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North of the Border

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Halifax anchors a region with urban appeal and picture-postcard landscapes

Posted November 4, 2011



I have to admit that I was not one of the legions of readers of the popular “Anne of Green Gables” books. Yet somehow, the appeal of Nova Scotia, the setting for the fictional childhood series, has always fascinated me. So when I was looking for a quick getaway recently and found out that nonstop flights were now available from Dulles International Airport to the capital city of Halifax, I wasted no time in booking a flight. Once on the plane, I was across the border in less than two hours and ready for my Nova Scotian experience.

After picking up my rental car at the very manageable Halifax International Airport, I made the easy 30-minute drive into downtown Halifax and checked into the Prince George Hotel. This contemporary—yet still somehow Old World-elegant—hotel is located in downtown Halifax, just several (steep!) blocks up from the city’s lively waterfront. I dropped off my bags—in my very comfortable room—but as I was only going to be in N.S. for a long weekend, there was no time to waste. I headed out on a “recce,” as the British would say, to have a look around and get the lay of the land.

As it’s easier walking down those steep inclines than up, I first made my way down to the harbor where the Halifax International Busker Festival was in full swing. Street performers, crafts booths, and food stands lined the streets as crowds mingled together enjoying the warm, sunny weather (and where was the cool Canadian air, I was wondering, having left Baltimore in the midst of a heat wave, only to find it was pretty toasty up in Canada as well).

After enjoying the festival, I headed away from the harbor into town. Most of what you will want to see in Halifax is within walking distance. The Spring Garden district has interesting boutiques and casual restaurants, and is right by what came to be one of my favorite spots in the city, the 17-acre Halifax Public Gardens, which was opened in 1867 and is reputed to be one of the finest North American examples of a formal Victorian garden. This green oasis in the middle of town made an ideal photo “op” stop, as well as being an enticing break for an al fresco lunch.

On the way back toward the hotel, I made a quick visit to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia to visit their permanent collections of Canadian art, both historical and contemporary. If art’s not your thing, you might want to visit the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to learn about Nova Scotia’s maritime history; the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, which traces the roots of Nova Scotia’s Black communities, dating back to the 17th century; Pier 21, which pays tribute to the stories of Canada’s many immigrant groups; the Museum of Natural History, a favorite for kids with its dinosaur exhibit; and the Halifax Citadel, the National Historic Site of Canada, from which you can look down over the entire city. Be prepared for the noon gun salute!

By the time I got back to the hotel, my friend who was joining me for the trip had arrived from New Jersey. It was back to the waterfront for dinner, and then a ferry ride across the harbor and back to see the lights of the city from a different perspective. We made a quick visit to the Halifax Casino, located right on the waterfront in the area known as Historic Properties, and money still in our wallets, it was time to call it a night.

It had started to rain by the time we were ready to go back to the hotel and the thought of walking up the hills amidst the raindrops wasn’t that appealing. Thanks to those Canadians, who know a thing or two about weather, we walked over to the indoor pedestrian walkway, known as the Downtown Link, and made the 15-minute walk straight back to the hotel lobby…no rain, and happily for me, no hills!

The next day, armed with maps and directions from the friendly hotel concierge, we took our rental car and drove thirty minutes west of Halifax to Peggy’s Cove, one of Nova Scotia’s most well-known and oft-visited spots. The historic and much photographed (and painted) lighthouse that has made this tiny fishing village famous is perched atop a mound of granite boulders. Scenic yes, but be careful—the boulders have been worn smooth from the pounding waves below and can be slippery. Heed the signs!

We left Peggy’s Cove and continued our drive until we reached the picturesque coastal town of Lunenburg. This 18th -century village has made its living from the sea for centuries, but is now a popular visitors’ destination, with galleries, restaurants, and boutiques housed in centuries-old buildings.

After lunch, we joined up with our Lunenburg guide, Eric, who was able to tell us about the history of this seafaring town which is both a National Historic District and a UNESCO World Heritage site. You might already be familiar with Lunenburg as it’s been the setting for a number of popular films, including “Dolores Claiborne,” based on the novel by Stephen King.

Since I have a fondness for small seaside towns, on the recommendation of our guide, we followed the map to nearby Mahone Bay, with its 19th century architecture and a variety of gallery and crafts shops, including Amos Pewter. At the back of the retail shop there is an open studio where you can see local artisans producing the pewter jewelry and gift items available for sale. The Nova Scotians are a crafty lot—artistically speaking—and have established an Economuseum network to showcase traditional trades and skills. There are a number of guides to the arts and crafts in Nova Scotia, and indeed, you could focus your entire trip on visiting galleries alone.

Once back in Halifax, we decided to explore the city outside the main tourism district and found ourselves in the Hydrostone neighborhood. In 1917, the Halifax Explosion destroyed almost all of the northern end of Halifax. The reconstruction included 328 houses in the area bordered by Young, Agricola, Duffus and Gottingen Streets. The houses were built from cement blocks known as hydrostone—from which the neighborhood now takes its name—and were known for such modern (at the time) amenities as gardens, electricity, and plumbing. The houses are all privately-owned, but the small main street known as Hydrostone Market has a variety of restaurants, shops, and galleries.

The following day, our last full day in Nova Scotia, it was back in the car again (if you’re staying only in Halifax, you won’t need a car, but if you plan to explore the area, it’s a good idea to have one, although there are guided coach tours you can take as well). On this day, our itinerary was the Evangeline Trail, which parallels the coast of the Bay of Fundy. Our first stop—which was one we almost didn’t make and would truly have regretted—was the Tangled Garden. This enchanting pocket-sized garden, a labor of love run by two British expatriates, charges no admission (donations welcome though) and includes a wildflower labyrinth, garden, and reflecting pond.. When the weather is nice, a small ice cream stand offers homemade ice cream in such flavors as homegrown lavender. And a small gift shop/art gallery is a wonderful place to stock up on teas, herbs, jams, and vinegars, made by the owners from their own garden-grown herbs.

From the garden, we drove to the Domaine de Grand Pre. Run by retired Swiss businessman Hanspeter Stutz, who purchased the land and developed this boutique winery, Domaine de Grand Pre turns out a variety of wines and alcoholic beverages, including flavored sparkling wines, popular icewines, and hard cider, in addition to award-winning varieties of red, white, and rose. There is a small wine museum located in the wine shop, and also a Swiss-style restaurant, Le Caveau, where we had a delicious meal accompanied by some of the vineyard’s own wines.

Our next stop was the Grand Pre National Historic Site, which commemorates the history and culture of the Acadians, the area’s early French settlers. The museum is located on the site of the 17th-and 18th-century Acadian village that inspired Longfellow’s poem, “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie.” On the grounds are also a garden and chapel, both open to visitors.

Though my visit to Nova Scotia was shorter than I would have liked (there is much, much more to see, and if you’re an outdoors enthusiast, you’ll want to visit for the hiking, biking, and water activities as well), it lived up to all my expectations. Combining the urban appeal of the city of Halifax with the picture postcard—yet sometimes stark—landscape of the rural outposts, Nova Scotia is a land of contrasts. I’m looking forward to a return visit to explore them further.

To help you plan your trip:

The Prince George Hotel is centrally located at 1725 Market Street. Call 1-800-565-1567 or visit online at www.princegeorgehotel.com.

Nova Scotia Department of Tourism, www.novascotia.com.

Domaine de Grand Pre, www.grandprewines.ns.ca.

Tangled Garden, www.tangledgarden.ns.ca.

Hydrostone Market, www.hydrostonemarket.ca.

Seafood is the order of the day in Nova Scotia. We ate our way through scallops, shrimp, mussels, and lobster at the Five Fishermen (the complimentary salad bar, which includes a raw bar too, could fill you up by itself if you don’t save room); McKelvie’s, located in a refurbished historic firehouse; Salty’s on the Waterfront (ask for a table with a view); and Rogi Orazio, in the Hydrostone neighborhood, more global cuisine than strictly seafood, and well worth a visit.

Carol Sorgen is a nationally recognized writer, editor, and public relations consultant. Her articles have been published by WebMD, Today’s Diet & Nutrition, CNN.com, Men’sFitness.com, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, Chesapeake Home, and Maryland Life, to name but a few. She is the executive editor of the travel site JustSayGo.com, and works as a writer, editor, and public relations consultant through her own site, CarolSorgen.com.

 

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