Little Britain - Exploring Halifax, Nova Scotia

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An icy wind whips across the water, and in the distance a lone bagpiper cuts through the low-lying fog with his version of Highland Laddie - a classic British Army regimental march. I’m standing on Provo Wallis Street, with the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge off to the left, and a traditional British pub beckons as a safe haven from the chilly dampness as yet another wave of fog rolls through. It’s a time for flashbacks to holidays in the Scottish Highlands, but this is the east coast of Canada and its biggest city, Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

Inside the pub, it’s Boddingtons Ale and McEwen’s lager on tap and a selection of around 100 single malt whiskeys on the shelf - as if to confirm why Halifax has a reputation as a British town that somehow drifted across the Atlantic and decided to stay. Within an hour,the fog lifts and so too does the mood of this compact Canadian city - visitors head to the harbour's edge with their fish and chips, while the locals grab outside café tables to admire the view. A distinctly “outdoorsy” type of place, the Haligonians (as Halifax residents are known) seem keen to make the most of every minute of sunshine - even in summer the weather can take a fickle turn several times in a day.  

A Brief History Of Halifax

From a major colonial military outpost, to a port town frequented by roguish sea dogs, to an idyllic summer getaway, Halifax, Nova Scotia, has undergone many transformations, but as I quickly discovered, the city holds firmly to its historic past. It was founded in 1749 as the first British city in North America and has since been a significant port and a major strategic military hub, and it remains the modern heart of Atlantic Canada. English and Scottish immigrants, under the protection of British forces, formed the backbone of the new settlement and today it’s the most Anglophile of all the Canadian cities - and proud of it. 

At street level, Victorian architecture, fish and chip shops, English pubs and red double decker buses are obvious symbols of Halifax’s past and present. It turns out the lone ‘piper is wandering the ramparts of the Citadel - an imposing and perfectly preserved fortress which has stood sentinel over the city and its surrounds since 1856. The 78th Highlanders and 3rd Brigade, Royal Artillery have been recreated on site by the Halifax Citadel Regimental Association - a volunteer group which performs music and re-enactments of British military life.   

“We are Canadians but like other Haligonians we have a strong sense of our history and culture, and the preservation of the regiment is an important part of that,” an Ensign explained. “We’re trying to make this more than just a museum with relics of the past. We want people to walk in and feel as though they’ve stepped back in time.” While the Citadel itself is a fascinating journey into the past, it’s also a good way to gain an orientation of Halifax - it has sweeping views over the city and one of the great harbours of the world. From the northern ramparts, the spire of the 1803 town clock dominates the foreground, and behind it 19th century architecture blends with modern glass and steel buildings on the harbour setting.

Beyond The Citadel

The locals have an often-used cliché about their city - they say that every second building is a church and in between each of them is a pub. It’s not far from the truth, but there’s a lot more to do than just praying and drinking. The Boardwalk - which lines the harbour front and connects the cafés, restaurants, shops and public squares - is the social heart of Halifax and a great place to watch the harbour and its ferries, fishing boats, yachts, tankers and cruise ships. The Historic Properties precinct is at one end of the Boardwalk and is a collection of 10 preserved 19th century buildings which are a throwback to the city’s maritime past. 

In fact most of Halifax’s numerous historic and cultural attractions are all within walking distance of each other - and for maritime history buffs this is Utopia. The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic chronicles, among other material, two major historical events - when the Titanic sank in 1912, 209 bodies of the 1500 victims were brought to Halifax. And just five years later during World War I, a French munitions vessel carrying three and a half million kilograms of TNT exploded in the harbour and killed 2,000 people and injured 9,000. The disaster was the most powerful man-made explosion in history, until the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. 

Halifax city itself is a joy to discover, and is easily walkable, but its surrounds are well worth exploration - although no amount of time would be enough to fully capture the region. We did what most visitors do in this part of the world - a side-trip to one of Canada’s most most photographed tourist destination - Peggy’s Cove - about 40 minutes south of Halifax. The locals warned us to get there early before the tour buses rolled in and it turned out to be good advice. Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse - the symbol of Canada's strength and resilience - was imposing against the serene ocean backdrop and rugged cliffs. The tiny fishing village, with its brightly coloured cottages, was only just coming to life. With just the sea air and seagulls to keep us company, this was the perfect place to sit and take in one of the world’s great maritime destinations.


Joanna Hall