After first visiting Nova Scotia in 2008, I’ve returned often. Still I’m asked where it is, even what continent it’s on or which island chain it belongs to. In this, the first in a series of snapshots of this province of Atlantic Canada, there’s a glimpse of some of the lesser-known attractions of Halifax.
Tens of thousands of travellers cross Nova Scotia every year. The pity of it is that they only ever get within 6 miles of the place. The westward-bound passenger taking a casual glance from 30,000 ft will barely give it a thought as they fly on for another uncomfortable hour or more. Despite being the shortest direct flight from the UK to North America, this land of ocean and lakes is a largely undiscovered gem.
Nowhere is the contrast to the UK more striking than the first experience. After the maelstrom of Heathrow, Stanfield International Airport is a haven of peace and quiet. The understandably short queues at immigration are handled with smiling efficiency and without the hostile interrogation common elsewhere. To feel welcomed to a country is a great start, and others could learn a lot from that.
Once one of the great cities of the Empire, Halifax has lost that caché but has everything else that you might expect. The big hotel chains are all here, mainly clustered round the waterfront, the old heart of the city and its reason for being. Like the whole province, Halifax looks to the ocean, which has shaped its fortunes and its history. And there’s plenty of history to see, not least from The Citadel, which occupies the high ground at the centre of the city and gives views across the harbour to the Dartmouth shore and north to Bedford Basin.
Pier 21 is both a family history centre and a re-creation of the old immigrant gateway to Canada. The audio-visual presentation (‘film’ or ‘movie’ does not do it justice) which describes the new immigrants’ experience, is particularly worthwhile.
There’s history of another sort at Doull’s, an amazing second-hand bookshop on Barrington Street. Doesn’t sound like a tourist attraction? You won’t find it in ‘What to do in Halifax’, but if books are your thing (and they are mine) then a visit is highly recommended. A faintly musty aroma comes free with every volume purchased. For anything by way of local writers or knowledge, you can’t do better than the Atlantic Emporium on Upper Water Street. Looks like a gift shop, feels like a gift shop – stocked like a specialist bookseller. If you’re spoilt for choice then anything on Oak Island will do – pirates, treasure and unsolved mysteries.
When it comes to eating out there is a predictably large and reasonably priced choice, not just in the downtown area but all over Halifax. Seafood and beef may dominate menus, but you’ll also find a good selection of pretty well everything else. Portions are usually generous, but it’s quite usual to share a course or simply take home what you don’t eat. For something special try The Press Gang, centrally placed in Prince Street. One of the places to be seen in Halifax so naturally a little pricey, but good food and reasonable wine selection, with the customary informal and friendly service, another hallmark of Nova Scotia.
If you’re looking for local produce and craft, then head for the Farmers Market, located just up the road from Pier 21. On Saturdays it opens early at 7am, and has a range of foodstuffs, clothes, artwork, jewellery, live music and more. All straight from the producer, so you can get personal recommendations from the people who grew/bottled/made whatever it is that catches your eye.
Like any big city, Halifax has plenty by way of entertainment and shopping, and of course it has the waterfront, an attraction in its own right. But a recent visit revealed a new delight. To say the Freak Lunchbox is a sweet (candy) store misses the point. It is a brilliant place to visit and simply gawp at the stuff on the shelves, or better, fill a plastic bucket with all manner of goodies. It’s both an amazing and unexpected experience. Which sets the tone for the rest of Nova Scotia, amazing and unexpected.
More to come: North to Charlos Cove, Magic Kejimkujik, Annapolis, Digby and The Bay of Fundy
Since posting this article on Jan 5th I have word that Doull’s book store is leaving Halifax. Cities can ill-afford to lose original – even unique – places like Doull’s, Halifax will be the poorer for it. So if you’re going to the store, go soon and buy a book or two, it’ll save John Doull from moving them across to Dartmouth.