Picture-postcard views of verdant tidal marshes and weathered fishing villages greeted us around every bend in the road as my wife and I drove up the Lighthouse Route, the scenic slow road from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, to Halifax, the historic seaport and provincial capital.
We had been deposited in Yarmouth late the night before after a rough, 212-mile crossing from Portland, Maine, on the year’s maiden voyage of the high-speed CAT car ferry. Now, decades after spending part of my childhood in Halifax, where my father was based as a captain in the Royal Canadian Navy, I was going home.
We timed our early June visit to beat the city’s short summer high season, when most tourists visit. This year, Halifax is expecting even more visitors than usual as it celebrates Canada’s 150th birthday with a visit by 40 tall ships.
They’ll be putting into port at the end of July before setting out on the last leg of the 2017 Rendez-Vous Tall Ships Regatta from Halifax to LeHavre, France. Free open-air concerts, nightly fireworks displays and food events on islands in the harbor will accompany the ships’ visit.
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What we found was a pleasant surprise: Once-drab Halifax had become a gleaming jewel of a town. Not only had it sprouted a new high-rise skyline, but there was a two-mile-long waterfront boardwalk, a bumper crop of excellent new museums and some stellar new restaurants.
At the same time, the city — founded in 1749 by the British to counter the French presence in the region — had not just judiciously guarded its historic sites, but, in places, spruced them up. The Citadel, a massive star-shaped fortress, still stood guard atop the city’s highest hill, but now offered parking for the military museums inside.
The round Prince of Wales martello tower (a type of fort) still presided over Point Pleasant Park in the city’s South End. St. Paul’s Church, the oldest building in the city, where I had sung in the boys’ choir, still anchored the Grand Parade, now a park filled with brightly painted deck chairs.
Stone mid-18th century warehouses had been restored and opened to commerce. Alexander Keith’s Nova Scotia Brewery occupied its original 1822 structure near the water, but centuries of soot that I remembered from my childhood were gone.
Elsewhere, in the heart of town, the 16-acre Public Gardens, first planned and planted in 1836, offered a lush respite from the city’s bustle.
Ice cream and immigrant dreams
Diagonally across the street from the gardens, the Dairy Bar, a second-year startup, was serving honey-goat cheese-flavored soft ice cream when I stopped by, a testimony to the city’s increasingly sophisticated palate.
Daniel Crowther, who with Kaiah Singh was filling cones, told me he was bullish on business despite a slow start due to cooler-than-usual June weather. On warm days, he said, business had never been better.
The new Seaport Farmers’ Market, a striking new structure at the southern end of the boardwalk, was buzzing. Vendors were selling the season’s first produce. Others offered meats, fish, cheeses, baked goods, local wines and craft ciders.
Massive staircases to the second floor were packed with spectators who used them as bleachers to listen to buskers of every musical persuasion.
Outside, a small plaza was dominated by a statue of Samuel Cunard, the Halifax native who launched the steamship line that bears his name and who got his start in the shipping business by building the first cross-harbor ferries. Cunard became an ardent foe of racial segregation after learning that Frederick Douglass was confined to his cabin on one of his ships during an Atlantic crossing in 1845.
In close proximity, the Canadian Museum of Immigration, a high-tech showstopper, tells the stories of Canada’s immigrants, many of whom arrived at this spot, Pier 21. One exhibit is dedicated to the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees welcomed to Canada since Justin Trudeau became prime minister.
A free genealogical service allows visitors to track their ancestors’ arrival in Canada. We tried my wife’s family, who came from Ireland to Nova Scotia before heading off to Kansas, but we struck out.
We struck gold, however, when we found that my late grandmother had, in 1911, arrived in Halifax from Liverpool on the Cunard liner Caronia, when she was 20 and single.
The Royal Canadian Navy’s Sackville, the last World War II Flower Class corvette (corvettes were tiny but nimble warships), is docked at Battle of the Atlantic Place; it serves as Canada’s official naval memorial.
Like its corvette sisters, including the ones that my father commanded, the Sackville escorted convoys of Canadian and U.S. cargo ships carrying munitions, fuel and food from Halifax to the besieged British Isles in World War II.
It’s open to the public, as is the nearby tugboat Theodore, the star of a Canadian television show for children.
Beyond the Titanic
The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, with 30,000 artifacts, dozens of watercraft and a 1913 hydrographic ship, is steps away along the boardwalk.
Two exhibits in particular captured our attention. The first dealt with the Halifax Explosion, the 1917 blast that followed the accidental collision of a World War I munitions ship with another vessel in the harbor’s narrows.
Killing 2,000 people and wounding 9,000, the detonation was the world’s largest man-made explosion before Hiroshima.
The second was the museum’s Titanic exhibit. 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.
Among its collection are a wooden Titanic deck chair, recovered from the scene, a huge collection of wooden artifacts and body bags. Many of the dead are buried in Halifax.
The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia is also a big draw. One exhibit in particular captured our attention: The paintings of the late Maud Lewis, a primitive artist from Nova Scotia who has gained international stature and whose life is the subject of a new movie, “Maudie,” starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke (it’s playing this weekend at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth).
The exhibit even includes Lewis’ house, painstakingly moved into the gallery. She painted on every surface — even the breadbox and the stove.
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 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 seems like one friendly neighborhood.”
We had dinner one night at Chives Canadian Bistro, a cheery farm-to-table place praised by critics. We enjoyed our meal and found Chives’ reputation mostly well-deserved.
