Long weekend in Halifax

Toronto Star, March 29, 2017: HALIFAX, N.S.-Halifax is built on a little hill that rolls up from the second largest natural harbour in the world to the Halifax Citadel, the fort the British built in 1749 to help keep the French away. It’s a National Historic Site now, one of many places in the city where you feel its long history. But there is a decidedly young vibe in this town, as well.

With post-secondary institutes including Dalhousie University, St. Mary’s University, Mount Saint Vincent University and Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, there are loads of young people roaming about, student discounts everywhere and plenty of bars. In the core, everything is a just a few minutes’ walk from everything else. The longest hoof I took was about half an hour. And, if you even so much as think about crossing the street, the cars will stop for you. So, throw some good shoes in your carry-on and hit the streets of Halifax for the weekend.

Friday 2 p.m.:

Go for the view, stay for a read Start with a visit to the new Halifax Central Library (5440 Spring Garden Rd.), a gorgeous glass building that’s designed to look like a stack of books. Zig-zag your way up five flights of stairs to get a good view of the city and a good look at many of its residents reading, working or chatting on the colourful and comfortable seating. Stop by one of the cafés (main and fifth floor), enjoy the free Wi-Fi and guessing who around you is on a first date. Or you can read a book. If and when you get tired of soaking up this gorgeous, airy space head out, turn left and venture down Spring Garden Rd., the city’s main shopping street, to another beloved gathering spot for Haligonians, the Public Gardens.

6 p.m.: Good food and pairings

At Eliot + Vine (2305 Clifton St.), you can sit at the kitchen counter and watch the chefs do their thing, cosy up in a nook and try to figure out the story painted on the walls or settle in at the row of tables adjacent to the bar. Wherever you sit, you will be treated to a wonderful meal. I started with a green salad with pistachios and tiny pickled fiddleheads that were foraged by the chef himself. The waiter suggested perfect wine pairings for each course.

9 p.m.: Enjoy a pint

Try a pint of Knotty Buoy Pilsner or Tall Ship Ale at the Stubborn Goat (1579 Grafton St.), a gastro pub in an old fire hall. It has more than 20 craft beers on tap, and if you’re still puckish, you can order from a big menu of small plates that include salmon belly tartar or Dutchman’s dragon breath cheese.

Saturday

9 a.m.: Shopping at the Market

Join the rest of Halifax Saturday morning and head down to Seaport Farmers’ Market (1209 Marginal Rd). Try one-of-a-kind Bramoso Breakfast Pizza, or if a sunny side up slice throws you, hit Wholly Crepe and watch as they make your breakfast. For dessert, pick up an apple grown just up the way in Annapolis Valley.

Locals come every week to stock up on artisanal breads, fancy cheeses and other goodies from 250 vendors. Wander upstairs to see the artisans selling jewelry, wooden cutting boards and cool bags made of sails. Or just have a seat on the benches adjacent to the stairs, look out at the harbour and enjoy the sun streaming in North America’s oldest continually operating farmers market.

11 a.m.: Immigrant stories

Between 1928 and 1971, a million immigrants arrived at Pier 21, and you learn many of their stories at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 (1055 Marginal Rd). We timed our visit to catch an 11:30 tour and hear about the “walking delicatessen” who sewed a dozen salamis into his coat and readers who lost their copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses because it was considered an “obscene work.”

We went to the noon showing of a moving film featuring more recent immigrants that ended (spoiler alert) with a German perplexed at constant Canadian apologizing. Elsewhere, we heard accounts of the Christie Pits Riot in 1933, and I learned that this eighth-generation Canadian would likely struggle at a citizenship test.

1:30 p.m.: Best pizza in a pizza town

As I walk into Tomavino’s Ristorante (1113 Marginal Rd.), a regular is walking out with his ham and pineapple pizza in a box. “It’s the best pizza in town,” the guy tells me. That’s really saying something in a city full to bursting with university students, for which pizza is its own food group.

3 p.m.: Take a stroll in the salt air

One of the great joys of visiting Halifax is wandering along the 10 blocks of boardwalk that run along the waterfront. There are shops, restaurants and public art, such as the light standards that appear to be melting. There are also plenty of people and a few orange life preservers (just in case).

4 p.m.: Have a tipple or two

Tasting flights of wine or beer is for sissies. At the Halifax Distillery Company (1668 Lower Water St.), try a flight of rum — white, gold, spiced and black — and finish with a taste of J.D. Shore’s “better than Baileys” rum cream. As we saddle up to the bar, master distiller Julie Shore tells us her two rules: “We don’t spit. And judge your second sip.”

Whether you come for a tour and tasting ($19.95), a tasting ($10) or you want to pick up a bottle in the retail shop, you can also read some weird rum history, like the British officer who set fire to the White House in 1814 to get back at the Americans for sacking York (now Toronto). He was killed by a sniper and loaded up in 129 gallons of rum to be brought back to Halifax to be buried on British soil.

7 p.m.: Boisterous and beloved

The Bicycle Thief (1475 Lower Water St.) is boisterous and beloved by locals for its tuna tartar, short ribs and much else. Make a reservation. And don’t eat too many of the homemade potato chips before your lobster thermidor or else you won’t have enough room for a peanut butter sundae, and that would be a tragedy.

Sunday

9 a.m.: Take a ride to the Darkside

Hop on the Halifax Transit ferry (Lower Water St. at George St.) and climb up to the top for the 15-minute ride across the harbour to Dartmouth. Once derided as “the Darkside,” Dartmouth is having the last laugh. On weekends, people come over for a latte, chocolate croissant and a coveted seat at Two if by The Sea, known as TIBS to the locals (66 Ochterloney St). If you don’t linger too long, you can take the ferry back on the same $2.50 ticket. Enjoy the view of Halifax — from the steel-grey navy vessels under the Angus L. MacDonald Bridge all the way down to the giant dock cranes at the south end of the harbour.

11 a.m.: Top of the town

Built by the British in 1749, Halifax Citadel National Historic Site (5425 Sackville St.) offers guided tours, exhibits, audio-visual exhibits and a cannon that fires every day at noon on the dot (except Christmas). It also offers a great view and a good walk.

1 p.m.: Middle-Eastern feast

I asked a local friend where to go for good Middle-Eastern food (aside from her house). In a city where Arabic is the most common language after English and French, there are a lot of good options. Family-run Turkish Delight Kebap House (5680 Spring Garden Rd.) delivers on its name. From the baba ganoush (with tomato and a hint of smoke from the grilled eggplant), lamb kebabs, lentil kofte, stuffed grape leaves and finally Turkish tea and little squares of Turkish delight, I loved every bit of it.

3 p.m.: Shipwrecks and sail boats

Cruise-ship passengers call it the “Titanic Museum” and while the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (1675 Lower Water St.) has artifacts that tell the story of how Halifax responded to the world’s most famous nautical disaster, the museum has plenty of other stories. They include smaller shipwrecks, the 1917 Halifax Explosion that killed 2,000 people and injured 6,000, and a display about pirates, with one hanging in a cage. There are also plenty of sailboats and a history of the Cunard line.

6 p.m.: Dining out on history

It was built as a school in 1817, became a mortuary in time to help with the bodies recovered from the Titanic sinking and the Halifax Explosion and in later, decidedly happier times, became the Five Fisherman Restaurant and Grill (1740 Argyle St.) The restaurant opened in 1975 and has been an institution ever since, offering an extensive menu and a rather impressive catalogue of ghost stories.

 

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