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Halifax: small city, big heart

Fruition at the Farmer's Market
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By Sandra Phinney


This city has it all—and then some.


A historical seaport where you can smell the past, Halifax is home to institutions and events that can rightfully lay claim to be the first (and oldest) in North America. Although steeped in tradition, the city is also modern, hip, and savvy. Halegonians (the proper name for residents of Halifax) are superb hosts and hostesses, yet they are singularly unpretentious. This is one of the many charms of the place.


The city’s skyline is an interesting mix of 18th and 19th century architecture rubbing shoulders with towers of glass and steel. Situated on the world’s second largest natural harbor, the waterfront bustles with activity as vessels from all over the world make Halifax a port of call.


From 1928 to 1971, over 1.5 million immigrants—evacuees, troops, refugees, war brides and their children—started new lives here when they disembarked at Pier 21 in the north end of the city. Today, Pier 21 is a National Historic Site and a great place to start your own journey. The exhibits are superb. One place I always return to is the award-winning 24 minute movie titled “Ocean of Hope.” Although I’ve seen it several times, I never tire of the production. Pier 21 is very kid-friendly; children can get their own passport and have it stamped at various exhibits.


Adjacent to Pier 21 is one of my all-time favourite places to hang out—the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market. The oldest continuously operating farmers’ market in North America, it’s environment-friendly, and features one of the largest green roofs on this side of the Atlantic. The selection of culinary delights, local food products, and unique arts and crafts never cease to amaze me. Bonus: the vendors are always happy to chat about their products and what they do.


As soon as you come out of the market, you’ll see a boardwalk to your right. It follows the curve of the harbour the length of the downtown core. A few blocks north on the boardwalk is a complex called Bishop’s Landing consisting of unique boutiques and great places to eat, all on the waterfront. I’m especially fond of the Rum Runners Rum Cake Factory. Staff here love to tell the story of how rum running was a major industry in Halifax during the 1920’s and 1930’s. (Warning: the rum cake here can be addictive.)


Close by is the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. The exhibits are stunning, and include the world’s finest collection of artifacts from the Titanic, and inspiring displays from the Halifax explosion.


Throughout Halifax, there are a number of intriguing, less-publicized shops that are part of the fabric of the city, such as the Halifax Folklore Center, an unusual music shop housed in an old Victorian home (1528 Brunswick Street). Vintage guitars and violins share shelf space alongside a melange of new and used musical instruments, and a robust selection of Celtic and Maritime music books. It’s worth dropping in, if only to enjoy the ramblings of the staff and to feel the vibes from the instruments. If you have kids with you, ask to see the special selection of kid-sized instruments, noisemakers, shakers and kazoos. (And, if you’re a big kid like me, you’ll want to add to your collection of kazoos!)


Halifax is also home to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, affectionately known as “the little gallery that could.” International caliber shows are always on display here, as well as impressive permanent collections, including the actual home of Nova Scotia’s famous folk artist, Maud Lewis.


For a walk on the wild side, consider surfing. It may come as a surprise that Lawrencetown Beach—only 30 minutes from downtown Halifax—has great surf, and a young, active beach community. If you go, you’ll likely run into Julie Baldwin, member of the Canadian National Surfing Team and competitor in the World Surfing Games. “Compared to other coastlines in the world, Nova Scotia is a little more rugged—like a diamond in the rough,” says Julie. “It’s also a little fickle, but when the surf turns on, it can fire!” (You can rent gear and/or sign up for surfing lessons from East Coast Surf School.)


For food I’ve always felt spoiled for choice as Halifax has every kind of eatery and food establishment imaginable, from food trucks to fine dining. One of the newest kids on the block is the Stubborn Goat Gastropub. Don’t expect everyone at your table to be served at the same time (food comes as soon as it’s ready)—but do expect to say “wow” a lot. Popular items include Shishito Peppers, Queseda Fondito, and an unusual Lobster Bisque.


Over in Dartmouth, Nectar Restaurant & Wine Bar waltzed away with the Coast Magazine’s 2013 Best Dartmouth Restaurant Food award for the fifth year hand-running. Weekend brunches (oh those crepes!) are hugely popular. And for an amazing feed of Fish & Chips, the place I head to is John’s Lunch, also in Dartmouth. Folks like former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, author John Ralston Saul, musician Joel Plaskett, actor Rob Lowe, and the cast from the Trailer Park Boys—have all eaten here. The place is legendary.


Before you bid farewell to the region, try and budget some time to spend on the water. At Murphy’s Cable Wharf downtown, there are many choices from dinner cruises to deep sea fishing and a sail on a tall ship. Families can also take a short ferry ride to McNab’s Island, or climb aboard Theodore Too, a full sized replica from the TV series, Theodore Tugboat. For something a little whacky, try the Harbour Hopper, an amphibious “thing” that will take you on a wee journey by land and water. Regardless of your choice, you’ll get a panoramic view.


More important, you’ll taste the salt in the wind, and feel connected to this very special place on the planet.