This week is City Pages’ annual “Get Outta Town” issue. Since they don’t post their content online, here’s my feature on Halifax, Nova Scotia.
My first trip to Nova Scotia came by a roundabout way, since I drove from Montreal. It’s a pretty route through Quebec City, up the St. Lawrence Seaway, across a slice of French Canada and down through New Brunswick to Halifax. It’s about the same distance as driving from Wausau to the Black Hills and one of those excursions where unlimited mileage is an important aspect of your car rental. Of course, you still have to pay Canadian prices for your gasoline and it’s something I notice when I’m in the true north strong and free. I didn’t care as much 15 years ago, when a U.S. dollar would buy $1.50 Canadian, but those days are gone.
Also gone are those wonderful zone fare coupons with Northwest Airlines that would fly you into Halifax for $300 or less. It’s never a cheap ticket and any time you can get it for $500, you should probably consider it a steal, since the mid-$700 range is more typical these days.
But there are still award tickets, for the persistent – and once you’re there, life is pretty reasonable; really no more expensive than back home in Wausau, with some unusually luxurious extras thrown into the mix. I reflected on this fact as we dined on whole lobsters in the Caledonia Curling Club; something they do as a fundraiser during the Pictou Lobster Carnival. Back home, we might have spaghetti, chili or pancakes at a fundraiser. Here, $20 gets you a lobster dinner and they’ll toss in an extra lobster for $10, if that’s what you’d like. It’s something that we didn’t have room for after the standard dinner, which was topped off with homemade strawberry shortcake made with peak season local berries. It wasn’t crowded at all because it was 1:40 p.m. – a bit late for lunch for the locals, but just right for us, since the Atlantic Time Zone is two hours ahead of the Central Time Zone.
“How many of these dinners do you sell,” I asked one of the volunteers staffing the event. “We get about 120 people for lunch and 240 for supper each day over four days or until we sell out,” he said. Not bad for a community of less than 3,500 that’s well off the beaten track on the shores of the Northumberland Straight between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, (or P.E.I., as everyone calls it here.) But they do their lobster carnival up right with bed races, a parade, bands, a princess and more.
We walk a little of our lunch off on the streets of this quaint harbor town filled with buildings from the 1800s before heading back to Halifax for a tattoo. Normally, I’m not much for collecting body art, but this tattoo is something entirely different.
The Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo is billed as the world’s largest annual indoor show and it is hard to imagine how they could make it any bigger. More than two hours of bagpipes, bands, dancers, singers, Mounties, military units, drums, drama, lights and acrobats from a half dozen countries and Canada stage the spectacle during the first week of July, after opening with a parade on Canada Day, July 1. It’s fast-moving, with each act running from three to six minutes. Now in its 35th year, it’s part historical pageant, part variety show, part drama and a signature event in a city that is long on international heritage, as the Ellis Island of Canada. Tickets cost from $24.50 to $80, depending on location and they pack the 11,000 seat house for eight performances of the tattoo during its annual run.
After catching the evening performance of the tattoo at Metro Center, which is located just below the crest of Citadel Hill, we walk down through historic Halifax toward the harbor through the downtown, which it teeming with nightlife in this bustling provincial capital city of around 300,000. Our destination is the Old Triangle Irish Alehouse, a wonderful pub that features a funky menu with everything from burgers to lamb and fresh seafood, along with live music every night of the week. We’ve heard some wonderful Celtic music here in several visits over the years and the place has played host to names as big in the business as the Irish Rovers, Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac.
The Maritimes have never lost their immigrant roots and their love of traditional music. Fiddles, pipes and step-dancing never went out of style here and while it may be interesting to see in a concert hall, it’s that much better in a front of an appreciative, participative audience in an Irish pub with glasses of beer to lubricate the experience and drive off any inhibitions about getting into the music. There is a reason this place is “New Scotland” and it harkens to the old, with its connection to the sea and the culture of Europe.
