Joanna Booth has a vine time in Nova Scotia
Less than 24 hours after the smiling immigration officer at Halifax Stanfield International stamps my passport and sends me on my way with a ringing “Welcome to Canada!”, I’m looking at a second, but very different, passport stamp, also authorising entry to the country.
This one dates back 62 years, and the smiling boy in the photo is now a grey-haired gentleman. George Zwaagstra came to Canada from the Netherlands, arriving into the cavernous Pier 21 immigration shed on Halifax docks on a Friday night in April 1951.
HALIFAX: BUILDING SOCIETIES
These days, Pier 21 is Canada’s National Museum of Immigration, and George is a tour guide there, enchanting our group with his tales of what faced those who passed through its halls – how immigrants arriving from poverty-stricken, post-war Europe smuggled sausages into the country wrapped around their legs or in their hair, how they thought oranges were footballs until they split open, and how the white bread they were given was so novel – and delicious – they called it cake.
The city’s position on the eastern seaboard made Halifax the focus for immigration across the Atlantic for centuries, and between 1928 and 1971 more than one million people passed through the Pier 21 building – it’s Canada’s Ellis Island. Their stories are told in fascinating and personal detail through video and interactive exhibits, alongside – if you’re lucky – the thrill of a living channel to the past like George. pier21.ca
Today’s immigrants are more likely to arrive by aircraft than ship, but Halifax is still a major port. The world’s second-largest natural harbour – after Sydney – this is a major stop on the international freight trade route. More than 500,000 containers are processed each year, and the huge cranes are built to service ships so big they won’t fit through the Panama Canal.
A whistlestop view of the port is just one of the highlights on the excellent Ambassatours Gray Line city tour. Guide Glenn, sporting a kilt in tribute to Nova Scotia’s staunchly Scottish heritage – the clue is in the name – spent a lively hour covering everything from the city’s history to pub recommendations. As an introduction and orientation exercise, you’d be hard pushed to find a better option – plus it provided me with plenty of ideas of what to explore next. ambassatours.com
I’d been fascinated by Glenn’s account of two of the more tragic events in the city’s history, and the best place to discover more about both is the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. While the Titanic’s survivors sailed to New York, those who had lost their lives were taken to the closer port of Halifax, where 30 teams of undertakers waited to perform their sad services. A host of artefacts in a dedicated permanent collection brings to life the stories of those who perished.
Just as heart-rending is the exhibition dedicated to the Halifax Explosion of 1917. Two ships collided in the harbour and the resulting blast was, until Hiroshima, the world’s largest man-made explosion. More than 2,000 people died, a further 9,000 were injured, and the city left in ruins. The City Hall clock still remains stuck at 9.06am – the time the explosion occurred on that fateful December 6. maritimemuseum.novascotia.ca
For a more cheerful aspect of the city’s history, direct clients to Alexander Keith’s Nova Scotia Brewery. Actors in period costume whisk visitors back to 1863, explain the brewing process and ply them with beer. keiths.ca
Halifax is a small and walkable city, especially if you book clients into a central option like the Delta Barrington. Rooms are fairly average, but the light, bright, modern restaurant and bar are a real breath of fresh air, staff are super-friendly and the location is top-notch. deltahotels.com
LIGHTHOUSE ROUTE: DRIVE TIME
Tracing the nooks and crannies of the South Shore coastline west of Halifax, the Lighthouse Route is surely one of Canada’s – if not the world’s – prettiest drives. The road winds along a shore alternately rugged and domestic, from wave-eroded rock formations to towns of clapboard houses where brightly coloured fishing smacks are tethered to wooden jetties.
There are 160 lighthouses in Nova Scotia, but if clients stop at only one, make it Peggy’s Point Lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove. The handsome white pepperpot with a red roof sits just outside the small town on rocks beaten smooth by the sea – it feels like you’re standing at the edge of the world.
Further along the coast lies Lunenburg, one of only two urban Unesco World Heritage Sites in North America (the other is Quebec City). The grid of streets has remained remarkably unchanged since its founding in 1753, so despite the fact it’s a thriving community, wandering among the old shingle or clapboard-clad homes feels like walking into the past.
Our guide, Shelah Allen, a seventh-generation Lunenburger, points out how this fishing town’s connection to the sea is palpable, even in its architecture, from the elements of shipbuilding evident in the wooden walls to the ‘widow’s watch’ windows, high on each house, from which women kept an eye out for their husbands returning from the sea. The Fishermen’s Memorial, a series of black granite columns on the waterfront, is a moving reminder of just how many never came back.
A stay in one of the historic properties completes the quintessential Lunenburg experience. The Mariner King Inn is a boutique hotel on the town’s quiet main street, with three rooms and two suites in the original 1830s building, plus another nine more contemporary rooms and suites across the road. Whichever you book, breakfast is served in the characterful dining room, crammed with antiques. marinerking.com
Before they leave, suggest clients drop into Ironworks Distillery, a craft distillery housed in an old blacksmith’s shop in the town centre – the bottles make great gifts, from vodka and rum to apple brandy and liqueurs made from blueberries, cranberries and even saskatoon berries. ironworksdistillery.com
ANNAPOLIS VALLEY: FERTILE GROUND
In among the bright green of the rows of vines, I pick out an unusual sight – a bright red phone box. Like its owner, it came to Canada from Britain. Nottingham native Pete Luckett owns a vineyard in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, an area famed for its fertile soil in the province’s north, bordering the Bay of Fundy.
It’s an up-and-coming wine region, perfect to visit by car or on a day tour out of Halifax or Wolfville. Luckett Vineyards and Domaine de Grand Pré winery are good recommendations, not only for the wines – the dry L’Acadie blanc varieties got my vote – but also for a spot of lunch. luckettvineyards.com; grandprewines.ns.ca
Rather than wine, Beverly McClure grows herbs and fruits. Her Tangled Garden is a tiny bit of heaven, set just off Highway 101 on the way into Grand-Pré. The name is a fair description – this isn’t one of those martial gardens where everything is in a straight line. Brightly coloured butterflies flit among the tumble of fruit, flowers and herbs, which Beverly turns into the most delicious jellies, jams, liqueurs and ice-creams, on sale in the pretty shop. tangledgardenherbs.ca
The Acadian settlers who came to this area from France in the 1680s were green-fingered folk too. The name Grand-Pré means great meadow, and they really did create one, using a cleverly designed set of dykes to reclaim thousands of acres of land from the sea for farming. The Grand-Pré National Historic Site stands on this land, and vividly brings to life the tragic story of the Acadians, who were deported from their homes by the British in 1755. grand-pre.com
More evidence of the struggles between Britain and France to take control of Nova Scotia can be found farther west, in Annapolis Royal. Fort Anne was built by the French in 1702, but captured by the British and defended successfully against French forces over the next century. Walking the earth walls of this star-shaped fort is a lovely sunset stroll, past large cannons and a guardhouse.
It’s hard to believe this tiny town was the original capital of the province, with just a small network of streets lined with old houses. For another boutique hotel option, the Queen Anne Inn is beautifully preserved, with large rooms, a friendly welcome and exceptional cooking. queenanneinn.ns.ca
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