We also dined at one of the city’s most heralded restaurants, the sparkling Bicycle Thief, named after a character in a 1949 Italian movie, which sits across from a small yacht basin. My lamb chops in a red wine and cherry demi-glacé were superb. My wife chose the expertly crafted linguine fra diavolo.
Before leaving, we made a circuit of the homes my family lived in when I was young. Our visit to one was momentarily distressing; it had been my family’s last stop before my parents’ divorce. Set amid beautiful old homes, it had become the black sheep of the neighborhood, 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.
Where To Shop in Halifax
Bookmark, 5686 Spring Garden Road, 902-423-0419, independent book store, https://bookmarkreads.ca/i/168583x/landing/LandingPage2017.html
Carrefour Atlantic and the Puffin Gallery, 1869 Upper Water St. (Historic Properties), 902-423-2940, literature, art and traditional crafts by Canadians, including First Nations people, http://carrefouratlantic.com/
Cintamani Dress Code Iceland, 5507 Spring Garden Road, 902-404-4422, men’s, women’s and childrens’ fashions, https://cintamani.ca/
Foreign Affair, 5639 Spring Garden Road, 902-423-6676, women’s fashions, http://www.foreignaffair.ca/
Inkwell, hand-crafted stationery products and home decor, 2011 Brunswick St., 902-405-8309, https://inkwellboutique.ca/
Jennifer’s of Nova Scotia, 5635 Spring Garden Road, 902-425-3119, jewelry, hand-crafted gifts and souvenirs, http://www.jennifers.ns.ca/
Le Château of Montreal Outlet, women’s fashions, 5475 Spring Garden Road, 902-423-8995, https://www.lechateau.com/style/
Nova Scotia Centre for Craft and Design, 1061 Marginal Road (across from immigration museum), 902-492-2522, ceramics, paintings, sculpture and fabrics by artisans from the Atlantic provinces and Quebec, http://www.craft-design.ns.ca/
Pete’s Fine Foods, 1515 Dresden Row, 902-425-5700, all manner of food products including imported goods, juice bar, gluten-free café, http://petes.ca/
Thornbloom – The Inspired Home, 1459 S Park St., 902-425-8005, upscale, artistic home goods, gifts and décor, http://www.thornbloom.com/
Where To Eat in Halifax
Listed from most to least expensive
The Bicycle Thief, 1475 Lower Water St. at Bishop’s Wharf, 902-425-7993, very expensive, http://www.bicyclethief.ca
Chives Canadian Bistro, 1537 Barrington St., 902-420-9626, expensive, https://www.chives.ca/
EDNA (“Eat, Drink, Nourish Always”), 902-431-5683, 2053 Gottingen St., sophisticated cuisine and craft cocktails in a gentrifying area, expensive, http://ednarestaurant.com/
The Arms Public House (Lord Nelson Hotel), 902-420-9781, 1515 S Park St., moderate, http://thearmshalifax.com/
Lemon Tree Restaurant, 1532 Queen St. (off Spring Garden Road), 902-877-7007, Turkish cuisine, inexpensive to moderate, http://lemontreerestaurant.ca/
Bluenose II, downtown near Province House (the legislature), inexpensive to moderate, 1824 Hollis St., 902-425-5092, http://www.bluenoseii.ca/
PAVIA, Halifax Central Library, 5440 Spring Garden Road and Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1723 Hollis St., 902-407-4008, very inexpensive salads, sandwiches and baked goods, http://www.paviagallery.com/about-us/
Norbert’s Good Food, 1209 Marginal Road at the Seaport Farmers’ Market, 902-420-0376, inexpensive, open until mid-afternoon, gluten-free baked goods, https://selwoodgreen.com/
Humani-T Café, 1451 S. Park St., 902-425-9535, coffee, paninis, salads, gelato, inexpensive, http://humanitea.com/
Just Us Cafe, 5896 Spring Garden Road, 902-423-0856, coffee and tea house with cool vibe, https://justuscoffee.com/
Dairy Bar at Stilwell Beer Garden, 5688 Spring Garden Road with a window to order on intersecting South Park Street, soft ice cream in unusual flavors, http://www.manualfoodanddrinkco.com/dairy-bar/
Tracking the tall ships
More than 40 tall ships will sail into Halifax Harbor on July 28 and berth July 29-Aug. 1 at wharves along the Halifax and Dartmouth waterfronts before beginning the last leg of the 2017 Rendez-Vous Tall Ships Regatta, from Halifax to LeHavre, France.
They will visit a number of other Nova Scotia ports as well, among them Lunenburg (Aug. 10-12) and Shelburne (Aug. 14-15), both within driving distance of Halifax. The public will be able to tour many of the ships.
There will be fireworks each night of the vessels’ stay in Halifax, as well as cultural events on Citadel Hill and along the waterfront boardwalk, where many events will focus on the seafaring heritage of Canada’s four Atlantic provinces (New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island). Symphony concerts are planned, and many buskers are expected to perform as well. The regatta’s culinary partner, Taste of Nova Scotia, will host food events on Georges Island and McNab’s Island in Halifax Harbor.
The tall ships’ visit celebrates 2017’s 150th anniversary of Canadian nationhood, with special events across the country and free admission to the country’s national parks, including the Citadel in Halifax.
For more information about tall ship events in Nova Scotia go to the event’s official website, http://rdv2017ns.com/, or Nova Scotia’s tourism site for the event, http://www.novascotia.com/events/festivals-and-events/rendez-vous-2017-tall-ships-regatta/-4029.