only been to the Old Triangle once, but the music was memorable. And speaking of music, the Mellotones definitely worth tracking down wherever they're playing, and so are Sons of Maxwell.

And last but not least, what's a trip to the coast without BEACHES?! I haven't been to Crystal Crescent since I was a very little kid, but I remember the beautiful white sand. Apparently there's a family section of the beach, and a nudist section of the beach, so be warned! :P Rainbow Haven is the one I go to most often, because it's not far from where Mom lives, and it's very beautiful, although there's not much in the way of beachcombing because it's protected by reefs far out. Lawrencetown Beach is a bit further away, but the drive is lovely and the people watching is great - it's a prime spot for crazy surfers. There's also a cute tea room, the MacDonald House, up on the hill and it's got an art gallery and an antique store.
I've never really been a fan of lake beaches, but I just found one called Chocolate Lake, so I'm adding that to my list of things to see next time I'm there...
I hope this has given you a taste of my love for Halifax, the variety of things to see and do, an idea of the enormous range of history, and the burning urge to go experience it all for yourself. :) And now that I look at all of this, I have no idea how I thought I could get all of NS into one blog post...yeesh!
And I really hope you're still reading...that's a lot of links...I couldn't even include all the tags I wanted to because I hit the character limit...
I leave you with this video of a band performing 'Barrett's Privateers', which is set in Halifax, originally written by the late and great Stan Rogers, who wrote this in the mid 1970s, but managed to make it sound much, much older. This is a really fun bouncy version - enjoy! :)

Edited Feb 1, 2017 to add:

Scott Manor House was a happy discovery last time I was home. Tucked away at the very top of the Bedford Basin, they offered a very nice afternoon tea.


Teresa said...

Awesome! Thanks for the ideas - I will take a closer look when we plan our trip this fall!

Anonymous said...

Wow! What a well written and thorough page! I love your writing style! I've bookmarked it so that I can take the time to visit the link! Thank you!! :-)

MichelleH said...

Thanks - glad you liked it! :)