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Halifax, Nova Scotia's capital city (population of 390,000) and the gateway to Atlantic Canada, has numerous identities. Boasting the second-largest natural harbor in the world, it draws a major share of Canada's container trade and oodles of cruise ship visits in the late summer and early fall. A few streets inland, there are many sights to take in, and while gorgeous coastal scenery begins just outside the city limits, especially during the spectacular autumn foliage displays, the waterfront is also a delight to explore.
Halifax also has a strong connection to the sinking of the Titanic since it played a key role during the aftermath of the tragedy. Three of the city's ships were sent out to recover bodies, and so it is the final resting place for many unclaimed victims -- three cemeteries throughout Halifax feature rows of black granite headstones, each inscribed with the same date: April 15, 1912.
But beyond the scenery and history, Halifax is just plain fun. It is a youthful, energetic town (home to several colleges and universities) boasting a downtown area chock-full of pubs, clubs and cafes, as well as a restored waterfront that once welcomed traders and privateers. Throughout the year, you can enjoy music festivals, outdoor concerts and even old-fashioned Celtic Ceilidhs (read: lively folk dances, often accompanied by fiddle).
It's this rich culture that has boosted Canada/New England's popularity as a cruise region -- and the fact that Halifax is easy to include even on short four- or five-day Canadian itineraries. Annually, Halifax hosts more than 130 ship visits between early May and late October from lines that include Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Cunard, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, Royal Caribbean and Seabourn.
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Other Canada & New England Cruise Ports:
Bar Harbor • Bayonne (Cape Liberty) • Boston • Charlottetown (Prince Edward Island) • Halifax • Montreal • New York (Manhattan) • Newport • Portland (Maine) • Quebec City • Saint John (New Brunswick) • St. John's (Newfoundland)
Some of the finest crystal in the world is made in Nova Scotia. Pick up a mouth-blown, hand-cut piece at Nova Scotian Crystal on the boardwalk.
The vast majority of Haligonians speak English, but a smattering of folks also speak French.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency in Halifax is the Canadian dollar, but most shops will accept American dollars. If you don't wan to risk it, you'll find an ATM at nearby Pier 21, at the immigration museum and at Java Cafe, across from Pier 20. For the most updated currency conversions, visit www.xe.com and www.oanda.com.
Where You're Docked
Most ships dock at two piers near the beginning of the harbor's boardwalk, and local merchants and tourism representatives set up little stands inside the terminal. If more than two cruise ships are present at one time, one or more may have to tie up at the less convenient container terminal, which requires a shuttle transfer to the center of the city. Scottish-style pipers may greet your ship in a province whose name translates to New Scotland.
Halifax's picturesque waterfront is easy to explore on foot. Even if you're not in the mood to shop, stroll the boardwalk that zigzags along the harbor, lined with shops, restaurants and attractions. Historic Properties at Privateers Wharf is located directly on the boardwalk and is made up of a collection of boutiques, impulse eateries and pubs housed in 10 wood and stone buildings dating back to the early 1800's. Don't miss the chance to snack on fried fish sandwiches from the wooden food stand near the Maritime Museum. Rum Runners Rum Cake Factory is another mainstay on the boardwalk at Bishop's Landing.
The main waterfront attractions begin at the start of the boardwalk and continue on for the next three quarters of a mile. Taxis line up outside the terminal. Alamo (800-462-5266) and National (800-227-7368) have reservation desks down the street from the Westin Nova Scotian hotel, a large red-brick building, just five minutes from your ship on foot. Car rentals are not available at the piers. If you want something more active, a short stroll down the boardwalk brings you to a bike rental stand, where, for $9 an hour or $25 for a half-day, you can grab a bike and pedal your way around the city. A Segway tour stand is also nearby.
Watch Out For
As you should in any port of call, leave unnecessary valuables and cash in your stateroom's safe. Halifax is a friendly place, but it's helpful to stay alert, particularly if you're not familiar with the area.
Pier 21, the immigration museum, is located just steps from where you'll disembark. In operation from 1928 to1971, the depot received 1.5 million immigrants, returning soldiers, war brides and displaced children. You can take in video and audio accounts of why people settled in Canada, how they fared and how young children were sent to Canada to escape the wartime bombings in England. A film version of a stage performance shows the arrival home of a troopship with anxious brides, some with children in tow, waiting to greet their husbands after an absence of several years. Guided tours are available every hour, on the half-hour. It will take you anywhere from 40 minutes to three hours to explore the museum, depending on your pace. (open seven days a week, May 1 to October 31 from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.)
The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia is located in the heart of downtown Halifax. The 9,000 works in the collection include historic and contemporary Nova Scotian, Canadian and international art, as well as an acclaimed collection of folk art. (1723 Hollis Street; 902-424-5280; daily tours Wednesday to Sunday at 2:30 p.m. and Thursday at 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.; open Wednesday to Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., with free extended hours from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursdays; Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
If you are strolling along the waterfront, be sure to visit the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, the marine history division of the Nova Scotia Museum (a family of 12 museums operated by the province). The main attraction here is an exhibit dedicated to the sinking of Titanic, where you can view an actual deck chair from the ship, one of a few in the world still intact. Other Titanic artifacts are housed here as well, including oak molding from the forward first-class staircase. Other major exhibits are the beautiful passenger ship models and a section dedicated to the Halifax Explosion that devastated the city during World War I when a munitions ship blew up. Outside, you can climb aboard the CSS Acadia, Canada's first hydrographic ship, and the convoy escort corvette HMCS Sackville. (1675 Lower Water Street; 902-424-749; open daily, June to September, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Tuesday extended to 8 p.m.)
