Our ship eases into Halifax’ vast harbor, foggy with mist. The pilot ship has already come alongside to guide our cruise ship, Premier’s SeaBreeze, into port. There we are greeted by bagpipers in kilts, a vivid reminder of the marvelously rich heritage of Halifax, in Canada’s “New Scotland” province, and a hint at the wonderment that lay ahead. [FTF Note: Premier Cruises to Halifax are no longer available, but family travelers may follow similar itineraries from other cruise lines’ ships. The Port of Halifax has the full schedule of arrivals and departures.
Halifax is delightfully foreign and Old World, preserving Canada’s British ancestry just as Quebec City provides a living link to Canada’s French heritage. Cruising to Halifax, which in 2016 will celebrate the 265th anniversary of its British founding, is like a voyage to the other side of the Atlantic. However, Canada is a very distinct country and Halifax, set off in the Maritimes, wears its rich cultural traditions like a finely crafted quilt.
Arriving by ship enables us to experience the city in its historical context as a vital port and a gateway for a million immigrants, and cruising is the most hassle-free way for a family to travel to interesting and exotic places -— they simply come to you and unfold at your doorstep.
Shore Excursion to Peggy’s Cove and the Titanic’s last port
We are immediately whisked from the dock by tour bus to one of the most picturesque and charming fishing villages in North America. The 3 ½-hour shore excursion turns out to also be a city tour.
It’s just a 40-minute rideto Peggy’s Cove, a tiny little spit of a place which is home to just 120 people, but is visited by about 500,000 a year. We dash into the gift shop and buy a postcard, then mail it at the 1915 lighthouse, which is the only lighthouse with a working post office inside (during summer). Then we have just a few moments to climb over the inviting boulders, as a woman playing bagpipes adds to the mood.
These shores are just 700 miles from where the Titanic sank in 1912, so the first relief boats on the scene were from Halifax. Of the 300 bodies they recovered, 150 were buried in local cemeteries (people think the grave marked “J. Dawson” is Jack Dawson, the character from the movie, but it was James, a trimmer on the ship). Artifacts from Titanic can be seen at the waterfront Maritime Museum of the Atlantic), which also has a wonderful boat-playground kids can climb on.
Halifax’ Portside Attractions
From the dock, you can stroll right into Halifax’ historic district and visit many other intriguing attractions, as well as lovely shops and boutiques. Delivered back to the ship by 11:30 am, we found it easy to get around the waterfront on our own. The highlight is the Citadel, an eight-pointed, star-shaped fortress where interpreters recreate the life of the 78th Highlanders of 1869, transporting you in time as well as place. Costumed guards stand stiffly at the gate, and there is a whole pomp-and-ceremony to the Changing of the Guard. Walk through the gate, and your family is in the 19th century, serenaded by pipes and drums and the firing of a noon-day gun, a tradition for 142 years.
We join a group being escorted around by one of the Victorian-era “wives.” She would have lived within the fort, along with her children, who would have slept on the floor of the barracks. In 1869, the fort had 1,000 soldiers and 60 women—the number of women needed to do the laundry for the regiment. “The lower class was used to hardship; this was regarded as a step up,” she says. We learn about the hard life of the soldiers, watch drills, and have a delightful time exploring the fortress.
Back at the ship, we have just enough time to visit Pier 21, Canada’s Ellis Island. Between 1928-1971, over one million immigrants passed through Pier 21, helping to transform a country. Reopened as an interactive museum, Pier 21 vividly and sensitively portrays the immigration experience. We see pictures, posters and passports; we listen to personal accounts, a whining child, a mother singing, pipe music, then see a holographic image of an immigrant who describes his experience. Children can also sit in a train compartment which chugs, rumbles and whistles while immigrant stories unfold. “In all our pasts are immigrant beginnings.”
Too soon, a solitary bagpiper is at the dock to send us back out to sea. As we discover after spending a delightful day, there is so much to do in Halifax and the Maritimes region that a much longer stay is warranted, so we vow to return.
Touring In and Around Halifax
Attractions that are particularly wonderful for families with more time include Discovery Center, with 80 hands-on science exhibits; Harbour Hopper, a fully narrated, amphibious adventure by land and by sea; Museum of Natural History; Shubenacadie Canal, a national civil engineering historic site with walking and hiking trails; Fisherman’s Cove, a restored, 200-year old fishing village with dining, deep-sea or shark fishing, paddleboat rides, sea kayaking, hiking and biking; and the Halifax-Dartmouth Ferry, a 15-minute cruise across the harbor to another charming waterfront district.
Canada Cruising: St. John is a Popular Port of Call
Many of the cruise lines also call at Saint John, on the other side of the Bay of Fundy, the oldest incorporated city in Canada (1785) and the largest in New Brunswick. Here passengers enjoy the historic waterfront, high cliffs overlooking the sea, solitary lighthouses and rugged scenery. The Bay of Fundy is famous for the Reversing Falls, where the highest tides in the world reverse the flow of the might St. John River (you can even ride it in a specially-designed jet boat.)
A great place to explore the Bay of Fundy ecosystem is in the Irving Nature Park. Those traveling by auto should certainly include Saint John in an itinerary with Halifax, and spend time birdwatching, sea-kayaking, whale-watching, visiting the Discovery Centre at the New Brunswick Museum, and wandering around the historic Old City Market. For more information on New Brunswick, visit Tourism New Brunswick.
Photo courtesy Nova Scotia Tourism, by B. McWhirter
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