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Halifax, Nova Scotia's capital city (population of 360,000) and the gateway to Atlantic Canada, has numerous identities. Boasting one of the largest harbors 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 100 ship visits from lines including Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Cunard, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, Royal Caribbean and Seabourn.
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Other Canada & New England Cruise Ports:
Bar Harbor • Boston • Halifax • Montreal • New York • New York (Cape Liberty) • Newport • Portland, Maine • Prince Edward Island • 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.
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.
The main waterfront attractions begin at the start of the boardwalk and continue on for the next three quarters of a mile. The Citadel (a bit of a climb) and Public Gardens are about a 25-minute walk inland. Taxis line up outside the terminal. Alamo (800-462-5266) and National (800-227-7368) have reservation desks inside the Westin Nova Scotian hotel, a large red-brick building, just five minutes from your ship on foot. Car rentals are no longer available on the piers. Rates begin at about $40 a day.
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 four-acre 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 ramshackle-looking food stand near the Maritime Museum. Rum Runners Rum Cake Factory is another mainstay on the boardwalk at Bishop's Landing.
Pier 21, the immigration museum, is housed on the upper level of one of the cruise terminals. In operation from 1928 to1971, the depot received 1.5 million immigrants, returning soldiers, war brides and displaced children. You can hear video taped accounts about why they 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. Open seven days a week May 1-November 30 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. Open daily 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., with extended hours until 9 p.m. on Thursdays; 1723 Hollis Street, 902-424-5280.
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. Open daily June through September from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday extended to 8 p.m., 1675 Lower Water Street, 902-424-749.
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." Open July through August, weekdays 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., weekends 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.; September through June, weekdays 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.; 1726 Hollis Street, 902-424-4661.
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 half hour for the 12-miniute crossing. Dartmouth is a small, residential city, perfect for escaping the touristy crowds. The World Peace Pavilion here 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 here, and even rocks from the moon.
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 George Street, visit St. Paul's Church, Canada's oldest Protestant church, built in 1749.
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.
Casual, in-town joints: O'Carroll's Irish Pub (1860 Upper Water Street) open daily for pub fare, Great Wall Restaurant (1649 Bedford Row) open daily from 11:30 a.m. for Szechuan and Cantonese cuisine, and Deco (5518 Spring Garden Road) for crab cakes and fresh seafood in an attractive Art Deco setting -- open daily from 11:30 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday brunch from 9:00 a.m. Spring Garden, adjacent to Dalhousie University, is a bustling mecca for eateries and drinking places.
Gourmet Dining: Cafe Chianti (5165 South 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.
Staying in Touch
Paperchase Newsstand and Cafe (5528 Blowers Street, between Spring Garden and Sackville) is the most convenient location for checking e-mail.
Afternoon Tea and the Halifax Citadel -- 2.5 hours
Travel by motorcoach to the Citadel overlooking the city, watch the military ceremonies of Queen Victoria's Red Coats and hear the Royal Artillery bagpipers. Enjoy afternoon tea in one of the restored fortress rooms. $59
Best of Halifax with Lunch -- 7 hours
By motorcoach along the coast, visit Peggy's Cove, have a guided tour of the maritime museum and its Titanic exhibits, and visit the Citadel Fortress and Public Gardens. Lobster wrap lunch. $199
Lunenburg Getaway -- 6.5 hours
By motorcoach, drive down the coast to Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for a 45-minute downhill walking tour and free time to enjoy the shops, cafes, and the fishing and yachting harbor. Then motor to pretty Mahone Bay for shopping and time for lunch on your own. $59
For More Information
On the Web: www.halifaxinfo.com and www.cruisehalifax.ca
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--updated by Theodore W. Scull, a New York City-based travel writer with more than four years at sea on cruise ships, ocean liners, cargo ships, cruise ferries, barges and river boats.