The Loyalists fled to Canada as part of the fallout of the American Revolution and the country was part of the British Empire for many decades following, when it was known as the Dominion of Canada. It is an independent nation today, but Canada still has a governor general from the United Kingdom to perform official and ceremonial duties of the British sovereign, Queen Elizabeth is still on the country’s money and British spellings for words like colour and neighbour are retained. In addition to its strong connection to the English, Canada has another nod to Europe in that it retains French as its other official language and there are pockets in the Maritime Provinces where French is still the primary language of the residents.
Leaving the Old Triangle, we walk down to the harbor, which is lined with boats on the pier side and offers a wide variety of restaurants, shops, buskers, food vendors and the Casino Nova Scotia. The Halifax waterfront is a bustle of activity all day long and late into the evening, with people walking the miles of wooden piers, shopping at the Halifax Seaport Market, jogging, biking, taking tall ship and whale watching excursions, catching bagpipe solos from kilted virtuosos and enjoying the broad views.
Halifax Harbor is North America’s northernmost ice-free port and it’s a busy shipping center for eastern Canada, as well as being the port of entry during the waves of European immigration that took place in the 19th and 20th Centuries. There are dozens of shipwrecks in the inner and outer harbors, include some that were sunk by German U boats near the beginning of World War II. You could take a tour boat, but our preference is simply to take the ferry back and forth from Dartmouth, directly across the harbor from Halifax, where our hotel is located with our room’s balcony overlooking the entire scene – even including Canada Day fireworks over the harbor. As part of the municipal transit system, it’s cheap and you can also take a transfer for a ride on the bus. The other way across the harbor is via one of two large suspension bridges, the McKay and the MacDonald, spanning the narrows in the harbor.
In the morning, we take a drive up the eastern shore on the Atlantic side in search of one of those mom & pop seafood shacks, where you can get fresh scallops, fish, crab and lobster to enjoy on picnic tables on a deck with an umbrella for shade a cold beer to wash it all down with. Within 30 miles or so of driving the rugged coastline past the occasional piles of lobster traps and the workhorse boats that set them in season, we hit pay dirt; a little red building with a dirt parking lot in Musquodoboit Harbour with a big deck. We turn in and in a few minutes, we’re enjoying lobster rolls, scallops, cool salads, French fries and cold beers. This is living and in addition to being fabulously fresh and delicious, it’s cheap. But for dinner, I had something different in mind. After an afternoon back in the city and a failed attempt to spot some whales, we set out for the Bay of Fundy side.
The Bay of Fundy, which separates Nova Scotia from New Brunswick and Maine, has the highest tides in the world. After consulting a tide schedule, I figured we could hit what looked like nice, but campy lobster restaurant in Hall’s Harbour, a tiny fishing village on the bay. As we drive through the last hairpin turn to the lobster pound, we see the boats grounded along the empty inlet. It is definitely low tide.
Like a lot of the other seafood places along the bay, the process is pretty simple. You go into the gift shop, pick out a lobster from the tank, drop it in a plastic tub and take it to the cash register, where it is weighed. Then you march your lobster to a window in the back, where a fellow in charge of cooking it takes it off your hands and you carry a number back to your picnic table. You order a salad, a side and a beverage and in a short while, your lobster arrives, hot and fresh. Big view, beer and great food – it just doesn’t get any better.
I don’t know if a person can get tired of fresh seafood, but it has never happened to me. Just to make sure that we were really in heaven, we stopped by the Masstown Seafood Market near Truro the next day. It was $8.99 for 5 lbs. of mussels, $10.99 for 5 lbs. of clams, $7.99 per pound for live lobsters (or giant scallops, if you preferred them.) Yes, we were definitely there.
While everyone likes to think of Canada as being “up north,” Halifax is essentially directly east of us and it enjoys a maritime climate that is moderated by its proximity to the sea. The people are friendly, the atmosphere is casual, the history is rich – and then there’s always the lobster.