By Martin W.G. King
Fishing villages, farmhouses, churches and vivid green tidal marshes emerged from the dense fog as my wife and I headed up Nova Scotia’s Lighthouse Route, a scenic if slow coastal road, to Halifax, the provincial capital. We were an hour out of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, where the high-speed CAT car ferry from Portland, Me., on its first voyage of the year, had deposited us late the night before after a rough 212-mile crossing.
Approaching Halifax that evening, my wife driving while I navigated, the memories of my childhood in Halifax came flooding back. I guided Robin through leafy residential neighborhoods that were chock-a-bloc with brightly colored houses directly to our hotel on the historic downtown waterfront. On the way, we passed a movie theater that had been a regular source of entertainment when the only instructions for a 10-year-old were to be home by dinner. (Another childhood destination, the adjacent Candy Bowl, a shop that sold sugary confections and, in summer, frozen treats, had not survived.)
We lucked out with a room facing the channel from which my father, a captain in the Royal Canadian Navy, had guided North Atlantic convoys to Britain in World War II as the commanding officer of a succession of corvettes (tiny but nimble warships). The city’s deep, protected harbor had been the marshaling point for U.S. and Canadian ships bearing arms, munitions, fuel and food to a besieged Britain. Years after the war, after I was born, he had been posted to Halifax again.
Much had changed. The high-rise skyline was new, as were gentrified neighborhoods that had once been slums. The downtown itself had shifted in an entirely different direction, offering chic new boutiques (as well as the shops you’d find in any tourist town). New museums lined a waterfront boardwalk, as did restaurants, sidewalk cafes and more shops. The gargantuan new Seaport Farmers’ Market sat directly below our windows. The Nova Scotia Museum of Art, worthy of a much larger city (Halifax has a population of 270,000) occupied a contemporary space in two landmark buildings in the old downtown.
But much was the same. The city, founded in 1749 by the British, had guarded its historic landmarks judiciously. The Citadel, a massive star-shaped British fortress, still stood guard over the harbor atop the city’s highest hill. The Prince of Wales Martello Tower, another 18th Century fortification, presided over Point Pleasant Park in the city’s South End. St. Paul’s Church, the first Protestant church in Canada, where I had sung in the boys’ choir, anchored the Grand Parade, now a park dotted with deckchairs provided by the city.
Stone warehouses dating to the mid-18th Century had been restored and opened to commerce along the waterfront. One such restoration, the Historic Properties, anchored the northern end. Another, Alexander Keith’s Nova Scotia Brewery, near the southern end, has occupied the same building since 1820 and attracts hordes of visitors to its tours and tastings. The 16-acre Public Gardens, a tranquil oasis in the heart of town, still offered a respite from the city’s bustle.
Nearby ice cream shops were doing a steady business; one, the Dairy Bar, a new start-up serving honey goat cheese-flavored soft ice cream that day, sat diagonally across the street from the park’s towering, ornamental iron gates; it was testimony to the city’s increasingly sophisticated palate. Daniel Crowther, who with Kaiah Singh was filling cones when I stopped by, told me he was bullish on business despite a slow start due to cooler than usual June weather; on warm days, he said, they had been far busier than the year before. Singh chimed in that many of their customers were students at the city’s’ two largest universities, Dalhousie and St. Mary’s.
We stopped next at the market….