Earlier this year I met a fellow hailing from Nova Scotia.
"I‘ve always wanted to go there!" I exclaimed.
"Heavens, why?" he retorted.
"I don’t know?" I muttered, suddenly embarrassed.
Undaunted by the local’s lack of enthusiasm for his homeland, I decided this would be the year I tramped the Acadian and Mi’Mi’kmaq native soil at long last. I was determined to uncover the irresistible pull to the lovely little maritime province.
"Into the mist my guardian prows put forth,
Behind the mist, my virgin ramparts lie,
The Warden of the Honour of the North,
Sleepless and veiled am I."
- Rudyard Kipling, Imperial Halifax
I could relate, having awakened prematurely the morning Halifax dawned. After all, this stop would be the pinnacle of the cruise, both in latitude and anticipation.
I’d thrown on a tracksuit and bounded up the stairs to the top deck into a soupy mist that disguised the ship’s coordinates. I trained an eye on something in the distance, but could see no further than a sloshy hot tub, the sole reminder I wasn‘t on an ancient fishing boat or privateers rig. Someone strode toward me, emerging from the fog barely in time for me to step aside. A crew member, in a terrible hurry. Then a loud clank rang out portside.
There. A docking crane presented mere meters from the hull. The anchor chains began their aching descent We were here already, and I hadn’t ever seen it coming.Halifax, so far, proved exactly as I’d imagined her.
The weather put an end to the notion that we’d rent a car and tour around the island guided only by the sea birds and our instinct. Instead, we hailed the cruise line shuttle into downtown Halifax, where we were dropped at the entrance to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic . We decided to explore the museum later, as we were still in need of our morning exercise and eager to look around.
Tramping up the steep hill in the pouring rain to the Citadel satisfied the need for speed! There is a glorious harbor view from the 1749 historic hilltop site where the British empire built their first naval defenses in the new world. Today fog blanketed the star-shaped fortress, which took 28 years to build in 1856 and served primarily as naval barracks after the invention of long-range rifles, which rendered the armaments obsolete. We were a bit too early for the living-history presentation, reenactments, and audio-visual tours offered through the park service.
Slipping back down the hill, I decided to peruse the tourist area near the wharf so we could board the cruise ship shuttle at any given moment-in case the skies reopened and gales force winds roared across the world’s second largest natural harbor (only Sydney is larger).
I was captivated watching a ghost ship sail into port, disappearing in and out of the dense fog. On second glance, it was the ferry taking people to Dartmouth just across the harbor, a mere 12-minute ride and Prince of Fundy cruises carrying passengers from Portland, Maine to Halifax. Far less ominous was the sight of Thomas the Tugboat’s happy face brightening the harbor side on the rainy day, a welcome sight for visiting families.
I stumbled easily unto the Historic Properties encompassing a three-block area with a collection of restored buildings, former warehouses where privateers stockpiled their booty. The distinction between privateers and mere pirates was a marginal gentlemanly code of conduct.
Whereas pirates attacked and plundered anyone in their path, privateers were sanctioned marauders with legal documents verifying their objectives and activities. This system provided private-sponsored protection against foreign invasions in the remote outposts of the empire, where the naval resources were minimal. Call them mercenaries, if you will. The privateers split their bounty with the crown and investors.
This national protected landmark is only one of many in Canada’s colonial port, where the earliest settlers put down roots and left their legacy.
Nearby, and somehow befitting the heritage of the privateers, the Nova Scotia Casino offers considerable bling to the otherwise quaint, romantic seaport.
The entire harbor front is as you’d expect it to be: cute little shops, slow food outlets, gimmicks, gimcracks, and a surprisingly well-stocked and helpful tourist information shack. After soaking in plenty of charm for the day, Sweetie decided he’d do something historical and politically correct by taking the brewery tour of the oldest working brewery in North America while I wandered out of the rain and into the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Inside is an impressive collection of both permanent and temporary exhibits. From Tall Ships, Masters of the High Seas to startling, provocative, contemporary shows, the museum’s sophistication belies the small population (under one million) of the province. Stretching outside the box while honoring the woodsy, folksy crafts of the native populations and multi-ethnic cultures, it’s obvious the founding of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design by Anna Leonowns (who wrote Anna and the King of Siam based on her own experiences) has influenced the artistic sensibilities of this remote area. The relocated house of Maud Lewis is alone worth the price of admission.
Sweetie and I literally bumped into each other again at the Maritime Museum. Highlights of our tour included learning about the infamous Halifax Explosion, an event that registered the world’s largest pre-atomic age explosion, and viewing relics of the Titanic.
Right across the street McKelvie’s beckoned us from behind the restaurant’s perfectly manicured window boxes. Inside, the scent of chowder, steamed lobsters, and homemade bannock (scone-type bread) excited our chilly bones. Our spirits needed revitalization following the harrowing reminders of disaster at the Maritime museum. We sunk easily into the cozy booth and indulged in local specialties, expertly prepared.
During lunch we learned from our waitress, observing our water-logged clothing, that we might have tried instead the Downtown Link, a clever arrangement of subterranean mazes that delivers pedestrians safe and dry to their destinations. Why does no one tell you these things?
After lunch the fog lifted and the sun threatened to peak through a remote blue corner of the sky. We strolled through lovely public gardens and bumped into Sir Winston just round the corner from the cigar shop that borders the hip shopping district known as Spring Garden.
Sipping a coffee from Timothy’s, I eyed boots from an ultra-hip boutique, stared at protesters opposing the inhumane treatment of animals outside St. Mary’s Church and square, and wandered through the remnants of the morning’s farmer’s market. Don’t miss this vibrant section of a charming city.
St. Mary’s - the tallest polished spire in North America
We browsed through Pier 21 and only wished we’d allowed even more time for this fascinating glimpse into Canada’s gateway. Here, millions of immigrants first stepped on Canadians soil, British children sent for safety during WWII, and the sad tale of the Acadians is illuminated.
Reading the stories of the displaced French settlers, driven from their home when the British conquered the area and left to wander down the coast, across the great rivers of America following LaSalle, and finally coming to light in New Orleans where the word "Cajun" was a bastardized version of "Acadian," I realized my personal connection to this history.
Perhaps I'd been influenced by the French nuns; my grammar school teachers; by my old playmates, Benoit and Boudreau; or the Kankakee River town of Bourbonnais leading to the Illinois and on to the Mississippi. Maybe I'd known the ancestors of the stalwart and dedicated Acadians. They obviously left quite an impression.
We'd had only one damp day in Halifax but it was clear that Nova Scotia's beautiful coastline, immense tidal flow, quirky and artistic environment, and rugged landscapes would call us back again.
Over the pallid sea and the silvery mist of the meadows.
Silently one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven,
Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline