Halifax is Canada’s Ocean Playground
As the largest city on the east coast, Halifax is a key centre for business, travel and tourism. The Nova Scotia capital is steeped in history, founded in 1749 by Governor Edward Cornwallis. Among other things, Cornwallis was attracted by the harbour, the second largest natural harbour in the world (after Sydney, Australia). And to this day, more than 250 years later, it is the harbour that defines much of Halifax and its people.
In recent years, there has been a significant investment made in sprucing up the Halifax waterfront. The catalyst for some of that work has been the staging of various festivals and events. Things really get going around May on the waterfront, along the boardwalk in downtown Halifax. That’s when the tour boat operators begin their new season. You can take a leisurely harbour tour on board a number of different vessels, including Theodore Too, a life-sized working tugboat based on the children’s television show. Or go deep-sea fishing on a variety of boats, some (but not all) of them wheelchair accessible. And if your timing is right, you might get a glimpse of the world-famous schooner, the Bluenose II. It too offers tours to the public.
You can learn more about Nova Scotia’s connection to the sea dating back to 1850 by touring the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, also located along the waterfront. One of the most popular exhibits is “Titanic: The Unsinkable Ship and Halifax.” Here you can find out how Halifax responded to the 1912 disaster and get to see one of the only intact deck chairs salvaged from the ship. Some of the Titanic victims are buried in Halifax cemeteries.
Two bridges connect Halifax to the neighbouring community of Dartmouth and other points east. And one of the quickest and most convenient ways to get there is on the Metro Transit ferry. It connects downtown Halifax with downtown Dartmouth, and a one-way trip on the accessible ferry takes less than 10 minutes. It’s a great way to see the Halifax and Dartmouth waterfronts and catch a glimpse of the Canadian Coast Guard slips or the Canadian navy dockyard. In the peak summer season, the service runs every 15 to 30 minutes, seven days a week. You can also get around the city on a Metro Transit bus, although not all routes have accessible buses yet.
Further down the boardwalk and close to the Via Rail station you will find Pier 21, a place where millions of immigrants first set foot on Canadian soil between 1928 and 1971. It’s a national historic site where you can almost re-live the experiences of the people who came to settle in our country. Thanks to features like interactive exhibits and multimedia presentations, this wheelchair accessible facility is a fascinating tour for young and old.
A fairly steep incline from the waterfront will lead you to Citadel Hill. Here you will find the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site… one of five fortresses built around the mouth of Halifax Harbour to protect the city during wartimes. Guided tours are offered, and there are even some 4 X 4 wheelchairs available to help manoeuvre across the cobblestone courtyard and through the fort’s passageways. The view from the top is fantastic! From there, you can watch members of the 78th Highlanders fire the noon gun. Plug your ears if you are faint of heart!
There’s entertainment and accommodation aplenty in Halifax. The Casino Nova Scotia hosts the only hotel right on the water. This fully accessible facility offers a couple of wheelchair accessible hotel rooms, an accessible pool, a spa, dining and, of course, gambling. Most hotels offer at least a few accessible rooms, and some have accessible fitness centres.
If it’s the bounty of the sea that attracts you, restaurants scattered throughout the downtown area, from pubs to fine dining, offer seafood and other fare. And some of them have waterfront patios, where you can enjoy a great meal – or maybe just a drink at one of the local brewpubs.
Halifax has a vibrant music community. From Celtic to Urban, Jazz to rock, you can hear it played in lively pubs and bars throughout the city. If you visit in the summer, you might also catch a concert on the “Hill.” Thousands of people gather on the grass on Citadel Hill (behind the fortress) to watch and listen to their favourite bands.
Some people plan their visits around events, and there are lots of them throughout the summer months. June will feature the 20th annual Nova Scotia Multicultural Festival on the Dartmouth waterfront, as well as the Nova Scotia International Tattoo at the Halifax Metro Centre. Now in its 25th year, the Tattoo features over two thousand military and civilian performers, and is the world’s largest annual indoor show.
Music festivals abound in July, with the 10-day Atlantic Jazz Festival at various venues in Halifax starting July 9. At the same time, the 55th Maritime Fiddle Festival will take place in Dartmouth. It’s the oldest continually run contest in the country, and features champion fiddling and step dancing.
And at the end of July, Halifax welcomes the world for two spectacular events. Tall Ships 2004 is a five-day event that features magnificent tall ships from a variety of classes, culminating with the Parade of Sail on Natal Day, a provincial holiday. About 40 beautiful sailing vessels are expected in Halifax Harbour that weekend. And for two weeks, beginning July 31, Nova Scotians from Sydney to Yarmouth will open their homes to Acadians around the world who are returning to their roots to celebrate the World Acadian Congress. Hundreds of family reunions are already planned. The Congress officially ends August 15 with a pilgrimage to the National Historic Site at Grand Pré, Nova Scotia.
More visitors from afar come to Halifax in August to perform in the Halifax International Busker Festival. This will be the 15th year for the famous 10-day street performers’ festival.
Come September, things start to slow down a bit. Last September was one that many would like to forget, thanks to Hurricane Juan. The once-in-a-lifetime storm threw a bit of a curve ball at Halifax and other parts of the province. But it didn’t dampen the spirit of the friendly people who live and work in concert with the sea in the province known as “Canada’s Ocean Playground.”
(Rich Horner is a freelance writer and news broadcaster in Halifax, Nova Scotia.)
ON THE WEB
General Halifax Information
Halifax Regional Municipality
On the Water
Murphy’s on the Water: Tour and Restaurant Operator
Museums and Historic Sites
Nova Scotia Museums (click on “ Maritime Museum”)
Pier 21 National Historic Site
Halifax Citadel National Historic Site
The Nova Scotia International Tattoo
World Acadian Congress 2004
Buskers 2004 Festival
Tall Ships Challenge