After the Titanic sank, survivors still needed to get to their destinations, so they were brought to Halifax, the closest major seaport with access to a rail system. Ships also brought the bodies of some victims, many of which were buried in Fairview Lawn Cemetary. More than 120 graves can be seen at Fairview, while 19 are at Mount Olivet Cemetary.
Nova Scotia boasts some of the nation's earliest civic buildings, and Halifax's Province House, opened in 1819, is by far the oldest. Most notably, Province House is where provincial legislature meets, but the building is also of architectural interest -- writer Charles Dickens called Province House "a gem of Georgian architecture." (1726 Hollis Street; 902-424-4661; open July to August, weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekends 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; September to June, weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
The Halifax Public Gardens, which dates back to the mid-19th century, measures an impressive 17 acres and is enclosed by an ornamental, wrought-iron gate. Flora and fauna, statues and fountains, and a gingerbread-house-like bandstand grace this popular tourist attraction. Free public summer concerts take place at the gazebo. (1606 Bell Road, 902-423-9865)
Been There, Done That
Take the Halifax-Dartmouth Ferry across the harbor to Dartmouth. The 395-passenger double-ended passenger ferries leave every 15 to 30 minutes, depending on time of day, for the 12-miniute crossing. Dartmouth is a small, residential city, perfect for escaping the touristy crowds. The World Peace Pavilion, located near the ferry terminal, is a great attraction for families, serving as a learning activity for geography, history and social studies; a chunk of the Berlin wall is kept there, as well as a piece of the Great Wall of China. (open during sunlight hours; free admission)
Interesting factoid: The Halifax-Dartmouth Ferry is actually the oldest continuous (255 years) salt-water passenger ferry service in North America. For ferry schedules and information, visit Halifax-Dartmouth Ferry on the Web.
Get your military history at the Halifax Citadel, a fort built in 1749. It's a steep climb up from the waterfront, but the view of the surrounding city and the vast harbor is well worth the effort. There are marching guards, and a cannon sounds every day at noon, a two-hundred-year-old tradition.
On the way up to the citadel via either George or Prince Streets, visit St. Paul's Church, Canada's oldest Protestant church, built in 1749. Further along the way, make sure to stop for a photo break at the Old Town Click, which has been keeping time in Halifax since 1803.
Interested in local spirits ... the imbibable kind, that is? Just a few blocks from the waterfront is the historic Alexander Keith's Brewery, which began producing a variety of local beers in 1820. Guides in period costume lead visitors through the brewery and, of course, you can enjoy a few samples along the way. During the summer, one-hour tours begin every 30 minutes. (Monday to Saturday noon to 8 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.)
Plan a day trip to Peggy's Cove, a rustic fishing village located on an ocean inlet and known for its dramatic lighthouse. Peggy's Cove is about a 30-minute drive southwest of Halifax, so your best bets are to rent a car or book an excursion.
Check out Lunenburg, a waterfront village that's a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the town was founded in 1753. Lunenburg is about a 57-mile drive southwest of Halifax and features a number of activities for lovers of the great outdoors, including campgrounds, golf courses and sandy beaches. You pass through pretty seaside Mahone Bay on the way.
Rent a car and drive to one of the quaint fishing villages alongside the Bay of Fundy (such as Hall's Harbour). No catch? No problem: Lobster restaurants abound.
Lost of lunch options are available in Halifax -- from cheap and delicious fish and chips out of a wooden shack to upscale dining. while seafood is the city's specialty, you'll also find a variety of other choices.
Casual, in-town joints: Heart & Thistle (1869 Upper Water Street) is open daily for pub fare, Great Wall Restaurant (1649 Bedford Row) is open daily from 11:30 a.m. for Szechuan and Cantonese cuisine, and Waterfront Warehouse (1549 Lower Water Street; open Monday to Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.) -- a seafood-lover's dream -- offers a variety of fresh-from-the-sea fare like lobster, fish tacos and clams. Additionally, Spring Garden, adjacent to Dalhousie University, is a bustling mecca for eateries and drinking places.
Gourmet Dining: Cafe Chianti (1241 Barrington Street) is open daily for Italian and Eastern European fare in an Old World setting; the restaurant also boasts its own wine cellar with a fine selection of rare vintage wines. (lunch served from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.)
Staying in Touch
The easiest way to get online in Halifax is to take an easy stroll down the boardwalk to the waterfront. There, free Wi-Fi is available to anyone who wants it. If you don't want to walk that far, just across from Pier 20 is Java Factory, a small coffee shop that will give you unlimited Internet access for $1. A little farther into the city is Paperchase Newsstand and Cafe (5528 Blowers Street, between Spring Garden and Sackville), where Internet comes free with any purchase. Access can also be bought for 13 cents a minute. The local libraries also provide access to the Internet for free; you just need to bring I.D. with you.
Best for a Quick Overview: Travel by motorcoach to all the main visitor attractions, including the waterfront, the Citadel, historic buildings and more. This tour takes about three hours.
Best for Titanic Enthusiasts: A guide takes you through the city of Halifax, concentrating on sights of Titanic importance. Stops include the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Fairview Lawn Cemetary, St. Paul's Church and several more points of interest. This tour takes two to three hours.
Peggy's Cove Visit: By motorcoach along the coast, visit Peggy's Cove, a scenic fishing village that's home to one of Nova Scotia's most photographed landmarks -- the lighthouse on Peggy's Cove, which marks the entrance to St. Margaret's Bay.
For More Information
On the Web: www.halifaxinfo.com and www.cruisehalifax.ca
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--Updated by Dori Saltzman, News Editor