It would hardly be fitting to tour the Canadian Maritime Provinces and not make a stop in its biggest city, Halifax.
The site, on one of the world’s best natural harbours, was picked by the British as a strategic foothold during their struggle with the Acadian French for control of Nova Scotia. Once that was settled, the town grew in both military and maritime standing as the English became the dominant force in North America.
Even on a typically misty, grey day the summit of Citadel Hill offered us a panoramic overview of that outstanding harbor. The high ground also provides a natural defence, so a fortress named for King George II was built on the spot in 1749. It was then fortified in 1776 when Nova Scotia, the 14th American colony, chose to stay loyal to the crown. Unlike any intruders from the south back then, we were welcomed and allowed to poke around.
This current fort is much different than what we would have found during the revolution, what stands now is a reconstruction of the Victorian Era version from the mid 1800s, ceremonially guarded by re-enactors of the famous 78th Highlanders Regiment.
The view from Citadel Hill
A Garden Fit for a Queen, a Victorian One
Speaking of Queen Victoria’s reign, the nearby Public Gardens also harken back to that era. Typical of a Victorian garden, flowers and plants from many varied climates and exotic locales line the walkways.
We found all sorts of plant life thriving in this unlikely climate, from desert cactus and yucca, to towering trees from all over the globe, to roses that smelled so sweet it was like walking in a cake.
Gazebos, fountains, archways and seating are also fundamental to a Victorian garden, and they are well represented here. So while the term Victorian may get overused, this park, and in fact a great deal of Halifax, certainly deserves the title.
The Titanic and Paying our Respects at the Fairview Lawn
Halifax also has a deep connection to the sea, including history’s worst maritime tragedy ever, the sinking of The Titanic.
When news of the disaster reached the mainland, three ships were sent out from here to recover as many of the victims as possible.
In all, three hundred and twenty-eight bodies were found, and of those, two hundred and nine were brought to Halifax to be claimed by relatives, or buried should no one come forward. Three quarters of those were never spoken for and are buried in three of the city’s cemeteries, most in Fairview Lawn.
The melancholy weather matched our somber hearts as we walked through the Fairview Lawn Cemetery to the gravesites of the one-hundred-twenty-one casualties and paid our respects.
Many of the headstones are marked only by numbers, as the identities of the victims remain unknown.
Perhaps the most poignant was the unknown grave of a two year old child brought back aboard The MacKay-Bennett, one of ships sent out from Halifax to retrieve the deceased from the site of the disaster. Just recently the boy was identified through DNA samples, but his family prefers that his gravestone remain nameless as a remembrance for all of the other unknown victims.
The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
A deck chair from the Titanic
Shipwrecks are a big part of Halifax history and our next stop, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, chronicles hundreds of them. Salvaged artifacts from dozens of incidents are on display, including a few from the most famous, the Titanic. Once again we are reminded of the unknown child victim of the disaster when we come upon his little shoes in one of the cases.
The museum also documents another catastrophe that struck the city just a few years after the sinking of the Titanic, the Halifax Explosion. On December 6, 1917 the SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship filled with wartime explosives, collided with the Norwegian vessel SS Imo in the harbor. The Mont-Blanc caught fire and the resulting blast was the largest ever until the atom bomb.
At least two thousand people perished, with thousands more injured or left homeless. Aid poured in from all around, but Boston stood out in the relief effort, sending many ship loads of supplies. To this day, every year the city of Halifax sends a Christmas tree to Boston as a continuing thank you gift. The connection is so strong that people here generally refer to the New England area as “The Boston States.”
The Ellis Island of Canada
Just down the waterfront from the museum we checked out Pier 21, sometimes called Canada’s Ellis Island. Touring the facility we learned how over one million immigrants entered the country through this port.
Many were fleeing wars or oppression, others seeking economic opportunity, and still another group reuniting with spouses they met during World War II. These were known as war brides, and nearly 50,000 arrived here to enter their new home.
Street Food and Ghost Ships
Afterwards we were ready for a bite, and set out to find some quintessentially Canadian street food. Score! Good old poutine, the north of the border classic french fries covered with gravy and cheese curds. It is more common inland, around Quebec and Ontario, and typically doesn’t include bacon, but bacon is always good.
Then we discovered a new item for us, donair, which is like a pita wrap of gyro meat served with a sweetened condensed milk sauce.
It is definitely a descendent of the Turkish döner kebab, but the sweet sauce (actually a tad too sweet for our tastes) is unique to the Halifax area.
We ate in the shadow of the CSS Acadia and watched the fog dance around the harbor. At times the mist was so thick we could only hear the boats even though they were only a few dozen feet away. It was quite a sight to watch them materialize out of the grey just in time to tie off at the dock.
An Impromptu (and necessary!) Art Walk
Poutine cannot be allowed to sit on the stomach, so a stroll down the waterfront boardwalk was in order. As we made our way it was getting difficult to distinguish objects until we were right up on them.
What in the world was going on with the street lights?
Drunken streetlight art entitled “The Way Things Are”
The surreal overcast had us doubting our own eyes, but then we realized they were real, and they were spectacular. In an artistic way. In fact, we noticed there were many interesting works of art along the walkway.
A few of them looked to be major undertakings.
As the daylight dimmed we watched a few more ghost ships emerge to become tangible, while others receded into the vapor on their way to destinations unknown.
Our immediate destination was no mystery – some place dry.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
The Titanic Cemetery
The Victorian Public Gardens of Halifax
The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
Having a Merry Time in the Maritimes (Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick)
The Cajun, Canadian, Acadian Connection