Halifax, Star of Nova Scotia, Canada
The bandstand in Halifax Public Gardens was dedicated to Queen Victoria

Calling at the port of Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, can be a both an entertaining and educational experience, as the scenic city has great museums, gardens and historic forts.

For a small city, Halifax has seen its share of maritime disasters, no surprise given that this is a city by the sea. Painful though these tragedies were, they make fascinating, interactive viewing for kids and families — and a wonderful way to experience and learn about history.

On December 6, 1917, during the First World War, Halifax was a jumping-off station for supply ships ferrying goods and material across the Atlantic. At exactly 9:05 (we know this because watches and clocks froze in time, their hands fused) the Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship, collided with the freighter Imo in Halifax Harbor, setting off the world’s largest non-nuclear explosion to date.

You can hear the cries of alarm and listen to the whispered, awe-struck voices in the moving exhibit at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

During my visit, families were very engaged in the dramatic presentation. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of kids and parents exchanging comments about the events and the exhibits. They were involved, asking all sorts of questions, the kinds that reveal a surprisingly deep curiosity about history and its affect on human emotions. One young boy wanted to know if the pets died, too.

The Museum is one of Halifax’s stellar attractions and, unlike many museums, this one is a welcoming place: its exposed beams and bricks and its broad-planked flooring are very comfortable. Families find that strollers and “family things” pass easily along the broad corridors and natural structures. Children have a chance to walk around and enjoy the space, instead of feeling confined by the tighter quarters and restrictive attitudes of many museums.

One of the exhibit’s most curious items is the small, wrinkled pair of leather shoes belonging to Body #4, the Unknown Child. Recovered by one of the rescue ships, the Titanic victim, thought to be a 2-year-old boy, lays buried in a local cemetery. At the time of the sinking, the victims’ clothes were burned to thwart souvenir collectors, but a local police sergeant took the shoes for safe-keeping. Returned to the museum by heirs in 2002, the shoes have become the object of study around the world.

And standing alone, a simple example of the power of irony, is the sole remaining deck chair rescued from the Titanic. Above this is the breathtakingly naive quote: “God Himself could not sink this ship.” A crewman on the Titanic allegedly said this to Mrs. Albert Campbell, as she boarded the ship in Southampton, England, on April 10, 1918 — a provocative topic for family discussion if there ever was one.

Downtown Halifax’s Youthful Energy

Argyle Street is one of the “happening” streets in town. A real find, The Economy Shoe Shop was apparently never a shoe store, but it’s a delightful eatery. The outside is pink stucco, with a life-like mannequin hanging from the balcony window. Inside its all charm and winding staircases leading to hidden alcoves and cleverly placed levels. The clientele are fun-loving and gregarious, and kids like the off-beat, quirky design of the place. The food, served indoors or out, is not overly imaginative, but is very good regardless. The wonder of the design and the decor more than make up for the lack of culinary excellence, and families will feel welcomed.

Funny thing about Halifax: some streets seem to go nowhere and feel desolate. Yet, in a block or two you’re suddenly in the middle of a cafe culture, a strong arts presence and imaginative playgrounds. It’s a bit strange, as if the city hadn’t yet developed a full identity. One waitress explained the phenomenon by telling me the creative energy belongs to the “young people” who haven’t yet the political power or financial resources to make the city completely over into their image. “Wait,” she said.

I believe her. Halifax is home to about 50 colleges and universities, and as Randy Brooks, the affable Director of Media and Marketing says, “They bring a vibrancy to our city. This and the overwhelming friendliness of the people are our greatest assets.” The influences of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) are everywhere, as are the different buildings and offices they occupy. The school was founded by Anna Leonowens, the one-time governess of the King of Siam’s children, whose job was immortalized in the movie The King and I. NSCAD graduates seem to be everywhere running the more than 60 pubs, designing restaurants and creating a funky downtown. Families seem to like exploring the “King and I” connection.

The Discovery Centre is a perfect example of Halifax’s attitude toward families. It invites vistors to play and explore. They emphasize hands-on experiences in science and technology. Family favorites include The Arch Bridge, where families can construct a bridge to walk across together, and the Ames Room, in which illusion takes on a new form with flourescent lighst that allow you to walk away from your shadow.

Art For Families

Alternatively, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia occupies a Dominion-style building (1863-1868) with a rough, attractive, sandstone exterior. Christopher Ondaatje, the cousin of Michael who wrote “The English Patient,” donated 48 pieces of art. Contemporary works like those of Paul-Emile Borduas and Louise Scott, are hung alongside some of Canada’s best.

What’s unique about the exhibits — something museums everywhere can learn from AGNS — are the provocative explanations that accompany the art. The curators ask interesting questions about the painting’s content and style like, “Why do you think the artist included a knife and pair of socks in this painting?” I liked the way parents turned the question back to the children, and all speculated as to exactly why the artist did include a knife and pair of socks in the painting. Some of the answers I overheard were ingenious. “Maybe he loved that particular pair of socks so much he wanted to paint them!” Maybe indeed. There are “Talk Back To Us” notebooks for visitors to write in, presumably so the staff can gauge visitor reaction to the exhibits; a good idea.

What a surprise, after touring the somewhat monochromatic gallery, to turn a corner, and be shocked by a dazzling colorful little cafe sitting at the far end of the building. The Cheapside Cafe (902/425-4494) is itself a wondrous work of art with colorful walls and drapes, saucy cups and saucers, a quirky menu and thoughtful staff. I’ve never seen such a delightfully “irreverent” cafe in any museum anywhere.

Halifax By Land

Spring Garden Street, a Halifax version of SoHo, best captures the creative energy and youthful spirit of the city. Often grungy but always fun, Spring Garden Street is worth walking through and getting something to eat. In front of the library (a “hang out” for the university crowd) is a statue of Winston Churchill in half-stride. Right on the street is something probably more famous: Bud The Spud. The French Fry truck is a relic of a truck, and something of an institution here in Halifax. Next to it are other trucks selling French Fries from the tail gate or small window, but it’s Bud’s that has the queue. The fries are fresh, crisp and deeply flavored and an apparent staple of life here at any time of the day or night. A favorite.

The Halifax Citadel is a well maintained, working fort where the guided tours introduce visitors to the 78th Highland Regiment in action. The sound of the bagpipes lingers long after the last breath has been blown, and the costumed guides answer such questions like, “How was it to be a soldier’s wife in the early 19th century?”

Call for a schedule of their unique audio-visual, The Tides of History and their bagpipe presentations. Be aware: the loud Noon Gun is fired at the lunch hour. Local wags say it’s timed to go off while visiting businessmen are trying to close a deal, the sound throwing them off guard completely.

Right below the Citadel are the Halifax Public Gardens. These unspoiled Victorian gardens cover about 17 acres enclosed by a wrought-iron fence with a set of magnificent ornamental gates. The bandstand was dedicated to Queen Victoria, and the floral arrangements are really quite special, not unlike Boston’s Public Garden. This is a good place to unwind and let some steam off, and a super place for a picnic.

But if a picnic is not your thing, now and again I find a place to eat that combines the best of a cafe, tapas bar, and old-world bistro. In Halifax its The Press Club. The unfinished concrete walls, dripping wax from burning candles, and exposed beams are exceptional touches. Try the Prince Edward Mussels in elephant garlic and white wine sauce or the Paella.

Halifax & the Sea

But it’s the sea that has defined Halifax. The Halifax Waterfront, like Boston’s and Baltimore’s, has been renovated and up-graded. Unlike Boston’s, the Halifax waterfront is less commercial, more like a real waterfront. There are snack shacks of course and restaurants, tours of the harbor and souvenir stores, but the air of authenticity is clearly unmistakable. The wharves are wood, the boats floating on the gentle swells are working ships and the entire feel is one of a place not far removed from the business of life and the plying of the sea. The children’s playground is nautical with ingeniously carved boats and anchors to play on and in and about.

I think Pier 21 is a “must see” for the older kids at least. This unique museum preserves the feel of the warehouse that it is, and yet is full of the sounds of voices from immigrants to this country, capturing in their own voices and in moving images, the hopes and the fears of the foreigners to these shores from 1928 to 1971. The museum is a tapestry, really, of moving collages interwoven with the amplified cries of children, the songs of refugees fleeing the armies of Russia and a train ride through Canada as seen from the eyes of the newly arrived. One can only guess at what these displaced persons felt as the vastness of Canada, its mountains, plains and cites, passed before their eyes. This is a living history lesson and the families I observed were involved and entertained.

And if being on the pier isn’t enough, get into that ocean with Murphy’s on the Water. Located on the Cable Wharf by St. George, Murphy’s combines the water with sightseeing, dining and nature for the whole family. The Nature and Whale Watching Adventure can take your family onto the Haligonian III, a vessel specfically designed to see whales in action. Passengers are offered a choice in deck: outside with the cool, salty ocean breeze, or at the bottom of the boat, you can observe these massive mammals from a heated and enclosed area. Passing by locations such as, George’s and McNab’s Islands, those onboard with experience the North Atlantic with vivid and knowledgeable commentary about the sights and the marine life.

Halifax is a city with a lot of promise. Blessed by a lifestyle that is slow enough to let life sink in, and peopled by some of the friendliest anywhere, Halifax, with its many festivals, colorful history, a Maritime soul and an artistic outlook, feels like the home you’ve always wanted to have. And there’s a welcome mat out for families.

Halifax Trip Planning Details

Air Canada Jazz, an affiliate of Air Canada, is probably the best way to Halifax and the rest of Nova Scotia from the Northeast U.S.A. Contact Air Canada at 888/247-2262.

As far as where to stay, the Delta Barrington is a 200-room hotel surrounded by cobblestone walkways, cafes, and boutiques. The nearby Waverly Inn is a comfy bed and breakfast with Victorian furniture. By the way, stop by Pineau’s Cafe (902/429-9819) for the best fish & chips in town.

For more information on planning a trip to Halifax, contact the city’s Visitors Bureau at 800/565-0000.


Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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